Please be aware, there are spoilers for the entirety of Daredevil Season 2. Seriously, so many spoilers.
The Punisher is hard to get right. Loving father, devoted husband, and honored war veteran, he’s also a monster; a brutal, remorseless killer. He’s vigilante justice at it’s darkest possible conclusion, an anti-hero so dark and violent that he falls right on the line of villainy, and that makes him one of Marvel’s hardest characters to adapt. To make The Punisher a hero is to celebrate a bloodthirsty murderer. To make excuses for him is to diminish his impact. To pull off what Daredevil Season 2 just did, to show him fully for the monster he is and then convince the audience to forgive him anyway, is something of a magic trick. It’s the first on-screen incarnation of Frank Castle that is equal parts brutal and human, the first to look at him with unflinching honesty, and it sets the new gold standard for the character.
A few feature films have tried over the years, and while they’re all fun in varying degrees, none of them ever fulfilled the character’s potential. Dolph Lundgren was essentially The Punisher (1989) in name only, leading a by-the-numbers revenge exploit with a brand stapled to it. The Punisher (2004), though pulled from the beloved Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon arc “Welcome Back Frank”, was ultimately just a hero’s tale in anti-hero’s clothing. Thomas Jane, whose performance in the 2012 short Dirty Laundry proved he didn’t get the Punisher movie he deserved, was too soft. His Frank Castle was a strapping all-American hero; “the finest soldier, finest undercover opp, and the finest man [you’ve] ever known.” A man who fake tortured a criminal with a popsicle. Ray Stevenson‘s Punisher counter-corrected too far in the other direction. He was quick to kill, and brutally; putting his fist through a bad guy’s face and rocket-launching a lackey in mid-air, but it was all played for guffaws, pure bloody spectacle, and the character of Frank Castle suffered as an afterthought, a means to the obligatory violent ends. The Punisher made you like Frank Castle too much; War Zone left you indifferent beyond the next good gag.
In Daredevil, Jon Bernthal‘s Frank Castle is carnage incarnate, a relentless force of “fuck you” and utterly unrepentant rage. He does not execute criminals for the greater good; he murders them violently and inhumanely in the pursuit of his own agenda.Terrifying not only for his gift for violence, as Kingpin calls it, but for the single-minded determination to carry out his objective that informs his every action. He’s also a bit of a bastard (admittedly a charming one, on occasion, because Bernthal is phenomenal in the role ), and though there is a deeply damaged, grieving man at the heart of his actions, Daredevil, neither the character nor the series, never lets him off the hook that easily.
Daredevil takes an inspired, challenging approach to introducing Frank, refraining from indulging you in his well-trod backstory until you witness the extent of his brutality. We get to know Frank first only through the horror he’s capable of. We see the explicit detail of his path to vengeance — slow-motion streams blood jettisoning out of his mowed-down victims, guts spilling out of men hanging on meat hooks — before we ever get to meet the man behind it. The tales about him are apocryphal, whispers of an army or a powerful crime syndicate revealed to be the work of one man. The first time we see Frank, he’s opening fire in a hospital. At the end of the first episode, he shoots our hero square in the head. It’s a hell of an introduction, one that makes no excuses for him.
But then we get to know the method behind the madness a bit more. Frank’s not entirely insane, or at least, he’s not all bad. An expert marksman, he framed that headshot to spare Matt’s life. The first time we see him in Punisher mode, he’s taking out a swastika-tatted child porn peddler. He gets the most fucked up “save the cat” moment in history when he adopts the an Irish gang’s dog and later protects the pup from torture. Frank even gets the opportunity to plead his case in the third episode, which pulls directly from one of the all-time Punisher/Daredevil showdowns, Ennis and Dillon’s “The Choice,” wherein Frank chains Matt to a pillar for a lively debate about methods of vigilantism. Frank gets his arguments in and it’s easy to be swayed by Bernthal’s gruff, unyielding charisma. Hardhearted rationality even lends itself to his tirade against “half-measures”, but the way he talks about killing, what makes him whole, it’s clear how damaged and unsound he is. His merciless determination to put a bullet in Grotto makes it clear that he’s broken.
