The Punisher is one of those characters no one's really quite sure how to approach. Writers are hesitant to use him to his full extent, and fans shy away from naming him as their favorite. At his core, he's ultimately a simple character with simple stories: Bad men do bad things, Punisher shoots the bad men, end of line. Because he's so apparently bloodthirsty, he makes an awkward character for most writers aiming at a teenage audience. He's difficult to write for, can be difficult to read, and apparently very difficult to adapt into another medium, if all the movies and the recent Netflix series are any indication. Does that make the Punisher a bad character? We don't think so, but we're not here to change minds.
Some of us really enjoy the Punisher. The simple catharsis of one man taking extreme measures to fight excessively evil criminals can be enjoyable, and some writers can really knock it out of the park with the character. But that's not to say he doesn't have his flaws. This list isn't looking to be a Punisher hit piece, and certainly isn't out to make Punisher fans mad, although it inevitably will. We'll cover flaws inherent to the character, and more metatextual flaws from the world outside the comics. If you think we got it wrong, or we missed any, be sure to let us know in the comments, but remember: the Punisher thinks leaving mean comments is a crime.
20 HE'S LIGHTLY FASCIST
Coming in HOT with our first entry. While the Punisher operates entirely outside the left-right political spectrum, he still employs methods troublingly similar to fascist dictatorships. For the Punisher, there is right and wrong, and no middle ground in between. If you commit a crime, you get shot.
He views violence as not just a tool for social change, but the only tool. Although he often finds himself at odds with authority figures, more often than not he gains the tacit approval of police officers in-universe. However, he lacks the rampant nationalism and general social conservatism that defines most fascist movements.
19 WRITERS MAKE HIM MORE FASCIST THAN HE IS
The Punisher is a divisive character. He's violent, and doesn't leave much room for moral ambiguity. Writers at Marvel also occasionally use him as the butt of a joke or denigrate him due to their personal issues with the character.
We say "writers," but really this entry is directed at one writer in particular, who we won't name because we're not jerks like that. But still, some writers characterize the Punisher as way more fascist than he is. In Secret Empire he joins up with the literal Nazis who have taken over the United States, despite being helmed by a collection of supervillains who just murdered Las Vegas. Not a great look.
18 HE HAS AN IMPOSSIBLE GOAL
While Frank Castle generally sticks on the low end of crime, targeting unpowered, non-super criminals, he does have an endgame. The attack on his family broke his brain, and he now seeks to eradicate all crime through extreme violence.
Leaving aside the problems with solving crime through violence, eliminating crime altogether is the next best thing to impossible, especially for one man. While Frank certainly could manage it if he turned to more superpowered means like mind control, that would remove the punishment aspect of his crusade that he so desperately craves. Frank's biggest problem, though, is the opposition of both law enforcement and superheroes.
Speaking of impossible goals, Frank is so single-minded about his crusade that it devolves to the point of mania. Even Frank knows his battle against crime will never actually succeed, but he doesn't care. His family's executions were dealt with long ago, but he still follows his impossible nightmare because stopping would be worse.
Losing his family broke Frank on a fundamental level, completing the transformation that began on the battlefields of Vietnam/Afghanistan/wherever they update his origin to next. He hurls himself into danger with an almost suicidal fervor, although he doesn't actually want to die. At least, not before he's finished his work.
16 DOESN'T REALLY FIT IN A SUPERHERO UNIVERSE
Most superheroes are generally averse to murder, even when it comes to the worst villains. Even the unpowered heroes still largely fight supercriminals dressed in colorful costumes with zany schemes. The Punisher reveals the seedy underbelly of the Marvel Universe, filled with real crime, and criminals that don't go quietly to the insane asylum then escape a week later.
Frank Castle exposes the general ineffectiveness of superheroes, which is not to say his methods are any more effective at social change than superheroes. Often, due to his wildly differing moral values, he is forced into conflict with heroes who can't bring him down, and he can't shoot.
15 KEEPS JOINING SUPERHERO TEAM-UPS
Even worse than being forced into conflict with superheroes is the Punisher's frequent team-ups with superheroes. While there are certain superheroes who agree with his methods, if not his extremity, he usually ends up paired with heroes like Daredevil and Spider-Man, who strongly object to the Punisher's murderous ways.
