Few Marvel characters have existed in the same live-action developmental purgatory that the Punisher has.
The character has not one but three movies that never managed to satisfy a dedicated fan base.
Dolph Lundgren gave it a go as Frank Castle in 1989 in a movie you perhaps forgot existed. Thomas Jane had the charisma but none of the grit and was placed in an inexplicably sunny Tampa Bay setting in 2004’s “The Punisher.” “Punisher War Zone” starring Ray Stevenson flopped at the box office in 2008, with no franchise potential.
The one thing all those films had in common — besides being bad — were that they were Punisher flicks in name only. There were lots of guns and the iconic white skull logo over the chest, but that was it. There was no soul.
What makes Netflix’s “The Punisher” series stand out is that lead actor and Washington native Jon Bernthal doesn’t need to wear a white skull or even have a gun in his hand for you to know that he is the Punisher.
Though he debuted the character in Season 2 of “Daredevil,” Bernthal’s performance in Season 1 of his own series cements his status as one of Marvel’s great casting gets, on par with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man/Tony Stark, Chris Evans’s Captain America/Steve Rogers and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor.
After taking down what he believes to be the final evil element of the conspiracy that took away his family in cold murder, Bernthal’s Frank Castle burns his Punisher duds — white skull and all — and assumes that part of him is finally over. But even when bearded, in hiding, and doing everything he can to keep the rage within during the first episodes of Season 1, Castle is undeniably a man who has come to be defined by punishment and vigilante justice.
Other Marvel/Netflix shows might suffer from not giving enough of their superheroes’ requisite persona: “Daredevil” without the red horns might feel like “Law and Order” with street fighting starring Charlie Cox. The decision not to give Danny Rand (Finn Jones) his classic yellow-and-green suit was one of the many setbacks for “Iron Fist” in its debut season.
But you figure out very quickly that watching Frank Castle’s black-and-white skull suit burn in the fire means that it’s going to be a while before you see it again. But it doesn’t matter: The Punisher is there in all 13 episodes because Bernthal feels perfect in the role after so many past miscastings. (That doesn’t mean the skull’s return isn’t special. It’s a violent baptism by firearms befitting of Marvel’s most violent character.)
Make no mistake: This is Netflix’s most violent Marvel show by a lot. There’s enough blood, execution, firepower and sex to say this is R-rated material, which is the way the character should be presented.
While the violence — from the PTSD nightmares Frank Castle has from his days in the military, to his heavily armed war on corruption — is to be expected to those familiar with the comics-inspired source material, it might not even be the best part of the show. Instead, that may go to the very slow building toward a brotherly bond between Frank Castle and his technologically savvy sidekick, Micro (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach).
The Punisher and Micro (called “Microchip” in the comics) are a fan-favorite duo for comics readers. They are not a good fit at the beginning of the season — Frank refuses to trust Micro at first — but watching them work toward the vigilante pair you know they’re destined to become gives “The Punisher” its few moments of light and fun.
Ben Barnes is suave, if predictable, as Billy Russo, a major Punisher villain in the comics. He seduces Amber Rose Revah’s Dinah Madani, a federal agent who doesn’t realize how connected Russo is to the scarring moments that turned Frank Castle into the Punisher.
Deborah Ann Woll of “Daredevil” returns as Karen Page, there to remind you that “The Punisher” is connected to the rest of Netflix’s Marvel universe, even though the show is so good that it doesn’t need to lean on that. She provides the role of caring friend and possible romantic interest — if Frank can ever allow himself to love again.
This version of “The Punisher” puts all previous attempts out of their misery. It’s a definitive adaptation that doubles as Netflix’s best Marvel show to date.
Finally, the Punisher gets a little live-action justice.