This article was originally published on March 18, 2016.
Season Two of Netflix’s Daredevil is here and is introducing both Elektra and The Punisher to the television series. There has been a lot of buzz about the new Frank, Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead). Before we see how Bernthal’s take on the character plays out, we thought we’d take a look at the long and varied history of The Punisher in the comics and on film.
The Punisher first appeared in the comics way back in 1974, in The Amazing Spider-Man #129, as a henchman for Spider-villain The Jackal. He was a former U.S. Marine turned murderous vigilante manipulated by The Jackal into believing Spidey was the actual villain he needed to put down. He didn’t take well to being made a patsy, turning on The Jackal before all was said and done.
Originally intended as a second-tier character by writer Gerry Conway, Frank Castle began as a riff on Mack Bolan, The Executioner and was partially inspired by the film Death Wish. It was in the adult-oriented black and white magazine Marvel Premiere #2 (1975) that Conway introduced the origin of Frank’s obsession – the gangland murder of his wife and two children. As he began popping up all over the Marvel Universe through the 70s his popularity grew and grew. Then in 1982, Frank Miller introduced The Punisher to the world of Daredevil (in Daredevil #183-184), contrasting his and Daredevil’s approaches to their vigilantism. Not long after this, Frank got his own mini-series, by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck, which catapulted him into becoming one of the most popular characters of the Eighties and Nineties.
In 1989, Marvel had been searching for a film property that would possibly erase the stink of Howard the Duck from people’s memories and in a bold move, opted to bring The Punisher to the big screen in an R-rated feature. Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite to plan.
The Punisher (1989)
The Punisher (read more about it at the link) was written by first-time screenwriter Boaz Yakin and directed by first-time director (but veteran film-editor) Mark Goldblatt, and right from the start there were problems. Producer Robert Kamen, according to rumor, had Yakin fired and the script re-written, removing many of the elements directly inspired by the comics – including the skull on Frank’s chest. Other rumors claim that the producers only had a “limited license” which restricted how closely they could stick to the source material.
Swedish action star Dolph Lundgren was hired to play Frank, which was also problematic, as his acting wasn’t really what anyone was paying any attention to after Rocky IV and Masters of the Universe. But the script didn’t really call for a lot of range, and Lundgren’s flat-affect delivery actually works to his advantage when portraying someone as emotionally damaged as Frank. The slashed budget, the re-worked script, an inexperienced director, and a lead actor with some, shall we say, limitations all worked together to see that The Punisher was never released theatrically in the U.S. – although it did get an otherwise worldwide release.
Which is a shame, because for all its faults, The Punisher is a pretty solid film – for what they were setting out to make. This isn’t a superhero film. This is a down-and-dirty, gritty film that aims for a feel like Death Wish or Dirty Harry. The only thing “super” about Frank is how prolific he is at murdering criminals. At the start of the film, Frank has been killing mobsters for five years, racking up a count of 125 murders to his credit. His origins are only briefly mentioned in a short flashback to his family being murdered, and then he goes on to kill over 100 people in the course of the film.
In just this film.
The action in the film is triggered by the release of Dino Moretti, the man behind the murder of Frank’s family and when he returns home, he is greeted by Frank, bullets, and explosions. After killing Moretti a power vacuum opens up and the new boss Gianni Franco begins to work with the Yakuza to take over all the crime in New York. They have a falling out and the Yakuza kidnaps all the children of the mobsters with the intent of selling them into slavery. Ultimately Frank and Franco team-up to rescue the kids, but in the end, Frank murders Franco in front of his son, then tells the kid, “You’re a good boy, Tommy. Grow up to be a good man. Because if you’re not… I’ll be waiting.”
That, my friends, is the fucking Punisher.
The film is violent and unrepentant. There are few quips or over-the-top action sequences. It’s all very grounded and even has a bit of visual flare as Frank goes up against the Yakuza in a sequence reminiscent of the House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill.
