When the trailer for the Netflix PUNISHER series dropped this week, I breathed an odd sigh of relief. I had quite liked Jon Bernthal’s performance as the violent, compromised Frank Castle. A gun-toting vigilante taking crimefighting farther than even Charlie Cox’s Man without Fear was prepared to in DAREDEVIL Season 2. However, I’d seen enough PUNISHER adaptations end terribly in my lifetime to have some skepticism. After the sigh of relief though, I felt a bit queasy. See, because the thing is, I don’t really like Punisher. Or rather, I don’t like him the way a lot of other people like him.

In a lot of ways, for me, Punisher is that one family member you invite to a party that you’re so worried people won’t like and will ignore or, worse, be rude and dismissive too. The thought of that bums you out because, yes, Uncle Punisher isn’t exactly what you think of when you think of your family, but he still is.

Life Of The Party

Then, the party happens, and it turns out everyone thinks he’s great. Your friends cannot stop talking about him. The cops and military guys you knew seem to have fallen in absolute love with him to the point of deciding to put that symbol of his on their cars, their trucks, their body armor, and, some, even on their skin. And you think, “wow, thank goodness” (except for the cops and military personnel. That part seems bad immediately to you).

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

When you go around talking to everyone, no one is saying, “Uncle Punisher makes me think about how we train and treat our soldiers.” Not one person describes him as, “a morally complex guy who forces me to confront my thoughts on crime, heroics, and the administering of justice through extralegal channels.” Certainly, no one tells you, “he’s such a compelling villain. I hate what he stands for, but he illuminates the decency of our heroes.”

It’s Not What You Think

Instead, you hear, “did you see how big Uncle Punisher’s friggin’ gun is?!” And, “Nevermind that gun, did you hear him talk about how he had to kill those eight drug dealers with just a knife?” Or, “I was looking through Uncle Pun-Pun’s war journal, and it’s so AWESOME how he just, like, kills without worrying about the ramifications of his lethality.”

What THE PUNISHER Teaches Us About Gun Control

Part of this, I’m sure, is that I’m a Daredevil fan. I started being one at a time when Marvel made sure to define him and Castle as the kind of figures that are so similar that it makes them dislike each other that much more. They weren’t truly opposites as they were standing shoulder to shoulder, just on the opposite side of a morality line.

Part of it is the glorification of Castle by the last people in society I feel comfortable holding up a gun-toting lawless vigilante as a heroic icon: police officers and military personnel. Both are jobs that demand discipline and intensive attention to rules and codes of conduct; where the use of force isn’t intended to be a goal but rather a last resort. Both are jobs that nonetheless people associate with violence rather than a commitment to protect.

Do We Need A Punisher?

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

In other words, both are people that you’d prefer elevate someone like Superman or Captain America to “I want to be like him” status, not a violent killing machine who’s abandoned both the military and civic justice codes he was trained to uphold. You’d prefer they see Punisher as an abomination. A murderer who justifies his vicious overthrows of America’s Constitutional protections because he’s been hurt.

Compound that with some writers using Punisher to make other heroes appear foolish or out of touch with reality. Whereas they are hopelessly naïve dilettantes, Castle is a logical response to crime. A man-made case of walking karma, here to give the criminal element exactly what the earned the moment they broke the law. Mercy, arrest, trial? Who the hell has the time for that?

Draining The Super Swamp: Wilson Fisk as Mayor in DAREDEVIL #595

The thing is, I don’t hate Punisher, not really. I think he can be an incredible character. He’s a prism that can reflect and reveal aspects of the superhero genre that we often refuse to reckon with, as well as aspects of our kneejerk reactions to crime and criminals that we can usually hold without prosecuting. Greg Rucka’s 2011-2012 run did tremendous work with this idea. Exploring themes of vengeance as a disease that only demands more and more fuel once it takes hold.

Where To Now?

Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s work on the character started as an often goofy and celebratory take on the Punisher but morphed into a true exploration of his taste for violence when it transitioned to the MAX imprint. While never a run I connected with, I appreciated them exploring Castle as a man looking for an excuse. In the same way that Morrison once floated the idea that Batman was just as mad as the villains in Arkham — something I disagree with but feel is worthy of contemplation — Ennis and Dillon’s book often considered if Punisher was just as sociopathic as many of the criminals he hunted.

PUNISHER THE PLATOON #3 Review: The Black Rifles

So to see people be excited for PUNISHER is, for me, a bittersweet affair. I hope they’re coming around on Uncle Punisher because of the ideas he provides a platform for us to explore. I fear the Punisher has only impressed them by the speed he can field strip his M16A4.

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!