Features and Columns · TV

A New Punisher Comic Makes Way for the Character’s MCU Introduction

The new Marvel series from Jason Aaron, Jesūs Saiz, and Paul Azaceta works hard to alter the character’s motivation and make him comfortable for mass consumption.
The Punisher Marvel Comic
Marvel Comics
By  · Published on March 11th, 2022

Marvel Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, comics, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry reviews the new Punisher comic book series and how it paves the way for Frank Castle’s arrival in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

One of the loudest applause moments in SpiderMan: No Way Home occurs early on and doesn’t have much impact on the narrative but holds tremendous potential for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward. Matt Murdock, Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock from the Netflix Daredevil series, sits in Aunt May’s apartment offering legal advice to the recently outed Peter Parker. When an unseen bystander hurls a brick through their window, the supposedly blind Murdock catches the projectile before Parker’s Peter Tingle even registers the attack.

“How did you do that?” asks the kid. “I’m a really good lawyer,” says Murdock. We in the crowd roar with delightful recognition. We know Murdock as Daredevil, the Hell’s Kitchen crusader with extrasensory perception.

Yes, we’re shocked to see him because he belongs to the Netflix Marvel universe alongside other shows like Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and The Punisher. Their universe is a hard R realm, where sex and violence flow copiously. It’s as nasty and brutal as the MCU is bright and optimistic. They shouldn’t mix, but the two worlds sit impossibly together in SpiderMan: No Way Home.

Are We Ready for an R-Rated MCU?

As the film progresses and we become more and more comfortable with the Multiverse concept, we can consider this Matt Murdock to be a different Matt Murdock than the one seen on the streaming service. And the same can be said for Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin when he goes a few rounds with Clint Barton and Kate Bishop in the Hawkeye Disney+ series. Same faces, different characters. Maybe. It’s just a theory.

What’s undeniable is that Marvel Studios is folding the Netflix continuities into their franchise. Starting March 16, Daredevil and its sibling shows, as well as ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., will make Disney+ their new home. With their inclusion, Disney is also improving their parental controls, hopefully steering younger viewers away from the newly included naughty bits. Good luck, ‘rents.

With decapitations and bloody knuckle beatings now part of their milieu, can we expect the MCU to broaden its tone into grittier realms? From what we’ve seen of their upcoming Moon Knight series, Marvel entertainment could be getting a touch rougher and even slightly scarier. They’re also making way for Blade, their iconic vampire slayer soon to be played by Mahershala Ali.

A New Logo for the Punisher

This week, we could have received our best insight into how gnarly the future MCU may behave. After much to-do, including the usual fan outrage over a costume change (we’ll get to that in a moment), Punisher #1 by Jason Aaron, Jesūs Saiz, and Paul Azaceta hit comic book shops. Within its pages is a promise for a bold new direction regarding the murder-happy vigilante Frank Castle, which hopefully better aligns his particular skillset with the bright superhero universe that also contains Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and so many other Avengers.

To call the Punisher a complicated character is an absurd understatement. He originally appeared in 1979’s The Amazing SpiderMan #129. As originally envisioned by creators Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr., and Ross Andru, the Punisher was a crazed Spider-Man foil, Peter Parker’s vigilantism taken to its most extreme.

Born from a period where crime terrified the nightly news, the same era that bore Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and real-life subway assassin Bernie Goetz, Frank Castle seemed like a logical manifestation within Marvel Comics. The system failed to protect Castle’s family, and after their death, he donned the Punisher persona as a means to accomplish what the government could not. He represented total societal despair, a feeling that grew throughout the eighties and nineties.

In recent years, the Punisher’s skull emblem has been adopted by extremist police officers, military units, and white supremacists. Marvel has mostly stayed mum regarding this heinous assimilation of their character logo, but it does appear that they’ve taken action regarding its future relationship with Frank Castle. In the Punisher #1 reboot, Castle no longer sports the traditional skull on his chest. Instead, a slightly altered, somewhat less human, far more fanciful skull stares blankly below his chin.

