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The Punisher tells a story about white male anger, wrapped in blood and guns

The Punisher is a lot angrier and a lot more incisive than it looks.

Jon Bernthal as The Punisher
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The Punisher is easily the most violent Netflix series that Marvel has produced to date. Thousands of bullets are fired, hundreds of ounces blood are spilled, and dozens of people are killed throughout the show’s 13 episodes; it’s as brutal as its titular character, Frank Castle, a man made of equal parts mud, blood, black coffee, and bourbon.

Marvel’s other Netflix heroes have all maintained a distinct boundary between committing violence and killing people; sometimes they’ve explicitly adopted a “no-kill” policy, as is the case with Daredevil. The difference with The Punisher, created by former Hannibal executive producer Steve Lightfoot, is that Frank Castle is a real-deal murderer. Castle sees the world in absolute terms, and if he knows that someone is committing evil, he has no problem ending them.

As a result, The Punisher forces us to philosophically question our own personal relationships with power, abuse, sadism, and terror. The series, drenched in shadows and hazy grays, explores what happens when vigilantism goes unchecked. Fans who have been following Castle’s story from the second season of Daredevil know that he’s killing because his family was killed; The Punisher, through its excessive violence, wants to test whether there’s a limit. It wants to ponder what could happen if everyone who’s ever been wronged started acting like Castle. And it does so in a heavy, bracingly vicious way.

However, in the aftermath of the October mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds, and the more recent mass shooting at a church in Sutherland, Texas, some of The Punisher’s action sequences can feel more like deceptively simple approximations of what true depravity and terror look like. This isn’t a knock on Marvel, but rather my inability to shake such tragic real-life news combined with the way reviews work; The Punisher will be released on November 17, but its 13-episode first season has been available to critics since last month, and I first watched it right after Vegas.

If the show had been released months ago, or if I’d been able to watch it when the pain of a real mass shooting wasn’t so fresh, I know I’d feel differently about its exploration of hyper-violence. But currently, The Punisher’s gun porn and luscious brutality — which the show is clearly banking on as a draw — feel like an exercise in numbness and exhaustion rather than shock and awe.

The upside is that, in my aversion to The Punisher’s gun-happy nature, I found myself drawn to some truly fascinating details that might have otherwise been lost beneath its barbaric skin.

Jon Bernthal finds Frank Castle’s humanity amid the bloody carnage he spreads

The Punisher picks up after Daredevil’s second season. Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) a.k.a. the Punisher is trying to disappear into a normal life, now that everyone New York City thinks he’s dead. For Castle, that means trying to find a low-key job and blending into his surroundings — a task more difficult than it sounds, because Castle suffers from PTSD that haunts every moment of his life.

The series functions as an origin story for the character (as told through flashbacks) while also moving Castle forward from when we last saw him: offering Daredevil one last helping hand in finishing off members of the Hand, and then disappearing. Castle is still in contact with Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), now a premier reporter, but several new characters have entered his orbit, including the mystery-cracking Homeland Security special agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) and Castle’s undercut-sporting, wartime compatriot Billy Russo (Ben Barnes).

Living a low-key life is difficult for Castle because of how corrupt New York has become. Beginning with police officers and then tracing its way up to the heads of government, evil has its fingers wrapped around the spine of every institution in both the city and, it seems, America at large.

Castle can’t help one person without triggering this sinister web to commit more evil. So when certain characters in his life — from both past and present — cross paths with each other and him, Castle is presented with an opportunity he can’t refuse to get back into his violent, vigilante ways.

Bernthal is asked to do a lot with his role in portraying many different sides of Castle and bringing emotional depth to the character without coming off as ghoulish or campy. He delivers possibly the best grizzly antihero performance among all of Marvel’s Netflix series to date.

He speaks at an octave that lives somewhere on the ocean floor. It’s gruff, rigid in the middle, not unlike the voice that Christian Bale uses when he dons Batman’s cape and cowl. He sounds as if he’s been swallowing smoke and razors, growling out pithy sentences. Add in Bernthal’s threatening physique (he looks as big as Marvel movie counterparts) and the firearm training he’s clearly had, and he’s as intimidating as any character on television.

