Comics on Film: The Punisher Returns Today - Here's Where He's Been Before

Comics on Film: The Punisher Returns Today - Here's Where He's Been Before

Mar 18, 2016

While we still have seven more days to go until the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, today marks the debut of another rebirth live-action comic rebirth. Having been to the big screen in three films, Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, was reacquired by Marvel Studios after Lionsgate chose not to follow up their 2008 offering directed by Lexi Alexander.

Starting today, you can see actor Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, Fury) become the latest to embody Marvel's coldhearted vigilante over the course of Netflix series Daredevil's second season. The Punisher is one of Marvel's most interesting characters. He makes enemies of all the right people, but also falls outside the graces of the Marvel universe's most well-known superheroes because of his willingness -- and enthusiasm -- for crossing the line, and killing criminals within seconds of laying his eyes on them.

Oddly enough, the Punisher's in-universe reputation with other Marvel superheroes is an interesting mirror of his relationship with movie audiences. You likely don't have to go too far outside your own home to catch a glimpse of the character's famous, stylized skull logo, whether it's emblazoned on a T-shirt or on a bumper sticker on someone's car. His films, though, have largely managed to polarize audiences for varying reasons.

With that being the case, we thought it might be fun to mark today's rebirth of Frank Castle by examining where he's been in live-action before, and where he could go in the future as a fully-fledged member of the Marvel cinematic universe.

Dolph Lundgren in The Punisher (1989)

Arriving the same year as Tim Burton's revolutionary first Batman film starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, the original big screen adaptation of The Punisher is, in many ways, a microcosm of what went wrong with a great deal of comics-based films from the '80s and '90s. While casting one of the decade's most definitive action stars, and giving him the dark hair of his comic book counterpart, it's pretty easy to see in a still image how Lundgren can make a good Frank Castle. For those who've actually watched the film, though, everything around Lundgren -- the writing, the score, and even the action -- come up short.

While the 1980s saw what would only prove to be the most embryonic stories exploring Frank and his vigilante career, the film blatantly didn't concern itself with coming even close to representing the character from the comics, outside of the pivotal event of his origin story: the death of his family. Everything after that, though, is pretty unrecognizable. The low budget bled into the special effects, set design, and over-reliance on rather uninspired action scenes that largely make this film a forgotten one for a lot of movie fans.

Lundgren likely could've made a pretty good Frank Castle if he had better material to work with, but the lack of effort on the filmmakers' parts to actually adapt this character is most visible on Frank himself: they didn't even give him the skull.

Thomas Jane in The Punisher (2004)

Fast forward 15 years, and the Punisher of the comics is in a far different place. After enduring a notable decline in the '90s, the creative team of writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon revived the Punisher for a new series in the harder-edged Marvel Knights imprint with one of the character's now-definitive stories: 2000's "Welcome Back, Frank." Ennis and Dillon would continue into an ongoing series for a while, and firmly cemented themselves as, arguably, the best storytellers to ever tackle the Punisher.

Writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh was obviously aware of the strength and impact of the Ennis/Dillon stories, since many of the characters present in his 2004 film are those created by the duo. The biggest contribution that this film made, though, was the casting of actor Thomas Jane as Frank Castle. The story took some pretty big liberties with Frank's origin: it's in Florida instead of Central Park, his entire family up through parents, aunts, and uncles are murdered instead of just his wife and two children, and Frank served in the FBI directly before he became the Punisher.

Jane famously immersed himself in the role of the Punisher, embracing the intrinsic connection that he would have with Frank for the next decade-plus. While fans were disappointed that Jane never played the Punisher again, Jane has made it clear multiple times that it was a part he loved to play, and participated in a fan-made love letter of a short film in 2012 called Dirty Laundry. While the film failed to make much of a critical or commercial impression, it still very much has its defenders.

 

Ray Stevenson in Punisher: War Zone (2008)

While there are plenty of divisive examples of comic book cinema, it's hard to think of one that engenders as much of a visceral reaction as Lexi Alexander's violence-filled, hard-R Punisher film. Rebooting the franchise after Thomas Jane got tired of waiting for the development of a new film, actor Ray Stevenson filled the role. In a lot of ways, it looked like Stevenson stepped off of the comics page and into our reality. The problem with Punisher: War Zone is generally one of perception. Critics of the time were somewhat horrified at its gruesome violence, and comic book fans seemed to take the tone of the film at face value.

Both perceptions kind of got it wrong, though, if the director herself has any say in the matter. Appearing in a 2011 episode of the popular How Did This Get Made? podcast, director Lexi Alexander, along with hosts Paul Scheer and June Raphael, and noted War Zone fan comedian Patton Oswalt, spend an eventful hour completely examining, dissecting, and analyzing the film. It's in that show that Alexander reveals that it's a parody of excessive ultra-violence. After all, there is a scene where the Punisher literally punches a man's face off. In retrospect, how can anyone really take that seriously?

Punisher: War Zone is a tragically misunderstood film, and likely warrants another viewing if you were quick to dismiss it at first. Listen to the aforementioned podcast and then watch the movie, and see if your opinion has shifted at all.

Jon Bernthal in Marvel's Daredevil (2016)

Obviously, we haven't had time to take in the entire second season of Daredevil, but because of the fact that Marvel Studios is the production body behind this latest incarnation of the Punisher character, it stands to reason that he will be adapted in similarly truthful circumstances as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Hulk before him. While the first season of Daredevil saw Matt Murdock facing off against the notorious Kingpin of crime, Matt has to confront someone who technically fights on his side, but who plays very much by his own rules: rules that include as many bodies as Frank deems are necessary to get the job of punishing the guilty done justice.

As a character, the Punisher has yet to gain an adaptation on par with the likes of The Dark Knight or The Avengers. With Bernthal's casting and the rumored development of a dedicated Punisher series coming to Netflix sometime in the future, fans of Frank the world over likely have their fingers crossed.

We'll just have to see how things play out. Daredevil season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.

We'll see you back here next week with a perspective on the next big comic book blockbuster of the year!


Chris Clow is a geek. He is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, as well as a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and Batman-On-Film.com, as well as host of the Comics on Consoles podcast. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Comics, Features, Geek, Reel TV
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