The Punisher (2004)
It wouldn’t be until 2004 that Frank returned to the big screen. In the meantime, the character had hit a bad patch in the comics with some truly horrendous creative decisions undercutting the effectiveness of the character. But in 2000, Irish writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon stripped the character of all its extraneous bullshit and returned Frank to his roots as a psychotic criminal-killing machine in the critically-acclaimed 12-issue Marvel Knights miniseries, The Punisher (also known as “Welcome Back, Frank”).
This would ultimately provide the primary inspiration for the 2004 reboot film, also called The Punisher, along with The Punisher: Year One. As early as 1997, Marvel Studios had been developing a new Punisher film, and in 2000 teamed up with Artisan Entertainment to turn 15 of their characters into films and television shows, with The Punisher attached to Gale Anne Hurd as producer.
While this production had everything going for it, including a decent (but not what was needed for the ambition of the script) $33 million budget, serious distribution through Lionsgate Films, and an excellent performance by the new Punisher, Thomas Jane, it was also hamstrung by a first-time director, a weak, constantly re-worked script, and efforts to cut costs all along the way. Cutting costs led to the film being shot in Tampa, Florida (because the city practically emptied out at night, allowing easier access to filming locations), the loss of a subplot that provided some emotional weight to the story, and skipping Frank’s history in the military entirely.
And while director Jonathan Hensleigh was a veteran screenwriter and claimed Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, and Don Siegel as directorial inspiration, very little of their craft demonstrably ends up on-screen in the end. In fact, the entire production ends up being very low-key with Hensleigh taking the safe route with nearly every shot.
Also not helping the production was the fact that Hensleigh and co-writer Michael France took a solid thirty minutes setting up Frank Castle as a retiring undercover FBI agent before getting to his origin and transformation into The Punisher. So for a quarter of the film, we are treated to bad dialogue about love and family in sunny Florida – which provides many opportunities to see Thomas Jane with his shirt off. Samantha Mathis (as Frank’s wife) and Roy Scheider (as Frank’s dad) do what they can with the script, but ultimately they are simply there to be killed in a drawn-out action sequence that was intended to magnify the tragedy of The Punisher’s origin to operatic heights.
Instead, it’s over-the-top, too Hollywood, and then introduces a mysterious black man who barely gets a name, but nurses Frank back to health off-screen. It’s not overtly racist, but there really aren’t any other prominent black characters in the film. That is, except for Frank’s old partner, whose storyline was cut entirely from the theatrical release. This may have been for the best really, as he ended up betraying Frank (thanks to the bad guys leveraging his massive gambling debt against him) and then being forced to commit suicide while Frank watches.
So literally the only thing the black guy in the film does is fish Frank out of the water, say he’ll take care of him, and then send him on his way an unspecified length of time later. We don’t even get a montage of Frank’s time spent healing.
There’s an attempt to provide some depth to John Travolta’s villainous Howard Saint and his wife Livia (Laura Harring), in that their motivation for having Frank’s family killed is that their own son died on Frank’s last undercover job. The depth really kind of disappears from that point on as Travolta chews the scenery and slowly loses everything around him to Frank’s revenge, which as much psychological as it is violent.
There is an attempt here at becoming a serious violent revenge flick, but it lacks the conviction. It almost seems like the filmmakers feel above the material, opting for vague references to Othello and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly instead of really diving into the muck.
Maybe the greatest weakness of the film, however, comes directly from the source material. With twelve issues, Ennis was able to flesh out the supporting cast, making Joan, Bumpo, and Spacker Dave into well-rounded characters that really provide a nice grounding for Frank’s vigilante obsessions. The film miscasts supermodel Rebecca Romijn as mousy Joan, and while Ben Foster’s Dave and John Pinette’s Bumpo aren’t bad, no one is given time to develop, and instead, they all stand out as one-dimensional and cartoonish.
Speaking of cartoonish, because the rest of the film does everything it can to ground the action, however extreme, in realism, the appearance of Kevin Nash as The Russian – a character that works well in the violently absurd comic – turns this into another film entirely. And while the end result is a film that is appropriately violent, Thomas Jane’s Punisher lacks the grit of the source materials – and even that of the first film.
