The Punisher is Evil
An Exploration Into This Vigilante's Alignment
The avatar of the modern anti-hero, Frank Castle's death's head symbol is recognized all around the world. A Marine Corps veteran whose family was killed by the mob for witnessing a crime they shouldn't have seen, Frank was failed by the justice system as the men responsible walked free. Taking up the bloody trade of the soldier once again, he declared war on the underworld, and he's been stacking bodies like cordwood ever since.
I grew up reading comics about the Punisher. The first rated-R film I ever saw was The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren. I understand just how compelling the character can be, and exactly how deeply one can empathize when they see the depth of the pain he's acting out of, and just how completely he was left without other options.
As a famous television show once said, however, "Cool motive. Still murder."
If you enjoy the following alignment break down, check out Judge Dredd is Lawful Evil over on my gaming blog Improved Initiative. Also, for more gaming content and general geekery, don't forget to take a moment to check out my full Vocal archive as well!
Additionally, for all my RPG enthusiasts out there, my 5 Tips series that covers roleplaying tips for different fantasy races and classes, as well as my Pathfinder Conversion For The Punisher might be right up your alley!
These Violent Delights Have Violent Ends
At his core, Frank Castle is a man who murders criminals. He has no legal authority to do this, and many times he is not defending himself or anyone else in the moment. Many times he will stalk a target, observe them, and then dispense a death sentence. He will lay traps, torture people for information, commit extortion, and kidnap people, all to accomplish his goal.
As an audience, we are drawn into Frank's point of view. We often see his actions as righteous just as often as we see them as brutal. After all, the organizations he fights are criminals... but what we so often forget is that Frank is no different in that regard.
Something that characters like Daredevil will point out when he and Frank share panels, is that criminals are still people. They're still human. They have families, and lives, and potential. They could be different, if circumstances allowed them to be. But Frank isn't interested in that. Anyone associated with the enemy must die. Even if they're unarmed. Even if they're not a threat. Even if they've surrendered. Punishment must be delivered.
Punishment is Not Justice
The thing we hear so often is that Frank is not out for revenge. He killed everyone associated with his family's murder long ago, and the bloodline of that crime dynasty has been neatly severed. This is about punishment. Punishment is not the same thing as justice, though.
Let's go back to those criminals. Those people that Frank murders.
Some of them are monsters. Named villains like Jigsaw, or vicious crime bosses like Ma Gnucci, have more than earned their fates (gruesome as they tend to be). But what about countless other criminals who met their ends under Frank's guns? We don't know, because we don't see their stories. We're supposed to assume they're all dangerous criminals like their bosses, but with that much open space we could just as easily ascribe other histories to them. The drug dealer who can't get a regular job because of a juvie record, so he's forced back into the life to care for his family, perhaps. The rider in the biker gang who fixes their hogs and works security on the door, but has never been involved in anything beyond the occasional bar fight. The guy who got in deep with the mob, and now has to carry packages for them to pay off his debts, or they'll break his legs.
Could that be a part of those minor characters' backstories? Sure, it could. We don't see it in the text, though, so we can't say for certain that it's happened.
What we can say, though, is that Frank makes mistakes. He debuted attempting to kill Spider-Man, after all, who is regarded pretty universally as a hero. Over the years Frank has acted on bad data, or made assumptions, that's led him to kill (or attempt to kill) innocent people. From undercover cops, to Captain America, he's pulled the trigger for a lot of bad reasons.
And as we can see in the panel above, he does not think of himself as an agent of law and order. He actively rejects anyone who would do what he does. Because as we've seen several times, Frank is under no illusions that what he's doing is somehow right, or just. He is not bringing law to the lawless; he is violently acting out against a system that let him slip through the cracks. He is, in a way, using his war as a coping mechanism. He can't heal from what happened to him, and he can't move on, so he fights this war the way another man might pick at a wound while never allowing it to ever scar over.
He is, as his creator said in an interview with SyFy, a dark critique of the failings of the justice system.
What About When Frank Had To Deal With Demons?
One of the more embarrassing points in the Punisher's history as a character was that time he died, and got caught up in the machinations of heaven trying to fight off demons and their influences on the mortal world. It was the 90s, and supernatural ridiculousness was big in comics. Short version is that due to the failings of the guardian angel meant to look after Frank's family (implying he was let down on a cosmic level), he fell into the cycle of never-ending murder that eventually culminated in suicide.
As an act of mercy, because it was determined that heaven's failing is what started Frank down the road he took (if you ignore implications from things like Punisher: Born, which started back in Vietnam), he was allowed to fight on heaven's behalf. However, by accepting that role and power, Frank had to alter his methods in order to show mercy, to enact justice, and to only bring the hammer down upon demons who were deserving of righteous fury. To act as a force for good, in other words.
It was not a popular series, and Frank was eventually resurrected and allowed to leave the whole angels/demons conflict behind, returning to his roots as a bullets and blades vigilante who killed as many criminals as he could. However, his time as an agent of heaven was not erased from the canon, and it has been brought up at least once when Deadpool asked why an angel's feather healed Frank of what should have been a mortal wound.
The Evil That We Choose To Do
There are certain boundaries Frank will not cross (he never harms children, for example, and some situations that call back to his own family situation will get some kind of pass if a person isn't "bad" enough), but generally speaking he will use most tools and methods to achieve his ends in his ongoing war.
More to the point, by Frank's own admission his actions are not attempting to actually accomplish some greater goal. He isn't out there trying to make the streets safe, for example, because as soon as he creates a power vacuum it's quickly filled by other organized criminals. He's not attempting to address the sources of the crimes, such as punishing those who take advantage of the poor, or the systemic ills of poverty that plague many parts of the city he fights in like the copycat vigilante Mr. Payback does in Confederacy of Dunces. Frank is simply fighting a war he knows he can't win, and which he doesn't really intend to win. Because winning isn't the point; it's the fight that matters. Even if all that blood running in the gutters, and whole cemeteries filled with his victims means that absolutely nothing has changed except for the names of the criminals who are now on top of the heap, he's going to keep fighting.
That futile war of attrition was bad enough, but when you add in that Frank has been told by a higher power that what he's doing is wrong, and that he's seen there are other ways, it really solidifies that he is a capital E on the alignment spectrum. Because he has been told in no uncertain terms that repaying evil with evil taints everyone, but he continues to do it because he just cannot stop. He cannot put the gun down and walk away. Any time he tries, he's right back where he started again.
To be clear, that doesn't make the character less interesting. It sure as hell doesn't make Frank less compelling, nor does it mean he is shallow or poorly-thought-out. He is a dark reflection, and that's what he's supposed to be. While we may see some of ourselves in him, and we may feel for the things he's endured, he remains a man who does evil things for what amount to ultimately selfish reasons.