The Punisher is a controversial character, to say the least. On the surface, the premise is simple: man wears skull shirt and shoots bad men. Some comics cast him as a hero, others make him a villain, still others just don’t know what to make of him. While the comics have a fair few moments of greatness, he’s been less lucky on the big screen. His three movies were widely panned by critics, and the recent Netflix series caught its own share of flak (pun intended) for its portrayal of violence and vigilantism.
Fundamentally, the Punisher as a character speaks to a primal need for black and white justice. But something about the character just flies in the face of Hollywood, and they just can’t seem to wrap their heads around him. Even in a world where Garth Ennis has written several excellent books laying out exactly what makes the character work, directors still struggle with him. From the character’s initial 1989 outing with Dolph Lundgren, to Thomas Jane in 2003, Ray Stevenson in 2008, and Jon Bernthal in 2017, the Punisher keeps stumbling on the way from page to screen. This list will cover some of the biggest failings of these adaptations. Works are referred to by their lead actor.
15. SKULL WEIRDNESS
One of Marvel’s most recognizable and enduring symbols is the Punisher skull. For Frank, it’s graced everything from body armor to T-shirts. In the real world, police and military raise several eyebrows if they ever incorporate this symbol of gung-ho violence and moral absolutism into their uniforms. In the comics, it serves as a symbol of fear and the inevitable in criminals.
But something about it just rubs film directors the wrong way, apparently. In his very first movie starring Dolph Lundgren, he doesn’t even wear the skull at all. In the Netflix series, the vast majority of episodes go by with no skull. Frank only dons it in the last few episodes. It seems odd that filmmakers would be so reticent to display one of the most iconic symbols they have available to them.
14. NOT ENOUGH PUNISHING
When people pick up a Punisher comic, there’s usually one thing they’re guaranteed to see: Frank Castle blowing the heck out of bad guys. But for whatever reason, some directors are skittish about portraying this on screen. In the 2003 film starring Thomas Jane, he only blasts 22 guys, compared to Dolph Lundgren’s 76 and Ray Stevenson’s 87ish.
Odd man out is Jon Bernthal. While he racks up an impressive 98 kills in Daredevil, his own series is significantly lower. While the first episode is pretty classic Punisher, the remainder of the season has him taking out relatively few baddies. Even further, he doesn’t even kill (or attempt to kill) the final villain, flying a bit in the face of everything the Punisher stands for.
Thomas Jane’s Punisher is famous for a lot of reasons, most of them being how bad it is. But one odd detail is often overlooked, i.e. moving Frank Castle from New York City to Tampa Bay, Florida. While on the surface this seems innocuous, it misses one of the more central tenets of the Punisher in the interest of “modernizing” him.
At the time of Frank’s creation, New York was fairly crime-ridden, and the Punisher was a reaction to that. His most common targets, the Italian and Irish mobs, are also iconic to New York. While he has been known to leave the city in pursuit of bad men, he always returns to his hometown. One of his most painful and iconic stories is even called Do Not Fall In New York City.
In a Punisher story, villains may seem disposable. After all, their entire purpose is to get shot or otherwise brutally killed by the Punisher. However, they are one of the lynchpins in a successful Punisher story. As Frank is (mostly) a shallow character with shallow goals, the villains provide the main plot and character conflict. A good Punisher villain can provide levity in what would a dour situation, but they must always be intimidating and unquestionably evil.
But the movies just can’t seem to measure up. Dolph Lundgren doesn’t even face a central baddie, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson take on Saturday morning cartoon villains, and Jon Bernthal’s foes could best be described as “like the comics, but worse.” It’s somewhat impressive how four adaptations can miss the mark so badly, especially considering three of them had some of the best source material possible in Garth Ennis’ Punisher comics.
