Since his introduction in 1974, Frank Castle has rocketed to popularity, having 12 different relaunches to his name, as well as countless crossover appearances in various books. So, with that in mind… why can’t we have a good live-action adaptation of Punisher? I feel like overall, the real enemy of The Punisher isn’t Barracuda, or even Jigsaw… it’s being misunderstood. Not in a ‘he’s really the villain’ way, but rather a misunderstanding of his position in the universe. I’m going to explain what that means, and why that connects to Frank’s subpar adaptations. Now, before I continue, I’d like to say that this seems like a negative article, however, anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I’m a huge fan of Bernthal’s portrayal as Frank Castle, so I’m going to critique his series, not his performance.
Punisher’s Place In The Marvel Universe
Punisher’s always been in a weird middle when it comes to the Marvel U. Sure, when it comes to his power-set, he belongs on the street level side of the universe, cracking heads with Daredevil, but, I find that he’s at his best when he’s not where he belongs. As a character, Punisher gets a chance to shine when he sticks out like a sore thumb. Why is that, you may ask, well, it’s because at his core, Frank Castle is a boring action hero. Take a look at Frank Castle, the hard, grizzled veteran who has a bone to pick and is too stubborn to die, sound familiar? Of course it does, it’s because he’s every single action hero. So, if he’s that flat, why is Punisher so popular? The thing that makes Frank special isn’t anything about him or his supporting cast, it’s the fact that he’s in a universe he doesn’t belong in. If you were tuned into the comics sides of social media around 2015, you would’ve seen the ‘Howard the Duck is drinking martinis in space at the same time as Kingpin’s crushing someone’s head with a car door’ memes, but when it comes to Punisher, that’s precisely the point. Frank is a man who is so in over his head that it’s charming. And that’s why the movies, as well as two seasons of his own show, didn’t work.
The One That Worked
So, after 3 attempts at bringing a generic-action-hero-placed-into-a-superhero-universe to the screen but without the superhero part, we finally got Daredevil season 2. Daredevil season 2 featured an appropriately angry Frank Castle (if you don’t hear Bernthal’s angry grunt just by seeing the image above I don’t know what to tell you) butting heads with the generally idealist Matt Murdock, and let me tell you, that stuff is what the Punisher is made for. Although his Netflix version is grounded in abilities and background, Cox’s Daredevil is a comic book hero through and through, so, seeing him have a moral argument with Frank, a man who’s seen the worst that the world can get, is gripping, and it’s no mistake that those scenes were both the best ones in the season, and the best that Jon’s Punisher would be put in. The issue with his adaptation is as soon as the credits roll on Episode 13 of Daredevil Season 2, he all but exits a world populated with superheroes. Sure, the Frank we get in both seasons of the Punisher is still the same Frank that shot HAND soldiers on a rooftop and punched Irish gangsters with the Man With No Fear, but he’s now in a world populated not by the aftermath of the Battle of New York, but instead with government conspiracies, traitors, criminals. We’ve stepped backwards, and once again, we find Frank in an action movie plot. The Punisher series has its moments, Frank, Madani, Amy, Russo, and Curt are all fantastic characters that get their moments to shine and are portrayed by great actors, however, the show fails because of how gritty it is.
But What About The Comics?
