'The Punisher' Showrunner on Violent First Season: "The Show Is Pretty Realistic"

Spoiler alert!
Courtesy of Netflix

[Warning: This story contains full spoilers for the first season of Marvel's The Punisher.]

Within the first three minutes of Marvel's The Punisher, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) commits an act of international violence.

The man known throughout the Marvel Universe as the Punisher lies in wait on a rooftop in El Paso, Texas, staring through a sniper scope at the lone survivor of the cartel involved in killing Frank's family, rolling up to his welcome home party in Juarez, Mexico. Frank patiently waits until he has a decisively clear shot at the man, and the viewer waits as well, lurking in the sniper scope, staring at the criminal while he still has a head on his shoulders, waiting with a knotted stomach for the inevitable headshot.

"It's all about putting you in Frank's head," showrunner Steve Lightfoot tells The Hollywood Reporter about the scene. "Most of our choices are about what's the best way to tell a story? What's the best way to let the audience understand the character, if they're not speaking and telling us what it is? That was the philosophy for everything we did."

Beyond the bullet between borders, Lightfoot's philosophy extends toward the veritable bloodbath that wend through the entire first season of The Punisher, now available in its entirety on Netflix. The third episode of the season sees Frank as a marine in Kandahar, Afghanistan, singlehandedly eliminating a building filled with enemy combatants in unflinchingly brutal detail. Toward the end of the season, Frank takes a page out of Home Alone and wipes out a group of mercenaries with carefully laid weapons and traps littered throughout his base of operations. In the finale, Frank slugs it out with his best friend turned worst enemy Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), dragging his face against jagged shards of mirror, unknowingly setting the man on the path of becoming the infamous comic book villain known as Jigsaw. 

The extent of the violence should come as little surprise to those familiar with The Punisher, a Batman of sorts in the Marvel Universe, assuming the Dark Knight's idea of justice involved putting criminals down for good in stunningly graphic fashion. But the timing of such a series, given gun violence raging across America, understandably leads to some trepidation. 

As showrunner of Netflix's most violent Marvel series yet, Lightfoot spoke with THR for a postseason conversation about the visceral nature of The Punisher, the comic book nods baked into the first season (including Jigsaw, the inclusion of Ebon Moss-Bachrach as David "Micro" Lieberman, and the aforementioned Kandahar scene that plays as the Netflix series' take on Frank's Punisher: Born Again comic book origin), and more.

The series is very violent. It's The Punisher, after all. It's a fine line between the show having its fingers on the pulse of debates about gun control, PTSD and violence, and the show being too close to what's happening in society today. Was it a difficult road to navigate?

First and foremost, the shootings are tragedies and are horrendous. It's interesting, because the show is coming out after a succession of shocking incidents. But I wrote the show a year ago, and the truth is, there may have well just been one then. We finished shooting in April. I feel like it's a much bigger debate than our show in terms of gun control and depictions of that. This sort of action genre has been there for years and has been incredibly popular. There's a whole debate about that to be had. My attitude for the show is that we had to write it from character, and be real. In terms of our depiction of violence, the show is pretty realistic. I sort of feel like that's the right thing. I worry about a show where someone gets whacked on the head with something and there isn't a mark on them, and they jump right back up. What was important to me is that if you were going to show violence, you had to show the emotional cost of it as well. As much as Frank goes out and does these things, I don't think we're condoning it all of the time. There's a massive emotional cost to him. He's not a remotely happy guy. In terms of the debate politically, I'm not a politician, but I feel the show actually sort of offers a lot of facets of the debate and asks questions, and it's up to the people to decide what their answers are. It's not the show's place to preach, but we can offer up questions, and people can decide for themselves.

The first episode of the season stands apart from the rest, as it affords us the chance to observe a relatively quiet day in the life of Frank Castle. What were you hoping to accomplish with this first episode, as far as setting the tone for the series?

Frank had already appeared in Daredevil. I loved what they had done there with him. But in a way, I wanted to move past that and hit reset for his own show. We clearly have the teaser where in essence he closes that story. My goal was to get people inside of Frank's head and understand the character before we set him off on the main story of the season. Because he's a problematic character. He's not a hero in a normal sense. His actions are complicated and difficult. I wanted people to at least understand the man and hopefully empathize with him before we started off on the journey. I think the joy for me of the Netflix model is that there's real space for character. I feel all the Marvel shows have been grounded and based in character. That's what attracted me to doing the show. I wanted the audience to get under his skin before we took him on the ride.

