With Jon Bernthal’s version of The Punisher set to make an appearance in Daredevil on March 18, there’s a lot of anticipation on how he will depict the character. There are already talks that his version of the character is unlike what we’ve seen before, and possibly the best depiction of the character so far. But before we praise Bernthal for injecting new life in to Marvel’s popular antihero, let’s take a look a look back at previous interpretations of the character on film.
- The Punisher (1989)
Yeah, were going way back to the beginning. This particular version of the character, played by Dolph Lundgren, is usually forgotten when discussing The Punisher films. But aside for Frank Castle not wearing the classic skull on his chest, the film delivers the type of Punisher film fans of the comics can appreciate. A few changes were made to his backstory, but the end result was the same.
Castle’s family was murdered by the mob and he becomes a killing machine with a toll of 125 deaths within his first fives years of being active. Slightly insane and living in an underground sewer area, The Punisher continues his war on all of the mob families until they’re force to make an alliance. After the Yakuza makes a move for power by kidnapping the children of mobsters, The Punisher reluctantly decides to work with the man who killed his family in order to save the lives of the children, while also hoping to take out both sides in the process.
As unnecessarily complex as the story was for The Punisher, it’s deeply appreciated as it adds on to the action and raise the stakes for Frank. The action in the film is practical and bloody, but you never feel like it’s too cartoonish. And Dolph delivers as the title character effortlessly as he comes off as psychotic as you’d imagine someone capable of 125 brutal murders would be. If you’re a huge Punisher fan, and a fan of old school action with practical effects, then the 1989 Punisher is definitely worth checking out.
- The Punisher (2004)
A lot of people may not agree with my opinion on this film. While some feel that it was the best onscreen version of the character, I personally feel that it is the weakest Punisher film out of the three. But I want to clarify that may be the worst Punisher film, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. Confused? Well I’ll explain in a moment.
The film serves as a origin story for the character. During an undercover investigation, Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is inadvertently involved in the death of Howard Saint’s (John Travolta) son. Saint, a corrupt businessman involved with organized crime, kills off Castle’s entire family as retaliation. Left for dead after the massacre, Frank Castle sets up an elaborate plan in order to trick Saint in to killing his wife and best friend before taking him out personally.
The problem I have with this film is that it wasn’t originally written as a Punisher adaptation. The script was written as an original film before Lionsgate obtained the rights to the character. After adding a few elements from the “Welcome Back Frank” Punisher storyline, along with significant changes due to the budget being cut, fans received a decent low budget film with very little connection to the Punisher storywise. And it is complete evident to anyone familiar with the character that the story contradicts who The Punisher is and how he would react to the attack on his family by Saint.
After surviving the attack and being left for dead, Frank uses his car to pull his tombstone out of the ground to dump it in Saint’s yard in order to dramatically deliver a message that he survived. From there, Saint hires a couple of hired guns to take out Castle as he sabotage everything involving Saint before finally killing him. The biggest problem with the story is that the Castle we know from the comics would have never went through the elaborate process he went through in the film. As intelligent as he is, Castle would have used the fact that Saint believed he was dead to his advantage. Storming his home like he does in the final act, but with less security considering that Saint has no reason for it if he thinks his life isn’t in danger, Frank would have taken him out without him ever seeing it coming. Because The Punisher is a tactical soldier, not a western gunslinger like the movie portrays.
The Punisher (2004) is a revenge film with a character who doesn’t believe in revenge, but punishment. The supporting characters added from the comics, and ending in which he decides to become a vigilante, all feel like an afterthought. Although it was a good low budget film, it was not a good Punisher film. And Thomas Jane was great casting wasted in the wrong film. The short Punisher film “Dirty Laundry” in which he reprise his role is evidence of this. So if you’re a die hard Punisher fan, I recommend skipping this unless you’re just curious.
- Punisher: War Zone
Punisher: War Zone is widely considered the worst Punisher film out of the three. Lasting in theaters for only a few weeks before it was pulled out by the studio, it is the worst grossing Marvel film since Howard The Duck. But with all of that aside, die hard Punisher fans love the hell out of this film. With the look and violence of the Punisher Max comics, Punisher: War Zone is by far the most faithful version of the character on film.
The film starts off with The Punisher already well established enough that the police have a room dedicated to holding all of his past murder case files. The Punisher goes after Billy “The Beaut” Russotti and leaves him horrifically disfigured. But after killing an undercover cop in the process, he wonders if it’s time for him to hang up his guns. But the return of Russotti, now known as Jigsaw, forces him to continue his war against their organization to protect the family of the cop he killed.
There is a lot more to the plot, but the main focus of the film is the action scenes. And boy, does this film deliver the action. Frank Castle mercilessly gun down anyone standing in his way. And at times, he takes it to the extreme as things get very gory throughout the film. Ray Stevenson delivers as Frank Castle. He comes off as a believable character with a military background. And while there are only a few scenes in which his character shows emotion, he nails it enough for you to sympathize with the character. The best way describe his perfect balance of Frank Castle is a scene within the film itself. There’s a scene in which Castle picks up a little girl to comfort her with one arm, while shooting a mobster in the face point blank with a shotgun with the other. The hilarious moment is a prime example of how conflicted and contradicting his character is, and Stevenson pulls it off effortlessly.
The film feels like a comic book, which makes it understandable that some viewers didn’t like that considering that it came out in a time comic book films reached for more realism. But it’s a solid B movie with great action despite some of the bad and over the top acting. And with it being the last Punisher film before he makes his way to Netflix, it’s well worth the watch. Because this is the best version of the character so far, and it has gained somewhat of a cult following in recent years.
Daredevil season 2 starts in March, and The Punisher has already gained his own spin off before the new season premieres due to his portrayal. Jon Bernthal’s interpretation may become the best we’ve ever seen. We’ll just have to wait and see. The Punisher is a character that would work better in a television show than on film. But let’s not forget his theatrical outings. Because they’ve delivered a bloody good time to us in the past.