When comic fans discuss The Punisher, they frequently look past the Frank Castle aspect. Mister Castle is a Vietnam vet that has been allowed to increasingly age alongside certain aspects of Marvel Comics. The degree of age varies if we’re talking about the now defunct Ultimate Universe, the harsh aging of the MAX books or the constantly in-flux portrayals in the 616 Universe. What does age matter for a character? Well, in the Marvel Universe…age has always defined authority and other since Stan Lee first launched Spider-Man. Any character portrayed as older than the heroes was either matronly, based in servitude or offered up as a stern authority figure. So, what does that make The Punisher? He’s significantly older, but he’s not as old as any featured adult in the Spider-Man book where he debuted. You can’t quite call him a villain like The Jackal or Jigsaw, so one would call him Other. That other being slightly tolerated PTSD rattled serial killer.
The Punisher started lift in the malaise of crime ridden 70s New York, against the backdrop of the rise of vigilantes in fiction. Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel “Death Wish” was an insanely popular book that quickly found its way to being adapted into a 1974 Charles Bronson blockbuster. The team was ripe for the ever aping 1970s Marvel to finally answer the vigilante craze. Creators Gerry Conway and Ross Andru alongside John Romita, Sr. repurposed a discarded Fantastic Four villain name and an early Conway sketch into what became The Punisher. Originally meant to be a hired hand for the villain Jackal, the Punisher eventually rebels and aids Spider-Man against the cloning genius. The Punisher would litter appearances in the book for the next decade, as we would learn more about his moral code and Vietnam War based past. All the while, something remained off about him.
The Punisher would team up with Spider-Man, Captain America and Nightcrawler almost exclusively until Frank Miller found a way to work him into his acclaimed first Daredevil run. What Miller saw in the character and has only lightly been revisited is the truth behind the character. Why would a vigilante care about playing by superhero rules when he can live above the law? While Miller’s run was plagued with a Punisher knee capped by using mercy bullets and seemingly working on federal agents’ behalf, his presence provided something that had been missing from Marvel Comics. That being a proper sense of moral ambiguity.
The conviction in the Punisher’s methods matched with his lack of personal connections signifies a man that is willing to die. Stop and think about that for a second. What other Marvel hero is willing to die to kill super villains? This isn’t dying while saving the world or stopping them from getting away. Frank Castle wants to die to make the bad guys die. The Punisher knows that letting super powered thugs run free or imprisoned in underwhelming surroundings only means that you’re putting off greater murder and property damage. Castle uses his USMC combat training to pick off and eliminate high value super criminal and mafia targets in a way to dissuade further copycats and deescalate growing urban warfare. Meanwhile, Captain America and Iron Man are having slap fights about whether or not superheros should register like federal employees.
That being said, superheros live in a world of established escalation. If you stop Doctor Doom one year, he comes back with a time machine and drags you to King Arthur’s time. If you stop Magneto on your first try, a few years later he magnetically murders the crew of a Soviet submarine. The Fantastic Four and the X-Men don’t have a stake in that, just as long as they get to keep serving the greater good. The Punisher is powered by the loss of his family and the need to achieve an unreachable point to move on. Every Jigsaw or mafioso killed brings him a little closer to peace. Frank Castle has an end in sight that no one will let him reach.
Well, what about those that tried to aid The Punisher? Whether it’s Detective Soap, random cops or imitators/fans…they all leave. No one in their right mind can hang with the Punisher and expect to survive. He’s a man powered by death, obsessed with death and only lives to cause death. You can’t reason with him, imprison him or throw him on a team with his consent…so why is he still alive? Some might say that he’s a tolerated evil that superheroes allow to exist to fight problems they can’t handle. Well, why doesn’t the Punisher get to execute the Kingpin, Doctor Doom or Norman Osborn? He always comes close, but there’s something to pull him back. An almost invisible hand that plays as a mix of Adam Smith and benevolent marketing deity.
Ultimately, nobody has been able to make the Punisher make logical sense past his Frank Miller tenure. Marvel Comics, Licensing and etc is in the business of keeping their intellectual property flourishing for several marketable decades. There have been three films, multiple animated series appearances, video games, a major guest spot on Daredevil Season 2 and a pending Netflix solo series launch for the Punisher. Why would anyone dare to do the right thing and finish Castle’s story? Well, it’s because Marvel has yet to find a contemporary answer to Castle’s quest.
Super heroics are a failure from a practical standpoint, but they’re entertaining. Marvel has allowed a serial killing Vietnam Vet with PTSD to thrive as a flagship character for the last 42 years because audiences want to see him murder randoms. It’s just that they have to be randoms and nobody that matters. When you have a death stalker figure like the Punisher murder a concrete identity, then it makes an audience have to question everything that’s come before and how complicit people like Captain America, Daredevil and Spider-Man are in his existence. They knew he did this for ages and they created no better plan of addressing Castle.
The Punisher doesn’t make sense anymore, not because he doesn’t get to kill noteworthy supervillains. The Punisher doesn’t make sense past the vigilante craze of the 70s and 80s because the audience sees similar psychopaths in the real world. Crazed loners keeping journals about their kills, obsessing over firearms and planning out their next random strike is what you hear about when CNN discusses the aftermath of mass shootings. The Punisher is a non powered former soldier who’s years passed his prime and yet eludes everyone. Forget reality for a moment. There is no way a character like this could exist in a world of SHIELD Black Ops, Asgardians and bigger powered psychos. It’s time for the Punisher to make like Clint Eastwood on his front lawn in “Gran Torino”.