There’s something to be said for Jane’s interpretation of Frank. As far as the physicality goes, Jane trained for six or seven months with Navy SEALs and put on twenty pounds of muscle to play the part. He’s hampered by the script, though, both because of the simplistic linear storytelling, but also because the film loses its focus in an attempt to both stay true to the comic and stay true to the revenge genre. He is unquestionably a better actor than Lundgren, and he does a very good job of channeling the transition from family man to mass murderer, but I have to question if that’s really what we need from the character. Humanizing him may allow for a clearer sense of the tragedy of his circumstances, but it also keeps him from being the truly psychotic killer that he should be.
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
The Punisher ended up bringing in $54,700, 105 worldwide on that $33 million investment, so a sequel was put in the pipeline. Hensleigh and Jane were both interested in coming back and the next film was set to feature classic Punisher villain, Jigsaw, but the project just wouldn’t come together. In 2006, Hensleigh had completed the first draft of a script but pulled out. In 2007, Jane also removed himself from the project, citing creative differences (which may have been in large part due to Kurt Sutter’s (The Shield, Sons of Anarchy) new draft of the script), budget issues, and the fact that Lionsgate turned down what should have been a gimme: Walter Hill in the director’s chair.
Then, in the summer of 2007, Marvel Studios announced that Lexi Alexander would direct and Ray Stevenson would step in as the new Punisher (making three Franks in three films, so far). The title changed from Punisher 2 to Punisher: War Zone and once again the character was rebooted. Originally, Alexander had passed on the director’s job, but after familiarizing herself with Marvel’s Punisher MAX series, she changed her mind.
Punisher MAX was writer Garth Ennis’ return to the character but without all of the zany splatterstick humor and superhero guest-appearances. While Ennis’ Marvel Knights version of Punisher was violent, it was also very funny. With Punisher MAX, he was aiming at more mature, extreme storytelling, following a Frank who had aged in real time since he returned from Viet Nam a changed man. These are serious stories for serious fans, featuring some of the most violent and depraved characters and some of the most violent and depraved violence in mainstream comics.
They are brilliant.
Punisher: War Zone takes its storytelling cues from the Dolph Lundgren film, opening with The Punisher having operated for five years, killing enough criminals and mobsters to fill a basement office with case files. Ray Stevenson plays a much more physically intimidating Frank than either Lundgren or Jane, and the opening sequence rivals the first film and outdoes anything in the second. In the first ten minutes of War Zone, Frank may have killed more bad guys than Jane’s version did in his entire film.
Also, in this film, Frank doesn’t even speak until 25 minutes into the runtime.
The script, by Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway trusts the audience to know what’s what from the get-go. We know Frank is a killing machine. We know his family was murdered and that set him on this path. We don’t have to spend a lot of time establishing what he was like before. At this point, it doesn’t matter. As in the Lundgren version, we know everything we need to know about the character practically before the credits roll.
That opening slaughterhouse run establishes the tone and stylistic approach of the film, with Alexander opting to keep colors to a minimum for each scene, locking in three primary colors per scene depending on the mood. It’s a great way of capturing the artistic approach of the Punisher MAX comic and helps to make Punisher: War Zone the most visually interesting of the Punisher films. There are no quips. There is almost no comic relief; this despite having Wayne Knight on-board as Frank’s weapons and info source, Micro, and Dash Mihok as bumbling detective Martin Soap.
Everything about the film is exaggerated in a way that stands out from previous efforts. Where both of the earlier films obsessively acknowledged 70s crime films (to some positive effect, but mostly failing to capture the lived-in feel of those classics), Punisher: War Zone is more concerned with bringing the Frank Castle from the MAX series to the screen with all of his oversized violence.
