After months of waiting for a release date, we finally know when he’s coming, and that when he arrives, he’s coming for blood. The Punisher is arguably the most anticipated Marvel Netflix show since the first season of Daredevil, which is interesting because a Punisher show wasn’t originally part of Marvel’s Netflix plan. After emerging as the breakout character in Daredevil Season 2, Netflix decided to break the mold of their Defenders centric shows and offer up a sixth series, an outsider who fits in even less with the world of superheroes than our urban Defenders do. While The Punisher may be more familiar and seemingly less complicated than some of the other characters we’ve featured in our Primers, let me assure you that there’s still plenty to discover about Frank Castle and his one-man war on crime.
The Comic: Frank Castle, the Punisher first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1974. Created by Gerry Conway, and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, the murderous Punisher was originally conceived as a new reoccurring Spider-Man villain. Conway originally considered calling the character the Assassin, until Stan Lee suggested the Punisher instead. His first appearance saw him teaming up with the Jackal to take down Spider-Man, who was wanted for the murder of Norman Osborn. While positioned as a villain, the issue showcased his torment over his role and his honor when it came to fair combat. The immediate popularity of the character saw Punisher emerge as an anti-hero who frequently teamed-up with some of Marvel’s most popular heroes, the most famous instance being Frank Miller’s Daredevil #183 (1982), which served to highlight the differences between the two characters’ stance on vigilantism with Daredevil being the more liberal-minded hero who believes in redemption and Frank Castle believing in execution, regardless of how many offenses. This set the stage for an ongoing conflict between the two characters over the decades and served as the basis for Castle’s MCU debut in Daredevil.
Despite the character’s popularity, Castle wouldn’t receive his own five issue mini-series until 1986. The series, by writer Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck, retconned the character’s previous villainous behavior to be a result of mind-altering drugs (comics, everyone!). In 1987, the Punisher received his first ongoing series from Mike Baron and Klaus Janson, which proved to be such a hit that the character received two additional ongoing series, The Punisher War Journal (1988) and The Punisher War Zone (1992), as well as a 16-issue black and white series, The Punisher Magazine (1989), and the 10 issue series The Punisher Armory (1990). These series, along with various other mini-series, one-shots, and guest appearances made Frank Castle one of Marvel’s biggest characters of the late ’80s and early ’90s, arguably out-popularizing the likes of Marvel mainstays Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor.
While no evidence has been able to pinpoint the reason behind The Punisher’s popularity, an appeal that surprised even Marvel, I believe there’s something to the fact that the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and conservative legacy saw the greatest boom for the character. While many post-Golden Age comic books are often considered counter-cultural and progressive, Punisher bucked that trend. In his war against gangs, muggers, drug dealers, rapists, and every variation of organized crime, the Punisher made his mark as a character who didn’t care about situational crime, marginalization, or the effects of poverty or racism. In his black and white view of the world, he only cared about right and wrong in the most basic, Old Testament sense, under the harshest measures. Because of this, the Punisher never quite sat well with me as a hero. And the outpouring of Punisher merchandise from t-shirts to backpacks, always conjured up an uneasy feeling that this character had grown beyond Marvel’s control and understanding to become a rallying figure for gun enthusiasts and conservatives who thought that evil was firmly situated in ghettos and low-income areas.
Unlike so many of Marvel’s protagonists, the Punisher never built-up a strong rogues gallery for himself. His lethal methods put a stop to that notion. The disfigured Mafioso, Jigsaw, became the Punisher’s central nemesis through the years, but when he wasn’t dealing with street level crime, most of his villains came borrowed from other characters. In 1995 the Punisher fell, and he fell hard. All three of the Punisher’s ongoing series were canceled in unison due to poor sales. Perhaps it was the repetitive nature of the character and lack of progression, or perhaps it was shift to neoliberalism under President Clinton and a greater emphasis on gun control following 1993’s Brady Bill and 1994’s Crime Bill. Attempts were made to relaunch the character under new imprints, the most famous being Marvel Knights’ The Punisher: Purgatory which saw Castle killed and resurrected a supernatural spirit of vengeance forced to battle against demons with magic guns. This take on the character, still maligned, lived up to its name and placed Castle in the realm of comic book purgatory for years.