So, maybe you have read my points, and you have thought about it, but you don’t agree. Maybe you want to bring up all the gritty comics Frank has worked in. Well, let’s take a look at Frank’s recent go of it in the comics. Within the last two years, Frank has been given a War Machine suit by Nick Fury, used that suit to overthrow a dictator, had to fight off a good portion of the superhero community when he refused to give up that suit, is currently in Bagalia, a nation entirely populated by supervillains, was included in Phoenix Logan’s prediction of the future (wearing what looks like medieval armor), is joining a version of the Avengers, and now has a tie-in miniseries to War of the Realms where he’s pictured firing an assault rifle into a Frost Giant’s mouth. Yeah… Marvel knows what makes him work. And this isn’t the first time Frank has made his way into the larger scheme of superheroes, my two favourite runs of the Punisher lean heavily on his involvement with the Marvel U. The first of those is Punisher, penned by Rick Remender, which featured Frank getting his hands on extremely high-tech weaponry, going on a rampage of the Marvel universe. Along the way, he fights Sentry, The Hood, and gets killed by Wolverine’s son, being revived as a Frankenstein’s monster, beautifully titled Frankencastle. My other favourite is the Punisher run by Greg Rucka. During this series, Frank picks up a partner (whose origin is straight up the Bride’s from Kill Bill, a clever move on Rucka’s part), and they do what Punishers do, kill people. However, the book ends on an insane note, with a miniseries that sees Frank facing off against the Avengers themselves, having a beer with Thor, and more. All of those takes on the character are extremely tied to the superhero side of the universe… but there’s going to inevitably be a question on everyone’s minds, so, without further ado…
Let’s Discuss Punisher MAX
Marvel MAX is a label of Marvel Comics that was established in 2001. The label was meant to allow the company to publish more explicit comics. Safe to say, it worked. Punisher MAX began in 2004, ending 5 years later. Now that I have run out of facts to write, it’s time to get to the fun part: opinions. I do not like Punisher MAX. I’d go as far as to say I dislike it. I currently own Punisher MAX trades valued at over $200 in total, so I feel like it’s fair for me to say that Punisher MAX is just kind of ugly. That’s the best word to use for it. The art is gorgeous, to be clear, but the book itself can be summed up with Frank’s design. He’s worn down, scarred, bitter, and you can feel that in the writing too. The world is cynical, everyone is a creep, a monster, or a victim, there’s nothing to juxtapose Frank against. The books are at their best entertaining, which I did genuinely find the first trade to be most of the time, and at their worst, uncomfortable. I can’t say I understand why people find this to be the best Punisher series, why read a book where a sexually frustrated gangster digs up Frank’s family and pisses on their corpses, when you can read about Frank being a goddamn Frankenstein’s Monster instead. All my problems with the live action adaptations can be mirrored in this one series. Frank himself tends to be boring in the books, writer Garth Ennis often trying to one-up himself when it comes to how much more reasons to kill people he can give Castle. Punisher MAX represents an era in the Punisher that we’ve very much moved past, and yet, the show comes so close to MAX.
Well, all the Netflix shows have been cancelled, but, despite that, it seems that most, if not all of the characters, will be returning in some form or another. So, how do we fix the fundamental issue with a standalone Punisher show? Well, I feel like there’s two answers to that.
- Don’t make one. Let Frank function as solely a crossover character. Make him the antagonist of a Defenders relaunch, let him come back for a Daredevil season, anything really. As a fan of his, I’d be totally fine sacrificing what value can be found in his supporting cast for his solo show in order to bring back the Punisher that we had in Daredevil’s second season. But, overall, I believe that the best place Frank can end up is with appearances in the movies. Characters like Black Widow, Shang Chi, and Spider-Man have/will have movie series, and they tend to have stories that remain relatively close to street-level. ‘But Tom’s Spider-Man is so childlike, Punisher wouldn’t make sense in that context!’, some people might say, well, that’s why the dynamic would be so perfect. Having Tom’s Spider-Man live in a world where he took down the Vulture with only one casualty, and then bringing in Frank, would be the perfect play for both of them. True, violence would have to be cut down, but I’d rather see Frank thrive where he belongs, even if he can’t actually draw blood, rather than having him slash throats in a setting where he’s really quite boring.
- Throw Frank some colorful supervillains to butt heads with, or a superhero to clash ideologies with in future seasons. Characters from the street level side of Marvel still have various interesting villains in their rosters, ones that function exactly like a comic character, yet whose actions are extremely dark and striking. Someone like Bullseye, Mr Fear, Davos, Typhoid Mary, etc, would be really cool to see Frank go up against, but it’s not even necessary to take from other characters, really. Before Punisher MAX, Garth Ennis wrote a story called Welcome Back, Frank. Throughout the story, readers were introduced to three misguided, costumed vigilantes, all inspired by Frank’s one-man war on crime. They were The Holy, a priest who would kill people who came to confess their crimes, Elite, a man who resorted to deadly means in order to keep his upper-class neighborhood ‘clean’, and Mr. Payback, a man obsessed with bringing justice to victims of corporate law-breaking. Although the story didn’t really put a focus on any of them, they could all act as that sort of silly tie that Frank really needs to the rest of the superhero universe. Alternatively, bringing smaller heroes onto his show could solve that issue, Hellcat and Daughters of the Dragon come to mind when thinking about characters that could fit into the role that Netflix already has established.
So, overall, things aren’t looking too good for Punisher right now, but, I hope that the inevitable remake/relaunch/reboot learns from the mistakes of its predecessors, and utilizes the impressive scope of the MCU for the character, because the one place Punisher really doesn’t belong is the one place we keep getting him in.