So, The Punisher has landed. After the character’s impactful introduction in Daredevil Season 2, Frank Castle was granted his very own standalone series. But while Season 2 of Daredevil arguably raised more questions than it answered about The Punisher‘s association with the masked vigilante he calls ‘Red’, The Punisher refuses to fill in the gaps. In fact, Daredevil isn’t in the series at all. Which leaves us all still scratching our heads about the complex relationship between these two characters.
However, the pages of the comics hold some answers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have suggested that Daredevil Season 2 was the first time Castle and Matt Murdock met each other but comic fans will know that Daredevil and Punisher have encountered each other before. So, who exactly is the Punisher and what’s his history with the Man Without Fear?
Who is the Punisher?
The Punisher is Frank Castle, originally a Vietnam veteran who became a vigilante after his wife and children were killed by gangsters. Unlike most superheroes who have some kind of code against killing, the Punisher does not arrest criminals or attempt to rehabilitate them. He simply punishes them. He does not believe in redemption and does not consider himself a hero. The Punisher has a strict code of ethics and will never harm an innocent, taking meticulous preparations to ensure nobody is caught in his crossfire. Famously, when a girl once asked the Punisher why he kills bad people, to see if he wanted to make the world a better place, he simply responded, “I hate them.” The Punisher is generally regarded to be just as bad, if not worse, than most of the people he kills. This brings us to…
The Problem with Frank
The Punisher has always had a difficult relationship with the rest of the Marvel Universe. Daredevil is probably the character he’s most closely tied to, which is kind of insane given how popular The Punisher is. There was a time in the 1990s when the Punisher was moving just as many different monthly series’ as Superman, because it was the 90s and of course he was. The problem is that The Punisher’s uncompromising nature just doesn’t work well with other superheroes, or a superhero universe in general. It raises too many questions.
The biggest central conceit in all of superhero comics isn’t that superpowers are possible, or you can lift a giant object by applying pressure to a tiny point, or even that spandex can look something other than ridiculous. The biggest central conceit of superhero comics is that any killing is fundamentally wrong and people won’t stand for it. This is taken as fact in almost every superhero comic ever published, when (in the real world) we accept “good guys” killing “bad guys” all the time. I’m talking about those killed by police officers (rightfully or wrongfully), I’m talking about people killed in self-defense, I’m talking about casualties of foreign wars who die in drone bombings. These are all things that Americans have demonstrated repeatedly that we do not care about… but in superhero comics the possibility that a “hero” might kill someone will lead to riots in the streets. Why? It’s simple. The Joker. It all goes back to The Joker.
In his earliest comics, Batman was a stone-cold killer. He killed people over nothing, like it was eating a sandwich. That had to stop eventually, partially because of things like the CCA, but even more so because it just didn’t work. Everything changed because of The Joker. They couldn’t kill off The Joker because The Joker was too popular. But if Batman was so great, how come he wasn’t able to kill his biggest recurring enemy? This is what it all boils down to. Superheroes don’t kill because we like supervillains too much. If heroes killed their villains we would lose a lot of our best stories.
That’s the problem with The Punisher in superhero comics. You’re left with two choices. Let Frank be Frank and allow him to systematically wipe out the world’s biggest mass-murderers… Red Skull, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Green Goblin (which they obviously can’t do). OR completely neuter him, and watch him get humiliated or chumped every time he goes after a costumed character. There’s also a built-in rhetoric that The Punisher has to be a failure, because the Marvel Universe needs to have criminals for its stories to function. It’s a constant talking point that The Punisher doesn’t actually make any sort of meaningful difference or cause a drop in the crime rate which, again, is insane. If a dude like The Punisher was successful for multiple years in real life there would absolutely be fewer criminals. There just aren’t that many people in gangs or the mob in the real world. It’s a finite number he would eventually hit the end of. I’m not saying that would be moral, I’m just saying he would be a lot more effective if he didn’t exist inside a narrative that made his success impossible.
To date, I think the most impressive casualty in Punisher’s body count is Stilt-Man, which is Frank-ly embarrassing. The dude has a bodycount in the thousands mowing down faceless mobsters and street thugs, but put him up against someone in a domino mask and suddenly he’s tripping over his shoelaces. The solution writers usually have is to just kind of put The Punisher in his own little bubble. In his own comics, he is free to massacre half the criminal population of New York while other heroes don’t really seem to think about or bother him. This was taken to its logical conclusion in the fan-favorite series Punisher MAX by Garth Ennis, a Punisher AU where Castle is shown to age in real time and nobody wears costumes. Everybody should read Punisher MAX because it is the greatest.
Daredevil is the one character who really works alongside The Punisher, because they’re both similar enough in powers and scope that neither one completely invalidates the other’s existence. They both (basically) have no physical enhancements, so they’re an interesting match when they fight. Castle has his weapons and gadgets, but Murdock is a vastly superior fighter and also has heightened sense. They both also deal with mostly street-level crimes, so there’s a natural intersection that doesn’t take The Punisher out of his bubble. Spider-Man is a close second, but the two of them just don’t have enough in common philosophically to make their conflicts really interesting.
Frank & Matt: Why Do They Fight?
Matt Murdock (Daredevil) and Frank Castle (The Punisher) are two very similar people on the surface. They’re both men who suffered a horrifying personal tragedy, and decided to use their pain to make the world a better place. Murdock happened to be a promising young law student when he lost his father, Castle happened to be a traumatized ex-soldier. To understand Daredevil, you have to know that Matt Murdock is a Catholic. No matter how far he’s pushed, he has a strict moral code and he believes that killing is a sin. To understand The Punisher, you have to know that Frank Castle is a monster. Castle ultimately doesn’t care about whether he’s saving lives, or making the world a better place. He is an angry man who wants to hurt.