In 2000, Garth Ennis changed the game and the Punisher would never be the same again. The 12-issue miniseries from Ennis and the late artist Steve Dillon, collectively known as ‘Welcome Back, Frank’ streamlined the character, bringing him back to his roots while also highlighting the black humor and inherent absurdity of the character. A 37-issue series by the same team followed, allowing Ennis to further find his voice with the character, and eventually leading to what stands as the Punisher’s magnum opus: Punisher MAX. Marvel’s MAX imprint, which began with the Jessica Jones series Alias, took an unflinching, R-rated look at Marvel’s characters, much to the chagrin of Stan Lee. Ennis’ series ran for 60 issues, from 2004 to 2008. In this series, Ennis and the numerous artists he worked with created a world not so different from our own, a world in which there are no superheroes, and a world in which September 11, 2001 irrevocably changed the world and our conversation about crime, safety, and intelligence. In Punisher MAX, Castle, a Vietnam veteran, ages in real time so at the start of the series he’s a middle-aged man with 30 years of vigilante activity and just over 2,000 known deaths attributed to his name. Ennis’ Punisher is a horror movie monster, enabled by the cops, set loose on systems that grew more corrupt in a post-9/11 world. Ennis highlighted the fact that Punisher may do some good and uphold morals, particularly concerning children and elderly vets, but that he’s ultimately an unhealthy human whose endless cycle of violence creates more violence. In this series mediation on violence, consequence, and PTSD, the Punisher stands as a being who should make us feel uncomfortable because he’s a reflection of the world’s larger issues when it comes to war and government culpability.
Punisher MAX continued on without Ennis, but no writer ever seemed quite as interested in examining violence as they were in displaying it. The MAX series helped secure the Punisher’s role back within the larger Marvel Universe and his new popularity. Regardless of the team-ups, superpowers, or space adventures, the Punisher never quite gels with the rest of Marvel’s tone or spirit, regardless of the many talented creators who have told his stories during the 21st century. The idea of a vigilante who kills with such extreme prejudice working alongside Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Captain America never sits well, and only when he is used as more of a villain, as Brian Michael Bendis has done, does Castle make sense in this world. Currently, the Punisher has his own Iron Man armor and has adopted Rhodey’s moniker War Machine. While superheroics are certainly fun, the choice to further entrench Castle in the world of superheroes inevitably feels like a distraction from the larger ideas and problems the Punisher could be used to tackle.
The coalescence of The Punisher, everything he is and could be, comes near the end of Ennis’ series:
He’s like all the other terrible things that came out of that war—the broken homes and the suicides, the cancer, the babies born deformed from the chemicals that were sprayed on the jungle. All the horror that our men brought back from Vietnam-the ones that came back anyway—the Punisher is all of it, gathered together into one disgusting monster. There’ll be things like him coming back from Iraq, too. And Afghanistan, if they haven’t already. In amongst all those broken men, there’ll be one or two who just don’t want to get fixed.
Recommended Reading Material:
Essential Punisher Vol. 1 (collects the character’s first appearances, team-ups, and miniseries)
Punisher: Welcome Back Frank by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Punisher MAX Complete Collection vols. 1-4 by Garth Ennis and various artists.
The TV Show: In 2011, Fox began developing The Punisher as a procedural network television series, with Castle as an NYPD detective who moonlights as vigilante helping those failed by the court system. The project which was to be produced by Criminal Minds EP Ed Bernero was scrapped (thankfully) a year later and the character rights reverted back to Marvel. After Jon Bernthal was cast as Castle in 2015, rumors immediately began circulating that a Punisher Netflix series was in development. While the rumors were never substantiated, with head of Marvel Television, Jeph Loeb, saying they were focusing on the previously announced shows at the moment, The Punisher was announced shortly after the premiere of Daredevil season 2. In April 2016, Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal, Narcos) was named Executive Producer and Showrunner. Guardians of the Galaxy and vol. 2 composer Tyler Bates will be composing the score for the series. The Punisher will consist of 13 episodes.
