In the past week Netflix has brought to the apartment two Punisher movies, both of which are from the past decade, so we can avoid the Dolph Lundgren fiasco of 1989. Fans of Batman and The Punisher are set up for an inevitable race to comparison, as Frank Castle loses his entire family to a mob execution and Bruce Wayne to an unknown mugger. The two characters both decide that justice must be served, and yet their personal methods of vigilantism vary wildly. Batman would rather use fear to terrorize criminals, and believes in non lethal means to an end. Frank Castle, on the other hand, is a rather violent guy, and stealth plays a part, but his ends usually leave behind a pile of bodies.
At this point I must note I know very little about The Punisher, and my "history" with Batman is tied mostly to graphic novels and the movies. The comparison has to be made though, and in Punisher: Warzone The franchises meet an interesting crossroads. Warzone revolves around The Punisher and his war with Billy Russoti, who would later become disfigured in a recycling plant, and become Jigsaw. As Jigsaw, the mob boss, then releases his brother Looney Bin Jim (he prefers James) from a psychward, and to get back at Castle organizes all the criminal gangs in the city in a united cause. Sound familiar? It should, but one quick note: Punisher: Warzone released December 5, 2008. (This is important for timeline consideration.)
On July 18, 2008 The Dark Knight releases, and in which The Joker (another J name) unites the criminal underworld against Batman. The Joker doesn't release a brother from a psych hospital, but Arkham Asylum is an important location in this universe. In the 1989 Batman movie, the Joker is created after Batman intervenes in a chemical plant theft being done by mafia hitman, Jack Napier. Napier is thrown into a pit of chemicals and becomes The Joker. Remember also in 1989, the Dolph Lundgren fiasco occurs with the Punisher franchise. So what do we have, two violent sociopaths, two similar origin stories, and two similar motives.
The differences however are what separate the two vigilantes, and ultimately these differences are key to determining what camp you side with. The Punisher outside of Jigsaw and occasionally the Kingpin has no real set of recurring villains, and while this is due to the near homicidal tendencies of Frank Castle, it detracts from the characters ability to keep a constant storyline and dooms him to a supporting character. With Batman and his villainous psychopaths there is also the possibility to move the series into new directions, while at the same time involving a villain that is recognizable and has depth.
On the other hand The Punisher is a way more gritty hero in his portrayal in mainstream media, and mainstream media is the key two words. Batman is at a slight disadvantage here from a character standpoint. His lack of lethal methods creates a dynamic set of encounters between him and The Joker, but that conflict normally plays out fairly similarly. The Joker is often left questioning Batman on his decision for not killing him, and will hold nothing back to force the Dark Knight's hand. The Joker has killed Robin after Robin, paralyzed Jim Gordon's niece and in general has pushed Batman to his limits. Yet the desire for Batman to not stoop to a criminal's level prevents him from giving in to Joker's desire, and ultimately thwarts both Joker's plot and his attempt to "destroy" Batman. These encounters in main stream media play out in fairly high stakes display, but often lack the completely violent and disturbing nature of the Joker himself. Nolan had improved that situation as The Dark Knight pushes the limits on what Joker will do to force Batman into action, but for the most part the Joker in TV shows and previous movies was portrayed as more of a maniacal clown with little of the psychopath to be found.
The main stream effect comes from Batman's own popularity and the marketing that DC and Warner Bros has created. Avid readers of graphic novels and the comic series will find a much different and darker Joker, and find themselves facing a different set of conflict. In the case of Batman, it is often the villain that makes him the character that he has become. In the case of the Punisher since there are virtually no recurring villains, the character simply becomes a vigilante. One that is conflicted about the act of killing, and ultimately forced down this path because of an extensive military background, but a vigilante none the less and nothing more. There is hardly any internal conflict that is created by his actions, other than the act of killing, and there is hardly a reason to keep driving that theme home from a series stand point.
The two franchises follow an unsettling amount of comparison, and in the rare DC Marvel Crossover, have teamed up for battle. Ultimately at the end of the day, I would love to stand behind the Vigilante who handles crime families that constantly go unpunished, and can constantly escape punishment from the law, but DC has found a formula for success with Batman. Bruce Wayne's story deepens from a lack of lethal force, and at the same time establishes enough external conflict that can keep a series running. I would love to see more from The Punisher, but without proper villains to support his story, at the end of the day Batman remains a better character overall.