Movie producers have been pounding down the Punisher’s door for almost 30 years, making three movies starring the character. It was Netflix, though, that gave us a Punisher deserving of the name and iconic skull. We had our first glimpse of him in Daredevil‘s second season, and it became almost immediately became apparent what had been wrong with those movies: the Punisher is a much better fit for TV than he is for the comparatively compact space of film.
When you pick Frank Castle apart and break him down into a checklist, everything about him says he should be an easily-bankable character custom-made for action movies. Time and again, though, his quest for revenge has failed to hook audiences. Yet Hollywood still keeps coming back.
With the Punisher’s standalone show mere days away from release, we wanted to take a look back at his previous adventures in live-action. Why did they fail? And what does the new series needs to do to make the character the success he really should be?
Why do studios keep trying to make this character work?
By the time the Marvel Cinematic Universe had truly gotten under way and the Avengers had begun to assemble, the Punisher had appeared in theaters no less than three times. Two of those times, it failed spectacularly, and the other attempt wasn’t exactly a barn-burner, even if it wasn’t the worst thing to hit theaters that year.
What brought studios back to him time and again was that on the face of it, he’s not really a comic-book character. Frank Castle is closer to a blockbuster action hero than he is to a superhero.
He’s an American man with military history, and he’s out for revenge. He lives by his own code of justice and doesn’t answer to anyone – he’s as free as you can get. The material almost writes itself. John Wick should’ve been a Punisher rip-off, by all accounts. He’s not that different from a character like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix in the 1985 movie Commando. In other words, he fits into the archetype of what we’ve long considered an ideal action character.
That Castle is a comic-book character has long been more of a bonus than a core feature. There’s an amazing opportunity to get a nice two-fer at the box office. You get the action fans and comic fans with one movie, without having to invest in the expensive costumes, sets, and effects that superhero movies have always required.
The truth about the Punisher, though, is that he’s frequently struggled to hold onto his own books throughout the years. He’s a difficult character to do justice to, and he exists almost entirely in shades of grey that many superheroes and superhero films don’t do well with. Ironic, considering how simple the character’s own sense of justice is!
And that’s what lies at the core of the Punisher. He’s a complex character, not only in his own comic-book world, but also with his place in our modern world.
The Punisher’s Many Faces
Depending on who you ask, the Punisher is a very different character. The character’s own creator, Gerry Conway, has called the character “a Rorschach test.”
To those who put themselves in the line of fire, both as police officers and soldiers, the Punisher can be a symbol of justice of some sort. American Sniper subject Chris Kyle and his squad called themselves the Punishers, and even wore the character’s trademark four-fanged skull on their gear. The logo even spread to some Iraqi soldiers fighting ISIS. Earlier this year, said skull even showed up on a police car for a bit before being removed.
For military and paramilitary folks, the character seems to stand as a symbol of swift, unconditional justice. He metes out punishment harshly and gives no quarter to his enemies. That you can layer what exactly your version of “justice” is and who the “villains” are certainly doesn’t hurt this.
But when you look at his own comics, the Punisher manifests very differently. There, he is the scars of war personified. Like John Rambo in First Blood, he is one of the men who can’t just “turn it off” when he comes back from the front. Sure, he is out to take revenge for his murdered family, but almost every incarnation of the character moves through that plot point with relative speed. Even in the most recent take on the character in the second season of Daredevil, the Punisher had his revenge arc resolved by the time his part of the story ended. Simple vengeance is only part of who Castle is.
As the Punisher, Frank Castle is an embodiment of the idea that all crimes can be solved down the barrel of a gun, and that the death penalty is the only retribution for violent crimes.
When Castle shows up in the context of other heroes, the Punisher functions instead as a mirror. We see this in the second season of Daredevil, but also over and over in comic books. Heroes like Spider-Man and Daredevil are deeply opposed to killing, but Castle doesn’t give it a second thought. In fact, that these so-called “heroes” let dangerous villains live, only to have them escape again, has put these characters in the Punisher’s sights more than once. Just Castle’s simple presence can expose the moral problems posed by the existence of superheroes.
Right from the beginning, though, the movie versions of the Punisher elected not to grapple with any of that.
The 1989 Punisher film, starring Dolph Lundgren, was just that: a cheap license to give action star Lundgren something to star in. He was still riding high from 1985’s Rocky IV and 1987’s Masters of the Universe, so executives were foolish not to try and capitalize further on his presence.
And really, Dolph Lundgren himself is a more interesting character than Frank Castle. The dude speaks multiple languages, has a master’s degree in chemical engineering, and is a 3rd-Dan black belt in Kyokushin Karate. He’s been a bodyguard (for Grace Jones, no less), a bouncer, a model, and of course an actor. His house was broken into in 2011, and the burglars had threatened his wife. When they realized whose house they’d broken into, they fled.
In the case of the 1989 flick, everything was wrong. It was just a bad movie made using a cheap license. Nothing about the paradoxes inherent in the character were ever touched there.
