When the Punisher first entered the world of Marvel Comics, in a 1974 issue of The Amazing-Spider Man, he was supposed to be called “Assassin.” The series’s writer, Gerry Conway, envisioned the character as a villain who would eventually become an antihero, but Marvel’s Stan Lee advised against the name, saying it could never be used for a good guy. Lee, at least as he told Alter Ego magazine in a 2005 interview, suggested “The Punisher” instead.
In both that 1974 issue and the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil (which premiered this month), the Punisher is undoubtedly an assassin, gunning down New York mobsters with impunity. But his appeal is all thanks to Stan Lee’s clever name: Here, finally, is a disciplinarian who will set the bad guys straight.
As played by Jon Bernthal, Daredevil’s Punisher makes his intentions very clear from the start. Initially, when gangsters are first being murdered all over the city, he’s mistaken for a paramilitary organization with exceptional force, but it turns out that he’s just one man, with a lot of weapons and an extraordinarily deadly aim. If the mob has a meeting, he’s there with military-grade assault rifles. He occasionally stores the bodies of his victims on meat hooks. He has no sympathy for Daredevil (Charlie Cox), who’s been fighting organized crime in Hell’s Kitchen for a year now, deriding him as a “half-measure” and shooting him off a roof the first time they meet. Totally uncompromising in his mission, the Punisher is undoubtedly a hero for the Donald Trump era: a take-no-prisoners mercenary whose methods are remarkably simple and disturbingly easy to root for.
Perhaps that’s why the Punisher’s popularity has fluctuated so wildly since 1974. An immediate hit with readers, he graduated from pestering Spider-Man and Daredevil to getting his own comic-book title in 1986, one that sought to soften his murderous tendencies by retroactively explaining that he’d been under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Still, The Punisher was a harbinger of a brutal era in comics, where heroes toting massive machine guns were suddenly the norm and the death’s-head logo emblazoned on his costume became a ubiquitous cultural symbol, a sticker to plaster on a kid’s lunchbox. At the height of his popularity, there were four Punisher comic book titles: The Punisher, The Punisher: War Zone, The Punisher: War Journal, and The Punisher Armory, advertised as featuring “His thoughts! His feelings! His weapons!”
This was a phenomenon of the late ’80s and early ’90s—villains-turned-heroes like DC’s Deadshot, Marvel’s Deadpool, and Image’s Spawn, people who weren’t afraid to kill and derided the caped do-gooders who were. Their bloody excesses fell out of fashion by the late ’90s, and Marvel eventually canceled all of the Punisher titles. But every trend comes back around, if only in a different medium. The long-running success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe owes a lot to a consistently bright, peppy tone across each franchise, and a reliance on quippy, handsome stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Pratt. But there had to be blowback at some point, and the massive success of the ultra-violent Deadpool on the silver screen, followed only weeks later by Bernthal’s Punisher, doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool at least tells snarky jokes as he chops his enemies into pieces. The Punisher (also known as Frank Castle) isn’t one for humor—that’s the kind of thing that falls by the wayside when you have meat lockers full of hanging bodies, perhaps. But he still manages to dominate season two of Daredevil, especially in the early episodes, when Cox’s Matt Murdock barely feels present in the story at all. After a year of watching him slowly dismantle the empire of the villainous Kingpin, it’s almost jarring to be faced with the Punisher’s approach, which just involves bullets—lots of them, mostly in the face. Like Daredevil, he operates by a strict code of justice, but unlike him, murder is right at the core of it.
It’s not uncommon for villains to be the real stars of superhero movies, especially in sequels, which Daredevil season two amounts to. Just as Heath Ledger’s Joker taught Batman the limits of his philosophy in The Dark Knight, the Punisher exists to undermine Daredevil’s brand of vigilante justice. What difference does beating up gangsters and tossing them in the slammer make in the long run? As the Punisher points out, they’ll be out and back on the street within a week. Meanwhile, Bernthal’s magnetic performance adds to Frank Castle’s appeal, while the series reveals his backstory (he’s a military veteran whose family were gunned down by the mob). As Daredevil embarks on side-adventures fighting dark ninjas with old flame Elektra (Elodie Yung), the Punisher’s arc becomes Daredevil’s most propulsive, engrossing element.
One episode, where Irish mobsters threaten to torture and kill Castle’s dog, reminded me of another recent vigilante, the stone-faced former hitman John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves in the 2014 action film of the same name). There, a Russian gangster kills Wick’s dog, the final gift from his deceased wife, and awakens his murderous rage. The background villains of Daredevil exist in a similar binary form. They’re stupid, one-dimensional fools whose only intent is perpetuating street-level crime (weapons dealing, drugs, prostitution), and it’s easy to cheer for the Punisher as he’s wiping them out. While the show ostensibly wrestles with the morality of killing criminals, offering an extended debate between Daredevil and the Punisher on the merits of both their approaches, the fact that the Punisher is so much more compelling as a hero seems to favor a Trump-like, medieval worldview: Do unto criminals as they would do unto you.
Marvel is reportedly planning a spinoff series for the Punisher, who may also pop up in Daredevil season three. Either way, Bernthal is a breakout star for the brand, largely thanks to the dispassionate way in which his character fires shotgun rounds into people’s faces. It’s indefensible, yet there’s a simplicity to his philosophy that’s hard to deny. Don’t want to die? Don’t be a criminal, and definitely don’t touch the Punisher’s dog.
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