The Punisher is not a show for the squeamish. The latest Marvel-Netflix outing stars Jon Bernthal as the titular antihero, a former Marine named Frank Castle who doles out a lethal form of justice to New York’s evildoers while blazing a trail of revenge through a corrupt military-industrial complex. Every episode features one form of violence or another, typically inflicted by guns, and in October, a New York Comic Con panel about The Punisher was canceled in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting. The series finally sees the light of day today, and Vulture caught up with showrunner Steve Lightfoot — previously known as a prolific writer on Hannibal — to talk about that cancellation, the importance of casting a woman of color in one of the lead roles, and what he thinks about the show’s depictions of brutality.
Obviously, the Punisher has to be violent in order to adhere to the concept and spirit of the character. But how did you decide whether a given incidence of violence was too much? Did you have to consult with Marvel or Netflix?
It wasn’t necessarily a case of needing to consult. We work in close collaboration with Marvel and Netflix in every aspect of the show. The first touchstone for me was what they had done with Daredevil season two. I took that as my barometer in terms of the level they pitch the action at. We took that as our line and I think held it relatively steadily through the show.
As you say, I think what was key to me was that you can’t do the Punisher and have it not be a violent show. But I think it was always showing the cost of that violence. Making it real enough that it hurt and it wasn’t flippant. I think secondly, also seeing that there was a cost to Frank. He didn’t do this stuff and then just blithely walk away. Every situation we put him into had to have a cost, both physical and emotional.
One act of violence that we see over and over again is Frank’s wife being killed. Did you worry about it being in bad taste to show the brutal murder of a woman as a recurring motif?
I mean, the first scene, what becomes clear is it’s not the actual way she died. It’s a dream. Each incarnation is different. The idea there is that we start with an image where someone else killed his wife and what is meant to be clear as those dreams progress — and this is a little spoiler-y — is that, in essence, Frank blames himself. The ultimate image is he sees himself shooting his wife. A lot of what is driving his rage and his grief is, deep down, he knows it was because of his own actions. It wasn’t to gratuitously just keep seeing his wife die, but it was actually to build and let the audience in on the fact that he was a man who blamed himself more than anyone else for what had occurred. That self-loathing is what’s driving him.
How did you get involved with the show?
I got a very nice call from my agent saying, “Would you like to go in to Marvel and talk about the Punisher?” I’d seen Daredevil and Jessica Jones and I really liked the approach because I thought they were gritty, fairly deep character shows that happened to be superhero shows. I went in, we had a great meeting, and they’d finished shooting Daredevil season two at the point, but it hadn’t aired. They gave me a sneak peek and I was just blown away by Jon Bernthal’s performance. I thought he gave the character such ferocity, but also vulnerability. He actually made me really care. I thought, “If he can do that, then this character isn’t just a Terminator figure and we can do something really interesting with it.” I started working on what I would do, pitched it to Marvel, and then Netflix and everyone seemed excited by that and off we went.
What did you want to do that hadn’t been done before?
I just felt the character was such a metaphor, if you like, for the fact that we’ve been sending men to war for 15 years now and then bringing them back and expecting them to just fit back in. Clearly, that isn’t what happens. Frank was this sort of symbol, a way to explore that issue. Then, at the same time, we did a lot of research. I haven’t served in the military, so I can only be putting myself in someone else’s shoes, but the other thing was I just thought, “He was just this man crippled by grief.” I thought, “We can all identify with grieving and losing someone.” I was also fascinated by it, on a very basic level, as being about a man running away from his own emotions and trying to deal with grief in the way he did. When you have someone with the skill set Frank has, that becomes problematic in itself. Those two things coming together is what excited me about the character and everything else spun out from there.
What kind of research did you do?
We did a lot of reading in the writers room. Y’know, first-person accounts and memoirs, and then we had military consultants. We had a military consultant who read every script and gave notes and we had other consultants — a guy from Special Forces, we had a CIA guy — who all came in and consulted with us on the show as we went along.
One thing I’ve found fascinating is that Jon Bernthal specifically said that he wanted to do right by the character’s fans in the military and law enforcement. Were you thinking about that sector of fandom while making the show?
Obviously, that was a variable in deciding to work on the show. For me, it was foremost about serving the character of Frank. It was about staying true to what he is in the book, which is a difficult, complex character in terms of his actions and his motivations. It was about staying true to that and not being scared to lose an audience, while also hopefully winning them back to empathizing with Frank. That was my primary concern. Certainly to the military and those guys who serve to protect us all, I think you have to be respectful. But at the same time, just by the nature of the character, a lot of his actions are criminal. It’s an interesting thing to be respectful of the police and at the same time, the character is beyond the law.
What was the process behind the cancellation of the Punisher panel at New York Comic Con?
To be honest, it was a Netflix-Marvel call, which I wholeheartedly agreed with. In terms of all of the thinking behind the decision, you would need to talk to them, but I completely agreed with them. It was just so close to those events. I felt the decision they made was right because, at the end of the day, if there’s a chance that we upset even one person involved, there would have been no reason to do that.
What led to the creation of Agent Madani, the other series lead played by Amber Rose Revah? You rarely see women of color placed at the forefront of comic-book adaptations.
I was developing the story and they’d left me this Easter egg about Kandahar in Daredevil season two. The two things they left me were that and [a hint about the existence of Punisher sidekick] Micro, and I felt like I needed to pick those up and run with them. Out of that developed the story. In an era when it’s very easy for people to get put in brackets or demonized, I really wanted to see a sort of … she’s Persian, but in the end, someone of Middle Eastern descent who is a proud American and, if you like, a patriot. I think it’s very easy to tout those people as the enemy. I was keen to go, “Y’know what, here’s someone who’s of that descent and all this, but actually is fervently and proudly American.” While we were doing that, it was also, “And it should be a woman,” just to fight back at as many of those clichés of depiction.
There’s an interesting subplot about a veteran who’s a gun nut. Why include that in the show?
In terms of talking about the military and the politics of vigilantes and what is justice and all of those things, it was just … I don’t think it’s my place to preach, but it was about creating a body of characters where you feel like all sides and issues were given a voice so the audience can decide. The debate is there and they can decide on which side they fall. I felt, on the one hand, in those circles you have someone like [gentle group-therapy leader] Curtis, who runs the group, and then you have someone who is at the far end, the other end of such views. Those guys are out there, and they’re out there in great numbers. Given the nature of the show, we needed that to be part of the discussion.
This interview has been edited and condensed.