Frank Castle, otherwise known as the Punisher, was first introduced into Marvel’s Netflix universe in season 2 of “Daredevil.” I loved Jon Bernthal’s addition to that cast. However, what worked in “Daredevil” absolutely failed in the spinoff show “The Punisher.” I have a few theories for why:
- Frank Castle is the moral foil to Matt Murdock.
Matt Murdock is a lawyer fighting within the system during the day and a vigilante catching those the system can’t at night. He is a similar anti-hero as Batman. He is outside legality, and as Foggy and Karen constantly remind us, Daredevil is at times morally outside of what is considered acceptable. However, Murdock has his own internal moral code: He never kills anyone. He’s also blind, and despite his extrasensory abilities, it’s still easy to see Murdock as disadvantaged against his opponents. Murdock is risking it all for what he feels is the good of Hell’s Kitchen. In season 2 of the show, his morality is consistently tested when he teams up with Electra, who is constantly pushing him to break his code and kill people.
Enter Frank Castle. The Punisher is a military veteran who returned from war only to have his family murdered. He is nihilistic and has almost no qualms with killing anyone. He’s a character like Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) in “Taken.” He’s got a particular set of skills, and he’s willing to use them. Only with the Punisher, his family is already dead. Frank Castle is what Murdock could become without his code. So in season 2, his presence in the story creates an interesting juxtaposition. However, in his own show, there’s no thought project. There are a few efforts at establishing that Frank Castle has a moral code of some kind. Basically he’s the bad guy who kills worse bad guys, but since “bad” is entirely relative, it’s up to the audience to decide who’s the worse evil and if the killing and torture are justified. And there’s a lot of it.
- The Punisher should be the underdog, but isn’t.
In every other Marvel/Netflix superhero TV shows, the main characters are fighting some supernatural evil. Daredevil and the Iron Fist are up against the Hand, an ancient and mystic evil society. Jessica Jones battles Kilgrave (David Tennant), who can get into people’s minds. Luke Cage fights Diamondback, who is his half-brother and also turns out to have powers. Frank Castle is just a normal guy with a gun and military training, which should make him the underdog against any super villain. However, for some reason, “The Punisher” is set in complete realism, and Castle is going up against a government conspiracy. The government as an entity is extremely powerful. However, it is made of ordinary people. Frank Castle has an extraordinary advantage over the average person. He is able to get information from people and kill with very little effort.
- Frank Castle’s killing spree is self-serving.
It’s established at the beginning of the show that Frank Castle has already killed the people who murdered his family. When he realizes that the conspiracy goes deeper than he originally thought, he decides that he now needs to kill more people. No matter how many people Castle kills, he isn’t helping anyone. He’s not saving anyone’s life. He’s not able to bring his family back or prevent their murder. He’s just killing to get revenge. To make himself feel better, and that was not a good enough reason to make me cheer for him. I really just wanted him to take his therapy sessions more seriously so he could move on and stop. Most superheroes have tragic backstories. Seeing your family murdered isn’t enough justification for what Frank Castle does. In fact, Batman has the same backstory and refuses to touch a gun or kill anyone.
- Some characters are just no longer appropriate.
The Punisher first appeared in the “Amazing Spiderman” comic in 1974. Mass shootings were not what they are now. Watching someone walk around shooting people when that is so much of today’s reality is impossible to cheer for. I also felt like the show was demonizing veterans. It’s not to say that some of our service members don’t have a difficult time returning to civilian life, but I believe most of these men and women to be honorable, not a danger to society. Until we live in a world where people like the Punisher are no longer something that we have to fear, it is impossible to see him as any kind of hero.
Unfortunately, as a result of not having a character in the show that I cared about and since I was often morally at odds with that Frank Castle was doing, the show was extremely tedious to watch. With Disney starting their own streaming service and cutting ties with Netflix, it’s unclear if the Punisher will have a second season to get it right. Hopefully we’ll get to see him again in another season of Daredevil, but who knows if any of these shows will be the same with such a major change up.