'Marvel's The Punisher' and the Return Of Raw '70s-Style Old Testament Street Justice

11/16/2017 11:17 am ET

The latest video incarnation of The Punisher reconfirms that underneath a few Marvel trappings and nuances, what we really still have here is Charles Bronson.

Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle.
Nicole Rivelli / Netflix
Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle.

Marvel’s The Punisher launches Friday on Netflix and Jon Bernthal is terrific as Frank Castle, whose wife and family were killed by the Mob because they witnessed a murder.

Frank, who is ex-military and has every combat skill known to man, vowed he would find anyone involved in those killings and make them pay.

If along the way he found a few other people who also deserved to pay, well, he’d cash their checks, too.

The Punisher, who has been a Marvel Comics fixture since 1974 and whose video history has frankly been spotty, resurfaced as a TV character recently in Marvel’s Daredevils, where he reminded us he has several classic characteristics of a Marvel protagonist.

He’s tormented, for starters. Man, is he tormented. And okay, with good reason.

Jon Bernthal, Deborah Ann Woll.
Nicole Rivelli / Netflix
Jon Bernthal, Deborah Ann Woll.

He’s also not a classic good guy in the same sense as, say, Superman. He’s chasing his own demons as much as he’s chasing bad guys, and he accepts no accolades for his work. He lives a brooding life, alone with his memories and his mission.

All this would seem to cloak him in that Marvel aura of ambivalent morality, sparking debate over the true nature of his passion and what he represents in this flawed world.

Someone who meets him for the first time in this new series, however, could come away with a simpler take: He’s a vigilante who dispatches bad guys the way many people secretly wish more bad guys could be dealt with.

Frank doesn’t apprehend suspects and read them their rights. He finds criminals and exacts revenge, often making them suffer the kind of pain they likely inflicted on innocent victims.

It’s Old Testament justice, an eye for an eye, and while most civilized societies have eschewed that approach in favor of a structured, methodical approach to determining guilt, innocence and punishment, there are times and cases when many of us, let’s be honest, wouldn’t mind having it done old-style.

The Punisher surfaced, it’s important to remember, right around the time Bronson was putting vigilante justice into the forefront of popular culture with his Death Wish films.

Bronson’s Paul Kersey was a non-violent man who changed sides after, yes, his wife was murdered. He went out hunting bad guys and it struck a deep, resonant chord with viewers. Death Wish spawned four sequels and a new remake with Bruce Willis, scheduled for release March 2.

It also helped spawn a whole genre of films starring big, strong, decent men who took on bad guys that the police and the justice system wouldn’t or couldn’t stop. Steven Seagal built a career on those films, and was joined by the likes of Jean-Claude Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Brian Bosworth.

Frank Castle has more dimension than many of those characters, which isn’t necessarily saying much. Bernthal makes us feel his isolation, and while we see how he was driven to become who he is, it’s equally clear vengeance doesn’t fill all the empty places.

Fortunately, The Punisher doesn’t only have its title character, so the series gradually fills out with other storylines.

Amber Rose Revah, Michael Nathanson.
Nicole Rivelli / Netflix
Amber Rose Revah, Michael Nathanson.

He’s got friends, including fellow vets Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes). There are people who meet him professionally, including Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah). Seems The Punisher’s work sometimes draws the attention of the authorities.

At least up front, The Punisher has fewer laughs and wry moments than your average Marvel series. But it’s got the Bronson formula down, and Bernthal does a fine job of showing what haunts him and what sustains him.

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