4 Elements: Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher

September 20th, 2010 by | Tags: , , , , , ,

With a swift biweekly run, last week saw the ending of the miniseries Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher by writer Jonathan Maberry and veteran Punisher artist Goran Parlov. I was a bit wary on this mini when it came out, since Maberry’s Doomwar just wrapped up and I didn’t enjoy it like I hoped I would. I gave the first issue a try and it certainly paid off. I’ve seen multiple people agree with my sentiment: this comic is surprisingly pretty good!

The comic appears to be based on Mark Millar’s intentions for the original Marvel Zombies miniseries. The idea being that Frank Castle is the last man alive and plays the I Am Legend role by hunting down superhero zombies and trying to survive day-to-day. Robert Kirkman decided to go a similar route, only using Hawkeye, until he realized that it had already been established that Hawkeye was a zombie too. Then he went with the Black Panther/Silver Surfer plotline and the rest is history.

So what is it about this second attempt at this idea that makes it so enjoyable to me? Well, there are four elements. This is ignoring the obvious one of “a Mark Millar idea that isn’t actually written by Mark Millar.”

The series takes three existing Marvel stories with promising concepts, improves them separately and mixes them together. The first one is obvious in Marvel Zombies, where the infected Marvel superheroes and villains go tear apart and feed on the populace. The second is Punisher: The End, where Frank kills what’s left of the post-apocalypse. Then there’s Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe. I’ll get to the former two in the other elements.

Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe is pretty cool in concept and indeed has its moments. Frank Castle systematically goes out and kills every spandex jockey there is over the course of one issue, usually in neat ways. It’s just that when you look at it years later after having seen Ennis’ usual “powerless badass deals with superheroes” story that isn’t the Superman issue of Hitman, it completely loses its luster. It really is nothing but Punisher masturbation with a Daredevil retcon subplot shoved in there for the sake of giving it something resembling an ending.

I think the big problem with it is that for a protagonist going up against the worst odds in the world, Frank has his shit together a little too much. Sure, Dr. Doom and Captain America give him a little trouble, but then Frank shows that he had planned it out that way from the beginning. The closest real threat he faces is Wilson Fisk falling on him. While he does have his shit together in Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher, there’s a lot more menace in what he’s up against. The fact that he’s up against something that’s portrayed as having brought down civilization makes Frank an honest to God underdog. Here, you want him to survive and kill with hopes that he won’t get caught or infected. With Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, you kind of start wishing Wolverine or Daredevil would hand him his ass at some point.

The story actually makes sense to me. This is where it really differs from the Marvel Zombies lore. At first I was wondering why this had to be its own continuity anyway. Why not just put Frank Castle in one of the various Marvel Zombies universes? Then I read more and felt that it’s better this way. You see, there were a lot of great things to come out of the Marvel Zombies franchise, mostly involving Fred Van Lente as writer. It’s just that much of it came off as stuff being pulled out of the writer’s ass or things just plain not making sense and being left unanswered.

What happened to Zombie Sentry? How did Magneto bargain with the zombie outbreak itself? How come their teeth never chip or rot off? How the hell did Vision of all people get infected? How did Colossus get infected? If the zombie superheroes get their bearings after sustenance and feel tremendous guilt for what they’ve done, how come not a single one tries suicide? How do you keep chomping down on Galactus without infecting him? When Nightcrawler and Dr. Strange know that they’re moments away from being cornered by zombies, how come they don’t just teleport? How come the Venom symbiote is the only living thing in the universe that is immune to both infection and the zombie’s appetite? How come nobody knows that a destroyed brain will kill a zombie in the first story when the prequel story Dead Days is 65% Thor shattering skulls with Mjolnir?

Even Van Lente’s anticlimactic final issue of Marvel Zombies 5 basically had Machine Man go down the list of holes in the story. A lot about the virus was never explained, but instead became a plot point to give us rampant gore that soon became more and more shallow.

The first issue of Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher explains the viral outbreak in two ways. First, it’s the way that the public perceives it. What seems like a regular hero vs. villain fight between Spider-Man vs. Rhino is really a crazed and infected Spider-Man chowing down on the poor goon (as an aside, I like that Rhino is the first victim, since he and Frank were sort of buds for a little while. Not intentional, I’m sure, but I thought it was worth mentioning). Then Blob goes on a feeding rampage. Then schoolchildren. Then it gets completely out of control on a global scale and everything goes to Hell.

The other flashback shows the actual events that lead to the outbreak. We understand what the Punisher did to cause the dominos to fall. The narration gives us understanding on what the virus has done to the biology of the infected and how the entire world would come to reach such a dire point. How after the Punisher screwed up, there was nothing that could have been done to stop it. We also discover how it is that the Punisher is able to refrain from infection and the fatigue that would come from living on the run in such a reality.

The first flashback gives us the idea of terror in the unexplained, but once it’s time to move the plot forward, it’s very nice to have an understanding on what’s what. The Punisher and his enemies have been defined. We understand what he’s up against. Now the story can move on its own logic.