To this end, Dominic West was cast as Jigsaw, and Doug Hutchison plays his maniacal brother Loony Bin Jim (created for the film as a sort of Hannibal Lecter on speed). While Travolta had overacted quite a bit in the previous film, West and Hutchison are balls deep in hyperactive madness and cartoonish megalomania. In fact, if there’s a weakness in this film it’s in this fact. The humor of their performances is twisted but funny, and at times it’s difficult to find a balance between their gusto and darkness of Frank.
In a move that seems prescient now, the final act of the film takes place in an abandoned hotel filled with an army of thugs and gangsters Jigsaw has recruited (in an excellent sequence parodying military recruitment spiels), essentially making the conclusion a mini version of The Raid and Dredd three and four years before they hit the big screen. In the commentary track for the home video release of War Zone, Alexander notes how original the idea was and is very proud of the writers for coming up with such an inventive way of staging the climax.
Up to this point in the history of the character, I think Stevenson’s Frank is the strongest. He brings the best elements of both Lundgren and Jane to the project, as well as a weariness that suits the character at this point in his career. He’s the flat-affect killing machine until he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent and is snapped back to the reality of what it is he’s doing. Stevenson plays that emotional awakening with subtlety and control, easily sliding back and forth from angst to bone-breaking violence at the drop of a hat.
If there hadn’t been another version of Frank after this, I’d say this was the peak. I’d love to have seen more films following him and maybe even adapting some of the more impressive story arcs in the MAX series.
But it was not to be. Audiences didn’t go see this film. Critics didn’t like it at all. The craft and ingenuity in the filmmaking (this is a beautiful film, with nearly every shot a work of art) was met with silence and mockery. On a budget of $35 million, the film only brought in $10 million worldwide (with another $10 million in home video sales).
If there was ever a film that deserved a revisit and re-evaluation, Punisher: War Zone is the one.
Dirty Laundry (2012)
And with that, The Punisher as a film property was done. There were no plans for a sequel or another reboot, despite Stevenson’s enthusiasm for future projects. The fans spoke and that was that.
But not all the fans were done with the character.
In 2012 a fan film entitled Dirty Laundry screened at the San Diego Comic-Con to massive acclaim. The short was written by Chad St. John, directed by Phil Joanou, and produced by Adi Shankar (who would go on to produce a Venom fan film and the under-rated film reboot, Dredd). Thomas Jane reprised his role as Frank Castle in a manner much more suited to the character than what he got to do in his feature film turn. He called it his “love letter to Frank Castle and his fans.”
The short is simple and to the point. Frank wakes up in his van, parked in a bad neighborhood, and has to get his laundry done. He walks down the street to the laundromat and witnesses a street gang run by a guy called Goldtooth (Sammi Rotibi) harassing three prostitutes. Frank does his best to ignore it and walks on. A few minutes later a young boy named DeShawn (Karlin Walker) appears and is also harassed by the gang as Goldtooth tries to pressure him into selling drugs for him.
Frank again tries to ignore it, crossing to the local liquor store for a bottle of Yoo-hoo (he’s been sober for a while now). Ron Perlman cameos as the wheelchair-bound liquor store owner who’s given up on the world after confronting similar gang members years before. Frank then buys a bottle of Jack Daniels, goes back out into the street and with the bottle, beats the living shit out of the gang, killing a few of them.
The genius of this film is that up until this point, Frank is not identified. He’s just a worn-down guy who goes apeshit on the bad guys. But as he stands over Goldtooth he asks if the gang leader knows the difference between justice and punishment.
It’s a golden moment that captures the feel of the character without going over the top (although some of the CG-enhanced bone-breaking violence is appropriately gut-wrenching) and serves as a brief master-class on what could be done on a low budget with the right attitude and talent. The short is available for viewing on YouTube, so I’ll go ahead and include it here so you can see for yourself.
Is this the best Punisher to date? I’d say yes.
But now we have another take on the character with Jon Bernthal in Season Two of Daredevil. Will he be able to take it to another level? I certainly hope so. I’m a big fan of Bernthal and from what we’ve seen in trailers so far, he seems to have a strong feel for the character and may benefit from having a contrasting character in Daredevil.