Daredevil season 2: examining Jon Bernthal's Punisher
With the help of the hugely talented Jon Bernthal, Marvel has finally done tragic and brutal on-screen justice to The Punisher. Spoilers...
This article contains major spoilers for the whole of Daredevil seasons one and two.
It's only been a week since Netflix released season two of Marvel's Daredevil, but lots of fans and viewers would already declare Jon Bernthal's take on Frank Castle to be the best screen version of the Punisher to date. He's not even the principal antagonist, but he steals scenes left and right all the way through the season.
Following the acclaimed portrayal of Wilson Fisk last season, new showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez provide a more humanised spin on the character than is traditionally depicted in the comics, without having him get pally with his neighbours, like the 2004 film did, or having him indiscriminately blow up free runners with a bazooka, as in 2008's unapologetically bonkers Punisher- Warzone.
No matter how much you like the Ray Stevenson, Thomas Jane or Dolph Lundgren versions, it's tough to argue with Bernthal's stoic and nuanced performance, even though none of those other actors got quite as much of an emotional workout in the role as this latest incarnation.
The most distinctive marks of this interpretation of the character can be found throughout in three thematic arcs that he undergoes during this season, each centred around his interactions with one of the other characters. This is our look at how Petrie, Ramirez and Bernthal distinguished the Punisher's unique brand of anti-heroism from previous portrayals and how his arrival in the narrative develops the other characters.
“You hit them and they get back up. I hit them and they stay down.”
The Punisher was originally introduced as a former US Marine and an adversary of Spider-Man in 1974 and his moral code and willingness to kill made him something of a novelty in comic books. Over time, he was re-purposed as more of an anti-hero, waging a brutal one man war on crime and killing anybody he deemed unworthy of living after his family were caught in the crossfire of a shooting.
He first ran up against Daredevil during Frank Miller's highly acclaimed and influential run on the comics, but the contrast between their characters has led to as many team-ups as scuffles. At the start of season two, Frank feels like the right antagonist at the right moment in the series. Much of season one focused on Matt Murdock's Catholic guilt and aversion to killing - introducing the Punisher now, as someone with the same mission as Daredevil who is almost the polar opposite of him in terms of method, is a master stroke that pays off all the way through the season.
It's most effective in the opening run of four episodes though, in which Frank's killing spree is the primary problem that Daredevil has to contend with. The best episode of the season, in my humble opinion, is New York's Finest, which takes its cue from 2001's Punisher #3 by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon by having Frank rough up the hero and chain him up on a roof for a less than friendly chat about ethics.
The season wisely avoids labouring the point about vengeance and justice being two different things, but it's mostly in the chattier side of this confrontation that Frank gives it to him straight - his faith in the legal system is misguided, given how it's full of criminals who get out and re-offend and is propped up by corrupt officials. This is in evidence later in the season as ruthless careerist District Attorney Reyes (last seen in Jessica Jones, true believers) tampers with evidence in the Central Park massacre that set Frank on his mission, which was actually a police sting gone wrong.
Whether knowingly or not, (we would venture that Frank knows that Matt is Daredevil by the time he's unmasked in A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen) he even disdains Nelson and Murdock's law firm's clientele as “shitbags”, counter to the belief that everyone deserves a fair trial. Faith also comes up in the revelation that Frank was raised Catholic too - the marked difference between the two vigilantes is that Daredevil believes in redemption and the sanctity of life, while Frank is justifiably more cynical.
In terms of what's taken directly from Ennis and Dillon though, the argument comes to a head when Daredevil is knocked out and wakes up with a gun taped to his hand. The Punisher has done so in order to put his morality and faith in the sanctity of life to the ultimate test. He threatens to kill Grotto, an Irish gang member that Nelson and Murdock are trying to protect, right in front of him unless Daredevil shoots him first.
Further complicating the choice is Frank's revelation that Grotto isn't just a runner for the Irish gang, as he told his lawyers, but has occasionally dabbled in murder while on the job, once shooting an innocent old lady just because she saw his face. In the original comic, Daredevil caves and tries to shoot the Punisher, only to find that the gun isn't really loaded, but the point is already proven. He comes off better in this version, sticking to his guns (or lack thereof) and ultimately fights off Frank and then a horde of bikers that he has provoked, in a sequence that parallels (and arguably surpasses) last season's hallway fight.
When the stakes are reversed in the following episode, Penny And Dime, Daredevil fights off Finn Cooley's gang to rescue Frank and this is where he is most unexpectedly given an emotional dimension. Grievously injured, with the cops on his tail, an exhausted Frank recounts the terrible story of how his family died. He admits to being too tired to go on before the police apprehend him.
