The Punisher was one of my favorite superheroes as a kid. He is the vigilante element of the superhero distilled down to its core essence. Like Batman, The Punisher didn’t have any superpowers, just a whole lot of anger. Unlike Batman, he didn’t feel the need to get all theatrical about it. Forget dressing up like a bat and pretending like that would do anything but make criminals kind of scratch their heads a little, all The Punisher needed as his costume was a goddamn skull on his shirt.
There have now been four different live-action takes on The Punisher, three on the big screen and the most recent one in Netflix’s Daredevil series. They have had varying degrees of success, both creatively and financially, and they have also been quite distinct from each other. I’ve seen them all, and I’m here to give you my hot take on which are the best and which are the worst.
1. Punisher: War Zone – Ray Stevenson
Ray Stevenson is not the best actor on this list. In fact, his portrayal of The Punisher is kind of one-note. But that one note is a grim-faced joie de vivre, and it’s my favorite note. This version of The Punisher is pretty torn up about his family getting murdered, sure, but also you can tell he just really enjoys shooting bad guys. A lot. Exhibit A:
The background behind this scene is as hilarious as the scene itself: the studio told director Lexi Alexander, “Hey, parkour seems to be popular right now. We want you to put a parkour scene in your movie.” So she did, but like the rest of the movie, the result is more or less a middle finger to the studio for asking her to do it in the first place. The whole movie feels like the studio told her they wanted a dark, violent take on The Punisher and her response was to take that directive so over the top that it instead became a very entertaining parody of dark, violent superhero movies. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s an immensely fun one, and if you’re going to a superhero movie for anything other than to have fun, then you’re doing it wrong.
Oh, and this is the one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever, full stop:
Notice how both those clips were titled “Best Scene.” The description is accurate in both cases.
2. Daredevil – Jon Bernthal
Remember how much fun we had with The Punisher just a few moments ago? Now watch this trailer for season 2 of Daredevil:
That’s pretty dark, and it is not false advertising. Jon Bernthal’s take on The Punisher is the grimmest one yet. He’s a straight-up psychopath, and starts the series as a kind of Jason Voorhees with guns, lurking in the shadows and killing loads of people like the unstoppable killer from a horror movie. Bernthal is a good actor, and he is good as The Punisher. Really good, as a matter of fact.
Daredevil‘s take on the character is an examination of vigilantism pushed to the extreme. When is vigilantism acceptable? Is it ever acceptable? Is there a difference between The Punisher gunning down entire gangs at once and Daredevil just breaking a few of their bones here and there? The show seems content to answer that question with “Yeah, sure there is,” rather than really getting deep into it, which is a little disappointing in the end.
So, while I like Bernthal as The Punisher and think he is the best actor to have taken the role so far, I also think the show could have done better with the character. Rather than have him give a ten minute-long monologue about his backstory (did they run out of budget for flashbacks?), maybe have him shoot a rocket launcher at some parkour dudes instead. Just a thought.
3. The Punisher (2004), The Punisher: Dirty Laundry – Thomas Jane
If you want a Punisher who’s the sort of guy with whom you could sit down and have a beer and discuss your favorite baseball team, Thomas Jane’s Punisher is your man. Jane is a decent-enough actor, and his work in the fan-made Punisher: Dirty Laundry short (which is quite good, by the way) shows that he has the chops to play the role:
But he was given such a joyless, terrible movie to act in with 2004’s The Punisher that it’s hard to see past that. Also, his version of The Punisher just seems so much more well-adjusted than Stevenson’s or Bernthal’s. Yeah, he’s a vigilante on a quest for justice, but Jane is just too damn affable. This Punisher isn’t a parody of excessive violence or an exploration of vigilante justice taken to its logical conclusion. He’s just an action hero saving the day, which is the most boring way possible to approach The Punisher.
4. The Punisher (1989) – Dolph Lundgren
Are you kidding me? This guy is even less convincing as The Punisher than he is as He-Man, and he made a really bad He-Man. Nothing against Dolph, I’m sure he’s a swell guy, but what was Hollywood’s obsession with miscasting him? There is nothing good about this movie, and nothing good about Lundgren’s portrayal of Frank Castle. I mean, just look at this:
OK, that trailer actually makes the movie look kind of awesome, but rest assured that it does not live up to that expectation. The best that can be said about it is that it has Louis Gossett, Jr. in it. Otherwise, it’s pure fetid garbage. We’ve come a long way from this Punisher to the one in Daredevil, and it’s nice to see one of my all-time favorite superheroes finally get his due. Maybe if he gets a spin-off series like rumors have suggested, it will afford the newest iteration of The Punisher to have a little more fun with it.