The best Punisher comics take place outside the main Marvel continuity, which allows Frank to operate without scraping up against the upright moral standards of other superheroes. Moreover, it allows writers to introduce truly vile, but realistic, criminal villains that don't raise questions about the efficacy of Marvel's superheroes, and can be Franked at the end of a story without fear of a return.
14 NO LONG-TERM VILLAINS
This is less of a character/writing flaw and more of a flaw that makes Punisher harder to write for. It's also entirely by design. Because of Frank's methods, he has very few long term villains, since most criminals he faces end their story arcs with a bullet in their brain. The only (usual) recurring villain he gets is Jigsaw, and it's more of a running joke that he keeps surviving Frank's increasingly brutal murders.
He'll occasionally clash with some of Marvel's more low-power supervillains, like Kingpin or Bullseye, but due to the nature of superhero comics, everyone usually walks away from these confrontations relatively unscathed.
13 WRITERS DON'T KNOW HOW TO HANDLE HIM
We've already gone over how certain writers make Frank more of a Nazi than he is, but really, that's indicative of a larger problem writers have with the character. He's violent, uncompromising, and he uses a whole lot of guns. Most left-leaning writers (and so, most comic writers) have trouble with a character that, to their eyes, glorifies gun violence.
Most of the flaws on this list make Frank Castle hard to write for. He doesn't have a large stable of consistent villains to draw on, he's a mass murderer, and most of all he's damaged in a more realistic way than the comic book insanity most superhero writers are used to dealing with.
12 KEEPS GETTING BAD ADAPTATIONS
The Punisher has been adapted to live action several times since his creation. Three movies and a Netflix series all brought a different vision of Frank Castle to the screen, and somehow none of them really got it right. The movies were all some combination of campy and self-serious, without the quality that defines the best Punisher comics.
The Netflix series almost got it right, but at some point the creators forgot to include Frank Castle shooting the bad men in the majority of the series. The very first episode even starts with Frank putting away his guns and Punisher vest. But the most glaring flaw in the adaptations is changing Frank's backstory. Instead of his family being the victims of the crossfire of an unrelated shootout, the Castle family (and Frank) are instead targeted by the main villains.
11 PLOT ARMOR FOR DAYS
In superhero comics, most of the protagonists have some form of "plot armor." That is to say, the plot occasionally bends reality to prevent the story from ending to early. Usually this means things like Batman walking away unscathed from a hail of gunfire, or Spider-Man keeping his identity hidden.
Punisher, however, takes the cake when it comes to plot armor. Not only does he regularly survive shootouts, he easily avoids capture by the police, and even on the rare occasions he is sent to jail, he either escapes or is released. With a body count in the thousands, it's a wonder police officers aren't ordered to shoot on sight.
10 MASS MURDERER
How did it take us so long to get to this one? Frank franks a lot of criminals. A LOT. Most comics put his body count in the thousands. When he has a particularly angry night, he's murdered more than a hundred people in a single night.
While part of his body count is just down to being around for so long without getting caught or shot himself, Frank is still a one-man murder factory. Even before becoming the Punisher, Frank slaughtered his way across Vietnam/Afghanistan. His experience in war, it could be said, awoke the violence within him that led to him donning the Punisher's skull after his family's tragic murder.
9 BROKEN BEFORE THE PUNISHER
Speaking of Frank's military service, he's heavily tied to the Vietnam War, although later comics would update his service to Afghanistan. Vietnam was a turning point for America, where our role as "the good guys" came into question.
Compare Frank Castle to Captain America. Both veterans, but one came back from war ready to snap into the Punisher, the other awoke to become essentially the moral center of the Marvel Universe. The Punisher was created as the Vietnam War was at last winding down, and more and more veterans with PTSD came home. Frank Castle offered a look at the darker side of war that Captain America often lacked.
8 LIKES WHAT HE DOES
Frank Castle's brokeness manifests mostly in his enjoyment of his work. While he doesn't show it, and probably doesn't feel much joy over anything after his family's murder, you don't do what he does for decades if it doesn't satisfy some urge within you. The battle at Firebase Valley Forge in Vietnam awoke his primal joy at murder.
This enjoyment is the only reason he survived on that hill in Vietnam, and the only reason he continues his hopeless crusade. While Frank doesn't necessarily like that he lost his family, he still knew the inevitability that he would lose them in one way or another, and descend into a life of violence.