The contrast between the two is such that Daredevil's faith makes him a tireless crusader, even though the justice system sometimes moves in mysterious ways, while the Punisher's cynicism means he is alone, but doesn't have anything to lose in his own crusade. Matt crosses his path again when Nelson and Murdock takes him on as a client in “the trial of the century” while Daredevil becomes diverted by Elektra and the Hand, but the understanding earned in their early clash comes back in a surprising way.
By the time of .380, Daredevil has reached the point where he's more willing to compromise, suggesting to Frank that he might have been right first time, but unexpectedly, he won't allow him to stoop to killing, pushing him out of harm's way before getting into an explosive shoot-out with more gangsters at the port.
This last close encounter marks the crucial distinction in this Punisher's portrayal and the climax of the comic that inspired that earlier rooftop showdown- having literally been through hell over the deaths of his wife and children, Frank doesn't confront Daredevil's morality as much as his naivete, while his own code and violent tendencies make him a contentious but fascinating anti-hero.
2. Wilson Fisk
“You want it, you got it! I am the Punisher!”
We should've seen this one coming somehow, but the end of Guilty As Sin gives us an unexpected surprise with the return of Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, currently doing hard time in jail. He's keeping his head down in hope of early parole and he's traded in his reinforced suits for prison overalls, (orange is the new white) but he's as manipulative as ever when he finds out about the Punisher trial.
The shortest of our three arcs comes over just one or two episodes when he's able to persuade Frank to sabotage his own defence in order to go to prison and get a shot at finding out who was ultimately responsible for his family's deaths from Dutton, the top dog who has been making Fisk's stay a bit difficult.
Frank's tanking is appropriate though - he goes berserk on the stand and admits full awareness of his actions and no remorse whatsoever, declaring that he's “the big bad Punisher” and getting taken down by the court bailiffs. Even though Frank is only pretending to lose it, (and it's tough to think of any other time that his simmering rage boils over into genuine yelling and screaming) this parallels Fisk's enraged and very vocal acceptance of his true nature during a fight with Daredevil in the season one finale. (“This city doesn't deserve my love!”)
When the two men have their first proper conversation in the following episode, Seven Minutes In Heaven, we can't help but note their similarities. Neither of them is super-powered in the conventional sense, but Frank has an abnormally high tolerance for pain and the massive weight that Fisk is repping in the prison gym testifies to his terrifying strength. Likewise, neither of them have Daredevil's qualms about killing in order to get the job done, but somehow, they still couldn't possibly be more different.
D'Onofrio and Bernthal are even more compelling when they share scenes, but putting the Kingpin in scenes with the Punisher also serves as a contrast that shows up the former's villainy more plainly. For starters, Frank cuts through a lot of Fisk's well-spoken bullshit- he's unwilling to listen to the former crime boss pretending that he wants anything but his dirty work doing for him. Next to Frank, Fisk's long-standing convictions and authority don't look so total.
If he's got any shot at parole, he has to do what he did for so long outside of prison and maintain his demeanour of relative respectability, so he has to exercise his compulsion to take charge through others. Having lost everything even before he bellowed that he was the Punisher at the world, Frank isn't bound by the same pretence- inside, as outside, he's a force of nature.
And so, Fisk uses his sway to get Frank into Dutton's cell for a seven minute window in which he can get information and do all sorts of other nasty things to his rival. Fisk being Fisk, he also unleashes all of Dutton's mates on Frank after the deed is done in an effort to eliminate his accomplice. Frank being Frank, this doesn't work out too well for Dutton's mates.
After failing to have him killed, Fisk decides to help Frank to escape in order to take out his competition on the outside too, a would-be kingpin known as the Blacksmith, who orchestrated the Central Park shoot-out. Fisk is just about the only character in season two who survives Frank's ruthless policy towards any and all criminals who fuck with him, so there's no love lost between these two when they part ways.
“Next time I see you, only one of us walks away,” he tells him before he escapes. “Yes, of course,” the Kingpin replies, “I'm counting on it.”
3. Karen Page
“I'm already dead.”
The longest running relationship that Frank has with another character through the season is Nelson & Murdock's legal assistant supremo Karen Page, who becomes a confidante and sole counsel to Frank during the run-up to his trial and later goes on to help him out as a fugitive. Surprisingly, this frequently turns out to be even more fascinating than his contrast with Daredevil.
Early in the season and much to Matt's dismay, it's Karen who first voices the concern that Daredevil's actions opened the door for the Punisher's brand of violence and vigilante justice, in Dogs To A Gunfight. She has a scary brush with Frank at a hospital while looking after Grotto, but eventually changes her tune after breaking into his house and seeing what remains of his family life.