And you know what one of the best things is about that? Despite the notable lack of gore in comparison to the Marvel Zombies stories, Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher is genuinely more frightening. There are panels involving Iron Man and even Stilt-Man (yes, STILT-MAN!) that I find authentically creepy.

I also dig how the infected have become like a breeding ground for the alien symbiotes. That’s a nice touch.

Deadpool’s inclusion works! Hey, I like a good Deadpool appearance as much as the next guy, but I’d like a legit reason for him to show up other than how it might sell a couple dozen more issues. Despite Doomwar‘s problems, I enjoyed the reasoning for why Deadpool was there. There was a legit explanation for why he would be given his specific role instead of any other Marvel hero. Same goes here, where Infected Deadpool is a supporting character based on his ability to come back from near anything. Mostly because of his own healing factor, but occasionally he’s helped out by the rest of Spider-Man’s tribe and put back together.

Deadpool is one of those infected who hasn’t fully devolved into a tribal creature of savage desires. Like Spider-Man, he’s able to speak and does so as much as he did when he wasn’t a cannibal. The bullet points of speech and resurrection are what allow him to thrive here and last the entire four issues. Plus Deadpool has an interesting little moment where he makes an attempt to come to terms with his former self, as he tries to grasp fairly simple human strategy.

“What to do? What to…? I know I remember that I used to know how to think, but I don’t remember what I knew about knowing how to do it. I think.”

It goes back to the Marvel Zombies comparison. Those zombies felt shame for their actions, but didn’t act on them. Here, the infected don’t have to deal with that because they’re so far gone that they can’t even remember such ideas as shame. Amidst a giant cast of superpowered monsters, Deadpool is the perfect choice to be our guide into their world.

Frank Castle is never gonna give you up, but he is gonna let you down. Matt Fraction and to a far lesser extent Rick Remender have made Frank very likeable. Perhaps a little too likeable. At his most compelling, Frank Castle is an unlikeable asshole who has a couple moments here and there of humanity for those who he thinks deserve it. He’s like an even worse version of what Batman was like five years ago.

Though a protagonist, Frank is essentially a villain. I think of him the same way I think of the likes of Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor and pre-total breakdown Norman Osborn. They’re all horrible people who have some likeable qualities and the occasional redeeming moment. You read into their actions and they lead you around until – BAM! – they remind you who they truly are. It happens again and again and I’m happy to fall for it every time. I think it’s good storytelling.

Punisher: The End played with this concept in how Frank would rather punish those he feels are guilty than give the human race a chance to exist. It’s one of the more dire comics I’ve read and it’s a bit too cynical for me. The two characters who come off as anything close to likeable are murdered by Frank based on his crazed judgment. Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher at least adds juxtaposition of actual innocent people being there. Or at least those that Frank would consider innocent in his eyes. It leads to better conflict when he does pull his usual “what I say goes” bullshit. The first issue even gives us hope in Frank by having him note that for causing all of this, it’s up to him to save the world.

In the end, there’s a little bit of right to shield the whole lot of wrong. Much like in The End, Frank is stubborn to the point of being the world’s biggest asshole. Never compromise, even after the face of Armageddon. The story started off with an easy black and white dichotomy, but by the end, it’s debatable. Frank really might be the worst of the worst.

I think the best example of how broken Frank’s head is takes place in the first issue. There’s a moment in one of his flashbacks where he explains that every day was filled with horrible decisions. This is portrayed through Frank hesitantly about to shoot Captain America in the back of the head as Cap kneels and foams at the mouth, finally succumbing to the infection. Despite having to reenact Old Yeller, we notice that among the trophy heads shoved onto pikes on the last page, Cap’s head is there. That’s wrong. It’s one thing to decorate your home with the heads of Daredevil, Red Hulk and Thing because they certainly deserved it, but Cap didn’t do a damn thing wrong. He was Frank’s personal hero and, days before his death, comrade. Now he’s tossed in with the other infected because everything is black and white to Frank. Even though he never had a chance to do anything, Captain America is just as bad as the other cannibals.

In a strange way, the end of Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher shows that this is the closest thing Frank can ever have to a happy ending outside of that weird afterlife stuff from Paradise X. He can claim that he’s there to punish the guilty or save the world or be the hero for a handful of human survivors, but it’s all a load of bunk. He’s doing this for himself because a reality where he can’t kill who he feels needs killing is something he can’t deal with. Manhattan has become Valhalla to him. In a place that’s turned into Hell, Frank Castle is in his own personal Heaven.

By the way, with Parlov on art, was anyone else distracted by how much Mary Jane looked like that kinky cheating wife from the Barracuda arc of Punisher MAX? Maybe it’s just me.

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16 comments to “4 Elements: Marvel Universe vs. the Punisher”

  1. Great review. Glad you enjoyed the series.

  2. I flipped through it in the store and noticed the look-alike red-heads too. I don’t recall there being a ton of different women in the MAX arcs Parlov illustrated, maybe he only has the one “young, attractive woman” face that he uses all the time? It wasn’t until I got to the last few pages that I put together it was MJ.

