The first thing to understand about The Punisher is that he’s pretty exceptional in the colorful, spandex wearing Marvel universe. While most Marvel super villains never actually kill anybody despite their best attempts – The Punisher’s singular purpose is to murder, extort and otherwise terrorize criminal elements. In this enterprise, he’s pretty successful.
It can’t be coincidence that The Punisher made his comic book debut in 1974, the same year Charles Bronson’s vigilante alter ego, Paul Kersey, was blowing criminal types away in the big screen blockbuster Death Wish.
There’s something especially appealing about The Punisher to Hollywood. Unlike other Marvel characters, he’s never needed sophisticated CGI or special effects. You don’t have to worry about the character looking ridiculous wearing swim trunks or a cape. Blood squibs and quick cutting are sufficient to bring him to life. So why did it take TV streaming service Netflix to finally get the character right after three less-than-perfect versions pushed on us by Hollywood?
The Punisher (1989)
1989’s The Punisher has the feel of a TV movie although it was released theatrically. The Aussie-American production was filmed in Sydney, Australia and lacks the gritty feel that New York locations could have provided. We are given Frank Castle / The Punisher’s backstory via a TV News Anchor, who with no apparent sense of logical thinking, tells us how police officer Frank Castle’s family were murdered then how 125 gangland killings have followed, often attributed to a “shadowy figure” known only as The Punisher.
In the next scene, the Mafia Don responsible for killing Frank’s family is acquitted by a jury. He and his gang return to their home for champagne and hors d’oeuvres, but are dispatched with precision by Frank Castle who remains completely offscreen as he kills four bad guys. He variously uses a knife, a garrote, a powerful side kick and finally a bomb to kill his enemies. Considering this version is played by the 6’ 5” (1.96M) Swede, Dolph Lundgren, you’re left to wonder how he could actually move so quietly without being seen. Movie magic, I guess.
This version of The Punisher had some solid ’80s pedigree behind it with Lundgren playing the titular antihero and Mark Goldblatt in his second directorial effort (after Red Heat with Arnie), having also been the Editor on such fan favorites as The Terminator and Rambo II. Lundgren wasn’t a big star, but he had come to prominence in Rocky IV as Ivan the Russian facing off against Sylvester Stallone at the height of his movie dominance. Lundgren was starting to build a reputation for small action roles (like Masters of the Universe and Red Scorpion) which continues to this day. He dyed his famous blonde hair jet black to play The Punisher and wore biker leathers and a grey T-Shirt. The famous Punisher symbol was pretty much absent except on the end of his knives, which could usually be found sticking out some bad guy’s back.
This version of Frank Castle is also quite the philosopher:
“Come on God. Answer me. For years I’ve been asking you why. Why are the innocent dead and the guilty alive? Where is justice? Where is punishment? Or have you already answered, have you already said to the world: Here is justice. Here is punishment. Here, in me?”
1989’s The Punisher tells the story of an Eastern criminal syndicate identified as the Yakuza facing off against the Mob. When innocent Mob children are kidnapped and held for ransom, Frank Castle decides to join forces with an Italian gangster called Franco to help release the children. What follows is an all-out assault on the Yakuza compound which gives Lundgren’s Punisher a chance to show off his real world martial arts skills. It’s James Bond – Punisher style.
At the end, Franco tries to betray Frank, but finds himself on the wrong end of a bullet. Frank tells Franco’s kid, “Stay a good boy, and grow up to be a good man.”
There’s some genuinely good action scenes and martial arts in the film and Lungren plays the role with all the seriousness it deserves, despite looking half asleep at some points. The film is mostly let down by its tiny budget, poor writing, poor acting and scene setting. As a result, the film only scores a 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. Worth a look though.
The Punisher (1989)
- Budget $9MM
- Punisher 6’ 5” played by Dolph Lundgren
- 28% Rotten Tomatoes
The Punisher (2004)
It was 15 years until The Punisher found himself up on the big screen again. Marvel Studios had begun development on a new Punisher movie as early as 1997 and made a deal with Artisan Entertainment to turn 15 of their characters into films and TV shows.
The Punisher (2004) is based on two comic books, Welcome Back, Frank and The Punisher: Year One. The film boasts a better actor playing the part of The Punisher, Thomas Jane, and John Travolta playing the part of the bad guy, Howard Saint, a money launderer who kills Frank Castle’s family and habitually over-acts. Filmed in Tampa, Florida, the 2004 Punisher movie is essentially the mother of revenge-origin tales, but is quite limited in its storytelling with many unwanted comedic side characters. Budget cuts and a shortened filming schedule meant much of the original scope of the film was cut, too. For the second time, a Punisher movie was the victim of budget constraints.
The movie is sort of a weird duck when looked at as a classic Punisher tale. There are several assassins Castle has to face off against, including a huge Russian wearing a red and white T-shirt over his steroidal muscles that makes him look like a reject from The Popeye Movie; and a guitar playing, muscle car chasing assassin who would be at home in a Robert Rodriguez film. The final slaying of Saint is so over the top, a viewer might be forgiven for laughing out loud when the final Punisher image is revealed from a floating camera above the action.