11. MIXING TONES
The Punisher is a very serious character. He shoots bad men with no consideration of justice systems or extenuating circumstance. But the Punisher can also find himself in very silly situations, including those that lead him to punching polar bears in the face. One failing the adaptations find their way into is an imperfect blending of the silly and the serious. While all the actors usually portray a very good Frank Castle, the situations they find themselves in often don’t match up as well.
Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson both attempt the Garth Ennis style of serious character in silly situations, but at some point they miss the mark. Thomas Jane, for example, adapts parts of Welcome Back Frank, but for some reason backs off from the level of silliness present in the book, creating sort of a mishmash of treating silly situations very seriously rather than just embracing it.
10. IGNORING THE BACKSTORY
While adaptations haven’t written out Frank’s family getting killed (yet), they do ignore two key aspects of his background. First: he was born Frank Castiglione, with Sicilian heritage. By removing this aspect, they ignore a key bit of symbolism. Sicilians (and Italians) were the faces of the American Dream for many immigrants, and Frank had achieved the Dream before it was cruelly stripped from him by his own people, i.e. the Italian mob. This aspect might seem unimportant, but it’s a key bit of character construction that often goes under-appreciated.
Second, before going to Vietnam, Frank Castle was training to be a priest. Again, seemingly unimportant, but it gives depth to the character that might seem lacking to a wider audience. What causes someone training to be a priest to even have the capability to become the Punisher is a key question several writers have addressed in the comics, yet the movies refuse to even acknowledge.
9. KOOKY SCHEMES
Punisher is a serious man who sometimes finds himself in silly situations. That’s a big part of Garth Ennis’ Marvel Knights comic, and there are plenty of silly plotlines from the Bronze Age involving the Punisher getting caught up in strange situations. But the most important part of this interplay is that Frank never sets up the silly situations himself, and is much more prone to just shooting the bad guys.
The 2003 film looked at this thought process and said “nah, not for us.” In Frank’s long game to take revenge for his family’s murder, he sets up so many zany schemes that at points it stops being a Punisher movie and starts feeling more like Home Alone. Most notably, part of the setup to lure the villain to a place of his choosing is setting up a fake fire hydrant so the villain’s wife gets a parking ticket, which in turn leads the villain to believe his wife is having an affair.
8. GAPS IN THE ACTION
This problem seems to only be a problem in the adaptations. While the comics do feature brief respites between murder sprees, the comic book structure usually allows for at least one murder per issue. The adaptations, on the other hand, sometimes can’t quite strike the balance. Thomas Jane’s packs most of its action and killing in the third act, leaving the rest of the movie feeling very deliberate for an alleged action film.
The Netflix series probably suffers from this the most, though. The TV series format seemed like it would be a sure thing for comics-style serialized storytelling, but instead we go for hours at a time with Frank not really doing much of anything. Other characters get involved in shootouts and action scenes, but Frank himself doesn’t really cut loose after the first episode until the last few episodes.
Jigsaw is one of Punisher’s only recurring villains, to the point where it’s a bit of a running gag that he keeps coming back. Making appearances in 2008’s War Zone and the Netflix series, Jigsaw is most known for getting his formerly handsome face shredded and returning to haunt the Punisher. In War Zone, he was basically a Tim Burton Joker knockoff, even taking inspiration from Joker’s “birth” in 1989’s Batman
In the Netflix series, Jigsaw the supervillain doesn’t even really show up. Instead, the season acts more as an origin story for Billy Russo’s turn from slimy private military contractor to full blown villain. It does miss the mark, however. Instead of having Russo miraculously survive an attempted Franking, Frank instead purposefully leaves him alive, counter to everything that makes the Punisher the Punisher.
6. WHO HE KILLS
It would seem that Frank’s targets should be easy: he kills bad guys, does not kill cops or soldiers. Despite this, some filmmakers just can’t leave well enough alone. In War Zone, Frank mistakenly kills an undercover cop, and despite regretting it immensely, doesn’t really let it affect him that deeply, still continuing his crusade. Even the cop’s partner comes around to Frank’s way of thinking, assisting him in the final showdown.