She becomes instrumental in Frank's defence after he is apprehended - he agrees to let Nelson and Murdock defend him, but will only talk to Karen. She isn't cowed by him and she's pretty much the only character who actually bothers to engage with him in any meaningful way - after taking his case, Matt is mostly engaged in Elektra and fighting the Hand.
There's still much we don't know about this version of Karen and her back story, but we get more hints about it than ever in the scenes she shares with him. The most tantalising and unmentioned part of her past is that we've already seen her kill Fisk's right hand man Wesley last season, which clearly haunts her at key moments but is never explicitly addressed.
Having taken a life, she's automatically more in line with the Punisher than Daredevil, even while still having a complex relationship with his “internal code”, as she sheepishly describes it to DA Reyes in The Man In The Box. Ahead of the season's release, Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Karen, told CBR that she was influenced by Thomas Harris' The Silence Of The Lambs in performing alongside Bernthal.
“In a way, he is a mentor for her, even though he may do things that she doesn't agree with, or he does them in a way that she finds to be too violent, or unjust, or illegal. He still represents someone who is trying to make a difference, who is doing it his own way. So the relationship can be one of admiration, and distaste.”
A potential breaking point in Karen's burgeoning romance with Matt comes when she makes an enthusiastic outburst about the Punisher's tactics actually being effective, which shocks him the same as her admission to breaking and entering at Frank's house does. More importantly, she decides to have less of Matt in her life when she discovers Stick in his apartment and Elektra in his bed.
Just as the season sees Matt being distracted and beguiled by the reappearance of his old flame, Karen has a strictly platonic mirror of this dynamic with Frank. Both Elektra and the Punisher are given to extreme behaviour and by the time Karen is made an accessory and a witness to Frank's murder of two bad guys who have been tailing them, she looks as though she's too close for comfort.
Nevertheless, she continues to astonish in her professional capacity as a research whiz, first finding US Marine Colonel Ray Schoonover (played, in an absolute slam-dunk bit of casting, by Clancy Brown) as a character witness at Frank's trial and then inadvertently uncovering the truth about him being the Blacksmith.
By this point of the season, the Punisher stuff has been relegated to a sub-plot and the turnaround from hearing of the Blacksmith to discovering who he is feels a little rushed and isn't especially satisfying. However, when Karen draws a line and tells him that if he kills Schoonover, there's no going back, he commits fully to turning his unlikely sidekick away.
We don't think that Karen is necessarily developing into an anti-heroic presence herself, but she's definitely increasingly affected by the mysterious past that has only been vaguely alluded to thus far, her murder of Wesley and now her close quarters experience with Frank. It hasn't made her a better journalist, (even The Flash's resident terrible blogger Iris West would cringe at Karen's debut Bulletin editorial from the finale) but given how her personal problems have become Daredevil's problems too in certain comic storylines, (most notably Born Again, in which she becomes addicted to drugs and sells Daredevil's identity to the Kingpin) it'll be interesting to see how she further develops whenever we next see her, especially now that Matt has let her in on his little secret.
“One batch, two batch, penny and dime.”
Until this version of the Punisher, we haven't seen a true anti-hero in the Marvel universe. There are plenty of unlikely heroes in the movies, from Tony Stark to Star Lord, and while Jessica Jones is a bit of an asshole, she's an asshole whose moral compass points north. Given free rein with mature content on Netflix, Petrie and Ramirez have given us the kind of character we haven't actually seen in action before, developed over the course of a whole season rather than a single R-rated feature, as in the past.
He's increasingly sidelined as the season goes on, right up to his all-but-wordless role in the final episode. In this case, he does all you need him to do with nary a word- he gets his skull vest, finds out about a dude called Micro and assassinates some ninjas for good measure. This all sets him up nicely for whenever we see him next- it's little wonder that fandom is already clamouring for him to get his own spin-off series. Even if we don't see him until a third season of Daredevil or in the upcoming crossover series The Defenders, we'd certainly like to see more of him than we got in the back half of the season.
But whatever the pacing issues with his plot later on, Frank's presence is felt throughout and the writers take obvious glee in pinging him off Daredevil, Fisk and Karen and seeing what happens to each of them - It's little wonder that fandom is already clamouring for him to get his own spin-off series, because as an anti-hero, the challenges that he presents yield fruitful character development all around.
In conclusion, where previous portrayals have veered between overly relatable amendments and arch cartoonish fascism, Bernthal's take feels new and familiar at once. He's not a quip-spouting action hero, but nor is he a totally taciturn psychopath. By adding a much needed emotional dimension to his personality without taking off any of the rough edges, Marvel have finally done gory, tragic and brutal justice to the character. It's hard to imagine he'd want it any other way.