Ever since his introduction in season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil, Matt Murdoch’s complicated foe-turned-ally Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), aka the Punisher, has been one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best-kept secrets. Details on the tortured vigilante’s spin-off — even down to the release date — have been even more scarce than usual for Marvel projects due to a canceled New York Comic Con panel and more. But now, in the final 10 days leading to the debut of all 13 episodes of Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix, the veil is lifting.
The entire cast and crew gathered in Manhattan on November 6 for the premiere screening, and Rotten Tomatoes was on hand to speak with all of them about what’s to come in The Punisher’s debut season. Stars including Bernthal, Deborah Ann Woll, and Ben Barnes, plus creator and showrunner Steve Lightfoot (of Hannibal fame), broke down why Castle — a war veteran who in Daredevil avenged the death of his wife and children and who now, while presumed dead, stalks the streets exacting justice on the corrupt and criminal — deserves every bit to be our new favorite antihero.
Look to all other top-billed heroes of Netflix and Marvel’s world, and they’ve got one thing in common: superpowers. But not the Punisher. Frank Castle relies on his military training and tactical genius to take down the enemy.
Marvel’s head of television and The Punisher executive producer Jeph Loeb said that when developing the series, Marvel and showrunner Lightfoot “came up with an approach [that] lives more in the world of American Sniper and Jason Bourne.” The action is tactile and human — and in many cases, that makes it all the more brutal. But season 1 will really focus, Loeb said, on three questions: “Who is Frank? What is Frank going to do? And who’s going to try and stop Frank?”
The Marvel comics on which this series is based does, however, delve into the supernatural with its “Purgatory” installments. Lightfoot said that The Punisher— at least for season 1 — steers clear of that.
“Not this season,” he responded when asked if viewers will see any of those angels-and-demons plot points. “I think that what’s been great about Netflix’s shows is how grounded they’ve been, in a way.”
And Lightfoot aims to continue that groundedness.
We got a taste of it in Daredevil, so we know that Castle’s methods in punishing are brutal, graphic, and unforgiving. At times, that may make it difficult for audiences to totally empathize with him, despite the fact that he lost his family — and that’s OK. That’s what makes a compelling antihero.
“The incredible thing about Frank is that simultaneously ,you will relate to him, and he will repel you,” Daredevil-turned-Punisher star Deborah Ann Woll said. “I think that that’s a really fascinating, hard thing to do.”
“He steps on the anti part of antihero, that’s for sure,” said actor Paul Schulze, who stars as Rawlins, a high-ranking CIA official who worked with Castle in Afghanistan. “I think he tests an audiences’ heart as far as it can possibly go. I mean, he’s so ruthless and so lethal, but at the same time, his code remains consistent.”
In that sense, “this guy sort of epitomizes” the natural, animalistic reaction many people would have if their family was killed in cold blood, Schulze said.
Michael Nathanson, who plays Homeland Security agent Sam Stein, called Castle “the antihero of our time” in that in some ways, The Punisher mirrors the reality of our “pretty messed up” world.
“I don’t think he’s someone that you have to necessarily root for,” he said. “I think you can disagree with him and that the show presents two sides to this issue. I don’t think it holds him up on a pedestal and says, ‘We should root for this man and his intentions are great and everything he does is great.’ He’s a complicated person.”
In the same way that The Punisher reflects some of our world’s darker elements, Nathanson said that “some people definitely deserve” Castle’s brand of justice-giving.
“That’s probably why people for so many years have held onto that character,” he said. “I think [it’s his] no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners kind of attitude.”
Co-star Ebon Moss-Bacharach (previously of Girls who stars in The Punisher as David Lieberman/Micro) said that everyone in some way can relate to that kind of attitude.
“Listen, I mean, he’s about revenge, and everyone feels that kind of impulse,” he said. “It can be very therapeutic to watch him sort of exercise that.”
Aidan Pierce Brennan, who plays our protagonist’s son, Frank Castle Jr., put it a little more simply as to why his fictional father’s actions are appealing: “He’s totally gangster! He’s so cool, and he’s so tough, and if you like rooting for tough guys…you’re gonna love the show.”
Daredevil fans may be excited to see how Castle and Karen Page’s relationship continues to develop in The Punisher. At the beginning of season 1, Woll, who stars as Page, said that she’s the only one who knows Castle is even alive and that he will continue revealing what’s under her “disguise.”
“Certainly, they’ve already established a really tight bond,” Woll said. “I think the thing that sort of intrigues me about it is that for each other, they’re the only person they can be truly honest with. She’s the only one who knows he’s alive, to start with, and also, she knows why he does what he does and what really broke him. And he’s the only one who really sees her darker side. You know, Karen puts on a disguise just as much as any of the boys do. I’m a pretty, blonde, smiling girl — don’t look too deep! But yet, I shot a guy and maybe something else, and [in Daredevil] Matt doesn’t know that side of her, Foggy doesn’t know that side of her, but Frank does.”
Billy Russo, who in the comics goes on to be fearsome and scarred villain Jigsaw, gets origin treatment in season 1 of The Punisher, according to Westworld alum Ben Barnes. Expect to see a Russo like you’ve never seen before.
“In terms of incarnation and portrayal of the character, there will be mostly surprise and mostly kind of a fresh take,” Barnes said. “What I loved about it is the idea that you look at some of these more obvious villains in the different shows, and they’re very much that [villain] from the outset. In this show, even I’m not quite sure exactly where he’s headed.”
In this case, Barnes said that the “main change” that was made for season 1 is that Russo is first introduced as Castle’s longtime war buddy.