But what’s more impressive are the moments when Bernthal softens Castle and allows us a glimpse into the character’s vulnerability — especially in his moments with Karen. In Daredevil’s second season, Bernthal and Moll showed off a fine chemistry, and The Punisher taps into the special bond they have: She reflects his compassion, while he reflects her fearlessness.

Meanwhile, Revah’s Dinah becomes Castle’s mirror of justice. The two don’t often share scenes, but their character arcs run parallel to one another. They both want to take out evil, but have wildly different views of what evil really looks like. And through the introduction of Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s character (which I won’t spoil here), both Castle and the series are able to explore what masculinity and fatherhood mean.

Castle wasn’t always rough and damaged; war changed him. Bernthal understands this, making Castle’s prewar life seem idyllic and his post-war trauma suffocating. Seeing a man who was previously a violent, vengeful brute involuntary crumple into a messy heap of emotions is a downright uncomfortable sight, but somehow Bernthal manages to find the humanity in such a moment. The Punisher is bleak and uncompromising, but Bernthal infuses its title character with the dignity the show needs to pull off its antihero story.

The Punisher is a story about what violence means to white men

Beneath The Punisher’s scrim of bullets, guns, and blood is a raw look at what violence means to men. Castle’s story, of course, is at the forefront. But we’re also introduced to Lewis Walcott (Daniel Webber) — a vet who, like Castle, returns from war and struggles with civilian life due to his PTSD — and Billy Russo, Castle’s best friend from the Marines, who masks his violent tendencies with a sleek haircut and well-cut suits. There are also higher-ups, the men calling the shots in the armed forces, who we learn have engaged in deadly cover-ups during Castle’s time in the armed forces who are now sitting in powerful positions. All of these men happen to be white.

In particular, Walcott’s storyline feels like it easily could exist in reality, and Webber is fantastically frightening in the role. Walcott is confused and trapped in his own mind. Downtrodden and frustrated by a government that he believes has forgotten him, he lashes out at everyone with violence — hoping that people will see these acts, join him, and help reset the institutions and government that he feels have gone so awry. He can’t find a job and his country won’t take care of him, so he falls back on what he knows he’s good at: violence, brutality, and an eternal readiness to kill.

The Punisher also explores how we perceive terror.

Without giving too much away, the show plays with the idea of what we think our “enemies” look like — suggesting that we’ve been taught they’ll always be brown, Muslim, Middle Eastern — and then introduces white, male characters who are more than happy to manipulate this stereotype and abuse it for their own benefit. These men are more than happy to play up the idea that brown skin equals bad guys, casting nations of people as faceless, dehumanized monsters who are to blame for every ill. Violence against those people, the men believe, is what turns Americans into heroes.

Consequently, The Punisher doubles as a fascinating, cynical exploration of authoritarian violence. The fiery gun fights and head-smashing barbarism were a major part of how the series was promoted, but the way those elements intersect with power, race, and Walcott’s crystallized white anger is a curious, welcome wrinkle. In that sense, The Punisher feels more in line with and supplemental to a couple of its Netflix cousins — namely Jessica Jones, which waded into darker topics of sex and abuse, and Luke Cage, which became an examination of the fragility of black life in America — than the gratuitously violent show it’s been marketed as.

Despite its name and Bernthal’s intense performance, The Punisher is about more than just its ruthless antihero, and proves much more incisive than it may initially seem to be. The show earns its despondent and bleak tone, not just by leaning into its boiling savagery but by addressing and illuminating its characters’ relationship to violence, and specifically how its male characters use violence as a way to communicate, to be understood, to right perceived wrongs. Even when its stylized viciousness is undercut by real-world tragedy, The Punisher, like Marvel’s very best Netflix series, gives its title character a bloody good introduction.

Marvel’s The Punisher is streaming on Netflix.

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