Jon Bernthal knows his audience. The actor demonstrated as much in 2015, when he took the stage at New York Comic Con to speak about playing the gun-toting Marvel vigilante known as the Punisher. Immediately upon being given the floor, he gave a very specific shout-out. “Look, I know how important this character is to you guys, and I know how important he is to law enforcement, to the military,” he said. “And I look at this as a huge honor, a huge responsibility, and I give you my absolute word: I’m gonna give everything that I have.”
On Friday, cops and soldiers will get to see Bernthal’s latest effort to make good on that promise. He first appeared as the character in the second season of Daredevil, and November 17 will see the debut of his solo Netflix show, The Punisher. It follows the tribulations of its titular antihero, an embittered former Marine named Frank Castle, who uses his talents to lethally take down wrongdoers in the wake of the murder of his wife and children. If you’re innocent, he’s your protector; if you’re guilty, make peace with your god.
Marine Corps veteran Christopher Neff plans to take the day off of work so he can binge it all. He says he owns thousands of dollars in Punisher comics and merchandise, has a Punisher tattoo, and even designed one of his wedding cakes to look like the character’s distinctive skull logo. Neff goes out of his way to say he keeps his admiration for the character “safely in the realm of fantasy,” but as far as fantasies go, it’s a powerful one. “Frank Castle is the ultimate definition of Occam’s razor for the military,” he says. “Don’t worry about uniforms, inspections, or restrictive rules of engagement. Find the bad guys. Kill the bad guys. Protect the innocent. Any true warrior? That’s the dream.”
Jesse Murrieta is just as excited. He’s served an array of roles in law enforcement, including working at a Department of Homeland Security prison, transporting federal inmates with the U.S. Marshals, and doing freelance security work, and he’s a Punisher addict. He’s particularly enamored of the skull: He owns rings in its shape, wears a dog tag bearing its image, and spray-painted it onto the body armor he wears for work. Like Neff, Murrieta sees an element of wish fulfillment in the character. “Frank Castle does to bad guys and girls what we sometimes wish we could legally do,” he says. “Castle doesn’t see shades of grey, which, unfortunately, the American justice system is littered with and which tends to slow down and sometimes even hinder victims of crime from getting the justice they deserve.”
Welcome to the world of uniformed Punisher fans. As far as fandoms go, it’s a controversial one. The character and his iconography are totemic for many cops and soldiers, especially in the past decade and a half, a period that tracks with the rise of post-9/11 militarization and an increased visibility for the Punisher in the form of two movies and several iconic comics stories. The late Chris Kyle, the famed Navy SEAL sniper who was the subject of American Sniper, crowed in his memoir that his unit nicknamed themselves “the Punishers” and painted the skull on their equipment. Police officers in Wisconsin, Kentucky, and central New York have all appropriated the Punisher. Google searches turn up a bevy of Punisher-themed apparel, stickers, and accessories aimed at stoking pride for the military and boys in blue. The symbolism has even trickled down to American-trained Iraqi security forces and militias.
The reasons for this attraction are varied, but tend to focus on the character’s status as a non-superpowered man willing to push his mind and body to the brink in order to do what he thinks is right. “Frank Castle’s actions are not ones to emulate, but like most heroes, he is a great example to live your life by,” says Army veteran Russell Gallaway. “My love for the character was certainly a large factor in my decision to join the military, and during my time in, whenever I was faced with any type of problem, I could ask myself, ‘What would Frank do?’ As long as the answer wasn’t ‘kill everyone,’ I knew it was the right thing to help get me through.” Plus, the Punisher doesn’t have to deal with paperwork. As Marine vet Matt Salvatico puts it, “He has a job to do and he does it. No political correctness, no rules other than his own, he just does what needs to be done. Period.”
Others find this kind of embrace to be in bad taste at best, downright scary at worst. “The job of a police officer is to uphold the law, to serve and protect. The Punisher kills people he feels deserve it. There’s a big, dangerous difference between these two things — and there should be,” wrote io9’s Beth Elderkin in a post last February about police using Punisher imagery. Police instructor and former police sergeant Charles E. Humes Jr. said in an article about the same topic, “No matter what an offender did or how much they truly ‘deserve’ it in anyone’s opinion, it is never our job to punish an offender.” Even the character’s co-creator, writer Gerry Conway, says he found Chris Kyle’s passion for the Punisher unsettling: “I don’t think he understood the fundamental truth that the Punisher is not a man to admire or emulate.”
That truth has been baked into the character since Conway and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru built him out in the early ’70s. But so has his connection to visions of state-sponsored force. Conway portrayed Frank as a Marine from his very first appearance in 1974’s The Amazing Spider-Man No. 129. “The Marines had and have a reputation as the most dedicated, fiercest, and most honorable members of the American military,” Conway recalls. “I felt Frank Castle’s morally dubious quest could be ameliorated somewhat by establishing that he was a product of that particular military tradition.”
The bone-deep, morally ambiguous connection between Frank’s experiences in uniform and his crusade against crime has persisted ever since. Though Conway originated the Punisher, the veterans and law-enforcement officers I spoke with typically told me that their favorite tales were written by Garth Ennis, who has helmed the character on and off since 2000. Ennis says he’s heard from veterans who tell him his work with the Punisher got them through tough experiences, but like Conway, he doesn’t see the character’s warrior status as a clear positive. “Frank’s time as a Marine is vital to understanding his character and the environment he came from,” Ennis says. “His three tours of duty give him military experience, but he comes to see war as the answer to all of his problems. It’s complicated, and he works through that in his own way.”