The character laid dormant for 15 years, until Thomas Jane brought him to life in the 2004 movie of the same name.
This movie took a few liberties with the character. While the Punisher has always been as much a New York character as Spidey and Daredevil, the movie relocated him to Florida. I’m going to guess that was due to whatever tax breaks Florida was offering at the time. And instead of only killing Castle’s wife and child, the crime syndicate – led by John Travolta as Howard Saint – slaughters his entire extended family as retribution for Saint’s son getting himself killed during an FBI sting.
The movie skips over Castle as a soldier, but it got a few other things right.
Jane portrays two elements of the character quite well. The Punisher is a methodical character, and a very unhappy one that doesn’t make friends eagerly. He sees his mission as a solo one. So the movie intercuts between scenes of Castle preparing for his mission and dealing privately with his grief. His non-hostile interactions with people are reluctant and guarded.
The problem is that the way Castle grieves is out of character: he drinks. A lot. And the Castle we know from the comics isn’t an alcoholic. In fact, he doesn’t drink at all, because his obsession and rigor run so deep. He’s a justice machine that needs to be kept in tip-top shape, and substances could rust the gears.
The movie doesn’t dig into who the Punisher is at all, either. We get just enough information to like him and be on his side as he dismantles the Saint crime family.
The biggest thing the 2004 Punisher movie had going for it was Tom Jane. He’s good enough as the character – and liked the character enough – that he reprised the character in an unofficial ‘bootleg’ short film from Adi Shankar a few years back. He’s sympathetic and believable as a real-world version of the character. It’s a fun movie to watch, but there’s no real reason it should be Punisher story specifically. It feels more like a generic revenge action thriller with Punisher-isms stenciled onto it.
The 2008 film, Punisher War Zone, was a flop of epic proportions. Jane stepped away from the picture over concerns about its quality, and for good reason. The movie was just plain wretched. It apparently made back less than a third of its costs, despite hitting theaters just months after the ground-breaking debut of Iron Man.
But as before, there were hints at greatness in the movie that just weren’t executed on. Ray Stevenson, more than any actor to date, including Jon Bernthal, looks the part of the Punisher – especially the modern, aging character we see in some of Marvel’s “MAX” line of Punisher stories. He’s been around too long, and he only has two emotions left: sadness and anger.
Even the 2008 story managed to get a couple things right about the character himself. This Punisher was a more focused one than the one we saw in the 2004 film. He had passed his revenge period, and was a force known to the NYPD. There are scenes of police officers discussing whether or not the Punisher actually constitutes a problem for the city or the police since he saves them some trouble, a crucial element of the Punisher’s existence.
The movie opens with Castle accidentally killing an undercover FBI agent, and the movie’s handling of this felt authentic to the character, as he spent the rest of the movie trying, however ham-fistedly, to make up for his mistake.
But things go downhill from there.
The film never makes Frank really ask himself if his killing spree is doing any good or not after he kills that agent. He solves all his problems with bullets, but manages only to create bigger ones in the process. The villain, Jigsaw, is silly, and so are his right-hand men. Even by comic-book standards, not one of the people Castle faced off against is credible as a criminal or a nemesis.
That brings us to our newest Punisher, played by actor Jon Bernthal in the first serialized portrayal of the vigilante.
Movies are great for bombastic stories. They’re a perfect fit for the origin story of Iron Man, for Captain America taking down Hydra, and for Wonder Woman trying to save everyone. These are characters that are bigger than life, and they need a bigger format.
Frank Castle, though, he’s one of us – simultaneously the best and worst of us. He’s what some of us wish we could be, and what other hope humans could never be capable of. His superpowers are obsession and amorality. He’s a menace to society – or is he? He’s a hero, and a murderer. He’s post-traumatic stress, brain damage, grief, and anger, powered by inhuman focus.
To explore all of this, the Punisher needs some room to spread out. The Marvel Netflix Universe gives the character everything he needs.
In Daredevil, we get a taste of all of these to some degree. His main role there is to stand as a mirror to Daredevil’s vigilantism. Is Matt Murdock good? Does he serve a purpose? How do his actions (and the actions of vigilantes in general) affect law enforcement – both in how they do their jobs and how do people see them as they do their jobs? Is his refusal to kill really meaningful, or is it as big a problem as Punisher’s need to kill?
We also get some peeks at Castle as a soldier, and at Castle as someone who is hurting in ways a person who hasn’t seen what he’s seen could understand. As Karen Page tries to get close to Castle, vulnerability seeps in, and that’s something Frank lashes back at. His head injury and post-traumatic stress work in tandem to erect a concrete wall between him and everyone else in his life.
Daredevil finally gave Castle the space to be as close to a three-dimensional character as we’ve ever seen him in live-action productions. While the budget space of television might make it a tough sell for some superheroes – feast your eyes on The Inhumans for a prime example – it’s exactly what the Punisher has been waiting for.