After decades of trying to redo his image and pretending he didn’t exist, Marvel, under the help of Disney, is finally embracing the Punisher and drawing the line with him as an adult character. Now that the mainstream has accepted that being a comic book character doesn’t mean you’re a child mascot, “The Punisher” is back at Marvel Entertainment and being given the adult treatment he deserved for such a long time. With popular character actor Jon Bernthal now taking on the mantle of Frank Castle for the acclaimed Netflix series “Daredevil” on season two.
Eventually being handed his own series, fans are hoping this is a new era for the Punisher, allowing him his own universe, his own mission, and a new iteration that will do justice to the resourceful Punisher of vigilantes and criminals. I’m excited to see what Jon Bernthal is going to do with the character come March 18th, so in celebration of the upcoming season of “Daredevil”, I’m going over the three past cinematic interpretations of Frank Castle and his moniker of “The Punisher” and see how they stack up. And if they stack up.
The Punisher (1989)
The Plot: After Frank Castle is driven mad by the death of his family, he lurks around the underworld taking down gangsters and organized crime as “The Punisher.” With authorities on his tail, Frank meets a new foe with Lady Tanaka, a ruthless Yakuza kingpin who plans to kidnap the children of the most notorious crime bosses and use them for slave trade. Frank decides to snap in to action to save the children, while working alongside his ex-partner from the force, and a crime boss whose son is being held for ransom.
Body Count: 76
Best Quote: “You’re a good boy, Tommy. Grow up to be a good man. Because if not… I’ll be waiting.”
Most Punishing Moment: To get the point across to the yakuza and Italian mafia, Frank Castle crashes through the sky light of an illegal casino and literally guns down the entire casino with his gatling gun for five minutes. As people flee, Castle literally just stands in place decorating every inch of the casino with bullets.
How It Holds Up: This is a “Punisher” movie in name only. You could call it literally anything else like “Blood Vengeance,” for example, rename the characters, and it’d just be another late eighties action vehicle for Dolph Lundgren. The only time we see the signature Punisher skull is on some of the promotional posters. Castle does suit up as some form of the character in the finale but mostly in all black leather that isn’t exactly tactical, per se; especially when you consider his Uncle Jessie Hair doo. Much like “Warzone,” this version of the character is purely comic book pulp with Lundgren not exactly fitting the bill of the character too well. As Castle, he does a solid job depicting this tortured man completely driven insane by his thirst for vengeance, but he mainly just shambles around displaying no real charisma as the titular character.
This Punisher was born after Castle’s family is killed thanks to a car bomb planted after Castle’s battles with organized crime as a police officer. Castle now hides out in the sewers planning his next mission of vengeance and rides around on a motorcycle. Where he puts it, is anyone’s guess. On his tail is his ex partner Jake Berkowitz who is trying to stop Castle before he gets himself killed. For all intents and purposes Mark Goldblatt delivers a solid action film that thrives on the grit and gloom of the original comics and somewhat channels the “Death Wish” aesthetic when it comes to Castle’s own sense of self-destruction. The movie becomes unnecessarily convoluted as new crime boss Lady Tanaka begins bringing down rival gangs and as a means of torment begins kidnapping the children of kingpins across the country. Frank decides to save the children, and take on Lady Tanaka and her massive army of gun wielding thugs and ninjas.
The movie spins in to the cheesy when Castle begins sharing the screen alongside hordes of badly dubbed little kids, all of whom spend their time running in the middle of gun fire and perceiving Castle as some sort of teddy bear. One scene even sees Castle being aided by one of the child hostages who lunges at a thug from behind. It’s unintentionally comical and distracts from the intense violence and momentum of the narrative. Finally when Frank should be teaming up with Louis Gossett’s character, he uncharacteristically teams up with a mob boss to obtain his kidnapped son. Beyond those elements, “The Punisher” struggles for a narrative and spends most of its time staging extended action scenes with almost no emphasis on Frank save for a few really goofy dream sequences. “The Punisher” is by no means the awful adaptation I remember it as, but it’s still a throwaway action vehicle that (like 90 percent of the comic book adaptations in the nineties) has no love for the original source material.
The Punisher (2004)
The Plot: After a botched drug sting results in the death of the son of one of the most prominent gang families in Miami, kingpin Howard Saint sends a hit on agent Frank Castle. Arriving at a family reunion in Puerto Rico, Saint’s army massacres Frank’s entire family. Despite Frank’s best efforts, he’s shot in the chest, and blown in to the water. Miraculously surviving, he’s nursed back to health by a local hermit. Arriving in to Miami, Frank wages a war on Howard Saint and his entire family setting off a plan to lay waste to their empire.
Body Count: 45
Best Quote: “I leave this as a declaration of intent, so no one will be confused. One: “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” Latin. Boot Camp Sergeant made us recite it like a prayer. “Si vis pacem, para bellum – If you want peace, prepare for war.””
Most Punishing Moment: After his neighbor Dave refuses to divulge where Frank escaped to after fighting the Russian, he’s mercilessly tortured by henchman Quentin. Injured Frank emerges and angrily takes out one of Howard’s guards by mercilessly slamming a paper cutter blade in the middle of his head.
How It Holds Up: Fans of the original character might find it weird and perhaps disappointing that “The Punisher” doesn’t set down in the slums of New York. That’s because Frank Castle follows crime family the Saints to their home base of operations. Most importantly, though, “The Punisher” is really a prequel when all is said and done. Maybe it’s likely that Artisan had high hopes for this movie, but “The Punisher” ends on a final scene of Frank Castle standing on the Brooklyn Bridge looking out on to New York City. The movie we watch is really all a prequel meant to set up what, I’m guessing the studios hoped, would be the basis for our character. “The Punisher” is still a damn good movie but works things around for the sake of drama and more action scenes.
