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Marvel's Punisher revamp was never going to quieten the controversy surrounding the character (and made Frank Castle an unlikely martyr)

Frank Castle being replaced is being argued as "proof" that Marvel hates Punisher fans

The Punisher(s)
Image credit: Marvel

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Pity poor Marvel. For years now, the company has had to deal with multiple people pointing out that right wing groups have co-opted the iconography of its popular anti-hero character The Punisher, to the point where not only did the character’s co-creator address the issue, but so did the character himself.

The Punisher’s transformation into a pop-culture icon with a life entirely outside of corporate control been an uncomfortable thing for Marvel to deal with, clearly. Sure, the Punisher is a skull-toting psychopath who murders people to dole out his very specific definition of justice, but unlike this guy, he’s become famous enough — thanks, in large part to his matching the zeitgeist that produced movies like the Death Wish series, the Dirty Harry series, when 'tough guy who kills the bad guy without mercy' was enough of a novel selling point to transform these characters into figures of idolization — that he’s a profitable piece of intellectual property with a Netflix series and multiple movies to his name. For better or worse, he’s one of the most recognizable characters Marvel has… so seeing him adopted as a symbol of hate groups and quasi-fascists isn’t a particularly attractive proposition for a Disney-owned corporation.

Extreme Makeover: Punisher Edition

So, Marvel did what Marvel does: it gave the Punisher concept a reboot, transforming him into an entirely new character with a new costume — one that, not coincidentally, replaces the skull logo that had been co-opted by the right-wing groups. (That same logo had, notably, already been replaced for the last year of the original incarnation of the character.) The central conceit of the Punisher remains in this new version: a family man who goes to extremes in the wake of personal tragedy. But, in theory, the move from Frank Castle to Joe Garrison allows Marvel to abandon the controversy surrounding the earlier version of the character altogether and tell new stories without fear. (No, wait, that’s Daredevil.)

Except: it’s not clear if it really worked.

Chuck Dixon, former Punisher writer, summed up the response of a significant portion of the Punisher’s core fanbase to the very concept of the makeover when he complained that Marvel’s move was proof that “they hated the Punisher and they hate you for liking it.” Multiple right-wing outlets are decrying the move as reactionarily “woke,” and using Dixon’s comments to argue that Marvel “despises” its fanbase. If the Punisher makeover was intended to put the subject to bed, it failed to an impressive degree at its mission.

Mission: Impossible

To some degree, that was always going to happen. Any kind of decisive move against the Punisher’s right-wing audience was destined to backfire and be used as the latest move in a culture war that only one side is truly interested in fighting. (Spoilers: it’s not Disney or Marvel.) We’re in a culture now where both accusations of being “woke,” or part of so-called “cancel culture” are shields used against any kind of legitimate criticism or cultural responsibility — and where there’s a demographic willing to boycott brands that even consider appealing to anyone that isn’t considered “legitimate” in its bigoted view. (Or, you know, take things to the Supreme Court.) The idea that Marvel might want to do anything other than celebrate the problematic, controversial aspects of the Punisher — a character who, by his very nature, basically personifies a hot-button issue for right-wingers — is, of course, something that itself becomes a controversy.

Worse yet: by replacing Frank Castle as the Punisher, Marvel unintentionally transformed the fictional character into a martyr for a cause he never fully represented in the first place. Now he's become someone that those complaining about Marvel 'hating' its fans can point to as proof that they're the victims, because otherwise this character would still be around, shooting up the town and proving that might makes right and whoever has the biggest gun clearly had the most right of all.

The irony is, of course, that it's almost guaranteed that Marvel was hoping to end this discourse entirely with these changes. Castle, after all, was given a 12-issue redemptive arc in Jason Aaron and Jesus Saiz's final series featuring the character, but purposefully left alive — while “the Punisher” as a concept got a brand new series featuring an updated version of the same concept at its core. If Marvel truly hated the Punisher and Punisher fans, there are far crueler paths that could have been taken.

Mission Accomplished?

Perhaps the safer option for Marvel would have been to do nothing, literally: to just leave the Punisher entirely untouched for years until the heat died down. Not kill him, not revamp him, but simply leave him alone entirely. Let him fall into obscurity, unharmed. That route, however, is almost aggressively anti-Marvel, given that the company doesn't like to leave any successful intellectual property gather dust. Instead, we get the makeover, and the controversy surrounding it.

The unfortunate thing is, the new Punisher series was good, and arguably succeeded in fixing a number of problems the original incarnation had as an ongoing presence in the Marvel Universe at large. Joe Garrison was a former SHIELD agent with training and weaponry that allowed him to interact with supervillains from the start; his wife had agency of her own beyond simply being created to be killed; and, perhaps most importantly, it presented a Punisher who had a clear moral code un-muddied by decades of different writers presenting their own lines in the sand.

The most recent series of The Punisher purposefully set the new version of the character up for a return — the final issue even ends with the legend “THE BEGINNING” in big letters, as Joe Garrison seemingly accepts the name he’s been given by others (including Marvel!) — but time will tell if he’ll ever manage to overcome the legacy he’s created in fans’ minds, good and bad. Or, for that matter, if he’ll ever manage to be accepted as the “true” Punisher by popular culture at large. All he has to do is overcome… well, everything about the mantle he’s inherited, really.

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Graeme McMillan: Popverse Editor Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.
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