Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, has always been more enduring than other ultra-violent, grim n’ gritty creations of his ilk. It would be easy to dismiss him as a one-note character — a vigilante like Daredevil or Batman but with the moral code removed, plus a propensity for creative violence added for good measure. Frank has no room in his life for anything except his mission. He has very little personal or romantic life, and generally only teams up with other heroes against his better judgment. He viciously takes out any enemy he comes up against, so there is only one recurring villain in his rogues gallery (Jigsaw). Common wisdom would dictate that a decent one-off story is possible, but what else can be done with a character who never grows or changes? Frank begins any story as a killer, and ends any story as a criminal. He’ll never abandon his mission, and never have any self-loathing about the terrible things he has done. Surely there are only so many stories that can be told with a character like this?
And yet, a host of creators have found hugely compelling ways to tell Punisher stories over long periods of time. Hell, at several points, The Punisher has held a legitimate claim to being one of the most popular characters in the industry. He has also been reinterpreted and reimagined many times over the years to better fit with changing times and attitudes in the real world. Frank Castle’s mission never alters, but the world he exists in does, and this has made him an unexpectedly adaptable character. Here are the most punishing versions of The Punisher, ranked.
20. DOLPH LUNDGREN (THE PUNISHER, 1989)
Dolph Lundgren’s woeful 1989 film The Punisher is quite easily the worst version of the iconic character. The movie, which didn’t include Frank Castle’s classic skull symbol on the chest and featured him living in the sewers while waging war on crime, wasn’t even given a theatrical release in the United States.
Its production company New World Pictures were experiencing financial difficulties, and the extremely low-budget film finally debuted on VHS and Laserdisc in June 1991. Reviews were vitriolic, criticizing the film’s lame action sequences and amateurish acting. They also correctly pinpointed that the changes made to the source material took away the aspects of Frank Castle’s character that made him interesting.
19. AVENGING ANGEL (THE PUNISHER: PURGATORY, 1998)
In 1998, Marvel was struggling with what to do with Frank Castle. Writers Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski were tasked with revamping the character, and they chose to inject a supernatural element into the character’s story. In a pair of miniseries’, entitled The Punisher: Purgatory and Wolverine/The Punisher: Revelation, Frank Castle ended himself but was resurrected by a guardian angel who had failed to protect his family from being taken out.
He then became an emissary of heaven, hunting down demons on their orders. Fans absolutely hated this version of the character, and not even horror comics legend Bernie Wrightson’s art could save the concept from the scrap heap.
18. PUNISHER (MARVEL EDGE, 1995)
Prior to The Punisher being reborn as an avenging angel, Marvel published a series under the Marvel Edge imprint in which Frank Castle became convinced that Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. were responsible for the end of his family. In the storyline ‘Over The Edge’ he pursued Fury, finally finding and taking him out!
This led to a relaunch of a Punisher solo title in which Castle was on death row for Fury’s demise. The Mafia then fake Castle’s end in order to recruit him as a mob boss, and he goes by his Italian birth name, Castiglione. The series ended after 18 issues with an amnesiac Castle living in an abandoned Catholic Church.
17. FRANKEN-CASTLE (PUNISHER, 2010)
Writer Rick Remender really went outside the box for this revamp of The Punisher. In Dark Reign – The List – Punisher #1, Castle battles Wolverine’s son Daken in an NYC sewer. Despite fighting well, Daken’s healing factor wins out and he takes out Castle by cutting off both his arms and ending him!
Morbius and the Legion Of Monsters then reconstruct Castle as a Frankenstein’s Monster-esque patchwork creature. Franken-Castle seeks vengeance on Daken, and in the process winds up tangling with his father Logan too. Franken-Castle was a controversial period in Punisher history, but its sense of ghoulish fun set it apart and the story gained a cult following.
16. PUNISHER 2099 (1993)
Marvel 2099 was a very popular Marvel Comics imprint which launched in 1992, showing one possible future for the Marvel Universe. The launch titles included Spider-Man 2099, Doom 2099, Ravage 2099 (an all-new superhero scripted by Stan Lee) and Punisher 2099. The Punisher of this era was Jake Gallows, a member of the Public Eye Police Force, who lost his mother, brother and sister-in-law when they were ended on the orders of psychotic villain Kron Stone.
Gallows came across Frank Castle’s original war journal, and decided to follow in his violent footsteps. Punisher 2099 was fairly popular, lasting 34 issues, but didn’t quite have the staying power of Miguel O’Hara’s future Spider-Man character.
15. ANIMATED PUNISHER (SPIDER-MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, 1994)
The 1994 Spider-Man animated series is iconic for fans who were in their formative years in the early ’90s. Alongside Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, the three cartoons formed an awesome triumvirate of Saturday morning superhero adventures. Punisher appeared in three episodes of Spider-Man, wearing a green costume and trenchcoat, and was flanked by his tech guy Microchip.