Rather than Frank Castle and his family being accidental witnesses to a mob hit (sometimes it’s a drive by shooting), Frank is blamed for the murder of Howard Saint’s son, which is weird since Howard goes after Frank and only Frank blaming him for the death. Frank is just a victim of circumstance and also at the tail end of someone else’s vengeance. When he emerges as the Punisher, he spends most of his time deciding to take the Saint family and turn them on one another, enacting a series of schemes that transform them in to their own worst enemies. Thanks to kingpin Howard’s insecurities, and lack of trust, the Saint family fall, and Frank is there is obliterate the ruins. The studio filled the film with big character actors to help add star power to the film which starred a somewhat minor character actor of Thomas Jane as Frank Castle.
There’s Rebecca Romjin, Ben Foster, Will Patton, John Travolta as the big bad of the film, and even a walk on by Roy Scheider. Despite their strong supporting roles, Thomas Jane is fantastic as The Punisher, offering no quarter to his enemies and donning the signature white skull on his chest during most of the film. Jane is charismatic, tortured, and empathetic, doing his best to end Howard Saint’s reign, while dodging Saint’s consistent assassination attempts which include a guitar playing hit man, and a giant Russian who provides the movie’s most memorable fight sequence. Jane is in peak physical condition and has a blast playing this silent but noble man who is tortured by the memories of his family, but takes the time out to beat up an abusive boyfriend tormenting his neighbors. It’s a shame “The Punisher” wasn’t better received, since Jane could have carried this character for four more movies, easily. He’s still considered the quintessential cinematic Frank Castle to a lot of comic book fans.
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
The Plot: Frank Castle is still waging a war against organized crime and evading New York Police forces. After running afoul a gangster Billy “The Beaut” who is mangled in a glass crusher, Billy re-emerges with a scarred face as “Jigsaw,” hell bent on rebuilding his empire, and murdering Frank Castle once and for all. Frank must meanwhile avenge an undercover agent he accidentally murder by protecting his family, who Jigsaw is after convinced they’re hiding a stash of his money.
Body Count: 87
Best Quote: “Oh God, now I’ve got brain splattered all over me.”
Most Punishing Moment: After holding daughter Grace at gun point, officer Budiansky over powers and cuffs henchman Pittsy attempting to questioning him, and much to his shock, Castle mercilessly blows his face off in cold blood like it’s a bodily function.
How It Holds Up: The reboot of the reboot of the 1989 film (apparently) seemed set up to fail from the beginning. The studios seemed to have no faith in the project, original star Thomas Jane bowed out, and director Lexi Alexander was sabotaged allegedly to no end by her colleagues. That’s a shame, since “Punisher: War Zone” is a damn good film that embraces the extreme violence of the comics while also amping up the lunacy by ten percent. “War Zone” really pulls no punches, turning the Punisher in to a stone cold merciless killing machine. When we first see him, he jumps right in to the middle of a dinner involving local gangsters, beheads the wheel chair bound kingpin, breaks the neck of an older woman, and shoots just about every gang member down. Minutes later, as he stakes out a crime scene, he proceeds to snap his broken nose back in to place with a pen. This is really the Punisher we’ve heard about for a long time but never really witnessed until now. Alexander’s vibrant direction matched with Stevenson’s charismatic performance and eerie resemblance to latter day Frank Castle results in to a rather fantastic action thriller with a darkly comic twist.
The dark comedy mostly comes from the way Castle mercilessly ends his enemies’ lives, and Dominic West’s incredibly over the top performance. As iconic Punisher villain Jigsaw, West is cringe inducing but also fun much in the way Joe Pilato was in “Day of the Dead.” Playing an Italian stereotype whose inner ugliness is reflected when thrown in to a glass crusher and left for dead by Punisher, Jigsaw is a slimy scumbag and a great nemesis for Castle. Castle stops at nothing to off criminals and Jigsaw stops at nothing to achieve his crime goals, even holding a little girl hostage and referring to her as “Jail bait.” Castle is still haunted by the death of his family who, this time, were murdered in cold blood for accidentally witnessing a mob hit unfolding. Castle is still tormented by the day he lost them and no amount of killing or torture can leave him truly fulfilled. The only way he seemingly gains penance is by helping Julie Benz’s character and her daughter, both of whom mistakenly end up in the middle of the quest for power by psychotic Jigsaw and his brother Looney Bin Jim.
Alexander is very good about unfolding exposition and giving us the basics about who Castle is, but keeps him mainly a killing machine capable of great feats when pushed to the edge. He also thrives on creative kills of gangsters including blasting a missile in to a gangster flipping in mid-air, blowing up a room of gang members with a grenade launcher, and literally punching a character’s face in. Through and through Castle is empathetic thanks to Stevenson’s raucous turn, but he is also a pulp anti-hero who aims high and doesn’t mind picking off a low life mugger. Alexander’s take on “The Punisher” is such a surreal and balls to the wall iteration of the Marvel character that could have warranted another follow up. Stevenson should have been allowed another chance at Castle on film, since there were just so many more villains the character could tackle. Alexander’s film is criminally under appreciated, and should be given another chance, especially in light of the success of “Deadpool.”
Which Cinematic Frank Castle is your favorite?