Of all the Marvel Comics characters appearing on Netflix, the Punisher is certainly the most familiar to casual viewers. Since he was invented as a send-up of Don Pendleton's paperback vigilante, the Executioner, skull shirt-sporting Frank Castle has been the protagonist of three feature films, played by three different actors. That shows that lots of people are willing to give the Punisher a try, but it also sort of makes the character out to be a three-time loser. The challenge for the Netflix Marvel team, once a Punisher series was inevitably greenlighted to be spun off of Daredevil's second season, was how not to go down the same path and fall into the same traps. Showrunner Steve Lightfoot's solution actually was pretty simple. What does the Punisher do? He kills gangsters, right? So let's have him do something else. To set that up, Lightfoot retcons the character's familiar origin story, elaborating if not contradicting the narrative we saw on Daredevil. Frank's (Jon Bernthal) martyred family is now shown to be collateral damage from an attempt on Frank's life, not by organized crime but ultimately by rogue elements of the U.S. government. The key event of the series is not his family's murder but Frank's own involvement, while serving in Afghanistan, in the torture and murder of a suspected terrorist who (unbeknownst to Frank) actually was an Homeland Security agent investigating an American-run drug ring. After an opening episode of more typical Punisher action, the story proper beings when the murdered agent's partner, Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah playing a character created for television) believes the Punisher is one of the soldiers in a now-vanished video of her partner's death. Also aware of Castle's connection to the Afghan murder is the fugitive whistleblower David "Micro" Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach playing an improved version of Frank's comics sidekick), who faked his own death to keep his family out of harm's way. Once Frank learns the truth behind the killing of his family, he grudgingly collaborates with Micro to expose and (as Frank prefers) kill the men behind the Cerberus group. Their agenda intersects and sometimes conflicts with Madani as she investigates one of Frank's army buddies, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), despite resistance from higher-ups in the government whose ties to Cerberus are revealed over time.
The stage is set for a sequence of bloodbaths that are more realistic and more extreme than anything Marvel has shown us on Netflix before, but the first season also has time for a major subplot involving a disturbed veteran turned terrorist and some Shane sort of interaction between Frank and Micro's "widow" and children. Like all of Marvel's Netflix shows, except for the misbegotten Defenders, Punisher benefits from an impressive ensemble of supporting players, with the shambolically cunning Moss-Bachrach the standout in a strong group. It benefits most of all from Bernthal's soulfully feral lead performance. Since he showed up on Daredevil I've heard people complain that Bernthal is too small to be Frank Castle, who's often drawn and was always played in movies (by Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson) as a massive man. Yet the Punisher has always been more about rage than size, and few people on TV right now do tormented rage as well as Bernthal. You don't read or watch the Punisher to see him perform feats of strength, after all; you watch to see him go apeshit on bad guys with guns, knives, fists and whatever tools are at hand, and the series successfully transforms Bernthal into a master craftsman of that trade. Punisher is a return to form after the Defenders debacle, as well as a radical departure from the, well, comic-book tone of the other shows. Were it not for Deborah Ann Wolf reprising her role from Daredevil and a few other tokens, this might not look much like a Marvel show at all -- and with no offense intended to the Netflix franchise, that's a good thing for this particular show. Season one closes with the grim irony of Frank Castle contemplating peace with fear, but we should fear not. The Punisher will return, and if the show comes back as strong as its first season, that'll be cause for celebration.