Which Punisher will resonate most with fans (and me)?

The Marvel Comics and Netflix deal has (to my surprise) turned out to be successful. Originally conceived as set of four 13-episode series starring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist (plus a fifth series-The Defenders-which sees all four characters form a superhero team), the popularity of Daredevil led to the announcement of a second season for the show (debuting March 18). Likewise, in the wake of the well-received Jessica Jones series, many fans speculated that the character would also receive a season 2 (the speculation is over, season 2 is coming).  Season 2 of Daredevil is set to feature additional Marvel Comics character, including Elektra (former lover of DD turned ninja/assassin/enemy) and the vigilante hero, the Punisher.

Speaking of the Punisher, plans are afoot to give the character his own series. For those unfamiliar with the character, Frank Castle (aka the Punisher) is a Marvel Comics vigilante (with a military background) whose wife and children were killed as a result of criminal activity.  An enraged Castle sought revenge and killed those responsible. Realizing that criminals often slip through the cracks of the criminal justice system, Castle took on the identity of the Punisher and launched a one-man war on crime. Utilizing his extensive military and hand-to-hand combat skills, as well as a huge arsenal of weapons, the Punisher targets all manner of criminals with his unique brand of “punishment”. From mob bosses and gang leaders to gunrunning militias and corrupt city officials to drug kingpins and human traffickers, his single-minded quest quickly made him the scourge of the criminal underworld (not unlike a certain bat-themed character at DC Comics, though their methods are vastly different). Starring in various comic books during the 80s and 90s, the Punisher enjoyed a huge amount of commercial success, though his popularity waned in the late 90s (it has seen something of a resurgence since then).  Now, I’m not a big fan of the Punisher (and I’ll go into why in an upcoming post), but I did see the last two movies headlined by the character so I’m mildy curious to see which of the four (including the upcoming Daredevil version, four actors will have played the role of the Punisher) cinematic versions of the character will resonate most with fans. Will it be:

The Punisher (1989)

Played by Dolph Lundgren, this version of the character is notable for the absence of the trademark skull on his chest (which is the symbol for the Punisher). The movie was released theatrically overseas, but due to problems from the production company, it never aired in theaters in the United States. Instead it went direct-to-video. I’ve never seen it, and from what I’ve read of the movie, that’s no great loss, as the movie is apparently the same quality as many DTV movies (i.e. poor).  Here’s a clip of the movie (which I just watched and yeah, it’s kinda bad):

In this scene he comes across rather pathetic, rather than an grief-stricken single-minded engine of destruction.  I couldn’t find a clip of him in action, which would be ideal, since that’s the native element of the character and would afford the best opportunity to see how Lundgren performs as the Punisher. Even still, in the non-action scenes in the later film versions, pathetic is never a word I’d use to describe Frank Castle. Watching this clip does not instill in me any desire to see the rest of the movie (though I probably will someday). Moving on, we come to my favorite Punisher (so far), Thomas Jane.

The Punisher (2004)

I’ll be frank (oooh, see what I did there), this is the version of the character I like best, in part bc this is the live-action version I first saw and in part bc I think Thomas Jane is sexy as hell. I’m not familiar with the comics that serve as the source material for the movie, but Wikipedia says they are “…The Punisher: Year One and Welcome Back, Frank along with scenes from other Punisher stories such as Marvel Preview Presents: The Punisher #2, Marvel Super Action Featuring: The Punisher #1, The Punisher War Zone, and The Punisher War Journal.” Jane’s Punisher who has largely withdrawn from the world and any relationships with people is driven, relentless, brutal, and willing to do whatever it takes in the pursuit of his goals. IMO, Jane does the character justice. One of the problems I have though is that emotionally, the Punisher is pretty one-dimensional. Yeah, there are occasional sparks of life from him, but his humanity and his desire (capacity?) to feel the spectrum of human emotions were pretty much subsumed by his desire for vengeance. All of which means Jane didn’t get the chance to explore a range of emotions with the character. Thankfully the creative team didn’t make the Punisher an indestructible vengeance machine, otherwise it might be hard to relate to the guy. This clip demonstrates that for all that he is a tough-guy bad-ass, he can still get his ass handed to him:

Next up, we have the Ray Stevenson version.

