WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel’s The Punisher, now streaming on Netflix.
At turns surprisingly nuanced and shockingly brutal, The Punisher is in many ways Marvel’s best Netflix series to date, with performances by Jon Bernthal, Daniel Webber and Deborah Ann Woll that are deserving of awards recognition. The drama learned from the mistakes of its predecessors by slowly developing a secondary antagonist, rather that abruptly introducing him at the end of the second act, and largely avoided a midseason slump; it even delivered a consequential “road trip” episode.
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However, there’s one decision that could’ve made The Punisher even better, and in the process drastically changed the stakes for the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and perhaps beyond: killing off protagonist Frank Castle.
Now, there are plenty of financial reasons for The Punisher to continue his bloody crusade against crime in effective perpetuity, not the least of which is Disney’s planned branded streaming service, expected to launch in 2019: Reports indicate the new digital platform would be home to future Marvel series; however, those six dramas now on Netflix — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher — along with any spinoffs, will apparently remain there. It just wouldn’t make much business sense for Netflix to remove one of those marquee properties with few options for a replacement.
Creatively, however, the death of Frank Castle would’ve been daring yet true to a character arc that began with his introduction in Daredevil Season 2.
The Castle we met in 2016 was a Marine who waged a one-man war against the Kitchen Irish, the Dogs of Hell and a Mexican Cartel to avenge his wife and two children, who were murdered when they were caught in a gunfight between the rival gangs in Central Park. As the season unfolded, it was revealed the massacre was the result of a botched police sting intended to capture the mysterious drug lord the Blacksmith, who turned out to be Castle’s former commanding officer Col. Ray Schoonover (Clancy Brown). Castle seemingly completed that crusade in the opening moments of The Punisher, in a montage that showed him hunting down the last remaining members of each gang before burning his skull-emblazoned flak jacket and settling into a life of anonymity, hard labor and nightmares.
Of course, if that truly had been the end of The Punisher’s war on crime, it would’ve been the shortest Netflix series ever. Instead, he’s drawn back in by the revelation that the Massacre at Central Park wasn’t a matter of he and his family being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even a police operation gone horribly awry. No, it was part of a conspiracy orchestrated by CIA veteran William Rawlins (aka “Agent Orange,” played by Paul Schulze) to disguise the intended assassination of Frank Castle as part an effort to cover up an illegal covert CIA operation in Afghanistan — funded by the heroin trade — in which Castle, his best friend Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) and others tracked down, interrogated and executed “high-value targets.” There are plenty of other details, including an incriminating video of Castle following Rawlins’ order to execute an Afghanistan National Police officer, that make for an engrossing storyline, but what’s pertinent here is that the targets shift, but The Punisher’s task remains the same: to kill those responsible for the deaths of his wife and children.
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