The Punisher is one of the most divisive characters in the Marvel Universe — due to his own self-inflicted, unflinching worldview, he usually either gets written as a just-shy-of-psychotic killer, an obsolete remnant of the hawkish Reagan era, or as an out-and-out psychopath. As the skull on his uniform signifies, Frank Castle is a man who lives in a world of purely black and white, criminal or citizen. There is no sliding scale.
As such, Marvel sometimes allows things to be done with the Punisher that really don’t make sense for any character. He’s essentially a street-level character, alongside the likes of Daredevil or Spider-Man, but his code brings him in touch with seedier characters, gangsters, human traffickers, and mafiosi. So why has Punisher occasionally been brought back from the dead with superpowers? Why have a man who is so committed to a code of violence as to basically be a criminal himself act as a sanctimonious ad-man, or team up with Jughead, the burger eating champion of all of Riverdale? In the world of shifting comics identities, Castle’s is more or less the same, but the world into which he is placed always changes for the stranger. Check out the 16 most bonkers things that have ever happened to Frank Castle!
16. THE FIRST PUNISHER MOVIE
A lot of the first film of The Punisher looks incredibly good on paper: in 1989, the ultimate action stars for the picture would be Dolph Lundgren, and Louis Gossett Jr; filmed in Australia to get that Mad Max vibe; and it was an era when the Punisher brand was doing quite well in general. So what sank it? The critical reception was not stellar — many found the film to be overly, and unrelentingly, violent, which begs the question of whether they were familiar with the core concept ahead of time.
The cardinal sin of the film is that they left the Punisher’s skull off his costume — if you’re not going to commit to the comic book aesthetic, you shouldn’t be making a comic book movie. There would be no more Punisher movies for another 15 years, as a result.
15. HYDRA FRANK
Secret Empire was a swing and a miss for Marvel in a lot of ways, with the most prominent being the sullying of American hero Steve Rogers. But under the radar, they even managed to pull the ultimate swindle and take a character whose entire ethos is the killing of bad guys great and small, and turn him into a servant of a literal evil empire.
They changed the Punisher’s skull to a Hydra logo and Captain America sent him out on the missions where he needed someone good and killed. The writing seems to imply that Punisher is still such a good soldier that he would follow any order Captain America gave him, but Punisher is supposed to be a man of principles — and if a man with principles can’t punch a Nazi in the face, that man’s principles mean nothing.
14. ANTI-DRUNK DRIVING PSA
During the Nancy Reagan years in particular, public service announcements were everywhere: anti-littering; anti-drunk-driving; anti-making-fried-eggs-with-you-brain. Comics have always had a toe in the public service announcement industry, as comics are never will to turn away a paycheck to make one of their characters look good.
So of course, when given the opportunity to create an anti-drunk driving PSA, instead of using a sympathetic character with a history of alcoholism like Tony Stark, they decided it would be most effective to put the Punisher behind the bar, staring you down over the barrel of a semi-automatic rifle, surrounded by cigarette smoke that makes it look like he already shot you down. It’s extreme, but it’s easy to see what they’re going for — it’s just in poor taste.
13. TURNING HIM INTO A LITERAL BLACK GUY
Punisher had once again found himself in lockup after a long war with the Kingpin, and hoods led by Kingpin decided to find out the hard way if they could kill the Punisher. Led by Punisher’s nemesis Jigsaw, they beat him so badly that his face has to be hastily stapled back together (which allows him to escape prison, because comics).
He finds himself in the care of a drug-addicted prostitute who is also a doctor (noted alt-right comic creator Mike Baron wrote this issue), who promises to fix his face for him. When he wakes up, she’s turned him into a black man, complete with different hair and blue eyes. The look of horror on the Punisher’s face in the final splash reveal of his new face is nothing short of disgusting.
12. VENGEFUL ANGEL PUNISHER
The Punisher went through a lull in the ’90s, going from a few series running concurrently to several years without a single Punisher title. When finally relaunched, it sounded great on paper: they had Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegoski writing it, Jimmy Palmiotti inking, and one of the GOATs, Bernie Wrightson, illustrating (there are some seriously great sequences of Frank rising from the grave).
