Vigilantism — the ever-present motivation for the majority of comic book heroes — is actually a scary idea. Even more scary is how much we cheer for the vigilantes when they buck the system and bring the bad guys to justice. The heroes who play by their own rules (Wolverine) are much more popular than those who play by society's rules (Cyclops). That being said, it's tougher to root for a vigilante who is morally flexible enough to rationalize murder. How long before said vigilante starts to become like the Dark Judges of Judge Dredd, who kill everyone based on the belief that all crime is caused by the living? Perhaps The Dark Knight's Harvey Dent said it best: "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
While Batman seems to have figured out a loophole by setting boundaries for himself and not killing anyone, it's easy to argue that The Punisher has indeed lived to see himself become a villain — as far as society's laws are concerned. This is a line Batman flirts with, so is he only a batarang's breadth from becoming The Punisher of Gotham City?
Crime And Punishment
Merriam-Webster defines the word punish as "to inflict a penalty for the commission of an offense in retribution or retaliation." Both Bruce Wayne and Frank Castle are living instruments of punishment — though only one of them has the self-awareness to adopt a moniker that clearly defines this objective.
Batman enjoys punishing the wicked, but it's not his priority. Rather than focus on becoming a pure instrument of punishment, Bruce Wayne sees Batman as a resource that can work with the existing social structure of Gotham's police department to handle the city's extraordinary levels of crime and insanity. He is Gotham PD's ninja, lunging into the dark places that a police force simply cannot go. The Punisher? Not so much. In fact, he was originally conceived to be the bad guy.
Created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, the Punisher first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #129 back in 1974. Conway wanted to portray the character of the Punisher as a dark reflection on Spider-Man's vigilantism. In an interview with SciFi Now, Conway called him "the worst impulse of a superhero" because, like Spider-Man, the Punisher is motivated to do good — he just wants to do good in really bad ways.
It's no secret that Bruce Wayne and Frank Castle are cut from the same vigilante cloth: both men are fed up with the social constructs that aren't harsh enough on criminals, so they've dedicated their lives to using their own system of judgment to hold criminals accountable. The only real difference between their ideologies is how they perceive their chosen methods. Batman justifies his revenge-fueled vigilantism by treating it like a quest. He upholds that quest by covertly working within the system of GCPD and refusing to kill anyone. The Punisher sees his revenge-fueled vigilantism as revenge-fueled vigilantism, and doesn't shy away from mowing down a mansion of mafiosos with a machine gun if it serves his purpose. Their ideologies are really not that different from one another, so let's take a look at the more stark differences between them.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Batman and the Punisher is their socioeconomic status. Bruce Wayne was raised by one of the wealthiest families in Gotham, and Frank Castle is the definition of blue collar — he supported himself and his family through his military service. Crime-bred tragedy took both Bruce Wayne's parents and Frank Castle's wife and child, so why did one of these men turn to fancy gadgets and black capes while the other became a full-blown murder machine? It's actually pretty simple: it's all about the money.
We live in a world where wealth equates to options. When faced with adversity, a wealthy person simply has access to more resources, allies and strategies than those who are without vast financial means. Frank Castle's blue collar background led him to believe that he had limited options regarding how to best carry out his plans. The average Vietnam vet does not have the same resources that a billionaire has, which means that they can get backed into a corner much more quickly when faced with adversity.
Some people make the case that Castle's investment in firepower is akin to Wayne's investment in non-lethal weapons, but let's be realistic: it's much easier to get a gun in America than it is to track down some shark repellent. The ease of acquiring lethal weapons is one of the Punisher's ideological validations — America's fetishization of gun culture only serves to cultivate his nihilistic worldview.
As these men came from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, it's not much of a surprise that their career trajectories were vastly different. Although Wayne spent a considerable amount of time and resources to become Batman, he was also ushered in as the CEO of one of the country's most powerful enterprises. Meanwhile, like many members of Frank Castle's generation, growing up poor led him to enlist in the armed forces and hope that Uncle Sam would come through on his end of the bargain. It's not difficult to see how the careers of these two men would come to define their approach to solving their own problems.
Running a multi-billion dollar company is no walk in the park, but it's the type of career that comes with a certain social status. CEOs have power in our society, and that power can be used to open the doors necessary to building a network of crime-fighting allies. And let's not forget the fact that CEOs are free from the fear that their limbs will be blown off by a heavy artillery strike. Frank Castle's career as a soldier taught him the brutal truth that the only real way to make a criminal stop committing crime is to put that criminal in the dirt.
It's no secret that the best film representation of Batman comes via Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. Here we get the truest sense of Bruce Wayne as a character, as well as a comprehensive look at how his resources and contacts help him solve problems on a creative level. All one needs to do to is look at how Batman dealt with Lau after he traveled back to Hong Kong. The police were powerless because of international law, but Wayne knew that he could hire a private cargo plane, arrange for his business contact Lucius Fox to sabotage Lau Security Investments Holdings, and then utilize an arsenal of high-tech gadgets to bring Lau back to Gotham to help the legal system build a case against Gotham's crime families.
Frank Castle, on the other hand, would have just tortured the necessary information out of Lau and shot him before he could skip town. He doesn't have the resources to do what Batman did, so he solves his problems the only way he knows how.
It wasn't until Netflix's Daredevil that we see a characterization of the Punisher that truly captured the tragic nature of Frank Castle. Daredevil let us peer into the psyche of a man with nothing left to lose while still making Castle a sympathetic character. The scene that best exemplifies Castle's proclivity toward violent solutions comes when Kingpin orders a whole cell block to kill the Punisher, which results in one spectacularly bloody fight where Castle emerges victorious. No bells, no whistles —just a shiv and gallons of blood.
It's not everyday that one can make a comparison between Truman Capote and superheroes, but there's a quote from Bennett Miller's film Capote that is relevant:
"It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day, he stood up and went out the back door while I went out the front."
The quote is in reference to Perry Smith, one of the murderous subjects of Capote's true-crime novel In Cold Blood, and it's meant to establish a primal connection between these two men who, on the surface, couldn't be more different. Bruce Wayne and Frank Castle most definitely grew up in the same house, but like Capote and Smith, circumstances forced them to tread very different paths than the other.
What do you think of this difference? Do you think the Punisher would have turned out differently if he had more access to money and resources?
(Source: SciFi Now)