Following more than forty years of comic book success, Jon Bernthal is the latest on-screen iteration of Punisher. The movies had three attempts, swinging and missing in three very different ways. Now, as “Daredevil” Season 2 continues to stream the superheroes of Hell’s Kitchen, some viewers are praising Bernthal’s work as the best part of the show — while others see him as Cousin Oliver with an automatic weapon.
With a spinoff series possibly on the way, Bernthal’s Frank Castle is likely here to stay. Below, here are five reasons why Marvel fans should be donning their best black T-shirts and dancing in the streets — and five counterpoints explaining why this crack shot crackpot is a misfire.
His reverse story arc
Point: As depicted in “Daredevil” Season 2, Frank Castle starts out as the villain, then gradually makes his way to being the hero — albeit, with some side trips along the way. Binge-watching the episodes is a great way to appreciate how the show utilizes shadows and short sentences to paint Castle with a shorthand we’d normally associate with a Hannibal Lecter or Darth Vader-type baddie — then keeps pulling the curtain back on him and the emotions that make him tick.
Counterpoint: The issue with how Frank Castle’s story is told is that by the time “Daredevil” gets around to trying to make him sympathetic, he’s already too much of a monster to feel bad for. This is a man who walks through a hospital firing a shotgun, assassinating those he deems not worth living. Let’s also not forget he tortures our titular hero, Daredevil. When you do get to see just how tortured he is, his own reactions can’t even manage to garner emotion. He’s not a hero or an antihero — he’s just a crazy person with a gun.
Point: At this juncture in superhero culture, we’re way beyond the “golly gee” feelings we had the first time we saw Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man shoot a web or Robert Downey’s Iron Man take flight. The Nolan trilogy, Zach Snyder’s movies, “Deadpool” — all examine what it means to be a hero, what it means to be a vigilante — and the tiny sliver of a line in-between. Season 1 of “Daredevil” toyed with the idea, like a faint song playing in the background as you shop in the supermarket, but Season 2 turns it up loud.
Daredevil refuses to kill anyone; Punisher refuses to let anyone live. Both think their way is right, and both are determined to make the other come around.
Castle and Murdoch are an ideal counter-balance, and scenes like the one on the rooftop or the cemetery confession provoke thought between the punches. It’s as if the show is daring you to answer the question — if you were trying to clean up Hell’s Kitchen, would you knock the enemy down, or put them in a grave?
Counterpoint: They would be a perfect counter-balance were Castle’s methods not so completely reprehensible. Season 1 of “Daredevil” spent 13 episodes showing the world how a man can become a hero and a big part of that is knowing your own limitations. Punisher has no limitations — anyone who’s read one of his comic books can attest to that — but when dropped into the world of “Daredevil,” that lack of a moral code makes it hard to see him as anything other than a villain.
When you take into account his story and some of the dumber decisions he makes (getting involved with Wilson Fisk in any capacity), the whole thing just comes across as half-baked.
Frank the soldier
Point: Bernthal has clearly spent some serious homework time researching soldiers and how they stand, walk and talk. He does a fantastic job bringing Punisher off the page, out of the war zone, and into Hell’s Kitchen. Castle saved dozens of men in battle, but would never admit to it; he refuses to let Foggy and Matt use PTSD as a legal defense, out of respect for those who truly suffer from it. Even the little things — like how he’ll check his weapon as Daredevil speaks a line — are thoughtfully considered and well-executed. For a “comic book” performance, Bernthal delivers the goods.
Counterpoint: There’s no arguing that Bernthal excels in this role – though how good said role is is definitely up for debate. Refusing to use PTSD as a legal defense out of respect makes sense for the character, but countering it by screaming how you’ll kill anyone you deem worthy in the middle of court, which clearly paints you as mentally imbalanced, undoes just about any goodwill that respect may have earned.
Point: In the Thomas Jane film, Castle’s family was shown too much, watering down the character in the cheesy “before” moments. The Ray Stevenson Punisher went too far in the opposite direction, barely acknowledging them. “Daredevil” gets things right by using words, not visuals. In brief anecdotes — penny and dime — we get a sense of who they were and come to mourn their loss alongside Castle. It gives his mission — and his motivations — far greater depth than the three movies combined.
Counterpoint: As stated before, the story of Punisher’s family is introduced so late in the game that is barely scratches the surface of a maniacal mad man walking the streets with an arsenal. The show needed something to soften the view of Frank Castle, if only slightly. Family photos and remembering what happened just doesn’t cut it. A flashback to a moment with his family before their death, or even one to him learning what happened, would have gone a long way in helping to at least comprehend what it is that broke this man.
Point: Ultimately, it seems like a TV show is simply better suited to this complex character than any movie. Over the course of Season 2, Bernthal’s character is given time to breathe and develop and invest us in his moralistic carnage campaign. The best part is, by the time the season ends, the fruit just seems to be ripening. Wherever Bernthal goes from here — a spinoff or future appearances in “Luke Cage” or “Jessica Jones” — he’ll be worth following.
Counterpoint: There is no doubt that Punisher will return, be it in his own series or as a supporting player in further “Daredevil” adventures — or “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage” or “Iron Fist,” for that matter. There’s a chance it could get better, but at this point the interest for some viewers just isn’t there. While “Daredevil” did make some great strides in evolving Punisher in the final couple episodes of Season 2, at this point it’s hard to be excited to see him more for any reason other than “Hey, he’s got the skull shirt now!”
A standalone Netflix series would be the most dour and depressing affair Marvel could possibly offer up. Bingeing “Jessica Jones” was hard at times because of how dark the subject matter was. However, that show was able to pull it off with brilliantly conceived characters and an incredible story to keep you hooked in. Based on what’s been seen of the Punisher to far, the same can’t be said of him.