The Punisher and The Dark Myth of the Real Life Vigilante

The only good vigilante is a fictional vigilante and The Punisher is one of the best examples.

America loves revenge stories and Netflix serves up a cold dish of it with Marvel’s The Punisher. The Punisher, like Batman, Spider-Man, the Green Hornet and so many other comic book heroes, is based on a mythical creature: The do-gooding, well-intentioned lone vigilante: Brave men, women and occasionally children and animals, who take the law into their own hands when society fails them. 

The Punisher is a damaged version of that trope. Well-trained and filled with vengeance, he is a one-man posse who you can easily picture riding shotgun in Travis Bickle’s yellow cab in Taxi Driver. Although, he may prefer to prowl the subways with Bernie Goetz.

The Punisher was created by writer Gerry Conway and artist John Romita, Sr. for Marvel Comics. He first showed up in The Amazing Spider-Man (Peter Parker was also a crime fighter without a badge) in February 1974. Like Mack Bolan, AKA the Executioner from the Don Pendleton series that began with 1969’s War Against the Mafia, Punisher faces off against the big odds of organized crime. At the height of his popularity, Punisher appeared in three monthly publications during the ’80s and ’90s, and before Netflix has been the subject of three feature films, including a low budget “classic” starring Dolph Lundgren.

The urban legend of the heroic vigilante may work wonders on the screen or on the pulpy pages of comic books, but they don’t occur in nature. People often mistake rule breaking lawmen with vigilantes while manaics terrorize the general population with weapons that are too easy to obtain.

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When we hear the word vigilante, we expect to see Charles Bronson, the bleeding-heart-liberal-turned-marksman who was cleaning up the crime-ridden streets of seventies New York City in Death Wish. But what we actually get are frightened, pathetic reactionaries blowing their loads into the dark shadows of their own paranoia, like George Zimmerman or Bernie Goetz. We hear vigilante and see visions of masked marvels like the scourge of the wildest of the Wild West, The Lone Ranger (a ranger is a law enforcement job) but time and again we see there are no heroes under those hoods, only masked marauders forming lynch mobs.

There aren’t many cases of ordinary citizens trying to fight crime. The closest thing to actual do-gooding vigilantes, people without badges aiding law enforcement, are people who lure pedophiles to their convictions and a middle aged housewife who solves crimes in Kentucky. History teaches that lone gunmen are usually just nuts, like Jack Ruby, the strip club owner who shot the lone gunman who shot JFK, saw himself as a lone wolf vigilante, saving the grieving first lady from the public agony of a trial. Of course, conspiracy theorists believe there are no lone gunmen, only patsies set up by power-hungry secret cabals. Solitary enforcers of justice, like the gun-toting vigilante, are broken by trauma and live in a fantasia of hubris and vengeance. 

There is a large segment of America that wants the vigilante myth to be true. They mistake the rootin’, tootin’, high falutin,’ tales of solitary Sheriffs throwing down their badges to take on outlaws with civilian watchdogs who actually do it outside the law. When no champion emerges from lawlessness, a large segment of the public cheers as one emerges from within the law.

Rudolph Giuliani appeared to single-handedly clean up the crime and the grime of the city, but he was helped by President Clinton’s national policy of hiring hundreds of thousands of cops. The former mayor didn’t stop at the criminals. He emboldened the moral police, closing down sex clubs with laws written so ambiguously they potentially impacted legitimate live theater. After the Twin Towers attack, the mayor’s response team continued looking for quality of life offenses by enforcing little known ordinances like banning dancing in rock clubs and measuring noise levels and fining the bars. It was like the Mad magazine version of Death Wish that had Charles Bronson shooting litterers.

But Giuliani was neither outside the law, nor was he acting alone. In most cases, when citizens rise up to take on crime in the absence of law enforcement, they do it as a mob, like the groups that rose in the mining towns that formed in California after the Gold Rush. In the 1850s, the groups attacked thieves, rapists, and murderers. Groups like the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1856 carried out lynchings. Very few members of vigilante groups would make it into the Justice League, a group that also barred the Powerpuff Girls. Most vigilantes were actually pretty nasty and many were motivated by racism.

Many groups that began as legal enforcers grew out of hand. The Bald Knobbers were a group of vigilantes who formed on the Ozark Mountain Snapp’s Bald in Kirbyville, Missouri, in 1883 and exacted justice until about 1889. Witness reports at the time said they wore hoods with horns. The Bald Knobbers started as bushwhackers, a form of guerrilla warfare that went back to Revolutionary War, during the Civil War. After the war they helped catch criminals, but also went after corrupt politicians and exacted moral justice, like lynching adulterers.

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The Bald Knobbers came to an end at the Kirbyville Shootout in 1889, though reports of hooded hoodlums continued in the area into the 1920s. They also invented Branson, Missouri, which became a tourist hotspot after the 1907 book The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright, cast them as the antagonists. Many of these groups who operated outside the law became the law in their areas. Like Frank Castle, they were the ultimate arbiters of good and evil. They decided who wore the white hats and who wore black. Castle occasionally speaks directly with god in not-so-quiet moments of soul-searching, but unlike his reforming counterparts in frontier towns, bible thumping would probably just be another fighting tactic for Punisher.

