The Punisher is a character who is somehow not only one of Marvel’s best anti-heroes but also the company’s greatest Batman villain.
The Punisher just might be Marvel’s most controversial hero and it’s not hard to see why. Since he first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #129, Frank Castle has been one of the few mainstream heroes who uses lethal force against his enemies. Whereas most heroes of the time and even today put their antagonists in jail, Castle had no issues with simply putting a bullet in their heads and calling it a day.
Arguably because of how unconventional he is, The Punisher has garnered quite a following that defies industry norms. Over the years, however, the character has become controversial thanks to what some view as a glorification of gun violence as mass shootings in the United States become almost a regular occurrence. In an effort to dissuade people from idolizing the character, Marvel has done everything it can to make sure that The Punisher, his mission and his lifestyle are as unappealing as possible. In addition, most portrayals suggest that the character is seriously unwell, mentally ill, or just a straight-up psychopath himself who is no better than those he kills. In fact, you could make the argument that The Punisher is Marvel’s greatest Batman villain.
The Punisher first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 during Gerry Conway’s and John Romita Sr.’s legendry run on the book. To the shock of everyone at Marvel, the character really clicked with readers despite of the character’s lack of powers and his 80s/90s action movie hero persona. Frank Castle would eventually get his own series of books that notably included the 1987 series titled The Punisher. The Marvel anti-hero would head another series known as The Punisher: Warzone in the 90s, with Bane co-creator and Batman: Knightfall writer Chick Dickson penning most of the series. There was, however, an overriding theme of shlock to the books that, while fun, led many to dismiss the character for any serious examination or discussion.
In his intro to The Punisher: The Complete Series Volume 1 from MAX Comics, longtime Punisher writer and The Boys co-creator Garth Ennis talked about this particular angle. He recounted a convention he attended in the late 1980s and a panel that he was an audience member for that discussed violence in comics. When the subject of The Punisher was brought up, the prevailing sense was that the character was not worthy of serious discussion on the subject of violence. Even during his own run on the Marvel Knights Punisher series, Ennis himself fully admits that, deep down, he still saw the character as a subject unworthy of serious discussion. This would change during his run on the MAX imprint of the character where the Batman antagonist similarities really began to show their face.
Garth Ennis’ run on the Max Imprint of The Punisher is arguably not only the best work the man has ever done but probably the best work anyone has ever done with the character. What makes the book so compelling is that it takes the darker subtext of the character and brings it all to the forefront. Right from the start, it’s very clear that Frank Castle isn’t a good person. His need to fight and kill criminals is pathological and his constant drive to kill those who he feels deserve it, regardless of extenuation circumstances, paints the portate of a man who is, at the very least, deeply unwell if not flat out psychotic. His inner monologues expand upon this, with the titular antihero flat out admitting that killing mobsters is the only thing that gives him any measure of peace. The prequel miniseries Punisher: Born further dives into this, with him killing his fellow soldiers who do something he sees as wrong and showing that he was deeply unwell even before his family was killed. All of this fits the profile of a Batman antagonist through and through.
Like many of Batman’s more interesting antagonists, The Punisher is one who initially starts out with a sympathetic origin. His family was killed by mobsters, setting him on a path of revenge against those who wronged him in the first place. But also like many of those Batman antagonists, The Punisher’s war didn’t end there, escalating from those who initially wronged him to everyone who rubs him the wrong way. Upon further examination of the character’s past, you find that the character wasn’t entirely right beforehand, making it clear that the person in question does deserve sympathy but probably needs professional help a lot more.
Punisher-like antagonists are no stranger to Batman either. Former Robin Jason Todd, for example, was a kid who grew up in the streets and became Batman’s sidekick. Following his death and resurrection, he became one of Batman’s more complicated antagonists, The Red Hood. Even after the two reconciled, Jason Todd’s continued use of lethal force remained a source of contention between the two. Likewise, Azrael was a character who took up Batman’s mantle and was far more ruthless and brutal on criminals. In addition, you had a character like Mr. Freeze whose initial revenge motivation is one of the best Batman stories ever created but future stories saw that justification melt away. The most obvious parallel, however, comes in the form of Two-Face.
Two-Face’s story has been written and rewritten several times since he was first created but his origin story always follows a few basic beats that are not all that dissimilar to that of Frank Castle. In most versions, Dent starts out as a charismatic, handsome district attorney of Gotham City who is arguable just as much of a beacon of hope for Gotham as Batman. In his battles with the mob, Dent is horribly disfigured and goes after the mobsters who were at least in part responsible for what happened to him. Afterwards, however, the character sadly continues to go down the criminal path, sometimes a vigilante and other times a more stereotypical Batman antagonist who tries to take over the city, rob banks, and such.
Like the Punisher, Two-Face often shows signs of a disturbed mental state even before his disfigurement. We saw how eager the character was to kidnap and intimidate a suspect in The Dark Knight and more than likely committed several murders in the comic Batman: The Long Halloween before his disfigurement. In Batman: The Animated Series, Two-Face notably already had a split personality before his disfigurement stemming from childhood abuse, leading to a third personality. All this points to a character who was disturbed far before his initial tragic origin, making a character like The Punisher far more akin to him than we give him credit for.
The best example of The Punisher being Marvel’s best Batman villain, however, comes in the form of his portrayal in Daredevil season two by Jon Berthnal, where the creative team all but shouts all this. Daredevil season two sadly wasted a lot of goodwill generated by the first one, but everyone seemed to agree that when the series focused on Berthenal’s Punisher, the season was at its best. This is also where the Batman villain parallels come to full light.
In the show, The Punisher argues about arresting and fighting criminals versus flat out killing them, making the same arguments that Batman has with his more lethal peers. As the season goes on, you discover that The Punisher suffered from brain damage that more than likely stripped him of his ability to distinguish right from wrong. This leads Nelson and Murdock to try and get him acquitted for numerous murders on an insanity plea. Further digging into his backstory also reveals that he may not have been entirely right in the head from the getgo and was only enhanced by the brain damage he suffered. Furthermore, even after killing all of those who wronged him in his own series, he is all too eager to jump right back into the vigilante business the moment an opportunity presents itself.
In the end, The Punisher remains one of Marvel’s more controversial heroes and it’s not difficult to see why. However, it is also interesting when you realize just how much in common the character has with Batman villains and how Marvel plays with this concept. It is funny how, whether intentionally or not, The Punisher is Marvel’s best Batman villain.