7 TIED TO AN HISTORICAL EVENT
Due to the ongoing, episodic, never-ending nature of superhero comics, it's hard to tie characters to specific historical events. It works fine for immortal or near-enough characters like Vandal Savage and Wolverine, but for others, it introduces a whole host of problems. Captain America gets away with his ties to World War 2 because of his suspended animation. But others, like Magneto and the Punisher, need some updates.
Frank Castle was introduced as a Vietnam veteran. Unfortunately, that in turn would make him older and older as years went by. Eventually, he was updated to an Afghanistan veteran, but Afghanistan doesn't hold nearly the same weight in the American psyche as Vietnam. Garth Ennis avoided this problem in Punisher MAX by fixing Frank's timeline, separate from the sliding timeline of the main universe.
6 A RELIC OF HIS TIME
More than Vietnam, Frank is tied to a particular kind of anti-hero from the 1970s and 80s. Creator Gerry Conway cited as a direct inspiration The Executioner, a book series about a Vietnam veteran who becomes a serial killer of criminals after his family is driven to suicide by the Mafia.
The Executioner is one of many "man's family is murdered by criminals, so he takes the law into his own hands" stories that sprang up around the same time, the most famous likely being the Death Wish series. Although the novel was published in 1972, the series still shows an eerie synchronicity with the Punisher, as the character and the movie debuted in the same year, 1974.
5 DESTROYED THE HUMAN RACE ONE TIME
Remember how we said Frank Castle is insane? Well, that one little word doesn't really do him justice. His mania is so single-minded, that he once (in an alternate continuity) wiped out the last remnants of the human race after nuclear war. In Marvel's The End, writers took a look at various heroes and how they handled the apocalypse.
Garth Ennis took The Punisher: The End and saw Frank find the last remnants of the wealthy and powerful men who drove the world to World War 3 and humanity to near-extinction. They offered him a choice: let them live, and they would rekindle humanity with genetic samples they had stored, or do his Punisher thing. Frank chose the latter, naturally. Interestingly, this story is considered the "canon" ending for Ennis' Punisher MAX continuity.
4 MAYBE INAPPROPRIATE FOR MODERN TIMES
In 2018, there were 323 mass shootings. When the first season of the Punisher Netflix series was set to debut in 2017, a mass shooting caused the creators and Netflix to delay the release. At the end of the day, regardless of who he shoots, the Punisher murders hundreds of people.
This is perhaps at the root of many writers' troubles with the Punisher. He brings up a lot of unpleasant imagery for modern times, and even the best writers have trouble addressing gun violence in the real world, let alone through the lens of a fictional character whose whole deal is shooting loads of bad guys without remorse.
3 IDOLIZED BY PEOPLE WHO DEFINITELY SHOULDN'T
Every so often, there's controversy about military or police using the Punisher's skull logo on their uniform or patrol car. On the surface, it makes sense. The Punisher stops bad guys, police stop bad guys. But underneath, it's far darker. While the Punisher does murder a whole lot of criminals, his methods are shown to be ineffective and the product of severe emotional trauma.
Further, a police officer who wants to punish criminals rather than rehabilitate them is at the core of America's broken criminal justice system. From this notion that criminals should be punished comes for-profit prisons with hellish conditions, police shootings of unarmed victims, and police brutality on a massive scale. The Punisher is exactly the wrong kind of character for police officers to look up to or emulate.
2 HIS FAMILY IS AN EXCUSE
We already went over one of the harshest truths of the Punisher, that he enjoys what he does. We also mentioned that those directly responsible for his family's murders have already been dealt with. That brings us to another harsh reality of the Punisher and his crusade: his family's demise is an excuse for what he does.
He developed his love of violence in Vietnam/Afghanistan, and could never truly leave it behind. Both Garth Ennis and Jason Aaron offer a glimpse of what would happen to Frank had his family not been slain, in Punisher MAX. Ennis provides a dream of a quiet family life, although he implies that this is a happy fantasy Frank uses to fool himself. Aaron, on the other hand, showed Frank wanting a divorce mere moments before his family is slain.
1 REALLY JUST KIND OF DEPRESSING
Put all these things together, and the Punisher is just kind of a bummer, man. A man gets thrown into the meat grinder of Vietnam, and comes out the other side with severe trauma. He sees his family, including his two children, slain in front of him in a random act of violence.
He goes on an endless, unwinnable war against crime. Thousands of men and women are left in his wake. The real world social situation leaves him further and further behind, but the nature of ongoing superhero comics allows him no rest. He simply has his unending war, to fight from here to oblivion.