Upon release, the 2004 movie received mostly negative reviews and holds an almost identical Rotten Tomatoes score to that of the 1989 incarnation. Originally slated for a sequel despite poor reviews, The Punisher 2 failed to materialize owing to creative issues between the director and Jane. Punisher 2 would eventually be renamed War Zone and Ray Stevenson would be cast in the role as Frank Castle, although this film would have no direct connection to the 2004 outing.
The Punisher (2004)
- $54.7MM total earnings | $33.8MM domestic
- Budget $33MM
- Punisher 5’ 11” played by Thomas Jane
- 29% Rotten Tomatoes
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Punisher: War Zone is an enjoyable Punisher adventure, but it was a disaster for Marvel, Marvel Knights (their mature Production arm) and the R-rated comic book movie genre as a whole… until Deadpool recently reversed conventional wisdom.
In War Zone, Frank Castle (played here by Ray Stevenson) has been punishing criminals for five years. War Zone not only opens with an experienced Punisher rather than re-hashing his origin story a third time, it also introduces one of his archenemies to the big screen: Jigsaw. Frank Castle literally creates Jigsaw by throwing Billy “The Beaut” Russotti (Dominic West from The Wire), “Joker-style” into a glass crushing machine. In the comics and the movie War Zone, the handsome criminal is transformed into Jigsaw after being permanently and irreparably maimed by Frank. As the movie plot progresses, Jigsaw frees his cannibal brother “Loony Bin Jim,” then they both go on the hunt for Frank in a game of cat and mouse and kidney eating.
War Zone also displays a softer side of Frank after he feels responsible for killing an FBI agent, Nicky Donatelli. He tries to make reparations to the agent’s wife and daughter, but only ends up leading Jigsaw and his cronies straight to the family and puts them in harm’s way (“Good job, Frank”).
Frank Castle eventually kills both Jigsaw and his brother, punches some guy so hard his face implodes, destroys just about EVERYBODY ELSE before the end of the movie and at length declares, “This is just the beginning.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t the beginning; it was the end of The Punisher on the silver screen. Critical reception to War Zone was poor, but more importantly, the film only grossed $8MM domestically, making it the lowest grossing film based on a Marvel character – below Howard the Duck.
It cost $35MM to make. That’s a pretty punishing take for any movie.
The Punisher: War Zone (2008)
- $10.1MM total earnings | $8MM domestic
- Budget $35MM
- Punisher 6’ 4” played by Ray Stevenson
- 27% Rotten Tomatoes
Daredevil: Season 2 (2016) on Netflix
It’s no small irony that The Punisher should enjoy better casting and better writing on the small screen than he ever got on the big screen. The second season of Daredevil introduces The Punisher as a secondary character that lacks the famous skull chest symbol for most of the season (despite the promotional graphic above), but channels every other bit of complex character development a fan could hope for.
There’s no re-telling of The Punisher origin story here, but a chilling conversation between a shackled Daredevil and Punisher (so named by the police and his enemies) is enough to deliver a powerful vision of the horror that could create such a vigilante. Jon Bernthal, hot off The Walking Dead a few seasons back, is a revelation as Frank Castle. He and Daredevil share a lot in common in the TV series, including the ability to take a considerable amount of physical punishment and pain.
Steven DeKnight, Daredevil’s showrunner (akin to an Executive Producer) has stated that the Netflix version of The Punisher would be “completely the Marvel version” and he didn’t seem to be overstating his position. Bernthal alternatively described his interpretation of the character as follows: “His superpower is that he is not going to quit, and he is going to go forward no matter what. And that’s as human and grounded a quality as I think as this sort of genre could have.”
Of course, the flip side to the commonality shared by Frank Castle and Daredevil is that they face the problems of Hell’s Kitchen by applying different world views on punishment and redemption. Daredevil believes nobody is ever beyond the point of redemption. Franke conversely, believes any transgression should be met with death. It’s this dynamic that makes their particular confrontation so satisfying and exciting.
For fans of The Punisher, what’s important is that the Marvel version of the character they love has finally been put indelibly on film. Hopefully, this version will only serve to create more fans of the character. At a minimum, it sets a new bar for any future interpretation. We will never again settle for some sub-standard vision. Sorry Dolph.
The Punisher: Daredevil Season 2 (2016)
- Punisher 5’ 10” played by Jon Bernthal
- 72% Rotten Tomatoes
Update to original article (4/21/2016)
According to TV Line and Cinemablend, Netflix could be very close to greenlighting a full season of Punisher episodes, part of a Phase 2 initiative for the streaming channel. In addition to Frank Castle, Blade and Ghost Rider have also been hinted at getting shows and we already know that Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and Daredevil will be featured in a crossover series called The Defenders.
It’s a really good time to be a comic book fan.
Netflix announced via Twitter April 29, 2016 that they would be giving The Punisher his own TV series and Marvel confirmed later. You can read more here.
Michael – a fellow fan introduced me to the following Punisher short starring Thomas Jane
If you liked this article by the author, see also:
- Batfleck Forever? Why Ben Affleck Should Get a Standalone Movie
- Man of Steel 2: The Missing Chapter
- Flash in the Pan: 1990’s Flash TV Show
- Stranger Than Fiction: The 1978 Doctor Strange TV Movie
- The Least Action Hero: Patrick Swayze in Road House