Even after the undeniably excellent “Spider-Man: Homecoming“, people are still snickering about the “hot potatoing” of the Spider-Man franchise and claiming to suffer from wall crawler reboot fatigue. Peter Parker has nothing on fellow New Yorker Frank Castle though, who is currently on his fourth high profile live action iteration. And just like Spidey, none of our prior filmic Punishers were bad, per se (my own personal distaste for the Maguire/Raimi connection notwithstanding), but they were somehow found lacking enough in their day to never be blessed with direct sequels. In honor of current and universally beloved (deservedly so) Punisher Jon Bernthal’s surprise involvement in Netflix’s upcoming “Defenders” series let’s take a look at his death’s head clad forebears…
The Punisher (1989)
If living in the sewer, parading around naked in said sewer and having a subterranean sidekick that speaks in Shakespearean soliloquy don’t sound like aspects of the Punisher mythos to you, well, you’d be absolutely goddamned right. But despite being typically lumped in with notorious disasters like the Roger Corman Fantastic Four and whatever the hell this was supposed to be, Dolph Lundgren’s would be star turn as the man who punishes those who prey on the innocent is a perfectly serviceable late 80’s revenge actioner in the well-trod Eastwood/Bronson mold, ultimately punishable (ha) only for the fact that the production design team didn’t even try to incorporate Castle’s trademark skull into ol’ Ivan Drago’s wardrobe.
Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994)
A Frank Castle for kids employing non-lethal ordinance like stun guns and net launchers, leaning heavily into the goofier aspects of his 90’s Comic incarnation (Microchip and the Battle Van are front and center here), ran afoul of both Peter Parker’s Spider-Man and Harry Osborne’s Green Goblin in Fox’s notoriously unfaithful but otherwise enjoyable mid 90’s Spidey cartoon. Punisher also showed up in sister series “X-Men”, first in an in-universe video game called “Assassin” during the series’ severely truncated “Days of Future Past” arc and again as a robot doppelgänger in “Mojovision”. More recently Castle appeared in the Madhouse produced direct to video animated film “Iron Man: Rise of Technovore” (2013), voiced by none other than resident “Walking Dead” badass Norman Reedus.
The Punisher (2004)
The early aughts superhero film boom brought about by the PG-13 one two punch of the initial “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” movies was no place for a remorseless killer like Frank Castle, and the 2004 Tom Jane starring Punisher, despite its R rating, felt weirdly homogenized as a result, falling well short of the blackly comic carnage of the groundbreaking Garth Ennis penned Graphic Novels of the day that the production so desperately struggled to adapt. Which is a shame, because Jane’s a good sport, and he and writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh (Die Hard with a Vengeance, Armageddon) seemed to have their hearts in the right place.
Jane’s fight against The Russian (WCW/WWE’s Kevin Nash, almost unrecognizable with a clean shave and short blonde hair), among other aspects borrowed for the film, were almost a shot for shot recreation of Ennis’ lauded “Welcome Back, Frank” arc. But the sun baked Miami setting and John Travolta’s hammy take on made up Kingpin stand in Howard Saint undermine any of the subject matter’s inherent grittiness, leaving little wonder why Marvel had no confidence in this iteration of the character’s potential as a franchise starter. Jane, who initially balked at being offered the role but then did a deep dive into the Comics and became a hardcore fan, would return in the Adi Shankar (Dredd, Castlevania) produced fan film “Dirty Laundry”.
Punisher War Zone (2008)
Rather than being oddly sanitized, 2008’s “Punisher War Zone” wrongheadedly followed another then-current Hollywood trend and doubled down on grisly violence in the wake of the unprecedented success of similarly blood-soaked Comic adaptations “300” and “Sin City”. No complaints there, as practical gore setpieces abound that would make Tom Savini blush, but it was the casting that kneecapped this one.
British actor Ray Stevenson (Rome, Dexter) can barely hide his accent as the supposedly Italian Castle, but he’s acceptable enough, the real problem is Dominic West (The Wire, 300) and Doug Hutchison (Lost) as Comic stalwarts Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim, respectively, chewing scenery like giant, drywall obsessed Pac Men, their Adam West “Batman” level japery directly at odds with the “Punisher MAX” style tone that “Green Street Hooligans” director Lexi Alexander otherwise achieves. All of the corn syrup and red food coloring in the world couldn’t make those assholes intimidating, leaving “War Zone” the lowest grossing theatrically released Marvel adaptation to date, below even “Elektra” and “Howard The Duck“.
Daredevil: Season 2 (2016)
It wasn’t long after Marvel Studios regained the rights to The Punisher in 2013 that fans began to wonder how Frank Castle would figure into the far reaching tapestry of the MCU. Thankfully the burgeoning street level “Defender-verse” that Marvel was beginning to weave through their critically acclaimed Netflix output was the perfect place for a startlingly Comic reverent Punisher to take root, and “Walking Dead” actor Jon Bernthal’s revelatory take fit into the second season of Daredevil like a glove.
Following the MCU model of not bothering with the fool’s errand of adapting story arcs while cloth, Daredevil: Season Two‘s heavily Punisher-centric plot instead borrowed liberally from Ennis’ “Punisher: Born” and “Valley Forge, Valley Forge” as well as “Winter Soldier” creator Ed Brubaker’s “The Devil in Cell Block D” to establish and solidify Bernthal’s perfect realization of the character into the existing canon carried over from Daredevil’s also phenomenal first season.
With a creative team, network and actor who truly understand and appreciate what makes the Punisher character so unique and special within the overall superhero landscape, not a mere novelty or one note exploitation vehicle, the sky really is the limit for how far Marvel, Netflix and, most importantly, Bernthal can take The Punisher as a franchise, one that their masterful adaptation has finally earned to right to build upon.