Marvel Explained is our ongoing series, where we delve into the latest Marvel shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. In this entry, we chat with Dolph Lundgren about his experience filming The Punisher, the second Marvel cinematic feature.
As superhero movie saturation seemingly nears its apex, I find myself drifting increasingly into memory. Prepare yourself for a tired statement, and one I’ve undoubtedly written on this site before, but if you had told me when I was ten or eleven years old that one day we’d be preparing to watch the third cinematic installment of Rocket Racoon and his Guardians of the Galaxy cronies, I would have called you an idiot or a liar.
These next words are written in an old-man-rocking-on-his-porch voice: in my day, all we had were subpar comic book expressions like Howard the Duck and Captain America, starring J.D. Salinger’s son, with an occasional glorious outing like Tim Burton’s Batman or the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adaptation. You loved what you got.
While Marvel Comics first appeared before mass audiences in the 1944 Captain America serials and later found tremendous success with The Incredible Hulk television series and various short-lived TV tryouts, Howard the Duck was indeed its first proper movie-movie. 1989’s The Punisher was meant to be its second cinematic effort. While it hit a few big screens internationally, the Dolph Lundgren-starring actioner didn’t arrive in the States until 1991, landing direct-to-video.
A year earlier, Marvel published a comics adaptation, elevating my young enthusiasm for the film to unrestrained heights. When the VHS finally became available at the local video dealer in town, I begged my mother to pick me up at school and drive there immediately. Homework would have to wait. Frank Castle demanded my full attention.
Thirty-two years later, I can’t claim The Punisher as Marvel’s finest achievement. It’s a New Worlds Picture, after all. Their budget could only provide so much melee, and its era produces some serious cringe. There’s no denying Dolph Lundgren, however. His Frank Castle is broken in a way that the live-action Frank Castles that would come after fail to comprehend. He’s a dead man walking, his life left behind with his bullet-riddled family. What remains is a dirty, sewer-dwelling zombie unleashed upon a criminal underbelly in desperate need of extinction.
Currently, Mr. Lundgren is on the press circuit promoting the new action film, The Best Man. We’ve spoken a few times, and he’s always a good hang. Selfishly, I wanted to take this chance to chat about the “superhero” movie of his that had the most impact on my childhood and examine his perspective on being the first actor to breathe life into Frank Castle. Thankfully, he was totally game.
“I wasn’t aware of the Marvel Universe then,” says Lundgren. “I wasn’t a big comic book fan, and in those days, it was kind of shady to play a comic book character. It was risky. Now, obviously, once you win the Academy Award, the next thing you play is a Marvel character. That’s just how it goes these days.”
Our conversation starts fairly even-keeled. Obviously, he accepts my praise gladly, but he’s also not ready to proclaim The Punisher as this massive feat. Lundgren recalls the experience with fondness, mostly associated with the other people on set.
“I thought it was a fun film to work on,” he continues. “We shot in Australia, and Louis Gossett Jr. was in it. He was great, and we had really good stunt people, and a lot of the guys were from Mad Max: The Road Warrior. I enjoyed it for sure.”
Last year, over on the podcast I co-host with my wife, Comic Book Couples Counseling, I spoke with longtime Punisher writer and Preacher co-creator Garth Ennis. He thinks each actor who portrayed Castle brought something unique to the role, but his favorite performance remains Dolph Lundgren. Here’s what he said:
“It’s the most honest attempt to capture The Punisher because – as there is in all the others – there is no pulling back, there’s no compromise, there’s no attempt to sweeten him a little bit and take him away from what he so obviously is. In that movie, every time Frank pulls a gun, he doesn’t put it away until a dozen people are dead. He never doubts.”
Obviously, in recent years, Frank Castle has become a somewhat complicated and controversial figure. Extremist police officers, military units, and white supremacists hijacked the Punisher’s skull emblem. To distance Castle from these radicals, Marvel Comics altered his costume, and writer Jason Aaron’s current comic book run is practically designed to counter certain individuals’ gross misunderstanding of the character.
