If you’ve been following the hype and advertising for this week’s debut of Daredevil season 2, you’ll know that the Punisher is one of the main characters we’ll be encountering this season. If your exposure to comics is mainly through movies and television, and not through the printed (or digital) page, you may not be super familiar with this not-so-super anti-hero.
Here’s a quick primer on the Punisher – who he is, what we can expect from him in Daredevil, and where else you might’ve seen him.
Like Daredevil, the Punisher is a vigilante, but he’s far more brutal in his methods. the Punisher is Frank Castle, a military man trained in all manner of special ops-type skills. After his wife and children are killed in a mob shooting, Castle declares war on all manner of criminals. Instead of donning a mask and doing jumpkicks like so many other characters in the Marvel and DC universes, though, Castle simply goes with the most brutal, effective tactics he knows – torture, interrogation, murder, and more. He doesn’t have any super-human abilities, unless you count meanness. He’s as mean as it gets.
The Punisher first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974 and was quickly popular just by virtue of how different he was from anything else in the Marvel line-up, and that contrast has endured, with few other sustained characters matching the level of brutality the Punisher regularly makes use of. He finally had a mini-series a decade later and was successful for the publisher until the 1990s, before being revived by Garth Ennis in the early 2000s.
Depending on where the Punisher is appearing and who is writing him, he’s been a very different character over the years, with some animated appearances toning him down significantly for family audiences. His origin has had to start shifting as well. He was originally a Vietnam War veteran, but comic book protagonists aren’t usually pushing 70 years old these days unless they have a mutant healing factor.
At his most brutal, though, the Punisher is a vengeance-obsessed man single-mindedly focused on permanently stopping criminals. He acts a good foil for characters like Daredevil, and even as a contrast to DC’s Batman, who similarly has taken his mantle as a result of his family being murdered.
In addition to having been a steady comic book character for forty years, the Punisher has had a few film appearances of varying quality. He first appeared in 1989 portrayed by Dolph Lundgren in a pretty forgettable film, simply called The Punisher.
Next, he showed up in 2004, played by Thomas Jane – again, titled The Punisher. This film came out after the Spider-Man movies made comic book films viable, but before Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins started raking in cash and before Iron Man busted open the doors and kick-started the Marvel Cinematic universe. The movie overall isn’t great, but Jane’s take on Castle was solid.
The next film, Punisher: War Zone, featured Ray Stephenson as the Punisher and was pretty universally panned.
Jane would reprise his role as Castle in a Punisher fan-film called Dirty Laundry. He’s never explicitly called the Punisher, but it’s made pretty clear that it’s a continuation of his 2004 character. It’s fast, short, and brutal. The ending leaves you feeling like justice has been done, but at great cost.
The next take on the Punisher is, of course, in Daredevil season two, by Jon Bernthal, best known as The Walking Dead’s Shane.
Bernthal certainly looks the part, and can definitely play morally grey characters. Whether he ends up getting his own show or not, Daredevil is a great place to bring him back into Marvel’s screen presence. Marvel owns his rights, but we shouldn’t expect him on the big screen anytime soon. Marvel’s screen presence is strictly PG-13, and he’s definitely an R character.
On the other hand, the Punisher has a history with Daredevil, making the show a perfect way to to reintroduce him to Netflix audiences. Daredevil’s world, especially as it exists on Netflix, is a dark, violent one into which Frank Castle will fit easily.
If you want to use the next few days to get familiar with black clad, skull-bearing angel of vengeance, here are a few ways to get to know him better.
For a quick fix, check out the aforementioned Dirty Laundry short, which is definitely NSFW:
If you respond to it anything like I did, you’ll have a hard time accepting Jon Bernthal as the Punisher. In this short, and the movie it follows, Frank Castle is Tom Jane’s character.
For a more in depth look, look no further than the Punisher’s run under Marvel’s MAX label, a label intended specifically for adult readers. Writer Garth Ennis put the vigilante through the ringer for 60 issues, including an intense 6-issue arc that had Castle taking down a sex slavery ring (See Punisher Max 25-30). Much of the run excellent, including some incredible cover art on top of the usual ultra violence. These are easy to find issue-by-issue on Comixology, as is the what-if one-shot, Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe . Maybe this is what Iron Man is worried about in Civil War.
If you want to go a bit further back, the Punisher’s Circle of Blood storyline from 1986 was Marvel’s first big venture into the Punisher’s violent world, and has been collected as a trade paperback that’s pretty cheap on Amazon.
For a look directly at the dynamic between the Punisher and Daredevil, Daredevil vs. Punisher: Means & Ends is a good place to start.
If you just don’t have time, the show should do a fine job of introducing the character, but with a bit of background you may be able to pick up on a few more easter eggs and references and enjoy the character that much more.