Marvel has been making superhero movies and TV shows long enough to have established the tropes, subverted them, then circled back to play with the cliches all over again. But, where Luke Cage and Jessica Jones pushed the boundaries of what you can do with the genre, The Punisher doesn't even try to wrap a superhero story onto the bones of Frank Castle.
This isn't a superhero story. If anything, it's an anti-superhero story.
Unlike almost every character Marvel has spotlighted with a solo series, there's nothing "super" about The Punisher. He doesn't have radar sense, an iron fist, unbreakable skin or super-strength. He's just a guy. A really strong guy with some high-level military training, sure, but still just a guy. It's in that humanity that the Punisher lives and breathes. It might be based on a comic, sure, but Marvel has used the gun-toting anti-hero as a lens to examine some issues that hit a whole lot closer to our own world than the MCU we've come to know and love this past decade.
The Punisher is the story of a veteran, and veterans, left behind. Trained soldiers trying to fit back into a world that is ill-designed to actually accommodate them. Frank Castle is, by necessity, mostly a loner throughout his history in comic lore — so the creative team took that opportunity to populate his supporting cast with players we rarely see represented on the small screen. Castle is joined in his mission by frequent comic partner Micro, but the rest of the cast is mostly a group of former soldiers in varying degrees of disarray trying to find their way in civilian life. Some are struggling just to wake up the next morning, some have figured out how to capitalize on their skill sets by selling them to the highest bidder, while others find angry solace in the politics of hate and racism. Sure, some of those characters are loosely based on semi-obscure comic book names fans might recognize, but that's not the point.
Introducing those characters through a veterans support group over the the first several episodes could've come off as heavy-handed, but again, it's something so rarely portrayed on-screen that it still works. They're all struggling, and all they have in the form of support is stale coffee, stale donuts, and one another. Just check the newspaper, and these are issues plaguing our own world every single day. But unlike the "Very Special Episodes" of TV yore, The Punisher doesn't try to solve these problems and move on. Because sometimes, there are no easy solutions. Sometimes there's just the problem, and working every day, step by step, to try and make it just a little bit better.
Castle's own grief and damage is reflected back at him through his uneasy partnership with Micro. Where Frank lost his family, Micro is forced to watch his wife and children move on without him, day by ordinary day, because reappearing would put them in the crosshairs. Like a ghost, looking down through old computer monitors, as his son has nowhere to channel his unguided rage; his daughter's anxiety drives her to tears; and his wife can barely hold things together because she believes her husband is never coming back. Both men were trying to do what's right, and both men have had their lives ripped apart by a system beyond their control.
Of course, this being a Punisher story, there's still a muddled conspiracy of shady folks doing shady things, which go all the way to the top. It's the Punisher, and he obviously needs someone to punish. It's that part of the story — when it actually tries to move the serialized story forward — where The Punisher is arguably at its weakest. The real drama is the people left broken, damaged, by this military complex that only sees them as cannon fodder to throw at problems. It's heavy material, and though Marvel has explored race through Luke Cage, and female empowerment through Jessica Jones, it always had superpowers to fall back on. But here, it falls back into the ugly parts of the human psyche.
"You have nothing but a war inside you" - Micro
When Micro gets drunk and tells Castle he has "nothing but a war inside him," he touches at the heart of what drives The Punisher, the heart of what this series is trying to explore. He's always been a man with a mission, and a man with a family. Those were ripped away from him during his introduction in Daredevil, and this season picks up the pieces. It's not perfect, but that meandering approach to this narrative reflects Castle as he tries to find himself. He's a man with no nation. Literally. He's a soldier who has had his mission ripped away from him. He wraps up his initial quest for vengeance before the opening credits of the pilot roll. So then what? Well, he finds a new mission (they do have an episode order to fill, after all), but he's also trying to find a reason to keep going. And like real life itself, there are no easy answers.
Of course, you can't talk about The Punisher without addressing its flaws. Of which it does have a few. The show is slow and a few episodes too long; it's ill-timed for release in a world plagued by mass shooting tragedies (though, sadly, there'd rarely be a good time to release it by that token); and it occasionally takes broad strokes with its heady themes where it should be dealing in nuance. Some of those are complaints you could make about a lot of Marvel's shows, but still, it's trying something the studio has rarely attempted. It's telling the story of a man walking in the muck in the streets far below the Avengers, haunted by memories of his family and a nation that failed him.
With The Punisher, Marvel finally stopped trying to get at the heart of a superhero — and got at the heart of a man.