At a glance, The Punisher doesn’t fit within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Frank Castle — an ex-marine who locks and loads against crime after his family is murdered in cold blood — is the textbook definition of a comic book anti-hero who uses lethal violence for his crusade. In 2017, he’s an uncomfortable character to swallow. Yet Marvel’s The Punisher, which premieres November 17 on Netflix and stars The Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal, isn’t just one of the finest shows Marvel has produced, as it also reinvents the troublesome character into a compelling vehicle worthy of emotional investment. This results in a Punisher that gels perfectly within the MCU precisely because he’s so different from the other gods who populate this franchise.
Spoilers ahead for the first six episodes of The Punisher.
Much like his comic origins, where he was introduced as a villain in another superhero’s book (The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974), TV Frank Castle debuted last year as an antagonist in Daredevil Season 2. As a foil to Daredevil, the Punisher was his perfect opposite who represented a permanent solution to crime-fighting. As the Punisher put it on that rooftop: “I do the one thing you can’t. You hit ‘em and they get back up. I hit ‘em and they stay down!”
But that’s not the Punisher in his series. Not anymore. Set in an undetermined time after Daredevil Season 2 — and possibly before or after The Defenders, as it’s genuinely unclear in the first six episodes screened to the press — Frank has given up the Punisher. The first episode of his series opens on Frank doing clean-up kills, eliminating unsympathetic targets who had a mere hand in the murder of his family, and then burning his signature skull vest. It’s over.
For awhile, Frank is at peace. But his rampage didn’t bring his family back. Haunted by ghosts, Frank pursues a leftover thread from Daredevil: a tip from an elusive hacker, David (“Micro” in the comics), played by Ebon Moss-Bacharach. Together, Frank and Micro form an uneasy alliance as they play a cat-and-mouse game with the government institutions and the people — including a creepy Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), Castle’s best friend who now runs a private paramilitary group — that did him wrong.
It’s where the Netflix series departs from the source texts that makes The Punisher refreshing, even timely. Gone is the ‘70s-era mafia backstory, in is a 21st century-flavored conspiracy that led to the murder of the Castles. With characters like Micro and an Iranian-American DHS agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), The Punisher is distinctly post-NSA, an aesthetic absent in previous interpretations. The Punisher is basically Marvel’s Homeland, minus the problematic elements.
Also, Castle isn’t gunning down criminals just because he hates crime. Because of the serial structure, Castle is on a laser-focused odyssey to take down only the responsible parties. With that, The Punisher has a compelling thesis, especially for a superhero show: The Punisher is not forever. The Punisher is alive for as long as Frank needs him. The real stakes is whether or not Frank Castle is capable of knowing when it’s time to hang up the vest for good.
It should say everything about the Punisher, as a character and as an intellectual property, that his show was pulled out of New York Comic Con just days after another domestic terrorist opened fire in Las Vegas. It was ill-timed to hype up a show whose protagonist aims and reloads with deadly efficiency. It was the right call. But at the same time, maybe The Punisher isn’t a show anyone needs to worry about.
Although it is the most (satisfyingly) violent show in the Marvel library, and there will be fans who misinterpret its messages, The Punisher is surprising in its timely socio-political themes. In one C-plot, a young, white male veteran unable to adjust to civilian life is gaslighted by an old Vietnam vet who spews Donald Trump-like rhetoric. That The Punisher frames this as a scary thing is surprising, as on the surface this show seems to celebrate the Second Amendment (which it also doesn’t).
Because fans might be asking: Despite its place in the MCU, The Punisher is the most agnostic series to the continuity to date. The show contains the fewest references and Easter eggs to other Marvel properties. (The same could be said for Inhumans, but no one cares about Inhumans.) By now, viewers who aren’t hardcore have definitely lost some place in the thousands of hours of the MCU. So even if you skipped The Defenders, worry not. Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page is the only glaring connection to another Marvel anything, so detail-oriented fans can treat The Punisher as a vacation and just sit back and enjoy.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been built one thing, besides money. It is that the quest for the greater good is actually more black and white than shades of grey. Though superheroes are technically all vigilantes and should probably be arrested, the MCU has done a solid job establishing that great power does, in fact, come with great responsibility. But the Punisher is a splinter in that message. In this vast universe of viking gods and aliens, Frank Castle forces you to answer his question: If great power comes with great responsibility, then what am I?
All 13 episodes of Marvel’s The Punisher will hit Netflix on Friday November 17.