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The Punisher: A Look At His Live-Action History

Written by Alex Leptos

Daredevil season 2 is almost here! The series has definitely redeemed the reputation of the 2003 movie adaptation of the blind vigilante in its first season, and with its second, hopes to do the same with two other Marvel heroes (using that term rather loosely for one of them) that the big screen hasn’t been too kind to, The Punisher and Elektra. Now, I haven’t actually seen the Elektra movie so I can’t say much on her- but I really hope that this great character is done some justice! Did I say justice? I meant……

Punishment! Okay, that was terrible and didn’t even make sense but hey, I saw a chance to lead into the next topic and I took it, sue me.

The Punisher is one of my favourite Marvel characters and one of the first characters I followed when I started reading comics as a child (probably not the best reading for an 8 year old but I turned out okay! *thumbs up*) The character has appeared in 3 live action movies. None of which did particularly well in terms of box office and reviews, with mixed responses from fans. Personally, I enjoyed all 3. Though none of them were particularly good, they were hugely entertaining. Let’s have a little recap, shall we?

The first, which came in 1989 with Dolph Lundgren as the vengeful vigilante, often seems to be forgotten when it comes to the character. This movie is pretty much what you’d expect from a vigilante movie starring Dolph Lundgran in the 80’s. The 80’s saw a sort of renaissance in action movies, with many now classics such as Terminator, Die Hard, Rambo and Get Carter. Most were based around the themes of revenge. Much of The Punisher did not feel much like a Punisher movie- The origins of Frank Castles alter ego were changed from the source material, and his trademark skull logo was not used, so the result was pretty much your standard guns blazing flick. The story was fine, following the Punisher after having been the Punisher for around 5 years, with flashbacks to his family’s murder. The action was pretty good too. Dolph Lungdren played a good, not so much Punisher, but default 80’s action vigilante. But then again, the stern faced, no emotion, vengeful man is pretty much what the Punisher is, at least above the surface. The script was cheesy and the acting was meh. Decent action movie, bad Punisher movie.

In 2004 came an un-related reboot starring Thomas Jane, also titled The Punisher. Jane provided, for me, a much stronger portrayal of a tortured soul. Unlike the previous movie, this version was an origin story. In the ’89 version, Lungdren had already been the Punisher for some time. This movie was pretty different from the more well known Marvel stories. The story and characters were mainly based on the The Punisher: Year One series and 2000’s Welcome Back, Frank story. This adaptation created an entirely new character in Howard Saint (John Travolta) as the stories main villain.

The story is that Frank Castle accidently gets one of Saint’s sons killed while on a mission and in a mega cheesy moment where his mourning mother pulls back her black veil and says “His family… His whole family.” Prompting Howard Saints men to crash a Castle family reunion and slaughter quite literally his “whole family”. Unlike the comics where just Frank’s wife and children are killed in a mob hit, this movie had the Saints kill everybody down to his parents, cousins, aunties, uncles, friends- the whole damn lot. As well as his wife and son. (Note that in the comics, he also had a daughter)

From there, Frank dedicated his time to using his military background and a rather hilarious torture scene involving a popsicle and a 2000 degree blowtorch, to track the Saints and co, learn their routines, and just flat out stalk them for a while, plotting his ‘punishment’. Pretty sure you can guess how it turned out.

The result was a movie that played out more like a single straight forward revenge story than an actual ‘Punisher’ movie. The lack of CGI really made this feel raw and rather gritty. (‘The Russian’ fight scene, I’m looking at you!) It was just a good ol’ fashioned action flick. It used a different origin story to the one that we know, though some scenes from later on were ripped straight from the comic book. Thomas Jane played a good Punisher, a believable one. The movie also had an entertaining supporting cast in Frank’s apartment neighbours; the criminally underrated Ben Foster as Spacker Dave, but referred to in the film simply as ‘Dave’ Rebecca Romijn as Joan and the late John Pinette as Bumpo. Good action movie, and better, though still not great, ‘Punisher’ movie.

The last Punisher movie came in the form of Punisher: War Zone, Directed by Karate world champion turned director, Lexi Alexander in 2008. It was originally intended to be a sequel to the 2004 movie, but later became a reboot after Thomas Jane dropped out of the project, stating that he “didn’t believe in it”, a few director changes and the fact that the script had to be altered many times before production could start. Ray Stevenson was cast to play the titular character, with Dominic West as his archenemy, the disfigured crime boss, Jigsaw, formerly known as Billy Russoti.

As it was originally intended as a sequel, there is no origin story here- just flashes of the past. Unlike the previous movies, this one stuck very closely to the source material; most of the characters exist in the comics and the Punisher’s origins and family details remained the same. Heck, even the films visual style made it look like a comic book. Lexi Alexander intended this as a throwback to 80s action flicks, and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. It’s dark, brutal, overly violent, gory and often ridiculous.

There were some small alterations made to the original story, such as Jigsaws origins. In the comics, Billy ‘The Beaut’ is kicked through a glass window to disfigure his face to resemble puzzle pieces. In the movie, he falls into a glass crusher during a firefight with the Punisher, before taking up the ‘Jigsaw’ persona. Its brutal. Some of the characters were created exclusively, such as Jigsaw’s deranged and cannibalistic brother, James Russoti, known as ‘Loony Bin Jim’.

This movie lacked any real story, except for Jigsaw trying to kill the Punisher for what he’d done, and to get his money that a deceased cop apparently owes him. The cops are also trying to catch The Punisher as well as Jigaw and co. There were other little bits and pieces here and there, but most of it is like a giant game of kill-tag. The casting was good enough, I preferred Thomas Jane in the role but Ray Stevenson also portrayed the character well, differently, but pretty well. Dominic West played a good villain and Doug Hutchinson’s ‘LBJ’ was just silly, but also just ridiculous enough to fit in. Other stars such as the underrated Saw V and Rambo (2008) actress Julie Benz as said deceased cops wife, Colin Salmon as his partner and Wayne Knight as Franks weapons and tech provider, Microchipprovided a decent supporting cast. This is a weak movie overall, but a decent Punisher movie and entertaining action flick.

Its also worth mentioning that in 2012, a short fan film titled The Punisher: Dirty Laundry was made starring Thomas Jane reprising his role as the anti-hero. Jane said that he “wanted to make a fan film for a character I’ve always believed in- a love letter to Frank Castle & his fans.” The fact that this is a low budget fan movie by an established actor that previously portrayed the character is just cool on its own. It’s in keeping with what I liked about the 2004 film, but even more so. It’s minimal CGI, raw, dark and gritty, more than any of the full length movies. Oh, and it used music from The Dark Knight‘s soundtrack. Two thumbs up!

While none of these flicks performed well at the box office nor get very reviewed well, they have all become cult favourites for different reasons.

That leads me to Jon Bernthal. He’s a good actor, a very good actor , and he’s familiar to fans of comic book television due to his role as Shane in The Walking Dead. To me, he doesn’t look like Frank Castle and somehow doesn’t feel as much like The Punisher as Jane or Ray Stevenson did. However, having said that, he looks seriously badass in the Daredevil Season 2 trailers. So I’ll save my judgement until I see him on screen. I can’t wait!

What do you think? Will Daredevil’s Punisher give the vigilante a better reputation in the live-action world? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

About the author

Alex Leptos