Season two of Marvel’s Daredevil debuted on Netflix last Friday (March 18), and while reviews have been mixed, there does seem to be a consensus that one of the strongest aspects of those 13 new episodes is the addition of Frank Castle, aka The Punisher.
It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Jon Bernthal nailed the role of the merciless vigilante look to wreak vengeance upon the criminals who killed his family and destroyed his life. Though he’s a versatile actor who’s shown that he can capably handle drama and comedy through appearances in films like The Wolf of Wall Street, Grudge Match, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, if you’ve seen Bernthal as Shane Walsh in The Walking Dead or Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis in Fury, you know he can play immoral, murderous and unhinged really well.
Though Frank Castle fit Bernthal like his signature black trench coat, he also added some depth to the character that we hadn’t seen in previous portrayals of the character. The Punisher is largely a one-note character, perhaps made sympathetic by his wife and children being casualties in a mob shootout, bent on exacting judgment on any and all criminals capable of doing to others what was done to him and his family. Even in Marvel Comics, he wasn’t seen as a character who could carry his own title, appearing as a guest-star in Spider-Man or Daredevil stories.
In those settings, the Punisher is a compelling figure whose methods and means of enforcement run contrary to the noble ideals of the superhero. Heroes like Spider-Man or Daredevil, though also costumed vigilantes working outside the law, end up looking valiant while compared to someone who uses any brutal means necessary to eliminate crime from New York City. On his own, he’s a mean guy with lots of big guns blowing away the bad guys. Sure, that can be fun and it was in a 1986 miniseries.
But as comic books got more grim, dark and gritty during the 1980s, with more mature, violent stories catering toward an increasingly adult readership, created by writers looking to deconstruct superhero tropes and mythology and examine their roles in current society, the Punisher suddenly became such a popular character that he could sustain his own regular comic book. Readers liked a hero with no moral dilemma, who just killed criminals because they deserved to die. And that black costume with the white skull on the chestpiece just looked so damn cool.
By 1989, with Tim Burton’s Batman making superheroes all the rage at the movies, studios began looking for other characters who could make a successful transition from comic books to film. And wouldn’t it be easier to adapt a character who didn’t really wear a costume or had any fancy gadgets, but just looked surly and liked to shoot down criminals?
The Punisher (1989)
The Punisher’s live-action debut was a low-budget affair that ended up going direct-to-video, back when that was viewed as a viable option for a certain level of action or horror movie. Studios and producers hadn’t yet realized that good actors could be cast in these roles and trained to bulk up and fight convincingly on screen, so imposing action figures who looked like they could kick ass but had little acting skill were cast as comic book heroes.
Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV) got the call to star as Frank Castle. The surly Swede certainly looked the part, cutting an imposing image on a motorcycle and carrying big machine guns. But if you’ve seen any of Lundgren’s movies over the years, you know he can play action scenes, but character and dialogue aren’t his strong suits, especially when he shares scenes with Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr. (who hopefully got a nice paycheck).
The best thing about The Punisher is that it’s not an origin story. Castle takes on the Yakuza, presumably motivated by the kidnapping of a mob boss’ son. He kills and blows stuff up real good, but this isn’t a movie, nor a character that we ever really need to see again. The promise of future stories come off like wishful thinking.
The Punisher (2004)
In 2004, comic book superheroes were becoming a hot property. Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk and Daredevil (the Ben Affleck version) had varying levels of success at the box office, showing that audiences were finally ready to buy costumed heroes (many with superhuman abilities) as viable film characters to be taken seriously. So once again, why not try and bring back one of the most popular Marvel characters from the 1990s and early 2000s to headline a big-budget film? Oh, and this time, cast a better actor in as Frank Castle?
Thomas Jane had built up a career on supporting parts (though was very good as Mickey Mantle in HBO’s 61*) and seemed ready to make the jump to leading man roles. And superheroes were quickly becoming the signature lead roles for actors looking to hook on with a franchise and hopefully star in two or three movies. Jane looked like he came right off the comic book page, as if he was drawn by John Buscema, one of the most popular and productive Marvel Comics artists of the 1960s and 1970s.
Castle is portrayed as more of a family man in this origin story, cast as a FBI agent ready to retire. The scenes of him with his family and the knowledge that he wants to spend more of his life with his wife and kids makes his loss more tragic, and paints Castle as a more sympathetic character. However, it’s intriguing that the story’s villain, Howard Saint (John Travolta), is also after revenge because his son was killed in a sting operation headed by Castle.
Giving Castle one bad guy to target, rather than taking on the mob, made for a clearer story, but the movie never finds the right tone, going in campy and funny directions at times before getting deadly serious by the end. Jane plays the wry humor well, working with what he’s given, and maybe that makes his version of Castle a bit more human. But it’s hard to like the guy when he then goes off to kill everyone and blow it all up.
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
No worries about origin stories or trying to make Frank Castle a likable, human character in this presumed sequel, though maybe it’s sort of a reboot since Ray Stevenson (Rome) was recast as the Punisher. Stevenson’s version of the character is absolutely a cold killing machine. There’s no charm to him, which is closer to how he’s portrayed in the comic book. Though he’s undoubtedly a badass with a hint of tragedy to him, Castle isn’t exactly a compelling guy to follow here. That means he needs good supporting characters and Punisher: War Zone does not provide them.
This movie does have the best villain of the three Punisher movies, taking Castle’s arch-nemesis Jigsaw from the comic books. But Dominic West (The Wire) plays him so over-the-top, like most actors thought villains had to be in comic book movies in the 1980s and 1990s. (I always point to Treat Williams in 1996’s The Phantom as the gold standard here. Xander Drax? Ugh.)
Punisher: War Zone is probably more notable for being directed by a woman, Lexi Alexander. Women haven’t really gotten to play in this sandbox, and unfortunately, War Zone‘s success might have studio executives hesitant to take another chance. (That is, until Warner Brothers tabbed Patty Jenkins to direct next year’s Wonder Woman.) But this movie does not mess around and revels in its glorious violence, pushing it to the point of black comedy. Castle literally punches a man through the head and also shoots a thug as a cop (Colin Salmon) is attempting to question him. This is so bad, it’s good kind of stuff. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough to warrant another Punisher movie. This probably killed the franchise for the big screen.
You absolutely should listen to episode 20 of the How Did This Get Made? podcast, which looks at Punisher: War Zone with special guest Patton Oswalt joining in to interview Alexander. The director is refreshingly candid about the type of movie she tried to make and the obstacles she encountered as Marvel Studios slowly backed away and left production of the film to LionsGate, which had no idea how to make or market such a film.
Dirty Laundry (2012)
As a bonus, Jane took one more shot at playing the character, though he isn’t named outright as The Punisher, nor is any skull logo seen, since producer Adi Shankar didn’t have the rights to the character and surely didn’t want to be sued by Marvel. But it’s pretty clear who Jane is playing here, in a dark, gratuitously, ridiculously violent (absolutely NSFW) short bootleg film which demonstrates that as ruthless and brutal as the Punisher can be, he does live by a code that has a sense of right and wrong to it.
Seeing Jane getting another chance to play Castle again would be fun, but Bernthal has now claimed the character for himself and we’ll surely see more of him, whether it’s in another of the Marvel “Defenders” series for Netflix (soon to include Luke Cage and Iron Fist) or his own spinoff, which has been rumored. Though as the three aforementioned feature films demonstrate, the Punisher probably works best as a supporting character who can play off other more traditional heroes.