Race, Racism, and Italian-American Crimefighters, Part 2:

The Punisher

This article appeared originally in the anthology Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs, and Gentlemen (2009), edited by Elwood Watson. I’m reprinting it here because I believe it has things to say about Italian-Americans, law enforcement, and race relations in the New York tri-state area that may shed some light on the cultural context of the killing of Eric Garner. Please keep in mind that the length of this essay requires that it be serialized. Try not to judge its contents too quickly but wait for the entire piece to be published online.

In many ways, the Punisher is nowhere near as interesting a figure as either Pistone or the fictional Columbo, but the twisted caricature of Italians that he represents is worth discussing, even if the comic books that he appears in are not on the same level of “popular art” quality as the Columbo television series, and his films are not as stellar as the Mike-Newell-directed Donnie Brasco. The Punisher has appeared in two eponymous films, a direct-to-video release in 1989 featuring Dolph Lundgren as the Punisher and a theatrical release in 2004 starring Thomas Jane in the title role. In addition to the films, the Punisher has appeared in cartoons and video games, and has inspired a number of novelty T-shirt designs and action figures. Originally created as an adversary for Spider-Man in “The Punisher Strikes Twice!” The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (1974), Frank Castiglione is a Vietnam veteran, ex-Catholic seminarian, and former New York City cop who went crazy after the Costa crime family gunned down his wife and two children during a family picnic in Central Park, Manhattan. Wishing that he had died with his family, Frank donned a black Kevlar suit with a white skull emblazoned on the chest, adopted the identity of The Punisher, and declared a one-man war on crime. After successfully avenging his loved ones by slaughtering the mobsters who played a role in their deaths, he continued his campaign to protect other families from the horrors he suffered by kill every violent criminal he felt was beyond the reach of the deeply flawed (and perhaps too liberal) criminal justice system.

The Punisher’s story has a visceral appeal to anyone of non-Italian descent as an indulgent, id-unchained revenge narrative, and he is interesting to Italians as one of the few Italian comic book “heroes” (with Tony “Iron Man” Stark and Helena “The Huntress” Bertinelli as two of the only exceptions), but he is a exploitative character that raises unpleasant questions about crime, racism, immigration, and war in American society. These questions are all disturbing, and the answers the Punisher tries to give are still more disturbing, but they are worth considering in greater detail here.

Punisher stories tend to walk a fine-line between trying to evoke audience sympathy with the character, and attempting to justify his mad quest, while others try to assume a more ironic, satirical, or critical distance. The 2004 film goes to great lengths to justify Castle’s murderous campaign against Howard Saint by having Saint responsible for the deaths of Castle’s entire extended family. In the film, Saint sends his hired killers to the Castle family reunion and they machine gun everyone in attendance. The film also strives to justify Castle’s decision to quit the police force and take the law into his own hands. Castle is also unwilling to go to the police or the judiciary system because (in the extended cut of the film released on DVD in 2006), his African-American partner, Weeks, helped Saint find and eliminate Castle’s family members. Saint is also, presumably, the richest man in Tampa, and has the police in his pocket. Unlike Columbo, who is influential enough in the criminal justice system to bring down any criminal he finds evidence against, so matter how wealthy that “perp” is, Castle is powerless to fight crime within the system. Therefore, he removes his policeman’s badge and becomes a vigilante.

While the police are not always evil in the Punisher universe, they are often ineffective. The Lundgren film, for example, portrays the police as weak and inefficient, but not corrupt. In that version of the story, Louis Gossett Jr. plays Castle’s former partner, Jake Berkowitz, who is a decent man that hopes to capture Castle and get his friend treatment for mental illness. When Berkowitz is finally reunited with his former partner, he cries when he sees just how much of the humanity has been burned out of Castle’s eyes. Louis Gossett Jr.’s acting in the scene is superb, and it makes the film worth watching for that segment alone. His character also provides a heart, humanity, and decency to a film that is otherwise cynical and coldhearted. He is the moral center of the story, and his perspective represents a genuine alternative to the worldview offered by the mentally ill Punisher. Since Berkowitz exists as a goodhearted cop in the Lundgren film, the movie raises the possibility that the Punisher could have, if he wanted, fought crime more mercifully and within the system, alongside his old friend. The excuse the Punisher uses that he alone can fight crime has even less resonance in the comic book universe, in which characters like Spider-Man and Daredevil are arguably just as effective at fighting crime while still being merciful.