Their conflict is rooted in this difference of philosophy. Ultimately, Daredevil is a man who has faith in systems. He believes that the universe has an order and that everyone in it has a higher purpose we should be aspiring to. He believes in the U.S. legal system, and he knows that it isn’t always perfect, but he believes we must work within that system together to make the world a better place or society will collapse. The Punisher does not believe in systems. He believes the only justice in the world is the kind we make for ourselves. He believes humans are no better than animals, and the only way to stop one rabid dog from infecting the others is to put it down. They want to see the good in each other, but Murdock can’t let Castle go around killing people, and Castle can’t let Murdock get in his way.
Where Did it Start?
They had appeared in other comics together previously, but the origin of Daredevil’s complicated relationship with The Punisher happened in the legendary Daredevil run by Frank Miller. Miller is also known as the man who decided to make Daredevil into a Catholic, famously reasoning, “I figured Daredevil must be Catholic because only a Catholic could be both an attorney and a vigilante.”
They’ve beaten each other half to death and saved each other’s lives a dozen times since, but it’s all right there. Fundamentally, The Punisher has a lot of respect for Daredevil and what he does. In his mind, they’re two soldiers on the same side of a war. Daredevil is disgusted by The Punisher and his disregard for human life. Both of them believe the other is well-intentioned but misguided… the Punisher believes Daredevil is naive, and Daredevil believes The Punisher needs to be redeemed.
In this story, Daredevil and The Punisher are both hunting down a drug dealer responsible for several deaths. Daredevil finds that in addition to hunting the drug dealer, he now has to protect every criminal involved in the case from getting killed by The Punisher. They fight several times, and Punisher is only able to stop Daredevil by shooting him with tranquilizers. In their final battle, The Punisher repeatedly shoots at Daredevil and Daredevil reveals that he knows The Punisher is missing on purpose. He knows he has nothing to fear, because in all his years of murder The Punisher has never taken an innocent life. The story ends with Daredevil shooting Frank when Frank refuses to be taken into custody for his crimes.
A History of Violence
To wrap up this article I thought it would be interesting to go through some of the highlight moments of Daredevil and Punisher’s relationship.
In one of their darkest encounters, Castle decided to teach Murdock how it felt to be The Punisher. Just before assassinating a crimelord, he tied Daredevil up and gave him a gun… so that the only way Daredevil could stop him would be to shoot him in the end. Castle told Murdock he would have to choose between letting a murderer keep killing, or becoming a murderer himself. Murdock pleads with Castle to respect the legal system, but ultimately ends up pulling the trigger. Of course, it’s revealed that Castle took the firing pin out of the gun, at which point he executes the gangster and tells Daredevil: “You can leave the killing to me.”
The Punisher has also repeatedly demonstrated his ability to outsmart Daredevil. When Daredevil put together a task force with Spider-Man and Wolverine to take Frank down, Frank lead them on a wild goose chase across the entire city. Throughout the night he repeatedly tricked them by doing things like getting them to fight each other, and eventually releasing the freakin’ Hulk on them. Towards the end, with most of them lying unconscious, Frank told Daredevil: “Look at the lengths I’ve had to go to not to kill you. This fight you’ve picked wastes everybody’s time. Let this be an end to it.” Frank told Daredevil that arresting him would accomplish nothing, since locking him in prison would just surround him with more criminals to kill. Frank then reminded him that there was only one real way to stop The Punisher, and Daredevil knew what it was.
The Punisher has also gone out of his way to protect Daredevil. When Matt Murdock was suspected of being Daredevil and put in prison alongside his worst enemies, The Punisher killed a pimp in front of a cop just to get arrested. He killed several guilty inmates to pass the time, then pretended to take Matt Murdock hostage so he could steal a helicopter. This allowed Murdock to escape getting killed in prison while still maintaining public deniability that he was not actually Daredevil.
It’s probably cheating to use Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe since it’s an alternate universe story, but I love this book because it totally encapsulates the weird friendship between Frank and Matt. In this story, Frank and Matt are friends since childhood, and Frank becomes The Punisher when his family are killed as bystanders in a superhero battle. As The Punisher, Frank makes it his mission to wipe out all costumed heroes. Throughout this crusade, Matt Murdock is his attorney, and he’s the only one who believes Frank can be saved… even when Frank himself doesn’t. The story highlights that Frank is mostly psychotic, and his fixation on criminals in the regular Marvel Universe is almost just a lucky coincidence. It could be anyone he decided to take the anger inside him out on. Matt ultimately does convince Frank to give up his crusade, but it comes too late… when Daredevil and The Punisher fight, Frank unknowingly kills his childhood friend. With his dying words, Matt reminds Frank: “There’s always someone under the mask.” Having reached the end of his list, and possibly realizing the horrors he’s inflicted on otherwise good people, Castle kills the last superhero by taking his own life.
We’re not sure yet how the relationship between Frank Castle and Matt Murdock will play out going forward, but there are a lot of interesting places it could go if the MCU continues to explore it, and we hope it was interesting for you reading about some of them.
For more information on Daredevil and The Punisher, check out the Marvel Database on Wikia.
This article has been updated and was first published on March 14, 2016.
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