Adapting superheroes was quite the challenge before the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Back then nobody could get it right and with every attempt came greater failure. In the case of Spider-Man, the Tobey Maguire version was on point until Sony ruined everything with bad direction and even worse writing. Then again, I think Spider-Man is a puss, so his movies can crash and burn for all I care. The same applies to the Fantastic Four who were just fine in their first incarnation before Fox got in the way.
Frank Castle, the Punisher, has undergone a similar evolution over the years. Any opportunity I get to talk about my favorite Marvel character, make fun of the UN, Australia’s government, liberals, or third-wave feminists, I tend to take it whole heartedly at the risk of going on an extended tangent. The character is my most favorite of the Marvel Pantheon and with the advent of his new incarnation on season two of Daredevil, I find it fitting to explore his evolution in film.
* * *
Punisher is a simple character when it comes to concept, but he is complicated in origin and personality. In the Marvel comics continuity there are two versions of Castle: the Vietnam and Modern variant. Each version’s war origins are vehicles to explain Castle’s proficiency with weapons, but it is important to consider the broader implications.
The Vietnam War is one of the most shameful travesties in American history and no one experienced it worse than those who fought it. An ignorant public with no respect exacerbated the various problems soldiers brought home at the war’s end, resulting in suicides, homelessness, and addiction. If Castle fought in Vietnam, it makes sense he would fall into vigilantism. Here is a man who suffered a living nightmare shared by an entire generation, who comes home to his loving wife and two children, only to see them murdered before his eyes, destroying whatever humanity Castle had left.
All war is terrible, but in the context of modern asymmetric conflict, especially in a time when help for PTSD is more accessible, the concept of Modern Castle is not as strong. War is easier and efficient compared to the late 60s, not to mention the public and government’s treatment of veterans has definitely improved. The exterior factors that would facilitate a character like Punisher are simply not present.
* * *
Personality probably plays a bigger role in Castle’s evolution. Both variants can posses either the Nihilism or Apathy types, and underlining both is Psychopathy. Reflected in the colors of his costume, Castle sees the world in black and white. People are either absolutely good or absolutely evil with no gray in between. He makes every decision based on this binary morality with no more thought than a squeeze of the trigger. Castle is also aware what he is doing is wrong. He understand vigilantism is illegal, yet continues his work because he believes in it. He does not care what laws he breaks or lives he ruins as long as he accomplishes the mission.
The Nihilism type is most prevalent in Garth Ennis’s Punisher MAX, which also uses the Vietnam variant. In the story Born, Castle assumes a kind of split personality on his final tour that would become the Punisher. This personality is driven by a hunger for war and bloodlust as a kind of PTSD that negates every other nonessential emotion. He is completely shut off from the world, relying only on instinct and his binary morality. He is efficient in his thought process and methodology, but retains the concept of innocence. He cares about protecting children like in the Mother Russia and Slavers books, yet has no problem killing women when they fall into the black side of his morality.
The Apathy type is more mainstream and similar to most action heroes, but not without the element of psychopathy. On that same logic, John Matrix, Paul Kersey, John McClane, Dutch, and Rambo are all psychopaths. They do not acknowledge nor care about killing scores of human beings and often laugh about it afterward. Apathy Castle is no different, throwing out the occasional joke like in Dark Reign when he used Pym particles to infiltrate a casino in a pizza before enlarging after being eaten. He does not acknowledge the implication of his violence, treating it like an everyday thing, while casually dispatching criminals without hesitation. In that regard, he has a lot in common with his contemporaries. Iron Man probably does not think about the long-term damage his repulsors, nor does Captain America when using his shield, or Thor with Mjolnir. The closest match to Apathy Castle is Black Window who immersed herself into the life of an assassin to the point she almost enjoys it.
* * *
The film versions of Castle adhere to different combinations of his origin and personality variants. In some cases they subvert the comics and do something entirely different. The following summaries are ordered chronologically from the first incarnation to the last:
Dolph Lundgren, The Punisher (1989)
The most obvious choice for a character like Castle would be an action star if you were stupid. It is important to remember the comics were not what they are now, but what remained the same was the Vietnam origin. Unfortunately, the people behind 1989 forgot and made Castle a former cop, which dose not account for his very military skills and methodology.