He was as accurate a version of the character that could be accomplished with the restrictions of children’s programming, with his personality being retained but his lethality toned down completely. This Punisher fired concussion blast energy weapons and guns that produced electrified nets, as opposed to the usual machine guns and rocket launchers!
14. PUNISHER NOIR (2009)
The Marvel Noir universe was created in 2009 and featured fresh takes on famous characters, all told with a gritty noir/pulp fiction storytelling style. Spider-Man: Noir was undoubtedly the most successful (with that version of the character set to appear in the upcoming Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse animated film), but we also got down n’ dirty versions of characters like X-Men, Daredevil, Luke Cage.
Punisher Noir was set in the roaring ’20s and was written by Frank Tieri (Pestilence) and drawn by Paul Azaceta (Outcast). It told the story of Frank Castelione Jr adopting the vigilante guise after his father Frank Sr. was murdered by Noir takes on established villains Jigsaw, Barracuda and the Russian.
13. COSMIC GHOST RIDER (2018)
Wait a second, this list is about versions of The Punisher, not Ghost Rider! What are we doing? Well, for anyone unfamiliar with writer Donny Cates’ current run on Thanos, it may surprise you to find out that the Cosmic Ghost Rider (herald of Galactus and bitter enemy of The Mad Titan) was once Frank Castle!
The story is set in an alternate timeline where Thanos won after wiping out all of the Marvel heroes. Frank Castle lay in pain, thinking about how he would give anything to be able to punish Thanos. The demon Mephisto heard, and turned him into a Ghost Rider. He later gained the Power Cosmic when a wounded Galactuc imbued him with it in order to aid him against Thanos, hence… the Cosmic Ghost Rider.
12. CAP PUNISHER (THE PUNISHER: WAR JOURNAL, 2006)
In the wake of the events of 2006’s Civil War, a new Punisher: War Journal series debuted, by Matt Fraction and Ariel Olivetti. It brought Frank Castle back to the mainstream Marvel Universe after he had spent the entire early part of the 2000s in the separate Marvel MAX universe. The first three issues even took place during Civil War, and when Steve Rogers was taken out, Frank decided to create a hyrbid Punisher/Captain America costume to taken out a white supremacist who was also wearing a modified Cap costume.
11. FRANK CASTLE: WAR MACHINE (2017)
In November 2017’s The Punisher #218, writer Matthew Rosenberg and artist Guiu Vilanova introduced an interesting new wrinkle into Frank Castle’s storied history. Frank was approached by Nick Fury Jr, who had a job proposal for him: clean up the mess caused by rogue S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in the country of Chernaya, which was embroiled in bloody political turmoil.
To accomplish this secret mission, Fury gave Frank the War Machine armor, asking simply that he return it once the mission was complete. Naturally, given that Frank now had more firepower for his mission, he went rogue, destroying military bases in Chernaya and freeing wrongly incarcerated prisoners. He later resumed his war on crime in NYC while still wearing the armor!
10. RAY STEVENSON (PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, 2008)
The third attempt at adapting Frank Castle for the big screen was 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, which starred Ray Stevenson (Rome) and Dominic West (The Wire). It wasn’t a particularly good movie, with the ultra-violent and over-the-top comic book violence becoming off-putting and somehow campy.
West’s scenery-chewing performance as Jigsaw was also painful to watch. But, crucially, in the midst of a mostly terrible film, Ray Stevenson emerged as a very creditable Punisher. He looked the part, brought the necessary menace and physicality to the role, and also did well in scenes where he could inject some pathos into proceedings. Stevenson would later reprise the role when he voiced Punisher in an episode of The Super Hero Squad Show!
9. THE PUNISHER (1987-95)
In the late ’80s/early ’90s, the Punisher experienced arguably the peak of his popularity in the world of comic books. At one point there were three ongoing titles starring the character that were running simultaneously: The Punisher, which ran for 104 issues from ’87 to ’95; The Punisher: War Journal which lasted 80 issues from ’88 to ’95; and The Punisher: War Zone which had 41 issues between ’92 to ’95.
During this period Frank Castle was as overexposed as famously ubiquitous characters like Wolverine and Batman, and it definitely led to his stories being spread too thin, but there is no arguing with the fact that fans of this era loved the character enough to support three titles for a significant period.
8. THOMAS JANE (THE PUNISHER, 2004 / DIRTY LAUNDRY, 2012)
To date, Thomas Jane’s rendition of Frank Castle in the 2004 film The Punisher is, for our money, the best big screen version of Frank Castle. The fact that the film was largely dismissed by critics and holds a rotten 29% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes should tell you something about the overall quality of Castle’s celluloid adventures however!
John Travolta is pretty bad as the film’s villain Howard Saint, but Jane is a great Castle, playing his wounded core and scant regard for his own well-being brilliantly. He also excels in the movie’s moments of black humor. Jane later reprised the role (sort of) in the unsanctioned 2012 fan film Dirty Laundry, and it made fans all the more upset that he never got to play Frank again in an official sequel.
