On October 1, 2017, 59 people were killed and 546 injured due to a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nearly one week later, Netflix and Marvel were planning to debut the cast of their new streaming show The Punisher — a spin-off for the breakout character of Daredevil Season 2, and the first live action version of the character after three unsuccessful theatrical takes — at New York Comic Con, introducing them to (presumably) a crowd of fans voracious for star Jon Bernthal's take on the gun-toting vigilante.
Instead, the twin studios rapidly scuttled plans for a panel out of respect for the Las Vegas victims, and the release date of the series was later officially announced for November 17. As it turns out, though both Marvel and Netflix should be lauded for their responsible reaction in moving the panel, they needn't have worried: The Punisher isn't about the violence; it's about the repercussions.While the rest of the country continues a heated gun control debate, showrunner Steve Lightfoot's creation dives straight into showing how gun violence has an impact far beyond that of a bullet on flesh.
The Punisher kicks off exactly how one might expect from the skull-insignia wearing Marvel Comics character: acting as judge, jury and executioner for criminals on the lam. From a kill that happens miles across city lines, to strangling a man in an airport bathroom, fans of Punisher are treated immediately to the ultra-violent aesthetic they've known and loved. But the character Lightfoot and company are concerned with getting right isn't The Punisher; it's Frank Castle.
"It's about an antihero," Lightfoot told TV Guide over the phone in advance of the show's release, "and the show explores the issues around vigilantism: Is it okay to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and where's the line?"
So how does that play out on screen? Lightfoot continued, calling the series "an action thriller genre show [that] lives in that sort of realm," while deferring about whether it has anything more to say about the current gun control debate. But intrinsically, though The Punisher has the structure of a government conspiracy or action thriller, its emotional heart centers around death — by gunfire — of an unarmed, most likely innocent man.
That means that every human who gets shot or thrown in cement onscreen, there's collateral damage. Lightfoot makes sure that while the action scenes do play as action scenes, cool guitar music and all, they are carefully approached through the characters making a conscious decision to pursue violence before, and deal with the weight of the acts afterwards. An exchange between two main characters in the series' seventh episode as they plan to invade a military compound makes it clear that there are rules: The Punisher does not want to kill innocents, and doesn't look at soldiers as endless video game style bodies to dispose with, but actual human beings forced into bad circumstances. And beyond that, there's a cost, as one man cautions the other not to kill without reason. These people have families, they have home lives. There are people who know and love them, even if they've ended up on the wrong side of The Punisher's law.
The man with the skull emblazoned body armor is just the most exaggerated form of what is going on in the minds of every character, at every level in this series.
Frank, granted, is the person who suffers the most repercussions. Marvel's Daredevil introduced Frank Castle as a vet who fought in Afghanistan and survived, only to come home and watch his wife and children be murdered as part of a gang war. But while Daredevil delved into Castle's background, and the damage he suffered from these events, The Punisher dives in head first, giving us a Frank who lives night and day with the demons who persistently haunt him; despite the fact that he's found and killed everyone responsible to for taking his family's past. For Frank, there's often no line — people are right, or they're dead — but every time he kills an unrepentant criminal, it doesn't heal him. He's simply forced to relive; it brings back the same pain and hurt he felt watching his family die. To quote Jessica Jones, it's death by a thousand papercuts. The psyche of the man behind the weapon has irrevocably changed, and by the flashbacks to his military days in Kandar, it's clear that happened before he assumed The Punisher's persona. Perhaps even before the first time he picked up a gun.
That real sense of trauma infuses nearly every character on the show. An early scene introduces a support group for vets run by Castle's old squadmate Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore). Frank stays separate from the group, though often listens in — scenes reminiscent of the ones involving Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) listening in to Sam Wilson's (Anthony Mackie) recovery group in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Side note: The Punisher is technically in the same cinematic universe as the Marvel movies, but other than tangential references the Netflix shows are pretty much running on their own tracks).
Where the Winter Soldier scenes are played to show that Rogers is a man out of time, the scenes in The Punisher hold a deeper meaning, depicting how anguish doesn't take one, simple form. While Castle's suffering manifests in his vigilantism — aka a pattern of self-destructive behavior that will end in his death if he doesn't find a way to take care of himself again — each member of the support group is shown coping in drastically different ways. A few are like Frank on the outside, quiet and withdrawn, but are actively looking for help. Others are concerned that they can't connect with civilians anymore, whether that's their families or potential employers. And others have been driven to a point where they can't think about people outside the terms of us vs. them, which poisons their relationships with fellow vets who are actively trying to move on.
Despite the fact that all of these vets are the cause of someone else's nightmares, they find themselves caught in one too. Those scenes are particularly poignant because Lightfoot cast actual veterans as the extras in the group. "Every soldier is different, and I'm not going to pretend that you can encompass everyone's experience in a show like this," Lightfoot noted, "but we certainly worked hard to try and make it authentic."
One of the group members, Lewis Walcott (Daniel Webber) underscores this point: while Castle is dealing in his own, twisted way, Walcott is too far gone, unable to escape the battlefield even in his own backyard. Lightfoot hesitated to use the phrase "P.T.S.D." because it's so reductive — emotional and mental damage caused through warfare takes so many forms — and the plot and character arcs back that up, from Castle's grim justice, to Walcott's, excuse the phrase, militant sense of anger.
The same is true for Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a hacker who saw his life destroyed after discovering a video of Frank and co. in Afghanistan murdering the aforementioned unarmed man. Unlike Frank, who is compelled to keep moving and killing like a shark with guns, Micro has been stunned into inaction, letting his family believe he died in order to protect them, and never leaving the broken warehouse he's made his base. While Frank finds the world won't leave him behind, and it weighs on him, Micro has decided to trap himself behind the cold glare of computer screens, only seeing his own reflection in the brief moment a monitor turns off. "They have a few things they share, a deep paranoia, a deep mistrust of the system, a deep love of their family," Moss-Bachrach told us on the bond between Micro and Frank, while visiting our studio in New York. "That connects them."
It's that connection to the consequences of violence that makes Marvel's The Punisher unique. Even the seemingly well adjusted playboy Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) hasn't escaped: he's running a mercenary organization that's intrinsically tied to the military industrial complex. His slick hair and charming demeanor only help hide the anger seething behind the dark pools of his eyes. Every interaction has become a transaction, a way of continually moving and proving his worth after the hell of what he and his squadmate Frank experienced back in Afghanistan. He feigns friendship with Curtis and Castle, he starts a calculated romance with a Homeland Security agent in order to gain information, and even uses his organization to his own untrustworthy ends. Classic villain behavior, for sure; but like the rest of the characters on the series his actions stem from the fact that he's never really left the battlefield.
This isn't the sort of show where the bad guy gets thrown off a cliff with a quip while the hero rides off in the sunset with his best girl. Even when The Punisher gets the best of the baddies, there are literal bodies left in his wake with families and friends of their own. For every mob boss or crooked ex-soldier Castle kills, there are brothers, or sisters, or uncles, or cousins ready to pick up the torch of vengeance. But the big bad that Frank can't defeat is his own war-weariness. Every time Frank thinks his fight is over, he realizes it's just beginning.
Marvel's The Punisher is now streaming on Netflix.
Additional reporting by Krutika Mallikarjuna