This past weekend I finished watching the brutal and brilliant Netflix series The Punisher. Growing up a huge Marvel Comics fan, the run of series on the streaming service based on characters from the comics has me geeking out routinely. So far, the series have been hit or miss, with some great ones, like The Punisher, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil, some that are flawed but mostly work, like The Defenders and Luke Cage, and one that can be skipped entirely, Iron Fist.
None of them have been family-friendly viewing but instead more “graphic novel”-like in their grittiness, adult themes, and violence. This is comics for grown-ups and the creators, for the most part, treat their audience as such. In The Punisher there are no super-powers, no wise-cracking side-kicks or bright, spangly outfits; instead, we are treated to Jon Bernthal’s performance as Frank Castle/The Punisher, which is so spot-on in its creation of a character who can kill bad guys creatively and with no remorse yet has a huge heart and intense loyalty for the people he loves. Because of the brutality, you don’t want to like this violent character but Bernthal makes it impossible not to grow to love him, even see him, in some ways, as a character to emulate.
I was reminded – watching this exceptional actor taking what could possibly be a very one-dimensional character and making him incredibly complex – of the power of this form of art. It is a collaboration, of course. The writing is fantastic, the directing excellent, the actors in other roles performing at the top of their games, but without that main character being believable and, yes, likeable and relateable the whole endeavor falls apart. What Jon Bernthal accomplishes is artistic genius, it is watching someone take all those things they’ve learned and all that creative instinct they have and turning it into something that makes the viewer feel and empathize and internalize.
This may seem a lot to say of an actor in a comic book role but it is clear that nobody who worked on The Punisher, least of all Bernthal, saw this as just a comic book story. To them they were making art, bloody and tough to watch at times, yet art indeed. Bravo.