The Punisher’s creator, Gerry Conway, wrote Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and Batman comic books throughout the 1970s and 1980s, has written television scripts for TV shows such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Matlock, and recently became the co-executive producer for Law & Order: Criminal Intent. According to Conway, he came up with the basic premise and look of the Punisher, and artist John Romita finalized the design for penciller Ross Andru to draw in the final comic book. As Conway explains, “My idea of the Punisher was that he was a guy who was driven by his need for vengeance but was not so driven that he couldn’t see what was going on around him.” Conway did not intend to present the Punisher as insane, but acknowledges that writers who have written the character since have done so.

Interestingly, Conway never referred to the character as anything but the Punisher, but writer Steven Grant made the always swarthy figure an Italian in 1986’s The Punisher # 1. Grant’s script revealed that the Punisher was born Frank Castiglione to Sicilian immigrants living in New York, Mario and Louise Castiglione. The parents Americanized the family name to “Castle” in 1956, when Castle was six. Since Frank had an Italian surname for the first few years of his life, and then saw his surname changed at an impressionable age, the change probably contributed to his conflicted feelings about his own ethnicity.

Future writers, such as Mike Baron, expanded upon the Punisher’s Italian background by revealing that Frank Castle was a Roman Catholic, and that he briefly studied to become a priest but left the seminary when he discovered that he had difficulty forgiving those who confessed to committing grievous sins during the Sacrament of Confession (see the 1989 graphic novel The Punisher – Intruder).  It was later revealed that Castle met his future wife, Maria Falconio, after leaving the seminary, and enlisted in the Marines, and Vietnam, after his marriage. By making the Punisher a former seminarian, the comic book achieved three things: it added a layer of characterization to a fairly one-dimensional figure; it tapped into the evocative hypocrisy best exemplified by Michael Corleone in The Godfather films of the churchgoing murderer, and it gave the Punisher a history of religious zealotry that transferred from traditional Catholicism – which has come to embrace a “consistent life ethic” over the past several decades, opposing the death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia – to a harsh, fanatical mission to kill virtually every career criminal he encounters.

Mike Baron is one of the writers who has written the Punisher in a highly sympathetic light, and he is not the only creative figure at Marvel Entertainment who seems to regard the character with a measure of understanding, perhaps even a little admiration. According to Ari Arad, an executive at Marvel Studios who worked on the 2004 film adaptation, the Punisher is not insane, but a man whose morality is so different that it makes him a pariah. “His system of ethics, his moral code, is very different from most people’s, but it is specific and it exists. He doesn’t kill innocent people. He has a benchmark for people that deserve to die and he’s going to kill them, but it is not an arbitrary benchmark and it is not one that he violates.”

Somehow surviving all of his run-ins with criminals, and never successfully being contained by the police, the Punisher’s war on crime has lasted (in the fictional timeline of his comic book adventures) for thirty years. Law enforcement characters within his comic book adventures have charged him with the deaths of thousands of criminals. While the character exists in a universe of superheroes, he himself is not supposed to have any superpowers, but his longevity and invincibility cannot be accounted for by normal means (not even his nifty Kevlar body armor), so certain writers have suggested that he has been granted supernatural abilities, possibly by the devil (as suggested in Garth Ennis’ The Punisher: Born), to wage his war for so long. While the Punisher is an equal-opportunity killer, having slain street gang members, corporate criminals inspired by the Enron offenders, Muslim terrorists, and members of the Italian, Irish, Japanese, and Russian mobs, he has the most personal anger for the Italians, because it was they who killed his family. Consequently, the adventures in which he squares off against the Mafia are the ones that have the most dramatic resonance.

For example, in “Red X-Mas,” writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray introduced a close circle of Mafia widows who decide to avenge their husbands’ murders by putting a contract out on the man who killed their husbands – Frank Castle. Ringleader Regina Napolitano, who lost three consecutive mates to Castle’s crusade, talks the other widows into contributing $5,000 a piece to hire a female assassin from Sicily named Suspiria (the name is an in-joke nod to an Italian horror film directed by gore-master Dario Argento). The leather-clad S&M sexpot Suspiria fails to kill Castle and, in an ironic twist, the two later become lovers because of their mutual love of carnage. In the meantime, Castle tracks down and kills Regina, and warns the other widows to donate several thousands of dollars to charity and leave the country or he will hunt them down one by one. As he puts it, “Just because you married a bunch of greaseballs, doesn’t make you gangsters. I’m giving you a stay of execution.”

