The Punisher showrunner on making an angry violent white man sympathetic in modern America

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Nov 14, 2017

Marvel's vigilante character The Punisher has been around for over four decades, brought to life on screen in several different iterations over the last 15 years, and yet, because human history is a violent cycle, feels more relevant than perhaps ever before.

A rogue one-man-army driven by rage and unattainable vengeance, Frank Castle is a cipher for disaffected Americans in a fraught time: he is either the embodiment of the angry, gun-toting white man who distrusts the government; or the damaged war veteran; or the mourning father; or the one man willing to do what's necessary to stand up to evil. In the new Netflix series The Punisher, he is all of those things at once, which made for both unique opportunities and challenges for showrunner Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal).

And the challenges were not just in constructing a complex character and palatable story arc in context of the show's fictional world, but also an even more complicated real world. Days before the show was supposed to host a panel at New York Comic Con, the largest mass shooting in modern American history took place in Las Vegas, leading to the panel's cancellation. It was coincidental that the show had a portrayal of a white man sniping people down with a gun, the same way the Vegas shooting went down, but it did not go unnoticed by people on social media.

That the series stars Jon Bernthal, returning as Frank Castle/Punisher after debuting in the second season of Netflix's Daredevil, is both a masterstroke and lucky break. The actor brings a damaged depth to the character that is key to making the series, which has garnered largely positive reviews thus far, work as more than a show about just an angry white man. Lightfoot spoke with SYFY WIRE about that tricky balance, the political considerations, and much more in the conversation below. The Punisher hits Netflix on November 17.

 

Punisher operates without the Defenders in this series. Why keep Punisher in his own world after being part of Daredevil Season 2?

I think it's something that you need to talk to someone in Marvel about that because when I came in to take the show on, it was always very clear to me that they wanted it to sort of tell its own story and run on its own track and not really intersect with what was happening in The Defenders. That was part of the brief.

I guess I could speculate on the reasons for that, but I think from what I understand the original concept for the four characters that became The Defenders was always the plan and the Punisher spun out of that. But very much certainly when I came in the brief was always that it was to be its own show and its own thing separate from that.

I'm sure it has to be difficult to try and make Frank sympathetic — or did you not worry about that? I mean, this guy has killed a lot of people.

Yeah, he's a very complex character and he's most definitely an anti-hero in that sort of classic sense. And so our approach was always to start from the character and what was great was that I had the Jon Bernthal first performance in Daredevil Season 2.

I thought Jon did an amazing job of both conveying the ferocity of Frank, but also the humanity. And I think when he does that scene at that grave site it's impossible not to be moved by him. And so I took what those guys have done as our starting point and I think it was about being true to the character and telling the story of that character. And while I don't want the audience to over-sympathize with him or agree with him, I think if they can always empathize with him then they can go on the journey with him.

I think that's the story of all the great anti-heroes. You know you're often shocked by what they're doing, but you understand it and it's therefore a conflicted road you travel with them, which is rather very interesting. That was always the goal, to just hopefully put the audience in a place where they were willing to go on the journey with him.

Credit: Netflix

There are a lot of flashbacks to his wife, specifically to her getting killed. Frank talks about his children, he has flashbacks with them in happier times. Did you specifically layer in certain things to make him sympathetic, as he has to do more killing?

I think it was also about just seeing his interior life and building a complete character. I think one of the things that attracted me to writing about him was beyond the Punisher vigilante, the action thriller elements of the show. You were watching a man who because of the way he made his living had to keep his emotions in check, now dealing with huge grief. And I think all great shows in the end pulls things down to something universal that we can all identify with.

And I think Frank for me, that was a guy who'd lost his family and I think we can probably all identify with loss and grieving for a loved one, so that was the thing that I really wanted to explore. To say yes all of this stuff is going on, but at heart we're watching a man a) just grieve for his family and b) be in that horrible position where he's got to admit to himself, at least in part, it's because of him. I think that's the thing that makes him universal, and we can all identify with.

We're at a precarious time in politics in America with the angry white guy. Gun rights obviously are a big debate here. Did you think about those issues the outside world as you're making this series about this one character?

With regard to certain recent events, we started making the show a year and a half ago. We wrote most of the show before the election so I think we'd have to think back to then when we started and the short answer is not really. We had just started with the character. I think in some ways he's a sort of ageless anti-hero, like Frank goes right back to the old West. It's a very long-standing archetype. So I was more interested in getting on to the archetype and really finding complexity and making our version of it specific and a character that, you know, stood out as someone on his own that we understood. And then I think having made the show obviously given the nature of the show there are things about it that intersect with those issues.

One thing that stuck out to me was O'Connor (Delaney Williams), who was wearing an NRA hat in the morning veterans support meeting run by Curtis (Jason R. Moore). He talks about the Christian American patriot being the one minority in America that's being put down.

I think people like O'Connor haven't just appeared in the last year. And I think what we tried to do writing the show as a drama is I sort of feel is the way the work is, we try through characters to show all sides of what's going on in culture. And so you have Curtis and Karen Page on the one hand, and on the other end of the spectrum, you have a guy like O'Connor. And I think that by showing all of that you open up a debate within the show, but it is there for the audience to decide. I think and that's sort of where he came from, but people like him exist, and I mean in the end, and you know there's a whole twist to him anyway.

But I think a lot of my favorite shows are the ones that are populated by characters that the show doesn't judge and then that you the audience get to decide, which way you fall. It's interesting, you know some of the shows you mention, I think, and that's pretty vaulted company. I'm not putting myself into the company of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men, but that's what they were so good at. The show didn't pre-judge the characters. It left it to the audience, and I think great drama does that.

Credit: Netflix

Punisher is very popular with military members and law enforcement and people in that world. Did you think about that and people feeling sort of ownership of the Punisher maybe more than Spider-Man or Daredevil?

I mean, the short answer is not too much, because I feel like if I worried about that then the show would've skewed to one particular part of the audience, and I think the idea certainly was to always write a version of the Punisher that I hope pleases urban fans but also is accessible to anyone. And I think we should all have huge respect to anyone in the military or on the police force who does those jobs on our behalf. I can speculate about why the Punisher resonates so strongly with them, but I sort of didn't give it too much thought as we were writing, but again we just started with the character and we wrote what felt like a truthful story for him. And I hope people who are already big fans of the show like what we did.

After the Vegas massacre, the show’s rollout was delayed and its New York Comic Con panel was canceled. Obviously the show has nothing to do with the tragedy, but why was it important to take those actions?

In terms of rollout, that's a sort of Netflix's question because I was never certain when it was anyway. November 17 is the first date I've known so I can't speculate on that. In terms of what happened with Comic Con, again you know it was a decision Netflix and Marvel made. I think it's absolutely the right one because simply if they'd had the panel and even one person had been made upset by that or more upset than they already were then that would have been a bad thing. And there was no reason to do that. And so I certainly feel that the decision about Comic Con was the right one, and in terms of the rollout that's a question for them because I don't know, you know November 17 is the only date that I've ever had.