How Garth Ennis responds to the 1989 Punisher film is similar to how I respond. Dolph Lundgren’s Frank Castle is shattered. He’s lost. It’s classic revenge action movie stuff, but Lundgren never allows Frank Castle to be cool. Mostly, he’s filthy; an unwashed instrument of death, looking to kill as many criminals as he can before he gets taken out.
While the 1989 movie never incorporated the murderous event that transformed Frank Castle into the Punisher, Lundgren never forgot the sequence from Robert Mark Kamen‘s first draft (eventually re-written by Boaz Yakin). The actor attributes absorbing that moment and carrying it throughout filming as establishing his ruined avenger.
“In the original script,” he says, “there’s a long sequence in the beginning with the family getting killed. You see Frank Castle as a cop and as a happy family man. Then the family is done in, and he becomes the Punisher. That whole section was cut out by New World Pictures. They were going under at the time when the film was produced. They took the old section out, and I think there’s a little piece of flashback in it now. Yeah, there was a lot more to it than what ended up in the picture.”
For as gnarly and aggressive as Lundgren’s Punisher is, the audience can sense his weakness too. He’s not a superhero to be admired. He’s not super; he’s not even heroic. If anything, you spend most of the film’s runtime pitying the character, which is where the actor wanted his viewers.
“If you play a tough guy too tough,” says Lundgren, “people just – yeah, you can watch it, but to me, I like characters like the lead from Gladiator. Or, if you take The Godfather series, you know their inner life, and that makes you understand the violence.”
When Lundgren first started making movies, he obsessed over his characters. When he cracked the code on one, he looked to see how they would inform the characters that would follow. With The Punisher, he discovered several similarities to Ivan Drago, his Rocky IV villain. They were men in torment, riddled with indecision.
“At the time,” he continues, “I didn’t have that much experience. I’d done Rocky. I worked on that character a lot. He also has some inner qualms about being told what to do by the Soviet state. Drago has to kill Apollo Creed. He doesn’t want to do it, but he does it anyway. So, I kind of had played that once before… it was something that I really latched onto, the fact that [Frank Castle] lost his family and what that would do to somebody.”
This year marks the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fifteenth anniversary. We look at Jon Favreau’s Iron Man as a humble beginning to a mega-franchise that has practically consumed the theatrical experience. Now let’s consider Marvel’s genuinely meek beginning, Howard the Duck and The Punisher. What have we lost with the MCU’s success? Dolph Lundgren certainly has an opinion.
“They’re very good now,” says Lundgren. “I mean, people are very good at putting these things together. Back in those days, you took somebody who could take their shirt off and have real muscles. Now, you take somebody who has won an Academy Award, put them in a suit, and he looks like he’s got muscles. Some do have real physiques, but in those days, Stallone and Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, they were really physical specimens that you can look up to, not just as an actor or as a character, but as a person, as a man.”
For Lundgren, a barrier of unreality sits between the movie and the audience. Today’s action films lack immediacy as a result of their actors. When Schwarzenegger and Van Damme were on screen, there was no denying their presence. We never doubted they could do what they were doing in the movies.
“There’s another feeling when you watch Conan the Barbarian with Arnold,” he says. “You really believe it. You really believe it’s him doing it. There are no quick cuts. They’re not trying to hide the double, because he doesn’t have a double, because you couldn’t get a double for Arnold. Well, maybe in a long shot, but how could you double Arnold’s physique? There’s no way. He had to do it all himself. It was the same with me and Sly in Rocky IV, all that boxing. We didn’t have doubles. It was us.”
1989’s The Punisher can’t compete with what Marvel puts out today. It couldn’t really compete with films of its ilk thirty-four years ago. However, future Punisher adaptations would carry the baggage of Marvel’s cinematic success and attempt to bend Frank Castle into a heroic stance he should never carry. Whatever you might think about the quality of Dolph Lundgren’s interpretation, you can’t deny the freedom with which he was allowed to play Castle as a heartbroken maniac.
His Punisher couldn’t sell toys. As a result, we’ll never see a version like it again. Is that a bummer? I don’t know. It does make the Dolph Lundgren film stand out as a unique one-time event, a curiosity I won’t let go of.
The Best Man is now playing in select theaters, on digital, and on demand.