In the Boaz-Yakin-scripted film adaptation starring Dolph Lundgren, Castle’s vendetta against the various Italian crime families has weakened their hold on the city to the extent that the Japanese Yakuza is able to move in on their territory. While the Punisher is initially delighted to see a gang war brewing and jokes that he can finally go on vacation and let the Yakuza finish off the Italians for him, he feels compelled to help his enemies when Yakuza boss Lady Tanaka kidnaps the children of all of the Mafia dons and threatens to sell them into slavery. The Punisher reluctantly teams up with the same gangster who ordered his family killed, Gianni Franco (played by Jeroen Krabbe), in order to rescue the children, who he sees as innocent of any wrongdoing and undeserving of being punished for their fathers’ crimes. At the end of the film, the Punisher rescues the children, but kills Franco in front of his own son, Tommy. The Punisher warns Tommy not to grow up to be like his father. “You’re a good boy, Tommy. Grow up to be a good man … because if not, I’ll be waiting.”

This horrifying and evocative scene in the film inspired a variety of similar scenes in later comic books in which the Punisher, dressed in the garb of Santa Claus, would kill criminals in front of children and then pause to explain to the shocked little ones, “They were naughty.” The unsubtle message is, “Be good little children, or the Punisher will come to get you.”

Because the Punisher is such a one-note character, he tends to be at his most interesting when he is sparing lives, rather than taking them, but he is still more iconic in his “boogeyman of the underworld” persona than he is a three-dimensional character. That is why, when screenwriter Michael France was assigned to write a first draft of a screenplay for the 2004 adaptation of The Punisher, he felt the challenge was to make the character fresh when the “‘you killed my family – prepare to die’ story and character had been done a thousand times.” France felt that the key to the character was the fact that, on the one hand, Castle enjoyed killing criminals, and on the other, he hated his existence as the Punisher and would “trade anything at all to have his family back.” To tackle this duality in the Punisher, France rewrote the origin story a little, placing Castle in the same situation that Joe Pistone was in the film Donnie Brasco. In France’s version, Castle was an undercover FBI agent and family man who had infiltrated the Mafia and was enjoying both his existence as a mobster and as a husband and father. Unsure who “the real Frank” was, father or gangster, Castle decided to quit the FBI and leave the evil influence of the Mafia behind. Unfortunately, his extraction from the field doesn’t go well, his cover is blown, and his old associates seek revenge by killing Castle’s family. As France explains, “Frank Castle the family man dies with his family and he reverts to the man he’s been pretending to be for years while undercover: a completely ruthless psycho who goes after the mobsters who killed his family.”

France’s idea played up the Punisher’s Italian identity and blurred the distinction between Castle and the gangsters he fought by making Castle the son of a mobster. “I had another character angle which was so dark I understand why [it didn’t make it into the final film]. In the movie, Frank’s father is a lawman played by Roy Scheider. But in my drafts, I established that Frank’s father was actually a hitman in New York City named “Il Punisco” – “The Punisher.” – and Frank was always ashamed of that. He joined the FBI to prove that he wasn’t at all like his father – but the fact is, he was such a good killer that every day he was on the job as an undercover cop, he was proving that he was exactly like his father.”

The film was eventually made seemed reluctant to engage in Italian stereotyping, avoiding revealing that, according to the comic books, Castle’s birth name was Castiglione. It also dropped France’s idea for the Punisher’s father as Il Punisco, and changed the guilty party responsible for the Castle family killings from the Costa family to Howard Saint, a figure who is presumably not Italian even though he is played by Italian-American actor John Travolta. While Italian villains are not present, other villains in the film are far more stereotypical, including a steroid enhanced Russian assassin similar to Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, and the Toro Brothers, Hispanic gangsters inspired by the Spider-Man villains the Lobo Brothers. Still worse, the film features a psychotic gay assassin named Quentin Glass and Saint’s bloodthirsty wife, Vivian, who coaxed her husband into having Castle’s entire family killed instead of just putting a hit on Castle himself. The presence of these villains in particular is a nod to the modern-day Italian-American male’s unfortunate tendency toward prejudice against feminists and gay men. Despite the fact that the audience is meant to feel somewhat sorry for Vivian and Quentin in the end, when they fall victim to Castle’s elaborate (and cruel) revenge scheme, their respective sexual orientation and gender cast the film’s already politically incorrect sensibilities in an even darker light. Interestingly, in making the villains a multi-ethnic cast of stereotyped villains instead of a group of Italians, the film goes from being potentially offensive to Italians, and prejudiced against Italians, to potentially offensive to women, gays, Hispanics, Russians, and other groups who might see themselves in the Punisher’s sleazy rogue’s gallery. And, as much as the Punisher hates his own people, this is not the first time he has slaughtered unflatteringly portrayed members of other minority groups.  Therefore, the recent Punisher film is not the first film to seem racist against … just about everyone.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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