The Tone: The Punisher will easily be the darkest of Netflix’s Marvel shows, and if the trailers are any indication, it will also be the most violent. The show is to take a close examination of grief, and the cost of violence. Rather than simply pitting Castle against organized crime groups as we’ve seen in the character’s three previous films, Castle will find himself caught up in a government conspiracy that ties to his past. It seems that the series will draw quite a bit of inspiration from Ennis’ run. Events of the show will take place before and after his appearance in Daredevil. While the Punisher didn’t show up in The Defenders, the show is said to have several ties to the larger Marvel Netflix-verse, including a central role for Daredevil’s Karen Page, who bonded with the character during the second season. The show will also introduce a number of original characters, most notably Amber Rose Revah’s Iranian-American DHS agent, Dinah Madani, to flesh out the Punisher’s world and explore the dark uncharted territories of the human soul. Netflix has been very secretive with details about the show, which we’re taking to mean they are confident that they are delivering something special. After Iron Fist and The Defenders disappointing a significant portion of the fan-base, Netflix could certainly use some new blood.
Frank Castle/The Punisher (Jon Bernthal): A superhero believes that he can change things, that he he can make a difference through his actions. Frank Castle is not a superhero. Each and every violent act isn’t an effort to make the world a better place, it’s a compulsion to try to make sense of a broken world that has left him shattered. Frank Castle (in some continuities, previously Francis Castiglione) was born in New York. As a child, he developed a love of poetry and considered going into the seminary, but already he had a strong sense of justice and distaste for the criminal element that populated his neighborhood streets. Before enlisting in the Marine Corps he married a woman named Maria who was already expecting his first child. In Vietnam he became one of the best marksmen in the Corps, but his superiors took a dislike to him, threatened by his lack of corruption and his squad mates’ confidence in his leadership. As detailed in Punisher: Born, it was in Vietnam where the blackness claimed Castle, shaped him into a dark figure with a blank-eyed lust for killing. It’s suggested that there was always something inside of Castle that was fascinated by killing, and Vietnam just gave him an excuse to act on it. After the war, he returned home to his family and kept his other side at bay until his wife and two children, Lisa and Frank Jr., were killed in mob crossfire in Central Park. Castle took up the guise of the Punisher under the notion of avenging their deaths, but as his war went on he later admitted that their deaths were just an excuse, an avenue to do what he was born to do.
Castle is death shaped like man, and for a while he could pretend to be just another veteran, another husband, another father, but the death of his family stripped him of his guise and revealed his true nature. Castle doesn’t just kill; he does unto others what was done to him: creates a never ending cycle of violence with nightmarish tolls on the human spirit. What the best Punisher writers have made clear over the years is that the Punisher is mentally ill, that his actions aren’t those of a sane man. His code and choice of targets give him an excuse, but there’s a strong possibility and suggestion that Frank Castle’s one-man war on crime is just a fancy play a serial killing. Despite appearing in nearly every corner of the Marvel Universe, the character has remained largely static, and whether he’s brought back as an angel, a Frankenstein monster, a Hydra agent, or War Machine, Frank Castle returns to his roots as a man on the ground with blood on his hands. Ultimately, the Punisher seems like a character who must ultimately be punished himself. As we witnessed in Daredevil, Jon Bernthal gets this damage and handles it with a rage that’s both poignant and frightening. Bernthal taps into the pure animistic qualities of the character, and has made a point to watch and read previous interpretations of the character to make him his own. While Netflix’s Punisher may not venture as deeply into darkness as Ennis’ take on the character, this version has been the most interesting live-action depiction of the character we’ve seen so far because it’s not afraid to point out that while there is a heroic component to him, there’s also something very wrong in Frank Castle’s head. It’s a space we’re hoping to get more insight into within his series.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: As one of Marvel’s most popular characters, the Punisher has appeared in various video games and animated series over the years. He’s also been the star of three feature films: The Punisher (1989), The Punisher (2004) and Punisher: War Zone (2008) were he portrayed by Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane, and Ray Stevenson respectively. None of the films have managed to make a major impact, which makes the Netflix show a prime venture.
