When murderous vigilante Frank Castle appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #129 he was, without any doubt, a villain. Over the next few decades, however, Frank Castle has gone on to be more of an anti-hero. Still a bloodthirsty murderer, but his particularly fatal style of justice only befell the worst of the worst, making readers and members of the Marvel superhero community overlook his otherwise heinous behavior. In The Punisher #225, writer Matthew Rosenberg reasserts Frank Castle’s status as a true villain in yet another hyper violent issue that may suffer from pacing issues, but is unforgettable nonetheless.
Now that Frank Castle has returned to America after illegally disposing of a foreign dictator he is public enemy number one, with major heroes from around New York City converging on the faux War Machine to bring him to justice. While watching Frank mow down endless streams of criminals with the armor has been gruesomely satisfying, watching him go toe to toe with the likes of Captain Marvel, Spider-Man, and Hercules feels more mundane than exciting.
About half this issue is devoted to this brawl and the issue suffers for it. Artist Guiu Vilanova does a fine job illustrating this skirmish — the movements flow together well and a sense of intensity is never lost in the chaos — but it just feels like yet another bout between superheroes that are oh-so prevalent in comics today. It doesn’t help that, after the revelations in #224, I really wanted Frank Castle to lose, so watching him fend off the attackers was very frustrating.
The fight ends with a hilarious panel of Frank Castle nonchalantly on a subway in full War Machine armor, a moment that serves as they turning point for the whole issue where things begin to really pick up. On the run, Frank tracks down a weapons tech dealer in order to fix his suit, a sequence that is wonderfully illustrated thanks to clever page layouts from Guiu Villanova — pursuing heroes are superimposed over crisp six panel-pages showing Frank wreak havoc across the city.
The chase ends with arguably the most chilling Punisher page I’ve ever read, one that actually made me mutter “Man, f--k Frank Castle” while reading. Readers have seen Frank ruthlessly murder criminals countless times, but in this particular scene Frank straight-up executes a group of misguided college grads who are forced into working for A.I.M. to pay down their student loans. Being a recent college grad with a back breaking amount of debt myself, this panel really hit home for me and truly solidified Frank as a villain in my eyes.
These aren’t hardened criminals out trying to ruin the lives of regular people or inflict trauma for no reason, they’re just kids down on their luck, forced into bad situations by factors outside their control — they invite sympathy from any reader who knows the financial hardship of massive student debt. Rather than grant these souls a shred of human decency or understanding, Frank simply blows their brains out in a truly disturbing moment of clarity for readers.
A hero, even an anti-hero, would see the complexity of these young men’s actions and offer them a chance at redemption by turning them over to the police. A villain, like Frank, would ignore any sympathy and gun them down in cold blood just because they’ve made a mistake. It’s only one page, but it’s an absolutely stunning moment that reminds readers that the Punisher is still very much the villain he was when he debuted in 1975.
Leave it to Nick Fury to bluntly drive a point home, and in this instance, it’s the notion of Frank’s true nature. Frank’s rampage through New York City brings him face to face with the former S.H.I.E.L.D. director in an exchange that will leave no doubt in the readers’ mind about what Frank really is- a piece of s--t, fascist murderer.
Fury doesn’t simply say “You kill people Frank, you’re bad!,’ he actually invokes the events of Secret Empire, Civil War II, and even the original Civil War to put Frank in his place. Not only does this showcase Rosenberg’s grasp of the character’s history over the past decade, but it erases any doubt in the readers’ mind that this is some new revelation — it proves that Frank has always been a villain and it’s time he answer for his actions.
I’ve loved every issue of Rosenberg’s run on The Punisher, even as I slowly begin to despise the character and actively root against him. Frank’s slow but steady downfall from an anti-hero doling out justified punishment to full blown villain has been so expertly crafted that I can’t help but love the way this series is going. The Punisher #225 may start off weak, but it finishes in a truly stunning fashion that leaves Frank Castle as the true villain of his own story.