  3. I really enjoyed this series. A pleasant surprise.

  4. Actually, Kirkman was going to use Luke Cage, who would logically be to invulnerable to bite. The plot would be him finding human colonies for the Zombies because they held his wife and child, but also protecting the superhumans to form a secret resistance. It MIGHT have been good.

  5. @Stig: Wow, I forgot all about that one. We’re both right, though. I remember him talking about the Hawkeye idea and how he’d have been hiding out in the arctic and how Kirkman’s glad it didn’t work out, since he feels it would have been a boring story.

  6. I thought that redhead seemed familiar in some way. It’s all so clear now.

  7. The redhead from the Barracuda arc was actually my little hommage to Mary Jane, as she was one of my all time favorite comic book female characters.
    At the time, I never really thought I’d be in position to actually draw MJ.

    However, I’m glad you’ve noticed it. 🙂

  8. Wow Gavok, I really like your insight here. This mini-series actually led me to a discussion with my friends on how on a meta-storytelling level, Frank is an agent of death and decay. Sure he doesn’t want to harm innocents and will try to help them if he can, but if a person is on Frank’s radar, they are pretty much going to be ruined on some level. Depending on who the side character is and what they’ve done in a Punisher story, they will either end up injured, traumatized, or dead by the end if they deal with Frank. No one ever walks away with a net positive outcome, or says, “I’m glad I met Frank Castle.”

    Which is weird in superhero comics, because even with other vigilantes or killers, you at least see some stories where they try to improve the lives of people around them instead of just pulling them out of fires. Bruce Wayne has tons of foundations and Matt Murdock does Pro Bono work. Spider-Man visits sick kids. But with Frank burns the cancer but cares not for healing. It makes him both a depressing and compelling guy for me to read.

  9. @Dane: The only person I can think of who came away from meeting Frank with a genuine life improvement would be… what’s her name, the meek lady from Marvel Knights Punisher. Joan? The one the supermodel played in the movie.

    Other than that… Frank’s a terrible friend.

  10. David, I thought about adding those three neighbors from Welcome Back, Frank as an exception, but eventually decided against it. The neighbors did get a lot of money at the end, but Mr. Bumpo was an accessory in another man’s murder, Spacker Dave got his face (and later his body) ruined, and Joan got her agoraphobia confirmed TWICE when the Punisher fought the mob right at her doorstep.

    Punisher MAX is even worse in this context, as even that little girl he saved is an orphan and is probably going to have nightmares the rest of her life. The captured women from The Slavers pretty much fell apart after getting their freedom back. A woman Frank actually started to care for got blown up by a mine. God, the list goes on and on. I mean, if you can break even in a Punisher story, then that’s a victory, man.

  11. This seemed like a pretty solid series to me, too. The one real complaint I could think to make about it is that I think it, too, falls into the same trap that Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe hits. That is, Frank is way, way too good at this. Seriously, he’s in a crowd with… spoilers… the likes of Red She-Hulk and a dozen other superpowerful freaks, and he manages to kill them all with a hail of bullets and a few grenades? I think he’d have to work considerably harder to keep all of them down. And he offs Spider-Man at point-blank range… whatever happened to Spider-Sense and enhanced reflexes? There just seem to be signs that not enough research was done into the rest of the characters to make them work quite right. The Hulk? He’d have healed those claw marks from Wolverine ages ago. Am I wrong? Am I missing some story element here? Someone tell me if I am, because I didn’t exactly study these books too closely myself.

  12. I’ve seen Hulk get scarred before. I look at his Wolverine scars as showing how severe that fight was. Wolverine really did go all-out and came so close, but came up just short of finishing the job.

  13. Matt Fraction made the Punisher into a fucking idiot! And Frank is not a villain…
    “I think of him the same way I think of the likes of Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor and pre-total breakdown Norman Osborn”

    What bullshit! God… why do they always get some dumbass who knowns jack shit about the Punisher?????

    Awwww… a character or two was inaccuracy written in this comic… it happens to the Punisher all the time whenever he’s in someone else comic. This review should have been written by a Punisher fan, not by some dipshit

  14. @Mac: Haha! Oh, man, between commenting on a Punisher article three months after the fact and making such amazing arguments as, “FUCK FUCK PUNISHER BULLSHIT FUCK WHAT IS THIS FUCK YOU KNOW NOTHING FUCK YOU AIN’T NO PUNISHER FAN NOBODY KNOWS FUCKING PUNISHER BUT ME BULLSHIT!” how could I not remember you from before?

    Which is especially funny because the guy who said, “I hate the so-called fan base. Most Punisher fans are as dumb as hell…” is also saying, “This review should have been written by a Punisher fan, not by some dipshit.”

    Oh, Mac the Adorable Punisher Fan. I hope you never change.

  15. The best part is that Garth Ennis, the best dude to write the Punisher, wrote him like a villain on purpose.

  16. I don’t even understand what Mac is even saying in the first place. Is it that he only wants Mack Bolan style portrayals of the Punisher, where he is absolutely the hero, the only one around to protect us innocents against armies of drug addled rapist Mafiosos who have corrupted the police? Or just that any reviewer who sees that certain writers have portrayed him differently are deluded?

    Or is it just gibberish? I dunno man.