Marvel Comics’ recently concluded six-issue miniseries Punisher: War Machine, by writer Matthew Rosenberg and artist Guiu Vilanova, was an over-the-top yet straightforward murderous action adventure: standard fare for a Punisher comic. Under the surface, however, the comic’s fun death romp displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the character work.
The whole thing kicks off with Nick Fury giving the Punisher access to the War Machine suit in order to stop rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agents stirring up political unrest in the fictional European country of Chernaya. Naturally, he goes rogue with the suit and sets off on a Punishing spree through Chernaya, liberating wrongly incarcerated prisoners and destroying military bases along the way, and at one point using the suit to literally rip a man’s body in half.
And yes, of course it’s good that Frank is focused on freeing innocent people and trying to dismantle the structures that oppress them – albeit through violent murder, but no one’s perfect. What he’s doing isn’t the problem. The problem is how he’s doing it.
The Punisher has always functioned best as an underdog fantasy expressed through cathartic violence. Among his standout storylines are comics where he went after corrupt American generals, organized crime ringleaders, and human traffickers who exploited vulnerable women: oppressors who keep society running badly. He’s one man fighting the understandable fight (it’s hard to say he’s fighting the good fight, what with all the killing), taking down major players in the game of How Folks At The Top Can Continue Screwing Over The Little Guy.
However, using the War Machine suit goes against that. Although Punisher: War Machine doesn’t explore the implications of this, the suit is Tony Stark technology, funded by that sweet one-percenter money. Tony Stark is one of those folks at the top, and while he isn’t driven by a desire to crush the common man, he nevertheless benefits from the sociopolitical systems perpetuated by those who are. By depending on a big chunk of Stark tech to accomplish his goals, the Punisher therefore allies himself with the very systems he normally seeks to, well, punish.
Perhaps this is why the story falls somewhat flat overall; watching a guy in billion-dollar military-grade weapons technology take on a military base is less exciting than watching a guy take on that base with just a gun, a grenade, and a mission. In keeping with his underdog fantasy appeal, the Punisher is most compelling when he doesn’t have access to the technological advantages afforded to people with immense wealth. These stories bring out his more interesting characteristics, like his intelligence, his resourcefulness, and his indomitable will. Climbing into the War Machine suit subordinates these traits to the Tony Stark way of doing things, wherein indomitable will and so on aren’t worth as much if you don’t have money to back them up.
In real life, we know that not only does money talk, it’s often the only language some people choose to recognize. That’s why we cling to characters like the Punisher who give us an alternate vision to escape into, with bonus explosions to make it extra exciting. And that’s why it’s important for him to remain apart from the world of society’s elite: we need there to be someone, even a fictional someone, who can keep fighting without becoming one of them.
Kelly is a comics and pop culture critic and scholar from the tropics but now living in Scotland. You can find her at @kellykanayama on Twitter.