In the Netflix series, Frank spends most of the series fighting against private military contractors and veterans with PTSD. While obviously not technically soldiers, it sure feels weird watching Frank gun down a bunch of professional-looking solider types in combat armor and fatigues. Even more uncomfortable is the plotline (very) loosely adapted from Do Not Fall In New York City, where a veteran with PTSD breaks and goes on a killing spree.
5. MAKING IT TOO REAL
If Frank kills cops, even accidentally, it brings up one of the most egregious issues with the post-Dolph Punisher adaptations: it makes it too real. Punisher only works if we operate on comic book logic; i.e., that he never kills innocents, even accidentally. If he does, it invalidates his entire mission, protecting the innocent by punishing the guilty. Even if innocents get caught in the crossfire, they must never be directly killed by Frank.
This is War Zone‘s primary failure: while most of the movie is a cheesy action film that’s basically a cartoon, it has the entire weight of Frank’s killing of an innocent hanging over it. Even though it tries to be cheesy, silly fun, emblazoned across every scene is the reminder that yes, the Punisher killed an innocent man. This is in turn made worse by the dead cop’s partner eventually coming around to Frank’s point of view.
4. CHANGING THE ORIGIN
A common theme with these adaptations is changing the origin of the Punisher. In the comics, war veteran Frank and his family are caught in the crossfire of a mob shootout, which ends up killing his wife and children. This in turn changes Frank from relatively happy family man to the monster known as the Punisher. For whatever reason, the adaptations prefer to make it personal, even if the origin isn’t central to the film.
Dolph Lundgren’s family is killed by a car bomb targeting Frank. Thomas Jane gets targeted by a crime family for a sting gone wrong. Also he’s a cop, not a veteran. Jon Bernthal and his family are targeted by a rogue CIA agent and his criminal conspiracy. Ray Stevenson, miraculously, is the only Punisher whose origins stay relatively true to the comics.
3. VENGEANCE OVER PUNISHMENT
Why is the way Frank’s family dies important? After all, what matters is that he becomes the Punisher and shoots bad guys, right? But by having Frank and his family targeted, it re-contextualizes the character entirely. Frank continues his war because his family died in a random act of violence. The whole point of the origin is that it could happen to anyone at any time.
By changing the origin to give Frank a specific target for vengeance, rather than “crime as a whole,” it turns the Punisher into a generic growly action man taking revenge in a generic action revenge film. In their attempts to give Punisher pathos and character development, they instead give him an endpoint to his vengeance, a resolution to his unending pain.
2. MAKING HIM A HERO
Another one of the major failings is portraying Frank as a good guy doing bad things to bad men. But Frank is not a good man. He’s a serial killer who happens to only target bad guys. He’s a hollow, broken shell of a person who has left all semblance of humanity behind in service to his war. Jon Bernthal is perhaps the biggest offender in this regard, but all four are guilty of it at some point.
Ray Stevenson spirals into self-doubt, even threatening to retire, after accidentally killing an innocent man. Dolph Lundgren works with the man who killed his family in service of the greater good. Thomas Jane is far too friendly with his neighbors. But Jon Bernthal takes it a step further, acting entirely human in his interactions with Micro and his family, and even attempting to reason with the veteran-turned-terrorist later in the season.
1. LACK OF NUANCE
All this is to say: filmmakers get the surface of the Punisher (or think they do), but miss the depth. In their attempts to introduce character arcs and pathos and all these complex morals and real-world consequences, they miss the core: Frank Castle puts on a skull and shoots bad guys. He isn’t a particularly complex character, but comic writers in the past have managed to bring true emotion to the character, beyond his grief over his family.
His descent into a hollow man consumed by his war, the pain caused by his broken shell to those around him (not just the villains), the tragedy of a man having everything stripped from him, the horrors of war and crime, this all goes out the window to be replaced by a generic revenge plot with cartoon villains.
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