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A Retrospective on the Punisher Movie Series

Written by Davidde Gelmini

The Punisher. The name brings to mind the image of a muscular ex-soldier wearing a skull on his chest, blasting holes in the sort of people who deserve to have holes blasted in them. As far as Marvel anti-heroes go, the buck stops with him.

First appearing in 1974 in The Amazing Spider-Man #129, Frank Castle was a former marine, who, as we all know, lost his wife and two children after they were caught in a mob hit in Central Park. After avenging their deaths, he dedicated the rest of his life to punishing those who harm the guilty. And by punish, I ain’t talking about the Batman or Daredevil route of sticking them in prison only for them to escape and kill more people. When the Punisher punishes someone, they go in the ground. He kills criminals. So simple and yet so effective. Surely the exploits of such a pure-and-simple vigilante would be ideal for a film adaptation, right? Well…

After Howard the Duck, the Punisher was the first Marvel character to hit the big screen, in a low budget 1989 B-movie directed by Mark Goldbatt, best known as editor on films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and starring Dolph Lundgren as the big man. Filmed in Austraila and released theatrically in several countries – notably straight-to-video in the US – it suffered from a lack of respect for its source material. Firstly, Frank Castle was now an ex-cop and not an ex-marine; secondly, instead of his wife, son and daughter being killed in a mob hit, his two daughters were killed in a car explosion. The skull on his chest was nowhere to be seen. In other words, it didn’t feel like a comic-book movie.

Instead, it felt like what it was, a hyper-violent ‘80s action movie in which a desperate individual wages a one-man war against both the Italian mafia and the yakuza. Here Frank Castle is an avenging angel of death who will stop at nothing to ensure that the guilty are punished. At the start and end of the film, he delivers monologues written by Lundgren himself, which end with the words “I still talk to God sometimes, I ask him if what I’m doing is right or wrong, I’m still waiting for an answer, and until I get one, I’ll be waiting, watching, the guilty will be punished.” Lundgren certainly seemed passionate about the film. He clearly had an idea of what makes the Punisher the Punisher, and who can forget the immortal conversation: “What the fuck do you call 125 murders  in five years.” “Work in progress”. If only what came next had such an understanding of the essence of the character.

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In 2004, a new Punisher film, directed by first time director Jonathan Hensleigh, was released, and to put in blankly, it got everything wrong. Shot in only 50 days on a budget of only $15 million after John Travolta demanded a huge paycheck to appear as villain Howard Saint, the rushed production was unfortunately evident in the film.

Once again the death of his family was misrepresented. Here his entire family are on a family reunion in Puerto Rico when mobster Saint – whose son’s death Castle caused earlier in the film – has them all killed. And instead of a son and daughter, Castle only has a son, who is killed along with his wife when one of the thugs runs them over. Seriously, how hard can it be just to have his wife, son and daughter die in Central Park? And having a family reunion, so that every single member of Castle’s family was killed, was just plain overkill. Worst of all, having Castle responsible for the death of Saint’s son create sympathy for Saint and dislike for Castle.

And if that was not bad enough, instead of getting straightforward revenge, the Punisher spends most of the film lurking in the shadows, with a stupid subplot in which he manipulates phone records and other details to make it look like Saint’s wife is having an affair with his lead henchman to manipulate Saint into killing them both instead of killing them themselves. “He’s not called the executioner, he’s called the Punisher”, said Hensleigh on the DVD commentary. Yeah. The Punisher is someone who goes and kills people he wants to be dead, not some blackmailing puppet-master.

Similarly, in the comics, Castle is ashamed that he used his family’s death as an excuse to become something dreadful, as an excuse to kill thousands. Here, his son gives him the skull shirt before his death. The fact that he uses something that his son gave him as the symbol for the countless deaths that would follow makes you wonder is Hensleigh and screenwriter Michael France ever went anywhere near a Punisher comic. Regarding the look of the skull, early promotional material had it looking exactly like it looks in the comics, but the final film featured a more decayed, greyish image; at least they featured the skull at all.

And worst of all, he does not even become the Punisher until the very end of the film when he delivers a monologue about how he will devote the rest of his life to punishing the guilty. If you watch a film called The Punisher, you kind of expect the film to be about the Punisher, not 118 minutes of how he became the Punisher.

As the titular character, Thomas Jane did a good job of creating a tortured character who struggles to convince himself that what he is doing is right. “This is not revenge, it’s punishment” he tells his victims. If only everyone else involved shared his passion.

