Hopefully, no one will ever have to experience the kind of suffering that drove Marvel’s The Punisher to his vigilantism. At the same time, everyone can identify with the seething ball of pain and anguish and rage we’d all become if random violence (or purposeful violence) had claimed the lives of our own loved ones. These are the sorts of problems at Frank Castle’s core, as his story will play out in Netflix latest entry to their popular Defenders series.
First dreamt up by writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita, Sr. and Ross Andru, the iconic death’s head-clad mercenary burst into four-color life as a second-string foe in The Amazing Spider–Man #129 (1974). At the time, Castle was one of the only mainstream comic book characters who willfully killed without compunction. The former marine was also a skilled martial artist who, aside from his eye-for-an-eye justice, still operated with a code of honor. Despite his ruthlessness, Castle became a popular team-up for imprint mates like Spider-Man and Captain America.
Although the character stagnated for much of the late 70s, because writers weren’t really sure what to do with him, The Punisher experienced a surge in popularity in the 1980s, thanks to show-no-mercy killers like Ahnold’s character in (well, just about every movie he made back then) Commando and Red Heat, as well as Sly Stallone’s character in Cobra and Rambo. The rise of vigilantism also mirrored the rise of urban crime and the perceived ineffectiveness of local authorities to properly police the populace. At one point, The Punisher was even running in four separate comic series, nearly simultaneously. As Castle’s profile peaked, the character was lifted from the pages of the comics and onto the big screen.
The late 80s is also when the merciless merc found himself on the big screen for the first time, with Dolph Lundgren depicting The Punisher in the eponymous 1989 film. Interestingly enough, though, Castle’s first silver screening was far removed from the comic book character – even cutting out the obvious branding point of his skull-and-crossbones t-shirt/breastplate. The loose adaption was also a bit of a mess and one-note flick, eschewing empathy for ass-kicking and failing to excite audiences. The hero then faded back into the comic book world for nearly 15 years.
One of the problems facing Frank Castle, a character who’s been called “flat” by the comic book writers who’d often depicted him, is that he takes time to develop before his nuances emerge. Although he was a hit after his arrival in the pages of Spider-Man, his transition from two-dimensional vigilante to full-fledged character took some time. Adapting Castle to the big screen seems even tougher.
Even with a solid backstory in place, it’s hard to identify withThe Punisher unless you spend more time with his origins and his sympathetic elements than most action movie viewers have attention spans for.
Over the years, Thomas Jane and Ray Stephenson have also assayed the titular character in theaters. The Punisher (2004) pulled in some decent box office bread and garnered a smattering of comic book fan and critical approval. Its follow up, Punisher: War Zone (2008) never really connected with audiences, although it ranged as close to source as any of the entries thus far.
But much like Conway’s timing in the 70s coinciding with a rise in gritty vigilante movies like Death Wish, Mr. Castle’s debut during Daredevil’s second round hit the right note. Jon Bernthal’s tortured and nuanced performance was spot on, and the show treated his origins with the proper respect, actually making his tragic loss more compelling.
Since audiences immediately connected with him, and not just comic book fans, the streaming clearly saw the potential in The Punisher, making him the fifth Beatle in the streaming service’s Defenders series. The added bonus of Castle’s spinoff is that his warm reception at Netflix could leave the door open for other recurring popular characters to get their own series (here’s hoping for Elektra).
One of the keys to Frank Castle’s success on Daredevil, which will hopefully carry on to his own show, is his overall fit within Defenders. Much like the other Netflix heroes, his past and the tragedies contained within are obfuscated and amplified by the chaos and violence around him. His world view and hyper-aggressive stance on crime mesh beautifully with the mean streets which created the anti-hero. But his brutality rubs even the harshest of New York’s heroes the wrong way, hence his contentious presence in Daredevil’s second season. He becomes the hyperviolent foil for Matt Murdock, who much like his comic book self, desperately seeks the good in others.
The continuing adventures of The Punisher, though, offer to fill in some of the gaps in Frank Castle’s past. It’s the perfect place to dig deeper into his life, in a way only a multi-layered Defenders-style show can. Showrunner Steve Lightfoot explained at makes the character such an engrossing dramatis personae:
“The complexity and unpredictability of Frank Castle make him an incredibly compelling character… After watching Jon’s performance in ‘Marvel’s Daredevil’ I could not be more excited to be working with him to further develop and progress the story of this anti-hero in a show of his own.”
Today, even the most saccharine crime fighters nowadays have a twist of Cain to them. Although some moviegoers railed against a darker Superman in Man of Steel, (almost) nobody complained about a grim Dark Knight in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. The world loves a psychotic tic, or at least appreciates its humanness. It’s what made Netflix’s darker superhero series so engaging in the first place and keeps new and repeat viewers queuing up for more.
However, The Punisher isn’t technically a superhero. He lacks the super-hearing of Daredevil, the super-speed of Iron Fist, and super-strength of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It’s this quality which makes Castle so appealing: he’s the perfect every-person character. His array of gadgetry and weaponry may seem superhero-like, but his gear comes from blood money swiped from criminals. His status as a non-empowered superhero has already engendered him to comic book readers for decades, something it should continue to do for viewers as his series arrives – providing the writers continue to balance his hyper-kinetic action sequences with his inner struggle, something Jon Bernthal discussed with Award Daily:
“The Frank Castle you find in this story is not The Punisher. He’s reeling from the loss of his family. He’s driven by rage and is on a singular mission to find these people who took his family from him, and do it as brutally as possible.”
Because in the long run, as much fun as it is to see a superhero chew bullets for breakfast, none of us are men or women of steel. Frank Castle’s vulnerability seems even more real when placed against the flames of vengeance burning deep inside him. With (presumably) 13 episodes to delve into the dark mind of the vigilante, Marvel and Netflix will offer the most in-depth characterization of the character outside of the comics. In all hopes, his modern mythos will even outdo his archetypal origin story by delving further into his tortured soul than ever before.
Oh sure, we’ll still get those vicious psychopathic traits we all know and love. That much was made clear during his Daredevil debut. But Frank Castle has always resonated best when his emotional scars bubble to the surface. Having a full Netflix series will allow him (and us) stare down his own devil in the mirror, and frighteningly enough, kind of like what he sees.