Though Lundgren plays the Apathy type, he is too emotional in many cases. He cares about saving kids, but he also monologs about morality, God, and constantly questions if he is doing the right thing. Before the climax he turns himself in for no reason and whines in his cell. It also does not help that Lundgren is not the kind of actor for this material.
The way he kills is unbecoming as well. The opening was fine where he sneaks into a mansion, hangs a guy, and burns the place. Then he has a comical shootout in an abandoned theme park, a conspicuous fight on a pier that would have killed him in seconds, and a very loud infiltration of a building despite using a suppressed weapon. The worst scene was when he dropped into an illegal casino, told a Yakuza soldier to deliver a message to his boss, and shot up the slot machines and tables with an M60. The real Punisher would have dropped in, killed everyone, and left at least one criminal alive to carry his message because he did it about six times in Up is Down and Black is White.
Taking it as a pure action movie, 1989 succeeds when judged on its own merit. I could tell it wanted to be a Cannon Films production, but lacked the sheer insanity of Golan-Globus. However, when you use the name of an established character, be prepared for inevitable comparisons and judgments fueled by preconceived notions.
Thomas Jane, The Punisher (2004)
2004 is a complete reversal of 1989. Where Lundgren’s Castle was totally flawed, Jane was the second best and more accurate as a combination of Modern and Apathy. He brought a level of subtlety that defines the character’s emotional state because Castle is not one for expression. With a conservative use of one-liners Jane did a great job of epitomizing Castle’s action hero aesthetic without insulting the character. The alcoholism element was a little too on the nose, but it is not his fault because the rest of the movie is hot garbage.
Where 1989 was an actual 80s action movie, 2004 was trying to parody 80s action movies and failed. There was slapstick in some of the fight scenes, quirky roommates that get into shenanigans, and ridiculous villain characters that would have been better suited in another movie or with a different version of Castle. The movie is tone deaf and devoid of the irony that makes parody work. If you are telling a joke, it must have a point and 2004 is about as funny as an Adam Sandler movie. How can you make a story about a guy losing his family in a massacre, who turns to vigilantism funny? In what way is mass murder hilarious?
Do not get me started on the petty, boring tactics and lack of action scenes. Where the real Castle would find the people he is after and shoot them, 2004 Castle formulates a complicated scheme with many phases of planning that could have been simplified with a bullet.
Ray Stevenson, Punisher: War Zone (2008)
It took two movies and 19 years to finally get Castle right. War Zone is essentially a straightforward adaptation of Punisher MAX. It barrows the tone, a few ideas from In the Beginning, Kitchen Irish, and was the most accurate depiction yet. Ray Stevenson delivers a compelling dramatic performance with little to no lines and is built like a tank. On a physical level alone he nails the character as he delivers a fatal tackle here, a face-caving punch there, and efficient, calculated attacks that reflect better upon Castle’s military origins.
While it is a basic action movie, War Zone also successfully parodies the genre. By making the villains ridiculous to the point of cartoonish, it provides juxtaposition between the reality of killers and those of fiction. Castle is serious about his work and does not hide from the truth. He acknowledges he is a mass murderer and that there is no hope for any kind of redemption. The villain characters in War Zone do not care about what they do and enjoy it as if they were in an action movie. They are caricatures of criminal archetypes, like cosplaying Sopranos fans, and Castle is the naked reality of evil making them see the truth.
It is too bad the previous Punisher incarnations made War Zone poison to audiences. The movie opened amid behind-the-scenes drama and flopped, taking in only a third its budget. Thanks to fans like myself, however, the film has risen to cult status and director Lexi Alexander has been venerated for making the best Punisher movie to date.
* * *
With season 2 of Daredevil just months away, there comes the question of how Jon Bernthal will fair as the new Frank Castle. Personally, I would rather see Ray Stevenson back in the part or even Michael Shannon in an adaptation of my script. However, I trust in Bernthal’s ability as an actor to do the very best he can while keeping in mind the history of the character. The quality of the incarnations has steadily grown over the years and it would be disheartening to see a back track into mediocrity. A bigger question is how the other elements will affect the character. Do the show runners and writers understand Castle or will they earn the ire of a very vocal fan base? We will just have to wait and see.