7. PUNISHER MAX II (2010)
The second incarnation of PunisherMAX debuted in January 2010 and ran for 22 issues. It told its own self-contained story over four arcs, and was set in the MAX universe, completely separate from the regular Marvel universe. Written by Jason Aaron (Scalped) and drawn by legendary Punisher artist Steve Dillon, the series gave readers MAX versions of popular supervillains Kingpin and Bullseye, as well as the antihero Elektra.
Aaron was even able to end his story with the end, funeral and burial of Frank Castle, who fell in his battle with Wilson Fisk. He became a martyr, though, and his demise sparked an uprising from New York’s citizens, with regular people taking out criminals all over the city!
6. THE PUNISHER (VIDEO GAME, 2005)
The Punisher video game, which was released on PlayStation 2 and Xbox, was an intensely violent blast. Reprising his role from the 2004 film, Thomas Jane voiced Frank Castle with the perfect amount of gravelly tough-guy attitude and black humour, and the game mixed action, stealth and exploration to great effect.
Perhaps the most memorable aspects of it, though, were the interrogations (which usually ended with Castle feeding criminals into woodchippers or slamming windows down on their heads). These scenes were so violent that the game was placed on the ‘Federal Department For Media Harmful To Young Persons’ list in Germany and required significant cuts to be rated 18 (equivalent to a US NC-17) in the UK!
5. ORIGINAL PUNISHER (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, 1974)
In 1973, Spider-Man writer Gerry Conway came up with the idea for The Punisher, inspired by The Executioner book series by Don Pendleton (in which a Vietnam veteran became a killer of criminals after the Mafia ended his family). He was thinking of the character (who he wanted to call The Assassin) as a Spider-Man antagonist who would eventually turn good, and sketched a costume idea with a small skull on one breast.
John Romita Sr took the skull and made it bigger, taking up the character’s entire chest, and publisher Stan Lee suggested the Punisher as a better name. Artist Ross Andru drew Punisher’s first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in February 1974, and the rest is comic book history!
4. CIRCLE OF BLOOD (THE PUNISHER, 1986)
After his debut in 1974, The Punisher made several more appearances across the Marvel Universe, including in the pages of Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. But soon Marvel editorial became uncomfortable with using a criminal as a protagonist, and the character faded from the spotlight.
Writer Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck then proposed a Punisher miniseries in the early ’80s but were met with resistance for years, until they finally got their wish in 1986. This series, which would later become known as ‘Circle Of Blood’, became a defining work in the character’s history. It was completely different from other Marvel titles at the time and featured various mature elements.
3. JON BERNTHAL (NETFLIX’ DAREDEVIL/THE PUNISHER, 2016/17)
After three movies of debatable quality, Frank Castle was finally translated to the screen in an entirely satisfying way when Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) played The Punisher in the second season of Netflix’ Daredevil TV show. Bernthal positively bristled with barely restrained fury and intensity at all times, and his hardline attitude toward crime provided a compelling moral argument between he and Matt Murdock.
Bernthal then got his own spin-off show in 2017, and it was another winner, telling an intriguing conspiracy story that also took a nuanced look at PTSD in soldiers. Of course, this was all alongside the requisite amount of bullets and explosions that any fan could possibly want from a Punisher story. Awesome.
2. MARVEL KNIGHTS (THE PUNISHER, 2000-04)
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, the acclaimed creative partnership behind Vertigo’s revolutionary Preacher series, rescued The Punisher from comic book purgatory with their incredible ‘Welcome Back, Frank’ story, which began in 2000. Published under the Marvel Knights banner, that initial 12-issue maxiseries returned Frank Castle to his roots as a violent vigilante, and featured copious amounts of Ennis and Dillon’s trademark black humor.
They populated the supporting cast with social outcasts (Frank’s oddball neighbours Joan the Mouse, Mr Bumpo and Spacker Dave) and grotesquely over-the-top villains (the Russian, Ma Gnucci). A subsequent 37-issue run by the same creative team was met with a similar ecstatic reaction from fans and critics.
1. PUNISHER MAX (THE PUNISHER, 2004)
Garth Ennis continued writing The Punisher after the Marvel Knights run came to an end, but this time it was under the MAX umbrella. This meant Frank Castle was completely separated from the core Marvel Universe, so there would be no superhero appearances at all. Gone also was the humour Ennis was so known for, as this Punisher series was intended to be a completely serious, resonant and realistic look at a vigilante story in a post 9/11 world.
Punisher MAX dealt with the War On Terror and corporate greed, as well as the dark heart of intelligence services throughout the world. It also aged Frank Castle in real time, confirming that Ennis and Darick Robertson’s harrowing Vietnam-era Born miniseries was part of MAX continuity.
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