‘The Punisher’ Franchise: An In-Depth Ranking

Vengeance has a name.
The Punisher
By  · Published on November 22nd, 2017

Vengeance has a name.

Frank Castle and his crime-fighting alter-ego The Punisher entered the pop culture lexicon in 1974, debuting in “The Amazing Spider-Man #129″ as an opponent for the titular web-slinging superhero. He would then go on to appear in several Marvel titles as a supporting player for over a decade, forming uneasy alliances with his fellow crime-busting crusaders, until he was given his first solo outing with 1986’s “Circle of Blood.” This cemented the character’s place among Marvel’s hero collective, but Castle differed from his counterparts in the sense that he was morally ambiguous and prone to regular bursts of mass murder.

Despite living on Marvel’s fringes for a number of years, however, The Punisher was one of the first heroes to be given his own film adaptation. Three years after “Circle of Blood,” Dolph Lundgren was playing the vigilante in an ill-received, low-budget actioner that failed to light the box office on fire. After that movie flopped, two more attempts were launched to make Castle a cinematic commodity, but they also bombed, and for years it seemed as if our boy was never going to break free of the confines of comic book panels.

However, like Daredevil before him, Netflix eventually stepped up to the plate and gave a vigilante who’d experienced cinematic misfortunes a new lease on life on the small screen as part of their Marvel universe. Now, Mr. Castle’s future is actually looking groovy. That said, while it took a minute to get to this point, that doesn’t mean previous attempts were total failures. In fact, every Punisher screen adaptation is enjoyable in its own unique way.

I don’t dislike any Punisher screen incarnation – in fact, I absolutely, unabashedly adore all but one, but don’t take my opinion as gospel. You should understand that it takes a special kind of fondness for cheap genre fare to really appreciate a couple of them. This isn’t a definitive ranking, but I will stand by it until my final breath.

Red Dots

4. The Punisher (2004)

There’s a lot to admire about Jonathan Hensleigh’s adaptation. For a start, Thomas Jane delivers one of the best performances of his career in a hard-boiled turn brimming with emotional despair. He really sells the inner turmoil of a guy whose family has been massacred at the hands of some rotten scoundrels. We can sympathize with this guy who’s lost everything he held dear to him, and there are moments when the film tugs at the old heartstrings. Jane deserved more opportunities to don the skull t-shirt, but, sadly, it wasn’t to be.

The movie does an excellent job of conveying the horrible nature of the events which lead to Castle’s quest for retribution. The violent onslaught that causes his family’s demise is effectively brutal, and it kicks off proceedings with a hard punch to the gut. Unlike some action movies, Hensleigh’s film doesn’t always glorify the atrocities taking place. Violence is harrowing at the end of the day, and here it is often portrayed as such. At other times, however, the carnage is a hoot; for instance, the fight between Castle and The Russian (Kevin Nash) is a highlight which injects some humor into a mostly bleak affair. 

Otherwise, The Punisher ’04 isn’t all that much to write home about. After the initial slaughter and a few action set-pieces peppered throughout, it’s a bit of a slog to sit through. The performances across the board are fine, and Hensleigh’s desire to recreate the glory days of ‘70s revenge thrillers in the vein of Michael Winner is admirable. Unfortunately, though, it’s nothing more than a solid action-thriller that’s ultimately quite forgettable in the end.

Red Dots

3. The Punisher (1989)

The first attempt to make Marvel’s vigilante a movie star is really only a Punisher adaptation in spirit, name, and basic backstory. Dolph Lundgren plays Castle, and he’s on a mission to avenge the death of his family and clean up crime, but otherwise, the Marvel lore is pretty much ignored. No skull t-shirt. No recognizable characters from the comics. Nada.

But this movie is still the bee’s knees.

In this adventure, Castle’s vengeance crusade is temporarily put on hold when the ruthless Lady Tanaka (Kim Miyori) and her Yakuza entourage arrive in New York to rule over organized crime. Naturally, the local mobsters don’t take too kindly to the new players in town and are unwilling to co-operate with their demands. This, however, prompts the Japanese invaders to kidnap the gangsters’ children and use them as a bargaining chip. But in Castle’s eyes, even children of the Mafia are off-limits, so he wages war against the new arrivals — because he’s a good guy like that.

While the Marvel lore is kept to a minimum, The Punisher still provides non-stop fun and action-packed entertainment. Lundgren’s performance boasts the stone-faced bravado and desert-dry humor that was typical of the stoic protagonists of ‘80s action cinema. This Castle is clad in leather and rides his motorcycle through the sewers like he owns the place (which he does, to be fair). That said, he does embody the personality traits of Frank Castle, which makes the movie still feel like a Punisher flick despite the absence of some of the source material’s most identifiable components. He also has a loveable sidekick whose knowledge of the city’s criminal underworld can be bought for a bottle of cheap whiskey. What’s not to love?

