Since his introduction in 1974, Frank Castle has skyrocketed to popularity – having over seventeen different comic runs to his name as well as countless crossover appearances in books starring other characters. So, with that in mind, why has it been so difficult to have a live-action take on the character that captures the heights that the beloved comic anti-hero can claim? Overall, the real archenemy of the Punisher isn’t Barracuda or even Jigsaw, rather, it’s being misunderstood. Not in a “he’s the real hero” type of way, but a misunderstanding of his position in the Marvel universe as well as what makes the character special.
The Punisher’s Place in the Marvel Universe
The Punisher has always existed in a weird ‘middle’ when it comes to his place in the Marvel universe. When one takes a look at his power-set or lack thereof, they would fairly assume that he belongs with the Heroes for Hire or the Defenders. These characters are often considered to represent what has been called the ‘street-level’ of the Marvel Universe, the more violent and grounded corner of Marvel Comics – a corner well defined by the various Marvel Netflix adaptations.
Despite this, Punisher as a character is not one who shines when he is where he ‘belongs’, and so he often finds himself wandering into the more high-stakes corners of the Marvel Universe. At his core, Castle is a boring action hero. Due to the violent nature of Frank’s stories, his side characters, be they allies or villains, don’t tend to stay alive for too long – leaving him essentially without real tethers to any ‘level’ of Marvel conflicts. But now it’s worth going back to the original question, what’s wrong with Marvel’s existing adaptations of Frank Castle?
Frank Castle and Action Heroes
When getting the character described to them, one might quickly realize that Frank Castle isn’t a particularly compelling character, an antihero who lost his family and uses that pain as fuel for his fight against either specifically those who took them from him, or crime as a whole – he is, at his core, a traditional action hero. This fact was emphasized further in 1989’s The Punisher, an action movie that removed anything remotely ‘comic book-y’ from the character, including the iconic skull logo. Despite attempts to make the movie more widely marketable, it was not well received. Though later movies added the skull logo to Frank’s design, not much else was changed from this take on the character, every single film appearance of the Punisher makes the same mistakes, turning the character’s story into that of a formulaic, discount Rambo.
The ‘Straight Man’ is a term referring to comedy, wherein a more eccentric, comedic character is balanced out with a deadpan one. Examples of this in comics include the Joker and Lex Luthor, Deadpool and Cable, or Spider-Man and Wolverine. Using that last example, the Punisher shines when he exists as a straight man to the more fantastic side of the Marvel Universe. One of the most interesting thing you can do with the Punisher is focusing on the contrast, a John Wick-type going against a world of gods and monsters. Yet, these movies looked to remove that entirely, instead placing the character into a setting he would ‘belong’ in, therein breaking the lightning in a bottle that is Frank Castle. So, if the direction that the last three film adaptations took isn’t going to work, what will?
The One That Worked (Kind of)
After three attempts of convincing audiences to get invested in a character by removing everything interesting about him, Daredevil Season 2 premiered in March 2016. While the world that Daredevil presents is still dark and grounded, the titular character still remains a comic book hero in nature. Many of the standout scenes that season would feature Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle butting heads, either physically or morally, with Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock – a character representing the often simplistic, ideal views that comic characters tend to have. Even despite the grounded nature of Netflix’s Marvel universe, by the time the season finale came around for Daredevil, viewers were treated to Frank Castle in full costume as the Punisher, gunning down undead ninjas.
The real problem with this adaptation is that once the credits roll on the last episode of the season, Frank all but exists in a world populated by superheroes. Sure, the version of the Punisher we see in both seasons of his spin-off show is still fundamentally the same version that battled Daredevil, but he’s now in a world populated not by the aftermath of events seen in Marvel’s The Avengers, but by government conspiracies, traitors, and criminals. These are active steps backward, leaving the audience to once again find Castle in an action movie plot. While Netflix’s The Punisher still finds its time to shine, it can often feel hollow, a play version of a story we’ve seen in movies, novels, and other shows for decades now when it could have been so much more.
What About The Comics?
With all this said, it might be noticeable that the original home of the Punisher, the pages of Marvel Comics themselves, have been left nearly untouched. While the Punisher has obviously had hundreds of story arcs, all ranging in tone, recent takes on the character have been headed in the right direction. These include Castle being gifted a version of the War Machine suit, joining a spin-off Avengers line-up, having his future self revealed to be both a Herald of Galactus and a Ghost Rider, having tie-ins to the Thor-centric War of the Realms event, and more.
This isn’t the first time that Castle made his way into the larger scheme of the superhero world. One great example of this being Rick Remender’s 2009 Punisher run, a run often occupied with Frank’s doings during Marvel’s Dark Reign status quo. Remender wrote Frank battling characters like the Sentry, the Hood, and even being killed by a dark version of Wolverine, only to be revived as a Frankenstein’s monster dubbed ‘Franken-Castle’. So, with all this in mind, why is it that Frank always ends up back where he started when put to live-action?
Marvel MAX is a label of Marvel Comics that was established in 2001. The label was created in order to allow the company to publish more explicit comics. Safe to say, it worked. Punisher MAX began in 2004, ending 5 years later. Though it was critically praised, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to call this series ugly or distasteful to a degree. The art is gorgeous, to be clear, but the book itself can be summed up with Castle’s design. He is worn down, scarred, bitter, and that reflects in the writing.
The world is cynical; everyone is a creep, monster, or a victim. There is nothing to juxtapose Castle against, the world of Punisher MAX has been built to suit Frank, to play into his comfort zone, and that’s why it doesn’t work. The books are at their best entertaining, which the first handful of issues undoubtedly are, and at their worst, uncomfortable. Every problem with the live-action adaptations can be mirrored in this exact series. MAX represents an era in the character of the Punisher that Marvel comics have all but moved beyond, despite this, adaptations of the character continue to cling to it.
With the Punisher’s Netflix series being canceled after a two-season run, there is reportedly less than a year left before Marvel Studios receives the rights to the characters formerly inhabiting the Netflix side of the universe. Though many are hoping that Disney places these characters onto Hulu, something fans believe will allow the characters to remain dark, the alternative is much more interesting. Marvel Studios are presented with a unique opportunity, the chance to place the Punisher right in the middle of a world that’s been ravaged by Thanos, one where the Guardians of the Galaxy battled alongside the Avengers for the fate of the universe, one where the Punisher would stick out like a sore thumb – just as he should.