“He was in the special forces with Frank Castle, so they have this shared history going back and this intimacy,” Barnes said. “He refers to Billy as his brother, and so they have this unity between them. That’s what this show will have above and beyond how they’re portrayed in the comics. We meet that relationship before the beginning, and I think that gives you an enormous variety of tangents that you could escape down, and I don’t know which one they’re going to choose in the end…. We don’t know exactly what we want Billy Russo to be and we expect of him. And so we have an opportunity to toy with it and make him a little bit unpredictable, which I really enjoyed.”
Castle isn’t the only one undergoing deeper character development in this series. Keep your eyes on Moss-Bachrach’s Micro.
As Loeb said, “He’s so important to the story of the Punisher, but our version [compared to] what you may have seen before — I think people are really going to be intrigued by it.”
Moss-Bachrach concurred, revealing that “we get way more into [the] personal life” of his beloved comics character and Punisher sidekick.
“We know Micro as, like, the man in the chair, and we just start to see a lot more of his motives and his sort of deeper needs and stuff like that,” he said.
That, too, comes with further development of his relationship with Castle, specifically.
“His rapport with Frank is, like, day-to-day,” Moss-Bachrach said. “It’s never on stable ground. They enjoy each other’s company, and then they want to kill each other. And then they’re [back at it], you know, which is probably true of a lot of roommates.”
Nathanson said that one of the series’ major themes is “about the frailty of human existence” — and we imagine he means more than just the mortality of those Castle is taking down in his wake.
“It’s a real thought-provoking show and people are going to be surprised by how it presents many sides,” Nathanson said. “He’s the most human of all of the comic protagonists — whether it’s Marvel, DC, any of the universes. People can relate to that. And him being a war veteran, too, makes it a very prescient sort of enterprise.”
Don’t be surprised if The Punisher gives you the feels while binging next weekend.
“I think [audiences are] going to be surprised by how emotional the story is,” Loeb said.
“It’s brutal emotionally, [not] just in terms of action and the physical stuff in the show,” Lightfoot added. “We really put the character through a pretty deep emotional journey. He’s dealing with a lot of grief and loss and anger, so when those things are what the story’s about, it takes you into some pretty dark places.
“I think he’s going to move people,” Lightfoot continued. “I think people are actually going to really sympathize and feel for the guy because at the heart of it, he’s a guy dealing with loss. That’s something we can all identify with. I hope people are excited by the show, but I hope that they’re really moved by it, too.”
The biggest point that was echoed across the red carpet Monday night was the fact that audiences are going to fall in love with Jon Bernthal’s fearless performances as Castle.
“Jon is so great in this part, and he’s so committed to it that I think that that’s instantly attractive, you know what I mean? There’s a fire there that’s really kind of hard to turn away from,” Moss-Bachrach said.
Loeb said that the series’ appeal rests “first and foremost” on Bernthal and his “extraordinary” performance.
“It’s a combination of the fact that he can be extremely intense and very in your face and very strong, and at the same time, has a vulnerability about him,” the executive producer said.
Lightfoot promises that despite previous film incarnations of the Marvel hero, this series serves up something different.
“People will be surprised by how deep and who much of a character study the show is,” he said. “Having 13 hours to really get under the character of Frank, I’m hoping people will be surprised by just how human we make him and how deep he is.”
Through characters like Castle, Russo, and Daniel Webber’s Lewis Walcott, The Punisher doesn’t shy away from the aftermath of war and the effects of PTSD on veteran’s psyche. Walcott, for instance, is an ex-soldier who finds himself back on the home front and struggling to adjust to everyday society.
“He’s coming back from the war with a lot of scars and a lot of issues over what he’s done. He’s coming back still really reeling from the experience, trying to understand the experience, and then coming back into a society that doesn’t really have a place for him,” said Webber (previously of Hulu’s 11.22.63). “In some ways, I’m a mirror to Frank’s journey. These characters really look at each other and they both go separate routes.”
Loeb said that Walcott won’t be the only character such PTSD is seen in — it’s a series-wide theme.
“There’s really an opportunity [here] to talk about veterans and what’s happening in this country with them, and what you do when you come home from war and how you’re still fighting a war but some of it is just in your head,” he said
“That’s up to y’all! That’s up to you at Rotten Tomatoes — that’s not up to me,” Bernthal said, laughing, when asked if Castle should be our new favorite antihero.
“What’s interesting for me about this show is, you know, the Frank Castle you met in the Daredevil season 2 is really about a man who’s unhinged; he’s reeling from this unbelievably traumatic event after his family’s been taken from him. Ever fiber of his body is geared towards this mission, which is finding the people who were responsible for that and punishing them,” Bernthal said.
“I think what was wisely asked by the writers of season 1 of Punisher — and it’s been uniform in many of the combat vets that I’ve spoken to who have suffered real trauma,” he continued, “is that during the mission when you’re in the fight and you’re on mission, the training kicks in and you have purpose and you know what to do with yourself. The war inside you really begins when the fighting stops. Maybe it’s when you return home, maybe it’s when you try to sleep. And that’s really what we’re asking with this show, is once this fight’s over, once that mission’s over, what do you do next and how do you start to cope with the war inside? For those reasons, you know, whether it’s your favorite antihero or not, I think it’s a story worth telling and a story worth taking part in.”
So is it safe to say we can expect a psychological dissection of Castle in addition to the violence we see him enacting onscreen?
“I think it’s [psychological and physical]. I think there’s a real rhythm to the season. I think it starts out enormously meditative and slow and psychological, and I think that slowly but surely the mission sort of presents itself and starts to pick up.”
The Punisher begins streaming November 17 on Netflix.