Unfortunately, that’s about the end of the positives. In the series, the Punisher comes back to life, brought back by the Castle family’s guardian angel (seriously) who dropped the ball and let Frank’s family get killed, so he brought Frank back to redeem himself for all his murders and also for the angel to redeem his own mistake (again, seriously). The worst part of all this is that they liked the idea so much they did it twice, but without Bernie Wrightson the second time.
11. THE SECOND PUNISHER MOVIE
In 2004, The Punisher was given another chance at the big screen, with Tom Jane bringing Frank Castle to life. This adaptation tries to stay true to the source material, returning the skull to the Punisher’s outfit, and leading him on an appropriately brutal quest for revenge. However, the film shifted locations to Tampa Bay, robbing the Punisher of his normal New Jersey hangout, and the unspoken “Marvel Universe” feeling of being in the slums of New York City.
Jane is a highlight of the movie, and even went on to self-produce his own short Punisher film a few years later entitled “Dirty Laundry.” Punisher would return to the big screens in 2008 for Ray Stevenson’s Punisher: War Zone, the first truly stellar Punisher movie.
10. PUNISHER KILLS THE MARVEL UNIVERSE
Periodically, a character will become so well-known and such a fan favorite that Marvel has to think up new and exciting ways to throw that character into a story with literally every other story in the Marvel Universe. It happened with Infinity Gauntlet, and then shortly thereafter, Marvel followed up with Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe.
The book wasn’t a hit until several years later when Garth Ennis took over the Punisher series. It’s a fun slice of the Marvel Universe, and leads to some truly groan-inducing confrontations, but the really impressive part is that he didn’t just manage to kill the Marvel Universe — he did it all in one issue. They tried the same gimmick a few years ago with Deadpool, and the results where similarly underwhelming.
9. PUNISHER: WAR JOURNAL
At the beginning of Civil War, it was decided that they should launch a Punisher series to coincide, and possibly carry on beyond the event. That series became Punisher: War Journal by Matt Fraction and Ariel Olivetti. The book only briefly dips its toe into Civil War before branching out into a variety of Punisher crusades, some more philosophically-driven than others.
The storytelling in the midpoint of the series is really solid, but they made the book tie into every single event they could think of, which throws off any and all narrative momentum. The really egregious part of the book is Ariel Olivetti’s presence — he’s an incredibly talented artist, but he turns the cartoonish dials up to 11 on every project he touches; the Punisher is already so much of a cartoon that making him that strangely rendered really pulls the reader out of the story.
8. ARCHIE MEETS THE PUNISHER
In 1994, when Marvel, DC, and the other comic book companies could still occasionally play together (see also: The Amalgam Universe), Marvel teamed up with Archie Comics to release Archie Meets the Punisher. The book is a curious artifact, with a Punisher who for once allows a criminal to live, and Archie characters staying in the character of Riverdale side-by-side with Punisher acting like he’s still in the New York piers.
For the duration of the book, John Buscema draws the Punisher and related characters, while Stan Goldberg draws the Archie universe characters — a true jam comic between two masters, which makes this one of the best-worst things Marvel has ever done to the Punisher. In lesser hands, this would have been a gag that did not pay off, but luckily, the disconnect feeds the humor and the book ends up being the funniest Punisher book ever.
7. SOSUMI BROWN, THE MANGA PUNISHER
Marvel’s Mangaverse is sometimes best forgotten — it had good intentions, but in practice often came off as a ham-handed attempt at sniping some of the ever-expanding manga audience and fans saw right through it. In the Mangaverse, the Punisher is not the Frank Castle we all know and love — the one who defends Tokyo from criminals of all stripe is a woman named Sosumi Brown, who specializes in fighting a local crime family, Skang Kee Ho (a joke that has not aged well).
Written by Peter David and illustrated by Lea Hernandez, they didn’t even manage to find a Japanese artist or writer to work on the project. There’s certainly a reason the Mangaverse was relatively short-lived and incredibly quickly forgotten, and Mangaverse Punisher is pretty high up on the list.
