The Marvel Netflix shows, at their most successful, follow a cookie-cutter format: An individual, a representative of a marginalized group, is both burdened and blessed with extraordinary ability. The 13-episode season becomes a bildungsroman for the superhero: Flashbacks, context, and of course, the inescapable threads tying Matt Murdock, a blind man. Jessica Jones, a rape survivor. Luke Cage, a black man. The times where this sub-genre of Marvel shows have faltered is straying from that format — whether that’s Season 2 of “Daredevil,” the ill-conceived “Iron Fist,” or the ensemble series “The Defenders.”
At first, “Marvel’s The Punisher” seems like another misstep. In the television landscape at large, another overwhelmingly gray and brutally violent show centered on a dysfunctional antihero is superfluous. Within the superhero genre, it’s even more so. But “The Punisher” transcends what it appears to be. Not completely, and not always; this is still a very violent show, saturated in tortured masculinity. (In just the opening credits, an array of semiautomatic weapons float in the air to arrange themselves in the skull-shaped logo of the Punisher.) But thanks to Jon Berthal’s seamless performance as the non-superpowered vigilante Frank Castle and showrunner Steve Lightfoot’s sharp, conscious storytelling, “The Punisher” approaches the high points of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” by introducing a damaged, deadly character and telling his story as one piece of an unjust whole. Despite first impressions, Frank Castle is in fact a marginalized figure — because he is a veteran.
It’s difficult to imagine better casting than Bernthal, who communicates so fluently with impassive silences, and is convincing both when he is being terribly violent and especially gentle. But it still takes the show a few minutes of throat-clearing to find its sweet spot. In the first episode, “The Punisher” might as well be ticking off a checklist of antihero tropes. He handles his emotions by slamming a sledgehammer into a wall over and over again, for hours. He is so frequently haunted by memories of his wife and children that they become irritating presences — if only because his wife, especially, has no discernible character traits beyond being warm, soft, and probably clean. He broods, constantly, with near-operatic range — over the pages of a book, behind a steering wheel, on the Staten Island ferry. Frank Castle broods so much, so single-mindedly, you want to offer him some eggs to incubate.
But outside of Frank, the show starts offering the audience storylines that don’t feel of a piece with his vigilante narrative. There’s Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), a suit at Homeland Security who is hyper-conscious of the fact that as a Persian-American woman, she’s both an asset and a liability. There’s a veterans’ support group, led by Frank’s friend Curtis (Jason R. Moore), in which veterans from very different backgrounds struggle to make sense of the world they are reintegrating into. (Early on, in a sign of welcome complications to come, Curtis says to Castle: “Do me a favor, Frank. Don’t be a wallowing asshole.”) And there’s cocky hacker Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who starts hunting Frank after spotting him on one of the many surveillance cameras posted around the city. Without fully realizing it, Frank’s unitmates, Micro, Dinah, and Frank himself are all trying to understand what happened during one tour of duty — a series of missions where, it is revealed, Frank’s unit was pushed to commit war crimes. As other veterans become better bigger characters — and Dinah makes more connections in Homeland Security — the network of guilt and corruption behind the senseless violence is slowly brought to light.
Both Dinah and Micro are intriguing characters — Dinah, in premise, and Micro, in execution. Dinah was created for the TV show, and Micro is based on the comics, but as far as supporting characters in Marvel shows go, both exceed expectations. Moss-Bachrach, in particular — who “Girls” viewers will remember as Marnie’s tiresome husband Desi — brings astonishing life to a character who is otherwise so classically a comic-book villain. Like Frank, Micro faked his death; unlike Frank, though, his family is still alive. Micro watches them, obsessively, through cameras and microphones he’s placed all through the house. Frank figures this out, and starts to use Micro’s perpetual watching to manipulate him: He shows up at the Lieberman house one day, seemingly by accident, to insinuate himself into Micro’s former life. That Frank is missing a wife and kids, just as Micro’s wife and kids are missing a husband and father, does not go unnoticed. One of the strangely compelling things about “The Punisher” is how deeply messed up it is — as if it is observing, in the transition from comic-book page to live-action, how twisted some of these character dynamics are.
This carries through in the show’s relationship to its violence. Every episode is punctuated with a set piece of stunning violence — not just visually striking, as is often the case with action sequences, but viscerally affecting, too. Action scenes that we have all grown accustomed to — like a car accident where a sedan flips into the air and then lands heavily, or weapons drawn menacingly at a high stakes card game — take on new brutality in “The Punisher,” which pays uncomfortably close attention to the sound of bones snapping, the smear of blood on a sledgehammer, the intimacy of getting close enough to someone to kill them. This is a brand of violence that is especially, well, punishing — brutal, scrappy, painful set pieces that offer nothing balletic or glorious about the act of beating the crap out of someone. It’s cynical, and at times pretty despairing, too.
But above all what “The Punisher” is cynical about is the use of force: This is a series where a man who was asked to senselessly kill by his government goes rogue and ends up hunting down members of that same government — because they made him kill people. The show is wary of guns, wary of blind patriotism, wary of unquestioned service; it sides only and always with veterans. (The affection that military veterans have for the character of the Punisher is a long-documented one. The character was originally a veteran of the Vietnam War when introduced in 1974; in the Netflix series, he’s a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Bernthal’s Frank Castle seems to have wrapped himself in these forces because he doesn’t trust anyone else to have the power to wield them — and at the same time, because he is so broken by his own tragedy, he is a protagonist who commits violence while understanding how that violence creates trauma. It makes for a charged, destabilizing dynamic, and one that Bernthal inhabits with skillful aplomb.
It comes through in the way a few of these scenes are directed, too. In one episode, a dark room is literally lit up with gunfire. In a midseason episode, an entire action sequence is portrayed as if it is a first-person shooter video game — an unnervingly brilliant construction for anyone familiar with that medium. It implicates the audience almost against our will, putting us in the position of the soldier in the field from the comfort of our Netflix-watching couch. The thread of Micro watching the other characters draws the viewer into the story, too; we are watching for clues just as he is. With the emphasis on surveillance, domestic terrorism, and homeland security, “The Punisher” is strikingly relevant — quite possibly the most relevant Marvel show, at least from a national security standpoint.
In all, “The Punisher” is not just satisfying but surprising — an interpretation of Netflix and Marvel’s tried-and-true partnership that offers more depth and challenges to the audience than even the gritty world of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones.” Free from superpowers and superheroes, the Marvel universe is more forgiving — and more interesting. Of course, the slightly cartoony Marvel Cinematic Universe is still a world where people named Carson Wolf show up and act as if they are not obviously villains. But “The Punisher’s” place in it is a welcome morass of thorny questions and unresolvable answers. At least in this part of the television landscape, there is room for another antihero.