This film is also notable for its bad-ass female villains. Lady Tanaka, while evil and scary, is a wonderful antagonist; part ruthless crime lord, part menacing spirit. At times, she’s reminiscent of the female ghosts in Japanese horror classics Onibaba and Kuroneko who haunt the lands murdering the patriarchy. Only here, she’s a living being who reigns supreme over her criminal counterparts, ruling with an iron fist and mercilessly throttling those who oppose her. Meanwhile, her top assassin even gets the better of Castle a couple of times.

In the end, though, good prevails and Castle saves the day, but the stars of the show are the women Yakuza members who make the male Mafia squirm like insignificant worms. Maybe this isn’t the perfect Punisher adaptation in terms of loyalty to the comics, but as an ‘80s action yarn, it’s a helluva good time.

Red Dots

2. The Punisher: War Zone (2008)

War Zone is the closest a screen iteration has come to capturing the tone of a Punisher comic book (particularly the acclaimed fan-favorite run, created by the incredible Garth Ennis). We want to see Frank Castle rack up a body count in bloody, gruesome ways and War Zone goes out of its way to satisfy our appetite for destruction. Director Lexi Alexander embraced the gallows humor, over-the-top violence, and gonzo sensibilities of Ennis’ work, and the end result is a bonkers, hyper-violent throwback to ‘80s action cinema that supplies the carnage and mayhem we crave from a Castle story. In this writer’s humble opinion, it’s one of the best comic book movies ever made, and I’m going to keep singing its praises to anyone who’ll listen until the day I die.

Here, we see Castle (Ray Stevenson) go to war with New York City’s Mafiosi and the street goons they’ve employed to take him out. Led by Billy ‘Jigsaw’ Russoti (Dominic West) and his sadistic cannibal brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), the gangsters want Castle out of the equation so they can run their organized crime operation in peace and free of consequences. But their grudge against our angel of retribution is also personal since he’s responsible for disfiguring Jigsaw’s once-beautiful face, leaving him permanently stitched and more akin to a grotesque Hammer monster than a human being. 

The Punisher: War Zone is the cinematic equivalent of smashing a chestnut with a sledgehammer. For example, why just shoot someone when you can blow them to smithereens with a rocket launcher as they’re flipping between rooftops? Castle is a one-man killing machine, and he rampages the neon-lit seedy underbelly of New York City without a shred of remorse for his enemies. As in Ennis’ source material, Castle is portrayed as a trigger-happy fascist who we really shouldn’t root for, but this movie is still a B-grade action aficionado’s wet dream, and our protagonist is the unhinged, morally ambiguous antihero we need him to be when it comes to putting down bad guys.

War Zone was one of two movies to be released under the short-lived Marvel Knights production arm of Marvel Studios (the other was Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which made our 51 Best Superhero Movies Ever list). Due to the film’s poor box office turnout (it made $8M on the back of a $30M budget), we never got more of these edgier, darker alternatives to the studio’s main attractions, and that’s a shame. The cult of War Zone has amassed throughout the years, sure, but imagine what could have been if audiences flocked to support this demented gem in 2008. We need more unrestrained action movies like this blessing our multiplexes. 

Red Dots

1. The Punisher (2017)

From the moment Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle was introduced to the Netflix Marvel canon, the universe became a much darker and more interesting place. The strength of Bernthal’s performance as a supporting player during Daredevil made a solo Punisher outing inevitable, and thankfully, it’s one that doesn’t disappoint. The Punisher marked a return to form for Netflix’s Marvel roster following the underwhelming Iron Fist and Defenders series, and it’s arguably their best show to date.

Even though the show is a back-to-basics interpretation of Frank Castle in some ways, it’s very much a reflection of where our society is at in 2017. The show was pushed back following the Vegas shooting tragedy, and the decision to postpone the premiere was probably for the best. The series acknowledges the gun control debate and the domestic terrorists who are plaguing our society all too frequently right now. And while it doesn’t say anything particularly new on the subjects, as a portrait of our current times it’s a disturbing reminder that the violence depicted on screen here isn’t all that far removed from real-life.

The focus on Castle’s military background retains some loyalty to the character’s origin in the comics, but for the most part, the show-runners take liberties with the source material and tell their own story — and it’s a compelling one. Bernthal’s portrayal of Castle is a complex study of a soldier who can’t adjust to life away from the trenches, and he straddles that line between violent monster and sympathetic, three-dimensional human with aplomb.

The show isn’t without its flaws, however. As my colleague, Brad Gullickson noted, The Punisher feels like a two-hour movie stretched into an absurd thirteen hours. While I enjoyed the show much more than Brad did, I do agree that it’s a series that would have benefited from some trimming. Perhaps eight or ten episodes would have been more satisfying instead. But even at their best, I’ve found that most of Netflix’s superhero shows suffer from this issue; they’re lethargic affairs, but maybe that’s just a side effect of binge-watching entire series in a single sitting? Still, I do know that after each episode I was still eager to see what would happen next. 

Despite its minor flaws, Netflix’s Punisher will hopefully give the character a long shelf-life on screen. I’d love to see it expand further beyond the current revenge narrative and pit Castle against a variety of vicious enemies. But this is compelling television, and I trust that the vision of all those involved will take us to some spectacular places going forward.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.