6. SUPER HERO SQUAD SHOW
The Marvel Super Hero Squad is a line of toys created for the younger set of Marvel fans — each figure is blocky and short, their already-primary colors are even brighter. In 2009, Marvel Animation brought a cartoon called the Super Hero Squad Show to Cartoon Network, featuring everyone’s favorite Avengers, and beyond. Including the Punisher was a misstep, however.
You can make a guy like the Hulk into someone whose temper goes over the top sometimes, but the Punisher doesn’t have a funny angle to it. Even with Ray Stevenson returning from Punisher: War Zone to voice the character, there’s no real place for a guy whose literal sole purpose in life is to avenge his murdered family with more murder to show up on a kids’ show.
5. PUNISHER: THE ULTIMATE PAYBACK!
In 1990, Marvel first dipped its toes into the Punisher video game arena with the NES The Punisher video game (directed by Chuck Dixon and John Romita Sr.); the game was such a success on the console that it was ported into a GameBoy game the next year, The Punisher: The Ultimate Payback! The game is mostly different on a cosmetic level — the controls are a little bit more basic, and you get to meet Spider-Man, but like any good port, it remains essentially the same game.
The downside is that the GameBoy was such a child-oriented product from the get-go, and the Punisher was from the world of four-color comics — in an age before video game rating systems, kids would have been playing a game that ends with the main character making an impassioned speech about how some people need penance, but Jigsaw? Well, he’ll just have to die.
4. FORCING HIM ONTO A TEAM
The one thing Punisher has never done well (aside from show any emotional growth) is play well with others. He goes to offer his help to Cap in Civil War, but kills two criminals who wanted to switch sides because he’s a man with a code. He doesn’t play well with team rules whatsoever. So when Red Hulk assembled his team of Thunderbolts (most of whom seem to have been invited purely due to red costumes), his inclusion of Punisher on the roster seemed like a mistake.
As the series went on, that seemed to bear out, with many subplots about criminals being brought in to work with the Thunderbolts (or being held captive by the Thunderbolts) getting started only for Frank Castle to come through, put a bullet between their eyes, and end the story early.
3. THE MONGOLIAN
This one is not only bad, it’s just straight-up weird. Punisher MAX was a hard-R rated book written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by a murderer’s row (no pun intended) of top notch talent, like Goran Parlov and Lewis Larosa. With Marvel’s relationship with the Comics Code Authority ended, they were free to do whatever they wanted with the Punisher, so Ennis created a hardcore, hyperrealistic Punisher, who works without superheroes and doesn’t truck with supervillains — only criminals.
During a mission in a Russian missile silo, Frank is accosted by a small Mongolian man wearing nothing but a crude pair of briefs, emerging from a suitcase to try and beat Castle to death. By the end of the mostly wordless fight, Castle is able to grab the man’s leg and smash him repeatedly against the floor to kill him. It’s cartoony in all the wrong ways.
2. A MAN CALLED FRANK
This one is basically just a John Wayne movie if John Wayne was playing the Punisher. Frank, a veteran of a nebulous war, returns to his homestead hoping to settle into a life of peace and quiet with his wife and child. Cattle rustlers torch his farm, kill his family, and leave him in the desert to die.
In classic Frank Castle fashion, he refuses to die, returns to his house to get his guns, and goes on a mission of vengeance across the Old West. The book was written by Chuck Dixon, illustrated by the legendary John Buscema, and colored by Christie Scheele, so it really has no excuse to be as bad as it is. That’s what makes it one of the truly egregious entries on this list.
When Rick Remender was brought on to write The Punisher, he wanted to put his own distinctive stamp on the character, an any writer does. So during the title’s launch in Marvel’s “Dark Reign” period, Remender started off by having Wolverine’s son Daken literally chop Frank Castle up into tiny pieces and leave him to his rather gruesome and bloody death.
Luckily, with some magic from Morbius and the Legion of Monsters, Frank gets patched up and goes after Daken for revenge, with the help of Wolverine, ‘natch. After finally defeating him, Castle is able to use a Bloodstone that almost drives him crazy to return to normal — or at least as normal as a guy who wakes up every morning with the intent to kill basically everyone.
Which of these is the worst? Let us know in the comments!
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