Season two of the Netflix’s gritty Marvel series The Punisher dropped on January 18. I wasted no time in marathoning all 13 brutal, emotionally gripping, episodes. And if you follow me on social media, it’s pretty obvious that the series and its lead character—played pitch-perfectly by Jon Bernthal—are favorites of mine. But I’m far from the only one in the romance community who is unabashedly Team Frank Castle. On the surface, it seems absurd: Why would people committed to love and happily-ever-afters be so enthralled by an alpha male who beats people to death? He’s not The Kitten Cuddler or The Clit Finder, so why is he our catnip?
“The Punisher is the broody but charming, antihero with competence porn who is broken from his dark past. If I were to list the romance novels with that kind of hero we’d be here until the end of time,” points out erotic romance author Melissa Blue, adding that, beyond the tropey goodness, there is also the incredibly dark universe he inhabits. “We’re primed to accept a person who is only out to get what that world has deemed the actual bad guys. And that’s how they get us,” she says. “Drop The Punisher into NCIS or Criminal Minds, and there would be a season arc in taking him down where he ends up dead or in prison forever. The Punisher works because of the world he was introduced in and lives in, and because he checks all the boxes romance readers have had since the inception of our genre.”
And because he doesn’t kill innocents. Frank Castle, who debuted as a Marvel Comics character in 1974, is driven first by personal vengeance–taking out the people responsible for the murders of his wife and children—and then by the blazing need to make other criminals pay. “I think there’s a modern white knight quality to his violence, much as that’s terrible to say,” notes Sierra Dean, who even based a character in her urban fantasy book Thunder Road on this version of The Punisher. “You see it in his initial Daredevil appearance when he goes back to kill a shopkeeper peddling child porn, and it’s repeated in season two of The Punisher as he defends those around him he sees as being unable to fight for themselves.”
That’s what separates classic comic book vigilantes from serial killers, right? It’s not about lurid sexual thrills or power over those who have none. It’s about justice. “The thing I love best about Frank is that he will stop at literally nothing to see justice done,” affirms contemporary romance author Caitlyn Lynch. “Whatever it takes, whatever it costs him personally in blood and suffering, the ones who were wronged will be avenged…and that makes him, in my eyes, more Avenger than some of the actual Avengers. He’s like the dark mirror of Steve Rogers.”
And much like the perfect marriage of Chris Evans and Captain America, casting has a lot to do with why this iteration of The Punisher works. Former The Walking Dead star Jon Bernthal follows in the tradition of movie predecessors Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane, and Ray Stevenson but puts his own indelible stamp on the role. And, let’s be honest, there’s no denying that he’s a card-carrying hottie. His arresting features and mouth-watering physique are “probably 90% of the reason why we’re not like, ‘This guy should have a hole under the prison,’” laughs Blue. “He’s hero fodder!”
But there’s also how deeply and thoroughly Bernthal fleshes out Frank Castle the husband, father, and friend. “I think Bernthal’s portrayal of him is particularly brilliant because he nails Frank where the other portrayals have been all Punisher,” says RWA Librarian of the Year Robin Bradford. “Part of that is the difference between movies and TV. There are what, 10 or 11 more hours of stuff in a TV show? They can do more. And I liked the movies!” Bradford is quick to add. “They were good fun. But for someone who very much has loved the character for a long time, they were always lacking something. And it was Frank. They were lacking Frank.”
It’s Frank’s humanity, steeped in tragedy, that makes the character sympathetic and elevates him above his punishing persona. Talia Hibbert, who’s known for writing relatively soft “cinnamon roll” heroes, asserts that “he is an archetype that I believe runs parallel to the cinnamon roll, rather than being its antithesis.”
“He’s horrifically violent, but he protects those weaker than him. He’s grim, but he loves make children smile. He’s the Punisher—but he’s driven by things like love and loyalty and a desire to atone,” observes Hibbert. “To me, Frank is almost a corrupted version of the cinnamon roll concept, and it works.”
Erotic romance writer Charlotte Stein agrees. “For me, the appeal of him is in the fantasy of a vengeance and justice-driven brute who’s actually good, respectful, and kind,” explains Stein. “At no point is Frank a misogynist. He doesn’t treat women like trash. And 90 percent of the time, the justice he seeks is in concert with or on behalf of wronged women and girls. In this climate? That’s a delight and a joy.”
Indeed, Bernthal’s Punisher plays like a deliberate push-back against toxic masculinity—as well as government corruption, the plight of our military service members, and how veterans are treated when they return from war. “The Punisher, as a show, is about dragging justice, kicking and screaming, into an unjust world. It’s an angry happy ending. And Frank’s the guy who makes it happen,” says Hibbert. “The fact that he was made into a monster by the system resonates; on a smaller scale, a lot of us have done bad things to survive. Frank takes any guilt we might feel, any resentment we might have, and sets it on fire.”
Is it any wonder he’s setting fire to our hearts as well?