The State Of The Punisher

The State Of The Punisher

Frank Castle has been around for more than 40 years and, like most comic-book characters, has evolved over the course of his publishing history. In the second of season of Daredevil starting today, the Punisher will be the primary antagonist for the Man Without Fear. The two characters have a long history of battling each other, thanks to their philosophical differences with regard to how to deliver justice to criminals. The tension between sudden execution and possible rehabilitation makes the Punisher one of Marvel’s most controversial and popular characters, and it goes all the way back to the first appearance of the skull-wearing vigilante.

The State Of The Punisher
The State Of The Punisher

The Punisher was essentially a villain when he first showed up in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1974. Accused of killing Norman Osborn, the wallcrawler himself was the Punisher’s target in his first appearance. The Punisher was in league with Spidey nemesis the Jackal and showed no compunction about killing lawbreakers without due process. But he did evince regret and anger when he learned that the web-slinger wasn’t actually a murderer.

When the character’s backstory was revealed, readers saw how the deaths of his family from crossfire during a mafia shootout sparked a lifelong obsession with delivering his own brand of vigilante justice. Over the next decade, Frank Castle showed up as a random second-tier character in stories featuring various other characters. That all changed in 1986, when he was the headliner of a five-issue miniseries. The tautly executed series by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck showed Castle taking on a vast criminal network in increasingly violent fashion, much like Death Wish, Dirty Harry and other action movies of the late 1970s and 1980s.

The zeitgeist of the times played a large part in the character’s rise to prominence. An economic downturn, hysteria over increasing drug use (specifically crack cocaine) and fears about superpredator criminals made Americans more nervous than ever about violent crime. The sense of cultural malaise that wafted through the 1980s made heroes who shot first and asked no questions ever a dead-on power fantasy. So when the Punisher reappeared in that miniseries, he was presented as an antihero. From there, he became the star of multiple ongoing titles and special projects. Creators vacillated between presenting the Punisher as either a man on the brink of insanity or someone who was ruthlessly clear-eyed about the dysfunction of the American justice system.

Frank Castle was a bad guy in his first appearance, but the Punisher is most interesting when he’s juxtaposed against Marvel’s other superheroes. His solo adventures in the 1980s and 1990s tended to happen in their own little pocket realities that were more grounded than the rest of Marvel’s fictional universe. In these stories, the Punisher’s brand of justice was the only one available to balance the scales against the drug dealers, hired killers or other miscreants he was taking down. The massive success of The Dark Knight Returns shifted mainstream superhero comics towards a much darker tone. That shift, along with massive amounts of overexposure, probably contributed to the character falling out of favour in the early 1990s. The Punisher was revisited multiple times in standalone projects that tried to tether him to more fantastical concepts, like being a resurrected agent who hunted celestial beings from Heaven and Hell. Coming from the Marvel Knights and Max imprints, the Punisher revivals of early 2000s — done by the Preacher team of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon — stripped away any mysticism and focused on a cynical, comically bleak version of the character. Theirs was a Punisher with little angst, one who punked out Spider-Man and Daredevil in embarrassing ways.

The State Of The Punisher
The State Of The Punisher

Since then, the Punisher has had a few more solo titles, which ramped up the level of violence in his war on crime. His most recent highlights have been in plotlines that contrast the Punisher with, say, Captain America. Interactions like these — as seen in the recent Omega Effect crossover with Spidey and Daredevil — highlight what makes him unique.

The State Of The Punisher
The State Of The Punisher

The Punisher is being written less as a vicarious stand-in for readers fed up with it all and more like a semi-tragic character who is toxically committed to a bloodthirsty vision of justice. He’s still unconscionably brutal but seemingly more methodical and less psychologically volatile. There is a new Punisher series coming this year from writer Becky Cloonan and Steve Dillon. The premise will have Frank looking to stem the flow of a drug that can create new super-soldiers, which means he’ll be on the fringe of the more fantastic aspects of the Marvel Universe.

Frank Castle has been the subject of four major motion pictures over the decades. The first, a bland, by-the-numbers action vehicle starring Dolph Lundgren, is barely worth mentioning. The films that followed homed in closer to the righteous revenge-flick vibe of the character’s comic-book iterations. But, thanks to film rights being spread out all over Hollywood, those movies happened away from the flashy pyrokinetics of Marvel’s other superhero movies like the best comics versions of the Punisher. His upcoming spotlight on Daredevil season 2 looks like it will be operating in the best kind of shared landscape. He’ll be the foil to a more idealistic kind of crimefighting, but his slaughter of criminals will still seem like a seductively pragmatic solution to the evils of the world.


  • I might be in the minority, but I absolutely hated the Thomas Jane Punisher. They changed his origin and mutilated it, changed his tragic story, changed every element of him for the worse in my eyes. Janes a good actor and I did like his “Dirty Laundry” short, but overall, I found his Punisher movie extremely lacking.

    That said, I did prefer Ray Stevensons Warzone in terms of being an action movie, which itself still had a mountain of issues, with the Punisher being turned into a soulless terminator but I appreciated the closer adherence in tone and the looser playing with the rating. Jigsaw was poorly used and Microchip was wasted entirely.

    But Bernthal from all we’ve seen and heard looks to have absolutely nailed it…. only under 2 hours to go 😀

    • I really enjoyed Thomas Jane’s Punisher, but as one only vaguely versed on the comics, I thought it was really well done, certainly better than the earlier Punisher movie (sorry Dolph, you had some greats but that movie was too close to He-Man), and better than a lot of other earlier comic-book movies.

      I enjoyed Ray Stevenson’s one also, felt a lot more gritty than the first, didn’t help that I was a fan of Stevenson after his performance in Rome. Left me wanting for more.

      I was looking forward to Punisher’s appearance in Daredevil, but didn’t realise it was “that guy from Walking Dead” until just now. His character in WD annoyed me from the beginning (which was quite possibly the outcome he was going for), so I really hope he’s as good as you’re making out.

      • Up to episode 3 so far and holy crap Bernthal as Frank Castle is stunning. He’s only had a couple of scenes so far but he’s *delivering*. Really well done. In TWD Shane was over the top, reactionary and stupid (kinda like Rick is now). However in this, he’s cold, calm and calculating, nothing like Shane, he’s absolutely fantastic.

        I agree Stevenson left you wanting more, definitely did.

        The less said about Dolph the better… lol

  • You never know…perhaps punisher will show up to kill tony stark post captain america: civil war.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!