Talk to cops and soldiers and they’ll tell you they understand all that. “There is no place for a Punisher in society,” says J.D. Williams, a Marine vet and current sheriff’s deputy who’s been a Punisher fan since childhood. “That said, some of the qualities that the Punisher has are very admirable. Strength, tenacity, perseverance, decisiveness. I don’t believe there is any more danger or contradiction than using any other type of fiction and cheering for the flawed protagonist. Frank is a compelling character because of his black-and-white view and propensity to go from zero to killing based on his perception and ‘code.’ It is fiction.”
“Obviously, if the Punisher was a real person and did the stuff he did, there would be people who get hurt, innocents,” says Adam, an Army veteran who requested anonymity. “If you say he went into a drug neighborhood and killed all the drug dealers, would that make that neighborhood better? Yeah, it might, but there’s somebody else to step up and take their place.” Adam thinks members of the military gravitate toward the character not because they want to emulate his tactics in real life, but because they share his aims of discipline and freedom. “Punisher, in a fantasy-type way, that’s the badass guy you want to be. You don’t have no rules you have to follow or anything. It’s just your own moral code,” he says.
The character also has the liberty of existing in a fictional universe where he can dole out improbably precise punishment. “There’s no way a vigilante of any sort could fire an M16 out in New York City and not hit a guy delivering pizzas at some point, but in the world of entertainment, it is possible,” says Dane Lamont, co-host of a fan podcast called Punisher: Body Count. He and the other host, Jacob Williams, are civilians, but they regularly hear from police and soldiers. “People like watching people who are awesome, and especially for the military and cops, they’re under a lot of pressure. They like watching that guy, and go, ‘No one’s going to write him up for that.’ They look at that as kind of wanting his job, without the whole dead-family thing.”
All of that said, not everyone in law enforcement and the military consider the character’s nuances. Some just think the skull looks badass. Earlier this year, a police department in Solvay, New York, got into trouble for putting the logo on their vehicles, and their official response to criticism was more than a little blithe. “The Punisher symbol on the patrol vehicles of the Solvay Police Department, while similar to the symbol featured in Marvel comics, is our way of showing our citizens that we will stand between good and evil,” read an official statement given to the Syracuse Post-Standard. Chris Kyle had a similarly simplistic fetish for the skull. “We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him,” Kyle’s memoir reads. “We spray-painted [the Punisher skull] on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. And we spray-painted it on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know, We’re here and we want to fuck with you.”
More serious fans understand that hunger, even if they don’t entirely share it. “I think the aspect of the guns and tactics and just how kickass he is written is what draws a lot of military people to him,” says Army veteran Jeff Holman, whose unit in Iraq spray-painted the skull on Humvee turret armor and rooms they stayed in. But he says he’s very aware that extrajudicial killing is “outside of the ethos of the military” and is just part of a larger fantasy. “With the Punisher, we get to see that justice is done to those who deserve it.”
As a character, the Punisher has an ambivalent relationship to the military, as do many who have served. Though he loved his fellow warriors, he detests the immoral men who send grunts to foreign abattoirs and ignore them if they return. “In boot camp, we are constantly yelling ‘kill,’” says James Gomes, a Punisher fan who ran a security squad for the Marines in Iraq. He thinks blind patriotism — a quality that Frank lacks — is the bigger danger. “I think patriotic war movies brainwash young men to idolize war and killing ‘enemies/terrorists’ more than fictional vigilantes ever will. Military members are probably more violent and aggressive. I’d be surprised if data said otherwise. But I don’t think that has to do with the superhero genre. I blame the media selling and supporting war.”
Fans with that viewpoint will find much to love in the Netflix show. Whatever one thinks of the end product, you can’t argue that it glorifies the way governments sponsor violence. Frank spends more time going after corrupt officials in the military-industrial complex and high-level law enforcement than he does shooting up mobsters and street toughs — a concept often explored in Punisher comics, especially those by Ennis. Less clear-cut is the show’s relationship to violence as an aesthetic, but the people behind it say they don’t intend to make it sexy. “If I’ve created a guy who lionizes [violence], I’ve failed miserably,” Bernthal told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t want you to look at him and say, ‘This guy’s clearly a hero.’ That’s never how I’ve looked at him, and that’s never been the purpose. Frank is a guy who is in unbelievable pain, and there’s an unbelievable cost to the violence that he’s gone through in his life.”
It’s an acutely delicate time to tell the story of a disgruntled man who goes on shooting sprees. But the Punisher’s fans in law enforcement and the military think it’s misguided to write their fandom community off as sinister. “General population have a misunderstanding of Frank Castle/Punisher fans,” says Murrieta. “They think we’re crazed, delusional, and — dare I say — lawless types because we view the Punisher character as an individual that picks up where our justice system drops the ball. I, myself, have personally seen certain types arrested for serious crimes and get off easy with either a cake sentence or simply allowed to walk due to a technicality. So a fictional character like Castle coming in and correcting those shortcomings, even if it’s just a comic book, helps one deal with those frustrations.” In the end, he thinks Frank is, for better or worse, a comic-book figure whose moment is here: “Some people want Superman, but then realize that it’s a character like the Punisher that they actually need.”
Update, June 2, 2020: The relationship between The Punisher and law enforcement became explicitly incongruous in July 2019 when the character himself canonically addressed it. In issue no. 13 of Punisher, writer Matthew Rosenberg included a scene depicting a group of officers who run into the outlaw, whose name is Frank Castle, and fawn over him. “We believe in you,” one of them says while pointing to a Punisher-skull sticker on his car.
Frank rips the sticker off and says, “We’re not the same. You took an oath to uphold the law. You help people. I gave all that up a long time ago. You don’t do what I do. Nobody does.” A cop replies, “Like it or not, you started something. You showed us how it’s done.” Frank is unmoved. “If I find out you are trying to do what I do,” he murmurs, “I’ll come for you next.”