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Vigilantism goes back to the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth pages of the Old Testament. Genesis 34 tells the story of Simeon and Levi who killed every man in the city of Shechem, Canaan, after the son of the Prince of the city either raped or seduced their sister Dinah. In America’s religious west, Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism and the Latter Day Saint movement, was shot multiple times by an armed vigilante group of excommunicated dissidents before and after falling from the window of the Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. His brother Hyrum Smith was shot in the face and died. Five men were tried but acquitted for the murders. A jury of their peers found that mob ruled properly.

During the racket-ridden Roaring Twenties, there were no crime-fighting gunsels who didn’t need no stinking badges. Lone vigilantes came in the form of priests and reformers who would go on the radio to call out gangsters and corrupt politicians. They weren’t the trained Dough Boys coming home from their lost patrols of World War I.

During the Depression, John Dillinger went after a national arch villain, predatory lending institutions that were preying on the poor, but he took his vengeance in cash. The first American Robin Hood of the 20th Century, saw a national landscape that was decimated by the poverty imposed by wealthy speculators. Dillinger was a kind of vigilante, stealing from the banks and keeping for himself. The Jack Rabbit left ordinary people out of it. He was their hero, striking fear in financial institutions, but adoration from bankrupt and displaced citizens of the time.

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While the similarities with real cases require a stretch, there are many parallels between the Punisher and other vigilantes in art. Death Wish’s gunman becomes a vigilante after his wife is killed and his daughter raped during a home invasion. The main character is an ordinary civilian. In the 1974 film, directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson, Paul Kersey is an architect who gets the idea to take the law into his own hands after seeing a Wild West Show while mourning in Phoenix. In the 1972 novel by Brian Garfield, Paul Benjamin is a CPA, who murders seventeen people over five weeks. He doesn’t do it until the last fifty pages. They both went into their vendettas green. Frank Castle loved war so much it was like he had always been training to be the Punisher.

Frank Castle did three tours of duty during the Vietnam War and it rendered him a changed man (later versions of the story, including the version we see on Netflix, now place him in Afghanistan). Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver only did one tour and he had to keep on the move all night because he could never go back to sleep. While there is no clear traumatic incident that propels Bickle toward his killing spree, Castle became the Punisher after his wife and two children were killed during a mob execution while they were having a picnic on a summer’s day in Central Park. 

Remarkably, Netflix’s take on the Punisher doesn’t glorify his quest. He lives a miserable existence. Like Travis Bickle, he exercises regularly, but much more fanatically. The fictional Vietnam War veteran and insomniac Bickle was hailed as a hero for taking down a whorehouse on New York City’s Lower East Side. But in his internal reality, Bickle was just looking for someone to shoot. He started off wanting to assassinate a politician, and only settled for the massacre of Second Avenue. He’s almost like Mark David Chapman, who originally planned to kill Paul McCartney, but settled for killing John Lennon because he was more accessible. So accessible, he signed an autograph for the man who would steal his life.

Which bring us to the “Subway Vigilante.” On December 22, 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot and seriously wounded Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey and James Ramseur from the Bronx on the downtown 2 train. Goetz had been mugged on the subway in 1981. He helped an off-duty cop catch and arrest one of the three muggers, but Goetz spent more time in the police station making his statement than the kid did. The attacker was charged with criminal mischief for ripping Goetz’s jacket.

Goetz wasn’t the only New Yorker turned into a reactionary by a mugging. The city’s crime rate was 70% higher than the rest of the country in the early ’80s. There were two homicides, 18 violent crimes, and 65 property thefts reported per 10,000 people in 1984 even though the city had some of the most prohibitive gun laws in the country. Goetz was denied a permit to carry a handgun. He went to Florida and bought a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Model 38 Airweight revolver. The sidearm had five shots, which he emptied.

The four men that Goetz shot on the Broadway-Seventh Avenue express train were reportedly carrying screwdrivers so they could steal quarters from Pac-Man machines at video arcades. Goetz testified that he was threatened to give up $5. Two of the victims, Canty and Ramseur, said they were only panhandling. Allen declined to answer on the grounds of Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination. Cabey did not testify. He had been shot once at point blank range and, according to the medical testimony, was paralyzed from the waist down from the attack. In 1996, he would win a $43 million civil judgment against Goetz.

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Goetz surrendered himself to the police nine days after the shooting. He was charged with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and assorted firearms offenses. The Subway Vigilante was front-page news for months and caught the imagination of a divided New York City. Some cheered him on for fighting back, some thought he overreacted. Many, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, believed the shooting was racist and some called for a federal investigation. Future Mayor, U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, said Goetz shot out of fear, not race. But Goetz admitted he was afraid because of the young men’s race.

The Guardian Angels, an unarmed volunteer crime-prevention group (complete with a uniform of red windbreaker and jacket) formed to battle subway crimes in the late ’70s, took up a collection for Goetz’s legal defense. The jury found him guilty on one unlicensed firearm count and cleared him of the rest. Goetz was sentenced to a year and served eight months. Years later, Cabey admitted in a newspaper interview that Goetz looked like “easy bait” and they were planning on robbing him.

Mob rule or personal vendetta, there is a limit to revenge, but I guess Frank Castle hasn’t reached his. Vigilantes of today are armed with cameras instead of guns. Instead of taking lethal justice into their own hands, they capture the images of fatal injustice in order to replace mythology with harsh reality. Most, if not all, superheroes are vigilantes. They don’t have badges. They didn’t go to the police academy. The Punisher is, at least, up front about it. In some versions of his story, he gives a truer vision of what the vigilante really is, a lonely, sad, disturbed victim, failing to solve problems with violence.