In my excitement I have started this essay four times. This is the fifth. I am not certain I can do the character of the Punisher justice with my analysis. I am too giddy for reasoned observations—too enraptured with Jon Bernthal’s performance. I have a soft spot for “hard” men like the Punisher—tough men who have had almost everything ripped from them but would gladly give the little they have left for family. For retribution. For some semblance of justice.
Punisher is not alone in fitting this description. Marvel possesses other bruisers and brawlers such as Luke Cage and Wolverine (both characters I have long adored). And Frank Castle is certainly not the only character to suffer a great loss. So what makes Punisher the perfect foil and counterpart to Daredevil? What sets him apart from his peers? Why is he uniquely qualified to be a part of the upcoming Defenders team and perhaps lead his own show? It is simple. Frank Castle is white.
That said? Marvel certainly does not want for white men. They are everywhere—from square-jawed patriots to cerebral playboys—saving the world from certain destruction as the rest of society watches in awe. For decades we have been provided with project after project of white men displaying feats of superhuman strength and uncanny intellectual prowess while women and people of color are there to provide assistance, but are rarely allowed to have their stories and desires take point.
A few years ago, David Brothers penned an excellent series on the trinity of black male representation in comics: the fantasy, the reality, and the ideal. I followed up later with one on black female characters. I believe this trinity extends to other groups, its balance wholly dependent on the group’s status in society. For white men, we have been presented overwhelmingly with an ideal not rooted in reality. Moreover, we have been presented with an ideal that is erroneously reinforced as reality via its ubiquitousness while the power fantasies of others are sublimated in response. Trinities work best when they are balanced. When they are not—as is the case with our entertainment industry’s depictions of white men—this is damaging not only to those who do not get to see themselves as heroes, but also to those who are told that they must always be heroes—that they are incapable of failing. In reality, perfection is unattainable. Perfection is Godly. The best of us are those who rise once more after they falter. For every Black Panther there must be a Luke Cage. And for every Superman there must be a Punisher.
“You must be something when you’re not wearing the long johns, right?”Frank Castle
In America, a man will never suffer the vicious inequities of institutionalized racism if he is white, but—as Frank Castle’s tale illustrates—whiteness does not prevent one’s life from going to complete shit. The existence of the Punisher is a novel acknowledgement of the suffering of a particular subset of white men, which is why I believe his popularity has undergone a rabid resurgence. The Frank we are shown in season two of Daredevil is not only very different from your average Marvel hero, but initially parallels the lives of so many working-class white men in Northeastern and Midwestern districts who are disillusioned with the American Dream. Both Frank Castle and Matt Murdock come from the same lower-middle-class white ethnic urban background. Matt is Irish American. Frank’s ethnicity is not given, but context clues place him as Italian American. What is so wonderful about the inclusion of Punisher as a foil to Daredevil—and that pivotal scene where Matt questions Frank about his upbringing—is that we can deduce the exact moment where the lives of Matt and Frank diverged.
Matt received an influx of cash and went to college. Frank went to war. Matt studied concepts of liberty and justice in classrooms where his worldview was questioned by multicultural multitudes. Frank was told what liberty and justice were by a lone man richer and whiter than he was. And was then ordered to kill for it. He made a living out of killing. Matt, foregoing the footsteps of his father, made his living with ideas. With words.
“You know you’re one bad day away from being me.”Frank Castle
Frank isn’t as wealthy as Tony, as smart as Peter, as worldly as Matt, as powerful as Bruce—but he was able to build a life for his family with this country’s help, just like any other white man a couple of generations deep into the GI Bill. Like so many others who went to the plants and the police stations, Frank buttoned that blue collar, albeit a camouflaged one, and went to work.
And then it all went to shit. And Frank went to pieces. But white men in America are not allowed to be broken. After all, we have been told time and time again that white men are the ideal. So broken pieces must be swept under the rug to keep said illusion in place. Frank suffered. Alone. With nothing more than the shattered remains of his home and his gun. The White Reality is that men who are not allowed to acknowledge their pain, who are not allowed to give voice to the truth that their American Dream has become a nightmare, lash out. Frank is bottled sorrow. Frank is unchecked anger.
Punisher is death.
Frank Castle’s reintroduction to the public could not be more perfectly timed or placed. The character is rooted in revenge, a ‘70s film sub genre made popular by Death Wish—making his gunplay the perfect bridge connecting Daredevil’s martial artistry and Luke Cage’s Blaxploitation exploits. His violent rampages are also therapeutic for white men who are similarly awash in a groundswell of anger. But unlike the vehement displays manifest in hate crimes (and occasionally political rallies), the Punisher’s actions are as subversive as they are frighteningly cathartic. And that subversion comes from the fact that Frank Castle does not blame his woes on some random invented outgroup that happens to be browner than he is, but on the actual individuals responsible for his suffering. Men he thought were his brothers. And in delivering his own personal brand of punishment to them he finds the first member of his new family along the way—Matt Murdock.
“I think I’m done.”Frank Castle
The Punisher’s introduction via Daredevil is vital because Matt gives Frank space to commit another subversive act for men: the act of grieving openly and passionately. And only Matt can do that because he represents home—a completion of the circle—in a way that no other character in the Marvel universe can. Matt Murdock, Daredevil, is just another boy from the neighborhood. As close as you can get to family without sharing blood or spilling it.
Next up: What I’d like to see in a Punisher series, why Misty Knight should be Frank Castle’s platonic ride-or-die (and vice versa), and why the two characters are the perfect bridge connecting Matt Murdock and Luke Cage.