‘Death Wish’ Was the Punisher Before Frank Castle Ever Was

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: An all-American family man whose wife is killed and daughter assaulted picks up his guns and embarks on a revenge-fueled rampage. Sound familiar? Well, we’re not talking about the Marvel series The Punisher. We’re talking about the reboot of Death Wish, starring Bruce Willis as Charles Bronson’s archetypical white male vigilante.

On Friday, a remake of Death Wish from horror director Eli Roth will hit theaters with Willis as Dr. Paul Kersey, a modified version of the same character Charles Bronson played in the original 1974 film. (Like Die Hard and Rambo, Death Wish was first published as a book, by Brian Garfield, in 1972.) But there are easy comparisons to Death Wish and the Marvel anti-hero the Punisher, who most recently had an actually great Netflix series starring Jon Bernthal. In the series, ex-Marine Frank Castle hunts down for the people who killed his family.

The character debuted in the comics in 1974, shortly before the film release of Death Wish and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry which glorified vigilantism amidst high crime waves in America. “The time we were doing [the Punisher] was a time of a lot of social anxiety in New York City,” said co-creator Gerry Conway in an interview with Inverse back in November.

“We were experiencing real upticks in crime. Some of the response to that was talk of vigilantism. I think the book Death Wish had come up, also Dirty Harry, and that we were being weak on criminals and the proper response was to take them down.”

Left: Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) in 'The Punisher.' Right: Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) in 'Death Wish.' I think.


Conway, a staunch liberal who voices progressive opinions on social media, didn’t exactly agree with the message a lot of the public was taking away from the Punisher. “I saw that as a morally flexible question to say the least,” he said. “I thought the idea of a character who was, in his view, acting from an appropriate anti-crime point of view, being fooled in effect taking the role of a villain, made an interesting commentary in that kind of vigilantism.”

For those seeking action at the cineplex, Death Wish may deliver, but the film’s mixed premise of a “good guy with a gun” is undeniably the wrong message at the right time. And people are noticing.

Less than a month after a gunman opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Florida, gun control is once again at the forefront of the national debate. So it is awfully timely that a grizzled cinema icon such as Willis is playing a wronged man who could have saved his family if only he had a stockpile of firearms. The film’s trailers strongly evoke the political right’s narrative of a citizen’s right to arm themselves.

Heck, the trailer even starts with statistics regarding home invasions in the U.S. “1 in 17” families, the trailer says, “will become victims of a crime.” Then comes the fear: “What if your family was next?” Cut to a tearful Bruce Willis at his wife’s funeral: “I loved my family. I failed to protect them.” When the police sort of shrug their shoulders at Bruno, that’s when Willis learns that when a man must protect what’s his, “he has to do it for himself.” (Yes, he is firing guns at that moment.)

Regardless of opinion on gun control, Death Wish looks mighty familiar for reasons that are maybe not surprising.

Death Wish will hit theaters on March 2.