I know. It’s a weird and bold statement to make. And it might remind some people of all those ridiculous post-Fifty Shades of Grey debates about the unhealthiness of women getting off on violence. (Knock that shit off. Liking kink does not mean we want people to abuse us, folks.) But work with me here. I’m going to try to articulate why Frank Castle, the long-running Marvel Comics vigilante, is — in the capable hands of showrunner Steve Lightfoot and portrayer Jon Bernthal — the hero of a romance. It has nothing do with his capacity to hurt other people. It has everything to do with the hurt he carries within.
Let’s get the shallow part out of the way first: Jon Bernthal is ridiculously attractive. Not in that conventional Hollywood pretty-boy sense, but in a much more earthy and primal way. To paraphrase my friend Charlotte Stein, it’s like all of his features got in a fight and he came out the winner. I don’t want this devolve into X-rated musings on his nose and his ears, so let’s just say that the man radiates charisma and, in the guise of the Punisher, it’s ratcheted up to an alarming degree. The harshness of his face, the angles and curves of his body…the camera lingers on all of it lovingly and obsessively. He’s a brutally beautiful man. And his voice…? Good lord. They could bottle that rasp and sell it as an exfoliant at Sephora for $50 an ounce.
The show utilizes Bernthal’s vocal charms to the nth degree, to the point where even the most innocuous lines of dialogue become incendiary flirtations. When Frank leads David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) on a merry chase all over New York City and purrs into a phone, “I don’t need to tell you where to come, do I?” it’s blatantly sexual. When he directs a few law enforcement officers to get out of his way before he wreaks havoc, it’s with, “Five seconds. You get really hot or really wet. You choose.” You can’t tell me someone didn’t snicker when they wrote that line. YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID, AWESOMELY PERVY WRITER.
But potent sexual appeal alone cannot elevate a character who routinely beats people to death with his bare hands. That’s where the communion between the stellar writers on The Punisher and Jon Bernthal comes into play. We are told from the beginning, and it’s reinforced constantly, that Frank Castle is grieving an unbearable loss. The deaths of his wife Maria and his kids, Lisa and Frankie, are as fresh as if they happened an hour ago. He wears that pain like a shroud. It’s tattooed on his skin, as indelible as his bullet wounds and knife scars. And while he’s determined to hunt down their killers, viewers know that vengeance won’t bring him peace. They’re still going to be gone at the end of it. But, over the course of the series, Frank builds another family. He finds more people to love and protect with every fiber of his being. David Lieberman and his wife Sarah (they have two kids, just like Frank and Maria did, and that’s a deliberate analog), Daredevil’s Karen Page…these are also people that Frank cannot bear to lose. That level of fierce devotion? That incredible core of agony? It’s everything. Even Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani, ostensibly at odds with him, is in his circle of protection. When he pulls her out of a burning car and carries her to safety, it is a TOTAL money shot that sums up who Frank is. Without that baseline, the Punisher is just a scary asshole with a lot of guns.
This Twitter thread sums it up rather perfectly:
That’s the key to writing a violent or criminal lead and making him sympathetic: They must have a code and a sense of compassion. At the end of the day, there have to be people that they would never, ever, hurt. And they can’t think they’re heroes. Yes, there are moments where Frank Castle does good and decent things — he plays catch with Zach Lieberman, he fixes Sarah’s garage door and her garbage disposal — but he never professes to be a good man, never considers himself someone worth redemption. He’s pretty much resigned to killing everyone responsible for hurting his loved ones and then dying himself — and his biggest struggle on the show proves to be the decision to keep living.
In episode 1.5, “Gunner,” Karen Page calls Frank on his death wish:
Frank: “I need to find I need to find these bastards that took ’em from me. I gotta kill ’em.”
Karen: “So where does that end, Frank? Because I look at you and my heart breaks because all I can see is just this endless, echoing loneliness.”
“I want there to be an ‘after’ for you,” she tells him. And that’s the tragedy of this character. Why she cares. Why I care. We want more for him than he wants for himself. Of course, the canonical trajectory of Frank Castle is that he never gets an ‘after.’ He is forever trapped in a cycle of anger and violence. But, at least on the Netflix show, we’re given some hope that he can move forward — although not necessarily in a romantic sense. Because, again, Frank’s still very much devoted to the family he lost. He is still so in love with Maria.
Frank: “You know something? If I close my eyes right now, I could see her. I mean, like, I see her. It’s always something simple, you know. Like standing in the kitchen, talking on the phone and…if there was ever any music, like, it could be coming from anywhere…she’d just start moving to it. Boy, she could dance. Sometimes she would…she’d catch me looking at her. Man, I was…I was done.”
– 1.6, “The Judas Goat.”
There is no denying that Frank has feelings for Karen as well — and Jon Bernthal and Deborah Ann Woll have incredible chemistry — but the specter of Maria, played by the luminous Kelli Barrett, is always there. Maria is his every morning wakeup. She’s his safe place when he’s being tortured. She’s incredibly present in his life and his heart. To the point where, during a crucial moment, when Frank and Karen should kiss, you get the sense that he can’t do it because he feels like he’s cheating. But he also goes apeshit when David dares suggest Karen isn’t as important as a wife — so you know that if he could move on, it would absolutely be with her. It’s breath-taking to have this Achilles heel on such blatant display. A lot of TV shows that skew masculine wouldn’t dare depict their testosterone-laden hero with this kind of vulnerability. It’d be all “bitches, sluts and whores,” as far as the eye can see. Not so on The Punisher. He loves women. He respects women. He makes no bones about what they mean to him…and, as a female viewer, it makes me respond in kind. It makes me want that “after” for him. And a happily ever after. Or at least a “happy for now.”