Back in my early teenage years, I became somewhat obsessed with a comic book character. It wasn’t Spider-Man, who was at the height of his popularity back then, deeply disturbing funk choreography and all. It was a normal man by the name of Frank Castle who kicked serious ass in a trenchcoat.
Being as obviously cool as I thought I was, I would regularly wear a t-shirt with his iconic skull design emblazoned on it wherever I went. I would snaffle up his comics, despite never really being into comics as a whole, and religiously complete and then re-complete the criminally underrated PS2 and Xbox game until I had my borderline psychopathic fill.
I was also a big fan of 2004’s The Punisher, starring Tom Jane as the ultimate anti-hero. Here was a Marvel adaptation that wasn’t an optimistic piece of popcorn escapism. It was ugly and it was real. Jane nailed his portrayal as Frank Castle and carried a film on a micro-budget towards decent enough acclaim, though it’s fallen by the wayside in recent years with the ever-expanding monolith that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Eager for a sequel, I waited and waited for a follow-up that would further the character Jane had created, but it never came. Instead, a reboot came by way of 2008’s Punisher: War Zone starring an underwhelming Ray Stevenson in an one-dimensional role. It was cartoonish and often ridiculous, which might have pleased some fans, but, for me, it lacked any real grit and seemed like an excuse to throw some blood around for ninety minutes. It’s a similar story for 1989’s Dolph Lundgren vehicle, which leaned heavily on violence and action in lieu of almost anything else. It also didn’t help that Lundgren has about as much charisma as a piece of wood wearing a trilby.
So, when I heard that Jon Bernthal would be strapping on that legendary skull vest in season two of Daredevil, I was initially skeptical. If three movies couldn’t launch the character to the on-screen recognition he deserves, could a supporting role on a TV show?
A regrettably slobby binge session filled with coffee and crisps later, it’s safe to say that I needn’t have even given it a second’s thought.
Bernthal’s probably best known for his work on the first two seasons of The Walking Dead as the unhinged Shane Walsh. It’s a testament to his screen presence that it felt like there was something missing following his departure for the following season, as if the prison would have benefitted from a scalp-rubbing redneck pacing down its corridors.
He brings a lot of that intensity to the role, creating a Punisher that simply demands your attention whenever he’s in a scene. Even if Charlie Cox was performing some sort of awkward erotic dance, all eyes would be on Bernthal to see what he was going to do next. I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to suggest that he has the DeNiro effect about him, an actor who can captivate without appearing to break a sweat.
In the action stakes, Bernthal is certainly no slouch. The Punisher’s stiff fighting style is conveyed perfectly – he isn’t a man who can do several backflips and handstands, and neither should he be. The Punisher is just a guy who fights like he’s in a street brawl with no elegance, just a willingness to cause some bruises and crack a couple of ribs. The sequence in the prison is jaw-droppingly violent and rough, coming across like a scene from The Raid in terms of brutality.
It’s not a hail of bullets and punches that makes Bernthal’s Punisher so great, however. It’s the mass murderer’s sense of humanity that makes him the most likable character on a show packed with talent and unforgettable characters.
As a fan, the tragic story of Frank Castle is one I’ve heard many times. Having lost his family to tragedy, he sets about bringing justice to criminals with lethal results. He was hard to love in War Zone and portrayed flatly in the 1989 film, but 2004’s effort made Castle an anti-hero with depth. The Castle we see in Daredevil season two is a more complex, emotional man, and all the better for it.
My mind was decided on Bernthal being the perfect Punisher during a confession to Daredevil in a graveyard. It was arresting and harrowing, making the hairs on my arms stand on end and my eyes suddenly become slightly more fluid. An example of perfect delivery if ever there was one and possibly the best piece of acting in any Marvel production to date. High praise when you consider his peers, but I believe it’s warranted.
The quality of Bernthal’s performance is also evident when he isn’t even on-screen. His portrayal of Castle is so captivating, so endlessly fascinating that the series seems to labour along when he isn’t involved. Call it favouritism, but I just wanted the Elektra/Daredevil romance to reach its inevitable doom quickly so we could see more of The Punisher.
There’s talk of a spin-off series and maybe even a movie off the back of The Punisher’s appearance in season two, which is no doubt going to bring the character a whole new legion of bloodthirsty fans. As long as Jon Bernthal is still donning that trenchcoat in whatever form a follow-up takes, you can bet that I will be watching.