No One Kills Quite Like the Punisher

Explaining the costume change is even more troublesome. As we learn throughout the issue, the Punisher is no longer a lone gunman. He’s working for the villain organization, the Hand. They’re those pesky ninjas that frequently come into conflict with Daredevil in his Netflix series.

Under their guidance, Castle ditches his usual machine guns, slaying their targets with swords. The bloodshed is certainly not reduced. Punisher #1 features multiple decapitations, impalings, and slit throats. At one point, the Hand presents Castle with a roomful of supposed “murders who went free, rapists, and abusers of children.” Without asking any follow-up questions, Castle chops his way through their soft, bound bodies.

Punisher #1’s subtitle is “The King of Killers.” The Hand have encountered many skillful combatants in their time, but never anyone as successful at slaughtering as Frank Castle. He’s apparently as good as a hundred, maybe even a thousand Hand ninja. Understanding that improbability may come with further issues, but as explained here, it’s fairly baffling and weirdly maneuvers Frank Castle into the white savior trope. There is no one else in their clan who can kill as good as the Punisher? Really?

Altering the Punisher’s Motivations and Logo

As you read your way through the first issue, hovering above everything is the question as to why Frank Castle would throw in with the Hand. During his comic book tenure, the character has joined many questionable superteams, including Midnight Sons,  Heroes for Hire, the Secret Defenders, the Thunderbolts, and the Savage Avengers (alongside Conan the Barbarian!). Yet, Castle has never served a demon before. Oh, yeah, the Hand take orders from a hellspawn called the Beast.

Frank Castle’s motivation becomes clear on the issue’s final page. SPOILERS, friends. Skip ahead if you don’t want to know. The Hand has done the impossible. Using their dark magic, they’ve resurrected Maria, Castle’s murdered bride. The cliffhanger sees her cuddled up against her husband, her chest and face scarred with bullet holes. What about their two dead kids? We’ll need to buy the next issue to learn more.

Punisher #1 is a wildly strange swerve for the character. In pairing him with the Hand, Aaron, Saiz, and Azaceta force Castle to operate openly with the superhero world, or the supervillain world. Of course, it’s not the first time the Punisher has played nice with the costumed types. After Marvel’s Civil War event, writer Matt Fraction put Frank Castle in a modified Captain America costume for an odd spell. In his War of the Realms storyline, even Jason Aaron had Castle battling Frost Giants and other mythological beasties. What’s most unique about Punisher #1 is the skull logo alteration and how it coincides with Marvel Studios positioning the Netflix characters into its back-catalog.

Recognizing the Punisher’s Value

Frank Castle is merchandise. He’s movies and TV shows to be made, action figures to be sold. They’re not looking to cuddle him up too much. Again, so many severed limbs! But they got to find a way to make their audience feel comfortable wearing his logo on their t-shirts. Right now, that’s not possible. We’re cool with Stormtrooper tees and Darth Vader coffee mugs, but we’re not eager to associate our wardrobe with the Punisher’s jolly roger just yet.

Marvel could easily walk all this costume drama back. They’re not saying whether this new skull is permanent or not. But we do know, thanks to an interview I conducted with frequent Punisher writer Garth Ennis on the Comic Book Couples Counseling podcast, that Frank Castle will have another mini-series in the very near future. Ennis’ new comic will return to Frank Castle’s time during the Vietnam War, where he and Nick Fury got up to no good. But, it must be noted this is also a period where no costume exists.

Punisher #1 is Marvel feeling out their IP and testing the water. They’re slowly removing him from the political conversation that birthed him, and he’s no longer a response to an apathetic, corrupt, and ineffective judicial system. If Maria and their kids are alive, his vengeance quest is no longer necessary. He now kills for love, to protect them, and keep them in his life.

Future plots must push the Punisher further into inherently exaggerated and ridiculous superhero narratives. How long can they maintain such momentum before he’s uprooted from what made him popular in the first place? The Punisher began as a recognition that our society is broken. When he’s no longer commenting on that, is he still the Punisher? Does it matter whether he is or not? Do we even need a Punisher? Only you and your dollars can answer that.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)