We’re All One Bad Day Away From Being Punisher

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“You’re just one bad day away from becoming me.” – Punisher

One sentence. One sentence that separates the psycho vigilante from the morality obsessed Matt Murdock.

One sentence that sent my mind rewinding, cartoon-style, to the following panels in the original Civil War comic series.

Image: Marvel
Image: Marvel
Image: Marvel
Image: Marvel
Image: Marvel

“Are you kidding me? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam. Same guy, different war.” “Wrong. Frank Castle is insane.”

Those panels gut me every time. Every. Single. Time. Now, for what it’s worth, I’m never Team Cap. Never. I might be Team Chris Evans Is Adorable. I’m never Team Cap. He’s too self-righteously milquetoast for me. So, in the interest of honesty, I admit to a major bias. While watching Daredevil Season 2, my brain kept coming back to this scene. Cap punching Punisher after Castle has just blown away a bunch of villains attempting to join Cap’s team, and Cap calling him a murderous piece of trash. Gutted, I tell you.

Murdock’s boy scout morality in Daredevil, reminiscent of Captain America, and the continual facepunch of righteousness was possibly one of the few things that I found full-on annoying throughout Season 2. Admittedly, I feel that Marvel did a great job engaging all of us in the upcoming Civil War discussion. To the extent that the movie follows the general premise of the books regarding registration, yadda government yadda, the Castle/Murdock morality paradox is almost the defining discussion. In the same way that Comic Book Cap doesn’t trust Punisher because he’s insane, Netflix Daredevil doesn’t trust Punisher. And yet, as Shiri pointed out, Punisher is probably the most predictably moral character in all of Daredevil Season 2.

The difference between Civil War and Daredevil, of course, is that we feel bad for Punisher getting his heinie kicked by his hero in Civil War. Punisher, however, manages to beat the everloving crap out of Daredevil several times. Taking the pathos out of the scene, to me, removes some of what’s most important. In Civil War, Cap’s continuous pummeling of Punisher begs the question: who’s really insane?

All of this, then, sent my little researcher soul into a tizzy. I wasn’t reading Punisher when the book first came out. So, how can I even begin to geekalyze this? I need primary documents, y’all. And off to my Marvel Unlimited account I went. (Totally not paid for, that plug. I just totes love my Unlimited account for this kind of thing and for teaching.) Lo and behold, in Punisher #1, a private non-governmental entity engages Punisher to help protect New York. But let’s take a look at some of the imagery. After Punisher kills a whole mess of Rykers Island’s “Most Wanted,” he is revealed in all his muscular glory as the warden, a quasi-police/military figure, tells the guards that Castle is to be left alone:

Image: Marvel
Image: Marvel

Something about this image struck me. I went back to Captain America #1, and all y’all, I was mind-diggity-blown:

Image: Marvel
Image: Marvel

Let’s not forget that the vague green tint to Punisher evokes the Hulk’s rage monster qualities. However, first keep in mind, in Hulk #1, our favorite green rage monster wasn’t entirely bright green but a gray-green. Second, the first transformation of Hulk is in a several-panel series as opposed to Cap’s back-to-us transformation. In both Captain America #1 and Punisher #1, the titular characters gain authority from officials with their back to the audience in similar stances. The physical imagery in these works is utilized to show the transfer of physical power and moral authority to these characters.

The contrast in the images, however, speaks more loudly than the similarities. Cap is pictured as having a white halo of light emanating from his body while a blue light is cast upon Frank’s body. While Cap’s power comes from within him, Frank’s appears to be cast upon him without his consent. This imagery shows the difference between their moralities. Steve Rogers chose to take the side of righteousness of his own volition. He volunteered to speak for the weak and to stand up to those who would do evil. Frank Castle had injustice showered upon him in a rain of bullet fire killing his family. He chose his path not out of a sense of righteousness but out of a sense of vindication for the innocent. There’s a difference. Although both fight for the weak, their methodologies differ.

These methodologies are both visually and narratively based in their first issues. Steve Rogers volunteers to be a solider, causing the government to transform him into his alter ego. Frank volunteers to be a soldier, and later, his alter ego Punisher is asked to avenge a helpless city. Steve represents the naïveté of a New York City engaging in a battle overseas. Frank represents the cynicism of a New York City engaging in a battle with its own people. Captain America desires the end of the inhuman, un-American violence raging in Europe. Punisher desires the end of the inhuman, un-American violence raging in his own city. Their desires are the same. Their origins are different. Their morality is the same. Their methods are different.

Morality is one of those mushy amoeba things. We want to think that there is a right and a wrong. We want to think that morality is black and white. “Oh no, I’d never kill someone,” we tell ourselves. But then, as parents, we look down at our children and realize that we would kill someone if it meant that was the only way to protect our kids. “Stealing is wrong,” we say. Then we imagine ourselves in a Jean Valjean-style situation, and we realize that we would indeed steal that loaf of bread to feed our family. In the end, we’re all just one bad day from being Frank Castle, even when we really want to be Cap.

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4 thoughts on “We’re All One Bad Day Away From Being Punisher

  1. Definition of milquetoast; a very timid, unassertive, spineless person, especially one who is easily dominated or intimidated. This word does not apply to Captain America in any interpretation of the character. Let me give you a Cap quote; Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, you move.” That is not the quote of a self righteous person. That is a self sacrificing hero that holds up specific ideals. I think you need to spend a little more time in your Marvel Unlimited before you go making incorrect statements about a hero.

    1. Fair enough assessment. My personal connotation was more that milquetoast was a bland, one dimensional do-good character. I often think in terms of Melanie Wilkes from Gone with the Wind who was the epitome of “good” but who also had a strong spine underneath that. I don’t much like Superman, either, in the same vein. However, you are correct, my general interpretation of the word and the dictionary definition were different.

      1. The biggest issue with Superman is that if you don’t have a shiny green rock or a magic wand he is pretty much unbeatable. That can make for some seriously bland storytelling.

  2. The article is amazing first of all Mrs. Walsh. I’m glad to see someone elaborating on the Punisher and his hero, Cap. To really take the time and analyze Frank as a person is no easy thing, but you seem to have done it well. For morality to exist, it would have to depend on who it is first. Captain America fought a righteous war against oppression and the evil that was Hydra. Punisher simply does what Cap once did all of those years ago. Also, so glad someone pointed out how stingy Daredevil can be with the law (even though he’s a vigilante). But I think that is what makes the Punisher vs. Daredevil dichotomy so special when they meet. Both try to do good, but at the end of the day Frank trusts death over the legal system that did nothing to stop and capture the people who ended his family before his very eyes. Anyways, keep up the good work!, and good luck with you’re new job at Hartford!

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