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

The follow-up to the 2004 movie, Punisher: War Zone was originally intended as a sequel. Unfortunately, Thomas Jane dropped out of the movie due to issues with the script. Ray Stevenson was brought on as his replacement. Like most sequels, everything was ramped up. And in a movie like The Punisher, pretty much the only thing you ramp up is the violence. And boy oh boy was there violence. Take a look at the opening sequence here (content note: extreme and graphic violence; NSFW):

This is a movie that would have fit perfectly in the 1980s. Action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were tearing up the big-screen in hypermasculine, larger-than-life, brutally violent movies like the Rambo series, the Rocky movies, and Terminator-movies where the audience didn’t expect great dialogue, strong characterization, or a compelling story. I think a Punisher movie, with its gun-toting, vengeance-driven hero, would have sat well alongside such characters. Perhaps if it were made back then, it would have been a financial success. Thomas Jane’s Punisher movie had a $33 million budget and made roughly $54 million at the box office (not even doubling its budget). Punisher: War Zone OTOH, did poorly taking in only $10 million at the box office (not even recouping its $35 million budget). The poor showing of both movies probably contributed to the lack of further outings for the Punisher. I will say this, the script did allow Ray Stevenson the chance to emote a bit more than Thomas Jane (in War Zone, the Punisher accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent and is so filled with guilt and remorse than he nearly gives up his war on crime; the quality of Stevenson’s acting aside, it was nice to see the character doing more than gritting his teeth and plotting 50 ways to kills his enemies).

And that brings us to the latest actor to play the Punisher, Jon Bernthal.  As mentioned at the beginning, Bernthal will play Frank Castle during Season 2 of Daredevil, which debuts in March. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen Bernthal in any starring role before, so I have no idea what-if any-serious acting chops he has. It would be nice if he could bring some dimension to the Punisher, as the relentless, dark, emotionless vigilante can only go so far. In fact, I’d say it is imperative that Bernthal breathe some life into the character, bc I can’t see any way that a 13-episode series is going to work with a character who displays little to no personality. We’ll have to wait and see.

As things stand now-forgive me Thomas Jane-I think Ray Stevenson has delivered the best Punisher thus far. He had the single-minded determination and the viciousness one expects from the Punisher. But he also brought an element of sorrow and guilt to the character (the scene where he confronts the wife and child of the FBI agent he accidentally killed shows that the Punisher does indeed feel something other than an unyielding desire for vengeance) and he did so without making the Punisher into an angst-ridden pathetic wretch (as Lundgren did). Even though I’m not a big fan of the character, I look forward to seeing Jon Bernthal bring him to life in March. Perhaps he’ll win me over with his treatment of Frank Castle.

Which Punisher will resonate most with fans (and me)?

3 thoughts on “Which Punisher will resonate most with fans (and me)?

  1. 1

    I like the idea. I like the Punisher they’ve picked and I’d like to see what they can do giving him a few more hours to play with. I saw Jon Bernthal in the first few seasons of The Walking Dead and after a re-watch decided he was one of my favorites of the first through third seasons. I believe he can definitely pull this off and I’d at least like to watch him try.

    If you want to get some idea of what he’s capable of as an actor watch a few episodes of Walking Dead from season three, where I feel he did his best work.

  2. YOB

    Ive never been a huge fan of The Punisher (probably for the same reasons you’re going to post about, Tony) but I have to say, I actually like Lundgren’s version best (though the movie itself was not that great.)

    Based on his role in TWD, I’d say that Bernthal is more than up to the task.

  3. 3

    Ahhh, no. Thomas Jane’s was the best movie adaptation. Maybe it was other problems with the movie, but Stevenson’s movie was terrible. I think it was worse than Lundgren’s, and I don’t think his (Dolph’s) represented The Punisher at all — it was just a Revenge Action Movie.

    It’s possible that this, as with most comic book movies, is that we (you and I) see movies versus character differently. I never read Punisher, and only know the character from others who have collected it. I think the Jane version is the best we can do and expect him to be seen as a “good guy”. Maybe what I’ve heard is off, but Frank is not a good guy at all. Jane’s version at least gave him some humanity so a movie would sell.

    There’s a reason Daredevil and Spiderman work against him when he gets too uppity. Maybe he’s a bit necessary, but he ain’t a hero at all. I hear it second hand, but Punisher has very little humanity at all, and is very willing to kill and torture. And he’s not all that discerning about it. That’s difficult to put into a movie or TV show.

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