In episode three, we see Frank as a Marine becoming a one-man army, as the camera stays with him the entire way. What was involved in bringing this harrowing scene to life, and in terms of its origins, do you view this as Frank's "Born Again" moment for the sake of the TV series?

Obviously, that's a pretty seminal comic book. It was in our thinking when we did it. When you have seen the whole show, what's so tragic about that scene is he puts himself through that to save the lives of the men we will then learn and realize are the ones who are betraying him. In some way, something broke in that sequence in Frank. What we talked about with the sequence, and the reason we always stayed on his face, is that I didn't just want to see bodies falling and the damage he's doing. I never wanted to leave him, because I wanted to see the damage it's doing to him in a way, and the damage he's going through — not just an arcade game sequence where it's all about the enemies falling willy nilly. It was all right there on the script: "I never want to leave Frank's face." You let someone like Jon loose on it, and he's such a fantastic actor both physically and emotionally. He's scary as hell in it, and then at the end, in the last few shots of the sequence, he makes me want to cry. You can see what it's cost him. 

You mention how Frank is saving the people who would go on to kill his family. What went into the decision to put Frank back on this personal quest for vengeance, seeing as this territory was previously covered in Daredevil season two?

It was two things. The first thing is that in Daredevil, Schoonover (Clancy Brown) tells him: "It wasn't an accident. Your family died because of what you did in Kandahar." He's given this disk with the word "Micro" on it. I felt like [with Daredevil] having offered those up, I needed to answer the questions. That was my starting point. Then what we tried to do with the story, which starts as a revenge story, for me shifted — hopefully both for the audience and for Frank — into being more about putting his family together in a way. For me, it's as much about Frank giving Micro back what he can't have, as it is about solving the mystery and getting the bad guys.

Micro adds levity to the mix, certainly, but he's also an iconic character within the Punisher pantheon. What did you want to achieve with Micro's inclusion in the story this season?

First of all, I think the character is great. Frank needs people around him. The interesting thing with me for Frank is you have a character who wants to shut himself off and not connect, because if you connect with people, there's a chance of being hurt again. But I don't think any of us can ever pull that off. So then it's about answering the question, "Well, who are you connecting to? Who do you start to care about, and in doing that, who will help you make yourself vulnerable?" It just felt born of starting with the disk, rather than being born of a mechanical plot thing. I felt there was something very interesting about putting these two men together who had lost their families. One can never have them back, but the other one can. In a way, it was about creating an Odd Couple relationship at the center of the show. If you write that well and truthfully, it should always be funny. But I think there's an interesting take on male friendship there as well.

How about Ben Barnes as Billy Russo? Given the way his story ends, do you view season one as a Jigsaw origin story?

We just wanted a great character in season one, first and foremost, who was a foil for Frank, and not some guy who is being evil for the sake of it. I think all of the best shows are where the villains think they're the good guy. They don't get up every day and go, "I'm going to be evil today!" Billy, in a way, is a guy who made one bad choice. He pursued the money, and now he's having to deal with all of the repercussions of that, which sets him at odds with probably the only great friend he has ever had. There's a sadness to that story. In the way that the Micro story is about the building of a male friendship, the Billy story is about the breaking of one. Once you decide to tell that story, you say, hey, we may as well make it Billy Russo and go on a journey where we build up this great character from the canon and the mythology, and leave ourselves in a position to go further with him next time, if we choose to. The truth is with The Punisher, and the tricky thing with adapting these comic books, is that he tends to kill his enemies. Billy is one of the few recurring villains in the canon. In terms of building character and hopefully having multiple seasons of the show, it's great to have someone you can come back to that the audience really knows.

Are there any characters from the Punisher canon you would want to include in a second season?

I haven't even thought about season two … but one of the villains I love is Barracuda [from Garth Ennis' Punisher MAX series]. I think he's great fun. I also really like O'Brien [also introduced in Ennis' Punisher MAX run]. I thought she was always really cool. Certainly those two jump out at me initially, but there are so many great characters there. It's a very fun sandbox to play in.

What did you think of how the first season of Marvel's The Punisher played out? Let us know in the comments section below, and stay tuned for more coverage of the season.

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