The Punisher, Netflix and Marvel’s new 13-episode drama about a superhero whose superpower is killing people with guns, is debuting in a very different environment to the one the character was conceived in. When the vigilante Frank Castle first appeared in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, the American psyche was more preoccupied with serial killers and mob violence than with mass shooters. Punisher, a former Marine Corps sniper, turned the merciless tactics of organized criminals against them, displaying no qualms about executing gangsters. He employed what amounted to an arsenal of military-grade weapons. His accoutrements were guns, guns, and more guns.
In 2017, a dizzying number of disturbed gunmen have given the imagery and mythology of Punisher an even darker resonance. In October, a mass shooting in Las Vegas left 58 people dead, excluding the perpetrator. A month later, a 26-year-old former member of the U.S. Air Force killed 26 people in a church in Texas. It’s a discomfiting news landscape in which to absorb The Punisher, whose opening credits caress silhouetted weaponry as brazenly as James Bond title sequences undulate around women’s bodies.
But the show seems to have anticipated this line of criticism. Compared to the first appearance of Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle/Punisher in Season 2 of Daredevil—where he executed mob bosses and underlings with brutal, surgical revenge, and tried to provoke Daredevil into committing murder—The Punisher mostly resists fetishizing gun violence. Steve Lightfoot, its creator (and a veteran of the NBC show Hannibal), clearly wants to add shades of gray to his hero’s black-and-white worldview. Frank is a ruthless vigilante who imposes his own, bloody justice on the world, but the show twists itself into knots trying to both critique and justify his moral code. Hardcore fans of the comic-book Punisher, who include a large number of veterans and cops, love him because he’s simple. He takes no prisoners; he embodies eye-for-an-eye vengeance. The Punisher, though, wants to emphasize that it’s more complicated—that Frank’s bleak agenda springs directly from the fact that all the systems he encounters are fundamentally broken.
So it largely eschews the institutions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to root itself much more doggedly in the real world, focusing on the American military, defense contractors, and the CIA. It often feels like a grittier Homeland, with a new character, Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), an ambitious Iranian American DHS agent recently returned from Kandahar, and a hacker-turned-whistleblower (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who’s in hiding. Frank’s closest ally is Curtis (Jason R. Moore), who served alongside him in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who runs a therapy group for veterans. The first few episodes go deep on the sense of isolation and alienation these returning soldiers feel. “I just know that I fought for this country and it’s got no place for me,” one man says. “I don’t know what the rules are anymore.”
It’s a fascinating indictment of the American government, which, the show argues, trains young men as killers and then casts them aside. Without reliable institutions to believe in, The Punisher suggests, people create their own, and the series emphasizes that nothing should be beyond scrutiny. Dinah’s mother, Farah (Shohreh Aghdashloo), tells her that her father’s belief in God doesn’t mean he can’t see the flaws in his religion. Hackers leak information in the hope of exposing officially sanctioned criminal acts and coverups. And Frank, whose family was murdered in a three-way mob fight organized by his own commanding officer, avenges them by bypassing the justice system, seeking out and eliminating organized criminals wherever he finds them. “The system let Frank down in a big way,” Curtis explains at one point. “So he did what he was trained to do.”
What makes The Punisher most interesting, though, is that it’s clear Frank finds pleasure in killing. It’s the logical extension of all his years of training, the manifestation of his id, and it makes the most violent scenes more disturbing than heroic. The show’s most gripping set pieces resemble first-person shooter games, where Frank ducks and dives through dark rooms and wooded landscapes. It’s a lot like the John Wick franchise, where the thrill of watching is experiencing the action almost first-hand, and like John Wick, Frank is an eminently skilled professional with a very simple mission: revenge.
But where John Wick invented a superhero, crafted his universe, and detailed the entirety of his mission in a tightly paced 90 minutes, The Punisher has upwards of 11 hours to do the same thing, and all too often it’s a plodding slog. Bernthal’s performance somehow finds energy in Frank’s pain—there aren’t too many actors who could make a character with such a one-note emotional range feel compelling. Still, the narrative progression of the first six episodes could easily be condensed into two hours of television without excising anything more than extraneous shots of people looking at things. You’d still have Frank beating bullies into mulch with Chekhov’s sledgehammer, Frank pulling off a daring weapons heist to the soundtrack of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Frank scowling and reading F. Scott Fitzgerald in his dank studio apartment.
All of the good stuff, in other words. Because The Punisher is, in fleeting moments, extremely entertaining. Frank is ferocious, tragic, and the butt of the series’s best jokes, like when the only weapon available to him is a neon-pink shotgun intended for a gangster heiress’s Sweet 16, or when a diner waitress sees his misery-beard and assumes he’s a hipster. These moments are endearing, and they add further texture to a character whose show rests on viewers finding him sympathetic. Lightfoot’s breadth of storytelling is gratifying—he wants to do more than give the cultural landscape another killing machine to idolize. It makes The Punisher less uncomfortable to watch than it could be amid so many outbreaks of extreme gun violence. But it isn’t an easy ride.