Ultimately, it isn’t until nearly four hours in, when Frank is completely battered and torn down that we finally arrive at the inevitable destination of The Punisher’s iconic backstory. Bernthal delivers top-shelf badassery as Frank is tortured; outwitting, outlasting and definitely out-sassing his captors. Meanwhile, the ever reckless and intrepid Karen is investigating his family home, uncovering the details that paint a vivid picture of what he lost. A family, murdered and gone, and no justice for the crime.
This is where Daredevil excels at Frank Castle’s story in a unique and special way. Except for one brutal line (meat was spilling out of her, Red, place where her face used to be…), the series doesn’t dwell on the details of how he lost his family, but the details of what he lost when they died. Most people can’t relate to seeing the people they love most gunned down before their eyes. Everyone can relate to regretting the things you wish you’d done once it’s too late. Everyone can feel the emptiness of a room when someone you love suddenly isn’t there anymore. When Castle lays it all out in Bernthal’s eviscerating graveside monologue, the audience feels it. Feels it hard. This is a Frank Castle who can fuck you up as hard emotionally as he can physically.
Daredevil succeeds where others have failed by leaning into Frank Castle, monstrous appetite for violence and all, without hesitation or apology, then turning around and doing the same for his humanity. The highlight of Bernthal’s MVP performance, and his arc throughout the season, is the way the man — who he was before his tragedy — occasionally shines through the bloodied, swollen, and bruised visage that becomes his vigilante mask. You know it’s wrong, you know he‘s wrong, but you just can’t help but like the guy. You can’t help feeling a strange sense of loyalty to him, a strange respect.
That dynamic is played out beautifully in his relationship with Karen. She wants to believe in him, just as we do, but every time his cunning and charm fall away to reveal the bloodlust beneath, and they always do, Karen’s face is a reminder of the ghastly reality of his crimes. One minute they’re bonding over diner coffee, the next she’s hiding from gunfire under a countertop, trying to block out the sound of Frank stabbing a man to death. Daredevil never lets you cheer for The Punisher too long.
That’s the beauty of Daredevil‘s Frank Castle. He’s not the hero of the piece, so they can play free and loose with his morality. But he’s not the villain either, and that’s exactly the groundwork for a character like Frank to thrive in. He’s a guy who’s equally at home stabbing an inmate in the balls as he is giving Karen tough love romantic advice. He will shoot a man point blank in the face with a shotgun without flinching, but he also loves “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire. He hangs men from meat hooks and gives bleary-eyed monologues in a graveyard, and it all feels cohesive. It’s all a coherent, well-rounded portrait of a man. A war-torn vet (who canonically is in love with combat), a man who made it home from that war only to watch his family die, who is brain damaged from a bullet to the brain, and ultimately, a man on the path to becoming something else.
Frank isn’t the hero of the story, his arc certainly shadows Matt Murdock’s path to becoming Daredevil. He even gets his own showy against-all-odds hallway fight scene (though not shot in a oner), but unlike Matt, he leave a trail of the dead and dying behind him. He’s Matt’s dark mirror. And ultimately, just as Matt wasn’t yet Daredevil when we first met him, neither is Frank Castle really The Punisher until his final moments of Season 2.
But, brilliant tactician that he his, Frank ties up his loose ends first. “Frank Castle” dies publicly in a blaze of glory on the docks of the pier — his death plastered on the front page of the newspaper. He closes the door on Karen, perhaps the last living human who found something in him worth saving. He completes his mission for revenge, killing The Blacksmith. Finally, he burns down his family home, the last vestige of his former life. The man who walks away — a white skull on painted his armored chest, Gatling gun and bandolier slung over his shoulder — is someone else. If there’s one thing Daredevil makes very clear as the season draws to a close, it’s this: Frank Castle is dead. The Punisher is born.