The Punisher Problem

punisher

The second season of Daredevil dropped today.  I’m not one for binge watching, personally, so I have no idea how long it will take me to watch the show, but as of this typing I’ve watched the first episode and liked what I saw.

But the promised appearance of the Punisher had me reflecting that, no matter how popular a character he is, he is a weird anomaly in the Marvel pantheon of a character with little discernible personality and few memorable appearances.

Marvel has as a company prided itself over the idea of personality over superpowers.  Spider-Man has problems making ends meet like a lot of regular folks.  So did the Fantastic Four on many occasions.  Iron Man’s bad heart and alcoholism grounded a character based off Howard Hughes.  Captain America felt lost in a time he didn’t grow up in.  And so forth.  Just about every major Marvel character you can name has some sort of distinguishing characteristic that makes the character memorable and gives the character his or her soul.

That may be why Marvel’s characters have had an easier time of it on the big screen.  DC’s heroes always went the opposite and went with powers over personality.  Treat the source material right, as the CW has proven, and you can still have an entertaining live action work, but the characters themselves are basically just straight good guys.

This brings up the general mystery of Frank Castle.  Castle swore revenge against the criminal underworld, or even just bad guys in general, after his family were killed witnessing a mob hit in the middle of a nice summer day at a public park (really, that origin is probably one even the biggest of superhero origin contrivances have a hard time explaining away).  Frank put on a black kevlar outfit with a big white skull on his chest and went out to lethally dispense justice, or something like it, by basically murdering any and all criminals he comes across.  Since he’d spent him in the military (particularly, he’s often characterized as a Vietnam war vet despite how old that would make the guy), he used his knowledge of war to bring down real war on criminals.

That’s about it, really.  Garth Ennis has arguably had the most successful Punisher run at Marvel by basically remembering Frank is an at-best two dimensional character and all anyone who reads his adventures really care about is creative ways in which Castle takes down various criminals.  Ennis used the Punisher Max series to highlight awful real world crimes like sex trafficking from time-to-time, but Castle himself is basically just an uncompromising vigilante who dispenses lethal punishment to anyone who has committed a crime in his mind.  Some of Ennis’ early work made it into the Thomas Jane-starring Punisher movie, as did an interrogation scene Chuck Dixon wrote once in which Frank took a stoolie, suspended the man upside down, let the man see him light a butane torch, and then stuck a popsicle on the small of his back and let the guy think he was being cooked so the guy would talk (it obviously worked).

Unlike many Marvel heroes, the most memorable Punisher story lines tend to the be the ones where something really screwy happens to the Punisher.  That’s not to say these stories are in any way good.  They often aren’t.  But when you’ve seen some, you can’t unsee them.

Here’s a few…

The Punisher was on the run and got plastic surgery to temporarily appear as a black man.  That led to a Luke Cage team-up.

I think Frank's the one on the right with the gun, but I am not sure.
I think Frank’s the one on the right with the gun, but I am not sure.

Wait, he temporarily turned African American?  That sounds familiar…

So...much...wrong...
So…much…wrong…

Then there was the storyline from just before Ennis took over where Frank got a magic trench coat that allowed him to pull endless weapons directly from Heaven’s armory so he could kill demons.  Ennis dismissed it with a single line of narration when he took over and no one blamed him.  Ever.

I have nothing to add here.
I have nothing to add here.

And then there’s Frankencastle.  I’ve never heard a bad thing about that one, but it’s just freakin’ weird and follows the pattern.

Punisher_Frankenn-Castle_Birth_of_the_Monster
When THIS is the transformation of the character that bothers fans the least, your character has problems.

There were rumors for a time that Netflix was looking to give the Punisher his own spin-off.  Now, I have not seen the whole run of Daredevil yet, and have likewise never seen The Walking Dead, so I can’t say anything for Jon Bernthal just yet.  So far, so good, though he has very little to say in that first episode.  Unless the show ran a series of creative kills, I can’t see how the Punisher would work in his own series.  He just goes around killing bad guys.  That’s fine in small doses, but doesn’t strike me as enough to hold down his own series.  The character itself is the problem.  Surround him with interesting allies and enemies, and you can still have a good Punisher story.

Now, a good actor and script can work wonders, so it may all work out well.  I’ll withhold judgement until I see the rest of the season, but of the Punisher himself, I’m not really much of a fan.  I doubt the show will change that, but they can do some interesting things with the guy.  We’ll all just have to wait and see.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

3 thoughts on “The Punisher Problem

  1. You have obviously read some Punisher comics so it’s a bit baffling to me how you can’t see the character. Now granted it does depend on the writer Chuck Dixon and Garth Ennis being the best, but how did you read the Max series without understanding his characterization. From Born you understand that he has always had the desire to punish those he sees as bad and he absolutely enjoys it. However he also loves his family and knows that these two sides of him are incompatible and one will eventually destroy the other. But seriously were you even reading Long Cold Dark or were you just looking at the pictures when he’s talking about his daughter. Now I understand I am a bit biased since he’s my favorite character, but honestly so are you. For example, to me Spider-man is someone who keeps making stupid and immature life decisons and not acknowledging that a lot of stuff is his fault and that he needs to grow up and take responsibility instead of just whining about how his life sucks.

    1. It’s been so long since I wrote this, I forgot what I said.

      Though to start, I will add the Punisher was easily the best part of Daredevil season two on Netflix, and I am looking forward to his solo TV series.

      As it is, I’ve not read Long Cold Dark that I can recall, but my brother and I used to share a pile growing up and he was the big Punisher fan. Me? Not so much. You are right about Dixon and Ennis, but there were a lot of mediocre and forgettable Punisher runs in-between those two guys. I seem to recall Ennis himself, just before he started his first Punisher run (the one that came out pre-MAX) that the Punisher is really only a two dimensional character and any attempt to make him more than that was not going to work, so work with that by crafting good villains for him to take down. I suspect Ennis saw the Punisher much the same way he saw Judge Dredd. The two are similar characters in that they don’t really bend when there’s someone who needs to be brought down somehow.

      And there was a period when it seemed like the Punisher needed a weird gimmick once every couple years for some reason, like when he turned black for three issues.

      That’s an interesting take on Spider-Man, though. Most of the time he seems to be the opposite, beating himself up over the guilt of not getting things done right and trying too hard to be responsible. But hey, Frank’s one of your favorite characters, and far be it from me to tell you that you’re wrong. You see something in the character that eludes me. That’s great and shows how different strokes are for different folks.

      Thanks for commenting.

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