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Probably the best thing about the film was the brutal fight between the Punisher and the Russian, a character first introduced in Garth Ennis’s Marvel Knights Punisher series, here played by wrestler Kevin Nash. With their brutal, drawn-out, no-holds-barred smackdown, it seemed that someone must have read a few of the comics…

An awesome video-game inspired by the film, which became the first ever game to receive and AO (Adults Only) rating from the ESRB for violence rather than sex, was released shortly afterwards in an edited M rated edition. The only other game to receive such an honour was Manhunt 2, which was originally rejected by the BBFC. Jane reprised the role of Castle, and there’s something about slowly drilling into a victim’s head that never gets old.

Also in 2004, the Punisher MAX series was launched by Marvel’s adult imprint, written by comic legend Garth Ennis who previously wrote the Marvel Knights Punisher comics mentioned above. Here nothing was held back. Dismemberment, decapitations, castrations, sex, nudity and worse were the order of the day. The word fuck was used uncensored around 60 times and issue, along with even worse words. Indeed, the content was pushed to the MAX (sorry). This series took place in its own continuity, separate from the 616 Punisher series and featuring no superheroes or supernatural elements. Ennis created hard boiled  crime stories that went to the edge of what would be seen as acceptable. Too bad this series was released too late for the 2004 film to be influenced by it, but at least when the next film came, the MAX series was its main inspiration.

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Punisher: War Zone was released in 2008 and grossed $10 million worldwide. Yes, $10 million. Don’t expect any other Punisher films ever again.

After Joyride director John Dahl departed the project, kickboxing champion Lexi Alexander seemed like an odd choice – her only other directing credit being the much-underrated football hooligan drama Green Street – but there’s no question, out of all the directors of the Punisher films, she without a doubt had the most understanding and respect for the character.

Punisher: War Zone took most of its inspiration from the MAX series, featuring characters and plotlines that the series introduced in addition to using the level of brutality in the series. Here people are decapitated, set on fire, have chair legs kicked into their eye sockets, are cut to pieces by glass, have their intestines ripped out and eaten, and suffer just about every other violent death imaginable. Before they were distributing big budget blockbusters such as The Hunger Games, Lionsgate was primarily an independent studio mostly known for horror films such as the Saw franchise and therefore had no restrictions on the level of violence that could be displayed.

As the Punisher, they absolutely could not have picked a better choice than Ray Stevenson. Fresh from his lead role as brutal and bloodthirsty soldier with a heart, Titus Pullo, in HBO’s Rome, he was able to capture everything that made the Punisher such a brilliant character. Not only was he able to create someone who enemies should have every right to fear, but also captured the tragic and heartbroken family man who longed for nothing more than to be reunited with his loved ones. Physically he was perfect for the role, and although he admitted not to having been a comic book fan beforehand, he read the MAX series prior to filming to help him understand how to embody the Punisher.

Admittedly Dominic West and Doug Hutchinson may have may have hammed it up as hideously deformed villain Jigsaw and his cannibal brother Looney Bin Jim, making the characters so over-the-top that you don’t know whether to fear them or laugh at them, but who cares? Alexander set out to make a comic book movie, and that’s exactly what she did. Everything from the stylized lighting to the over-the-top violence let you know that you were firmly in the world of the make-believe.

And yes, finally, they got the way his family died correct. Although thankfully not an origin story, a flashback shows his wife, son and daughter dead in Central Park, as it was in the comics, and as it should have been in the previous two films. The only complaint with how the handled the character is that although the skull icon is intact, it is only shown very faintly. This is apparently because Alexander felt it was childish, but decided to incorporate it because she knew that the fans would want it, compromising instead by making it barely visibly.

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Although filming allegedly went smoothly, and early marketing did a great job – including a red band trailer at Comic Con and a poster showing the skull icon made entirely of bullet holes – during post production there were rumors that Alexander had been sacked from the film and that Lionsgate would create the final cut without her. These rumors were not helped by the fact that she whited-out all the text on her website and replaced it with images on the three monkeys representing ‘see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil’. Whatever happened, she eventually decided to go back to promoting the film, but bad marketing closer to the release contributed to an absolute bomb. This podcast, released in 2011, in which Alexander talks about the film, sheds some light on what apparently really happened.

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There were rumors of a Dexter-style TV series with the Punisher as a cop by day and vigilante by night, but thank goodness that never got made. Stevenson reprised his role in an episode of The Marvel Superhero Squad Show, and the Punisher also appeared in the anime film Iron Man: Rise of Technivore, voiced by Norman Reedus. Interestingly, in seemingly every interview with Stevenson since 2008, the possibility of another Punisher film is raised, with him always saying that he wants to do it and even being rumored to direct it as well as star at one point. Maybe, if both he and the fans want it enough, it may actually happen one day…

That about does it for the bloody and storied history of the Punisher movies to date, but what do you think? Are you still longing for the definitive take on Frank Castle or are you satisfied with what we’ve had so far? In any case, we want to hear.

About the author

Davidde Gelmini