David Lieberman/Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach): Micro first appeared in The Punisher #4 in 1987. A computer hacker, Lieberman was brought into the world of the Punisher after his nephew is killed after hacking the Kingpin’s computers. Seeking revenge, Micro teamed up with the Punisher, eventually becoming his partner, weapons supplier, money launderer, and safe-house operator. But his relationship with Castle didn’t come without cost, as his illegitimate son is killed helping the Punisher negotiate a hostage exchange. While Micro tries to keep Castle from crossing the line, eventually he feels that Castle has gone too far and has lost sight of his original mission, developing a lust for blood rather than justice. Their fallout leads Micro to create his own Punisher to replace Castle, in the form ex-Navy Seal Carlos Cruz. The betrayal leads to a gun battle between Castle and Micro, with Micro ultimately being slain by a rogue SHIELD agent and Castle left wondering if he really would have killed the man he once considered his only friend. Micro is resurrected years later by dark magic wielding, crime boss, the Hood, who promises Micro the resurrection of his son if he helps him take down the Punisher. While the plan fails, their paths cross again when Jigsaw masterminds a plan to capture both Micro and the Punisher. Jigsaw gives Punisher the chance to kill Micro, and he takes it, slashing Micro’s throat and finally answering the years old question. Micro is a testament to that fact that Castle may have temporary allies, but ultimately he has no friends or long-lasting bonds. In the show, Ebon Moss-Bachrach will portray Micro as a former NSA analyst who has suffered his own loss and develops a relationship with Castle for the sake of convenience, a relationship we can surmise will inevitably have an unhappy ending, whether in this season or further down the road.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: Micro appeared in 2008’s Punisher: War Zone and was portrayed by Wayne Knight. He’s also appeared in various Punisher video games and in the ’90s Spider-Man: The Animated Series, under the name Chip.
Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore): Curtis Hoyle first appeared in The Punisher #1 in 1987. A lieutenant in the Vietnam War, he fought alongside Castle, but he became second-in-command within a major criminal operation when he returned home. When he crossed paths with Castle again, this time as the Punisher, he recognized his former squad mate before Castle threw him out of a helicopter. In the show, Jason R. Moore will portray Hoyle as a former friend of Castle and one of the only people who knows he’s alive. Hoyle only appeared in the first two issues of The Punisher, so there’s plenty of room for Moore to make the character his own.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: The Punisher will be the character’s first onscreen appearance.
Rawlins (Paul Schulze): William Rawlins first appeared in The Punisher MAX #14 in 2005. A corrupt CIA officer, Rawlins developed ties with the Mafia and the Taliban, setting up terrorist cells for the Pentagon to use for strikes through which they could claim plausible deniability. Manipulative and entirely lacking scruples, Rawlins stood for everything that was wrong with the U.S. government, and was a symptom of larger corruption. The Punisher eventually killed him, before setting his sights on the generals who had employed him. In the show Paul Schulze will portray Rawlins as a high-ranking CIA officer who knows Castle from their time in Afghanistan. There’s little doubt he will play a significant part in the larger conspiracy the Punisher finds himself in and the trailers suggest that he may be the season’s central antagonist.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: The Punisher will be the character’s first onscreen appearance.
Billy Russo/Jigsaw (Ben Barnes): Billy Russo first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #161 in 1976. If the Punisher is a character trying in vain to put the broken pieces of the world back together, then Jigsaw is the antithesis of that. An assassin for the Maggia crime family, nicknamed ‘The Beaut’ for his good looks, Russo was hired to kill the Punisher and everyone connected to him in the aftermath of the mob shootout that killed Castle’s family. Castle eventually tracked Russo down and threw him through a plate glass window which shredded his face and resulted in his new disfigured appearance and his adoption of the name Jigsaw. Jigsaw’s first order of business was to frame the Punisher for murder, a plot that was stopped by Spider-Man and Nightcrawler. Over the years, Jigsaw became a frequent thorn in the Punisher’s side, eventually becoming his arch-nemesis and even adopted an color inverted Punisher costume with a stitched together skull emblem. Jigsaw walks the fine line between the more grounded criminals of Castle’s world and the garish supervillains of Spider-Man’s. While Punisher has managed to kill the majority of his villains, Jigsaw continues to pop up, his sociopathic tendencies proving to be too interesting a point of comparison alongside the Punisher. In the show, Ben Barnes will portray Russo as Castle’s best friend from their Special Forces days and the owner of private military company Anvil. It seems inevitable that in this season or the next we’ll see Russo disfigured and set upon the Punisher as Jigaw.
Where We’ve Seen Him Before: Russo was portrayed by Dominic West in Punisher: War Zone, where he became an violent though cartoonish version of Jigsaw. The character has also been featured as the central villain in numerous Punisher video games.
The Punisher brings home the cost of violence on November 17, 2017.
Featured Image: Netflix