It’s official; Marvel’s taking another crack at the Punisher, making him a featured character in Daredevil. Hopefully, though, it goes one step further, and brings the Punisher back to his roots as a villain.
It’s the simplest rule of writing a bad guy: The best villains are the ones convinced that what they’re doing is right. The Punisher is a perfect example of a noble goal taken to extreme ends, and furthermore, he’s sympathetic enough that you can almost root for him. The man’s entire family was killed solely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course he snapped. Who wouldn’t?
Really, it might be the only way to get audiences to accept the Punisher at this point. The Punisher, as a character, is something of a cultural relic. At the time he was created, more than 40 years ago now, America was in the middle of an enormous upswing in criminal activity fueled by a mix of entrenched organized crime, the rise of drug gangs, and the sputtering of the American economy after a post-war boom finally ran out in the mid-’70s. People were terrified, and the pop culture of the time tended to reflect that: The same year the Punisher debuted, Death Wish arrived in theaters. The idea of a vigilante running around pumping bullets into dope pushers and mafiosi was a credible one.
But it’s the 21st century: Domestic crime rates have been dropping since the ’90s, and the larger social anxieties characters like the Punisher reflected have largely become the domain of Facebook rants and cable-news chat-show guests making fools of themselves. We’re more worried about police abuses at home and extremists abroad than we are about drug dealers. The Mafia is now reality show fodder and iconography for musicians to pilfer. Even Daredevil reflects this; the show’s “gangs” mostly turn out to be ninjas and mystical supervillains instead of actual gangsters.
Furthermore, it’s getting harder and harder to argue the lone wolf with a massive arsenal can be seen as a heroic character when that’s more or less the description of the modern domestic terrorist. The comics have largely gotten around it either by dialing back the violence or by sending Frank after some of the absolute worst monsters actually operating in society today. Still, it’s something audiences will have in the back of their minds.
So go full-bore, Marvel. Make the Punisher a villain. After all, you’ve got Shane playing him, so anything else would really be a waste.