The Punisher Is an Exemplary Human Action Hero
Major Spoilers Ahead
If you haven't seen both seasons of The Punisher along with season 2 of Daredevil, I would suggest coming back after seeing them, as I intend to dive into the shows without giving much of explanation of the story threads, as I want to examine Frank Castle more than the shows do (which by the way are excellent).
Superhero adaptions over the past 20 years have grown considerably better as time goes on (minus a few exceptions), ranging from fun action movies to strong character studies and everything in between. The history of the superhero genre isn't what I want to get into today though, I want to talk to about “The Punisher” specifically. With the screen time given to him, Jon Bernthal managed to embody not only one of the best depictions of Frank Castle but also created an action hero who deserves to be recognized with the likes of John Wick or John McClane as a hero who's more than just a macho one-liner vessel.
Selling the Role
Over the course of 3 seasons of television, making his introduction in Daredevil season 2 before getting two of his own, Jon Bernthal embodied not only the best portrayal of Frank Castle AKA “The Punisher” but also one of the best action heroes of recent memory through both his actions and mannerisms. The subtleties in his performance work almost as well as any words he speaks, or actions we see him take. The small choices Bernthal adds to his performance, such as his constant movement of his hands, or a simple tick in his face, or (most importantly) the way he yells when in fights, show us how uneasy he constantly is. Although Frank Castle could easily be written off as a standard story of revenge, the Netflix rendition of the character takes a much deeper dive into who he is beyond the embodiment of pure violence that defines The Punisher, as it thoroughly explores Franks PTSD. That’s not to say the show shies away from said violence, as it tends to get extremely visceral, but it's given a strong purpose in rounding out Franks mental state, while still remaining true to his comic origins.
When we first meet Frank in Daredevil, he's shown to be cold, ruthless, and calculating, as we see mostly the aftermath of the mayhem left in his wake. Targeting everyone we learn was involved in the death of his family, Frank carves a warpath through the city of New York that brings him into conflict with Daredevil both literally and figuratively. While Daredevil doesn’t believe it to be his or Franks place to kill criminals, Frank sees it as the only way to control crime, and this difference in ideology leads to some of my personal favorite examinations of what makes a hero. In one of the best episodes of Daredevil, our two heroes spend much of the run time arguing why their methods are better than the other. These encounters eventually lead to Frank recounting memories of his family, both happy and bitter. Not only does the way he tells his tragic story, help Daredevil understand why Frank pursues his cause as he does, but it also gives us as the audience the ability to connect with someone who, through his violent tendencies should be completely deplorable. Yet through his character development we actually empathize with him, as he's struggling with a very real mental condition. The first time we see Frank in his own show, after he kills everyone involved in his families deaths, he spends his days on a construction site hammering walls with a sledgehammer until his hands bleed, simply to channel his anger and guilt. This shows that not a second goes by without him thinking of his family, and that his way of dealing with the trauma, is through aggression if not violence.
The Importance of Empathy
It's through this emotional turmoil that we feel so much for Frank Castle, who again could have just been an angry killing machine if portrayed incorrectly. Not only are the complex emotions of Frank Castle key to making him such a compelling character, the small interactions with the secondary characters, such as Micro and his wife Sarah, work very well to keep Frank from being a two-dimensional protagonist. Small interactions such as Frank having drinks with Micro while recounting the first time, they each met their wives, or being a role model for a kid who takes their grief out on others through anger and aggression. Along with plenty of other actions he takes throughout his screen time, whether we see them in flashbacks, hear him talk about his motivations or just see him trying to handle a life without violence we're given a much deeper understanding of who Frank Castle is, besides just being The Punisher, through these interactions.
Throughout the first season, we see Frank Castle coming to terms with the fact that he feels more at home in the middle of gunfight with his brothers in the Marines than he ever did when he was spending time with his wife and children. Frank admits this several times throughout the show, even going so far as to say that he doesn't know how to live in the silence outside of war. The man lives with such a strong case of PTSD that he's scared to even live a normal life, because every time he tries to, something drags him back into violence. In season one he protects a young man from a crime family, which gets the attention of Micro, pulling him back into the conspiracy that got his family killed. And yet again in season 2, he finds himself protecting a young girl who is involved with the wrong people, putting himself directly into danger yet again, because he wants only to do the right thing. Eventually this relationship turns into her being a surrogate daughter of sorts to Frank, as another moral compass to him during their time together, often keeping him from going too far into the violence that often he finds himself consumed by.
Bernthal is also surrounded by a supporting cast equally as strong as he is, with major standouts being Jason R. Moore as Curtis and without a doubt Ben Barnes as Billy Russo. Through these characters, we see people dealing with PTSD not just from being at war, but also just from their life. Curtis helps his fellow veterans by running a support group that focuses on helping each other live life after war, which bleeds heavily into Franks story. Meanwhile we see the multifaceted manipulator that is Billy Russo, pretending to still be Franks best friend, while also having a hand in the murder of Franks family and therefore simultaneously working against him, and eventually becoming the mirror (no pun intended) opposite of our protagonist after their battle in the season 1 finale. In opposition to this, Curtis acts as another one of Franks moral compasses, trying to convince him that there is more is to life besides fighting and killing, While Russo is a dark version of what Frank could become if his guilt and anger continue to consume him, without someone or something to guide him in the right direction. Curtis supports Frank even when he doesn't agree with the actions Frank takes, because he believes Castle can lead a life outside of that pit of despair he resides in so often.
Russo himself is just as deep a character as Frank, especially in the shows second season. Having been orphaned by his drug addicted mother at a young age and brought up in a system where he was abused by a man he looked up to as a role model, a deep need to just be wanted and cared about grew within him. Eventually when he joined the marines and met Frank and their other squad mates, he finally felt he had found the family he always looked for in life. But when they were recruited into the covert mission that would ultimately lead to the murders of the Castle family, after their first battle in central park where Frank brutalizes Russo, leaving him scarred for life but without the memory of what he did, Russo truly becomes unhinged and Franks dark opposite. All he can remember is the fact that Frank used to be his best friend and his brother, but now wants to kill him and is literally haunted by the punisher in his dreams. Not understanding what he did to Frank, only accentuates the pain and loneliness he's felt his entire life, causing him to reach out to create a new “family” consisting of veteran's that feel the same way he does. This dynamic makes for a an engaging rivalry, as Franks attempt to punish Russo by destroying his face instead of killing him, actually leads to Russo becoming more unhinged.
The Importance of Vulnerability
Aside from his mental state, Frank is also shown to be quite literally vulnerable as he's just a human being and constantly needs to patch himself up after fights. similarly to John Mcclane pulling glass out of his feet,and just trying to fix his marriage in Die Hard, both Daredevil, and John Wick taking a serious beating but still achieving their goals, it helps to sell the idea that these action hero's are still just people, even if they're capable of incredible feats. Again, the many conversations Frank has with Karen, Micro and Curtis in the downtime between firefights and brawls also go a long way to humanize him, as we see his anger constantly boiling under the surface,or we learn about his past in some way, are just small pieces of character development that flesh out Frank as more than just The Punisher. This balance of complex emotions and relationships, along with the knowledge that Frank is far from immortal, helped to create a far more grounded hero than most action movies tend to give us. While it can be fun to see an action hero perform unbelievable feats, if they have no sense of mortality, or aren't given a compelling reason as to why they do said feats, its hard to believe what we see or to even care about them. In the case of The Punisher, the obvious care for the character showed by making a deeply flawed, yet empathetic main character who's actions and experienced tragedies make for a uniquely compelling hero that is most importantly just a human.