Season two of Daredevil heralds the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. I think he nailed it in the trailer and I cannot wait till the premiere. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, the days leading up to (and beyond) the premiere will be dedicated to my favorite Punisher books.
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In the Beginning (2004)
Where do you go with the Punisher after exploring his origin? How do you make an ordinary vigilante character appear fresh? Each of the Death Wish movies is different, but it is always: Paul Kersey has a good life, criminals kill someone close to him, and he becomes Charles Bronson. The formula gets old and the same applies to the Punisher. Rather than continue a standard vigilante narrative, In the Beginning explores the ramifications of Castle embracing the darkness and what means for him as a person.
30 years after Valley Forge, an old Frank Castle has slaughtered his way to infamy. On the anniversary of his family’s murder he visits their grave before heading out to work. Today is the birthday of a withered mafia don where all the wiseguys in Jersey come to wish him well. Before he could blow out his candles, Castle puts a round in his skull, and lures the wiseguys into a volley of M60 fire.
While Frank wages his war, a CIA outfit watches his every move. Headed by the arrogant and eager Bethell, the team of would-be agents keeps tabs at the behest of “Micro” Leiberman, Castle’s former partner. At the same time, survivors of the don’s birthday plot to finish him. With manpower low, the mafia brings in Nicky Cavella from exile in Boston. With his crew of Pittsy and Ink, the mafia plans to use Nicky’s brutality and cunning to take out Frank.
On the way to his usual rounds, Castle is confronted by Micro before taking six rubber slugs from a shotgun. Regaining consciousness, he finds himself in a dark room at a table, chained to a chair with Micro on the opposite side. He talks about the times they worked together and how he could not continue the war because there was no end to the crime and terror that feed Frank. Micro alludes to the idea that he embraced the darkness in Vietnam, the taste for murder, and he uses his family’s murder as an excuse to keep killing.
Then Mirco appeals to whatever shred of humanity he has left and offers him a place in the CIA to hunt America’s enemies. Bethell specializes in repurposing psychopaths for wet work, including Katherine O’Brien who becomes more important later in the MAX series. Micro believes the job will put Castle to better use before he refuses, saying he is finished working for others. He says people always stab you in the back, citing how the government sent 60,000 kids to die in Vietnam for nothing.
Before Micro could try one last time, Nicky and his crew crashes Bethell’s party. Chaos ensues and in an attempt to rectify the situation, Micro sets Frank loose. After a firefight, Bethell and O’Brien are wounded while Nicky makes it out with a furiously pissed off Pittsy. Castle drives Micro to a weapons cache at a warehouse where Lieberman reveals Bethell gets his money from the heroin trade. Then Frank finds a tracking device in his cellphone and the two prepare for the mafia’s and Bethell’s retaliation.
Taking position on the roof of the warehouse, Castle sprays Wiseguys while Bethell comes in on an attack helicopter, desperate to salvage the situation. Unbeknownst to him, Pittsy sneaks in and knifes Mirco before the two engage in a brutal melee. Pushed to the point of fatigue, Frank takes a risk and tackles him out a window, impaling him on a spiked fence. Even that is not enough when Pittsy pulls himself free and Castle gives him a face full of buckshot.
Unable to convince his prospective recruit, Bethell is thrown out of the helicopter by the pilots under orders from Homeland Security, while Nicky makes his escape. Returning to the warehouse, a dying Micro ponders if Frank is capable of reason. He talks about a story where Castle beat up a neighbor for walking out on his wife after his family’s murder. Micro speculates it means Frank could have been normal until he gave in to the darkness. Micro wonders if he even knows what he is doing now before Castle reaffirms his devotion to the cause and executes him.
Instead of another vigilante story, In the Beginning adds dimension and character to the Punisher. Frank Castle accepted the darkness and was transformed into a creature of pure instinct, driven by a hunger for killing. It confirms the idea that he is a victim of PTSD and the war-torn environment of Vietnam is where he feels normal. It does not shy away from his mental issues, as Castle is a nihilistic psychopath who does not care about anything except murdering criminals. He casually puts down Mirco, his only friend, because he was involved with Bethell, a heroin dealer. If you are evil, he will do whatever it takes to end you, regardless of the implications.
Ennis does a great job of bringing this out in the character’s voice while Lewis Larosa provides the visual with Frank’s pitch-black eyes and scowled face. The gritty, muddy visuals epitomize this dark story of a man that lives in a world of darkness. The language and subject matter is unflinching and the violence brutal and organic. In the Beginning is a perfect follow up to Born and the starting point of what will become one of the best Punisher storylines ever.