Review: Marvel's The Punisher Isn't About Violence, It's About Loss

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the first six episodes of Marvel's The Punisher, arriving Friday, Nov. 17, on Netflix.

There's no pretending that Marvel's The Punisher isn't violent; in the premiere alone, Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle kills at least 14 men, with guns, with a van, with a sledgehammer, with his bare hands. But strangely, surprisingly, the Netflix drama isn't a glorification of violence, like some '70s or '80s revenge thriller. It's far more nuanced than that, concerned not as much with bloodshed -- but make no mistake, there is bloodshed -- as with its causes and consequences.

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That's because The Punisher isn't about violence, not really. It's about grief and guilt; it's about trying, and often failing, to move past trauma. It's also about the marginalized, embodied, of course, by Frank Castle, but also by other veterans who return from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from wherever, and find themselves out of place in society. Virtually all of its key players in the series are grappling with loss, and the ghosts of their pasts, but none more so than Castle.

In the drama's opening montage, he hunts down the last remaining members of the Kitchen Irish, the Mexican Cartel and the Dogs of Hell, the three gangs involved in the shootout that killed his family, and then burns the flak jacket emblazoned with the iconic skull, symbolizing the end of his crusade. But like any combat veteran, Castle knows the war is never truly over. Haunted by visions of his smiling family, pleasant memories that frequently contort into grotesque horrors, Castle effectively sentences himself to hard labor, breaking up concrete from morning until night on a construction site. It's one-part punishment, one-part salvation from the nightmares that stalk him in his prison cell of an apartment.

Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle and Nicolette Pierini as Lisa Castle on The Punisher

Disguised behind a bushy beard, Castle adopts the alias Pete Castiglione (in the comics he illegally changed his surname from Castiglione to Castle so he could reenlist for a third tour in Vietnam) and largely keeps to himself, except for occasional visits to his friend Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), who's among the few people that know The Punisher survived the explosion at the docks. That changes, however, when he's tracked down by David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), aka Micro, a former National Security Agency analyst caught up in a conspiracy centered around a video of an execution carried out by Castle in Afghanistan. They have a common enemy: The same people who framed Micro as a traitor and gunned him down in public, forcing him to go underground, are also responsible for the murders of Castle's wife and kids.

The oddest of Odd Couples, Castle and Micro form an uneasy alliance dedicated to exacting revenge against everyone involved in the bloody conspiracy, intended to cover up the execution of an Afghanistan National Police officer who learned too much about a heroin operation run out of a U.S. military base. (Remember Clancy Brown's Col. Schoonover from Daredevil Season 2? It's all connected.)

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