In certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue… natural justice. This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive, it’s an emotional response.

No, not vengeance.

Punishment.

~An excerpt from Punisher’s War Journal

When I was in high school during the late 1980’s, I collected comic books. Unlike most comic book nerds, I hated superheroes. I thought superheroes were stupid. There was no science or explanation behind their powers, the dialogue was cheesy, no one was allowed to kill anyone, no one ever died, and on the very rare occasion a superhero actually did die, there was no dramatic tension since you knew he would simply come back to life in a year or two (coughSupermancough).

So I largely stayed away from the superhero shit, and the comics I read were the hardcore fantasy and sci-fi ones. The ones with deeper characters, real stakes, R-rated violence, and actual death. As George RR Martin figured out, if you allow your key characters to actually die and not come back, you provide a real tension in the storytelling experience.

So while my friends were reading shit like Spider-Man and Batman, I was reading things like The Realm, The Adventurers, Aliens vs. Predator, Robotech, and even Groo the Wanderer for some comic relief (pun intended). I’m not saying I never purchased a superhero comic; every once in awhile one would slip in, but it was rare.

There was one exception to this rule. One superhero who, for me, stood out amongst the rest. Instead of a bastion of honor and goodness like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, he was flawed, insane, tortured, killed people, and most of all, had no superpowers whatsoever… and he didn’t have Batman’s billions to supply him with all kinds of protective gadgets.

That means he actually was taking a risk whenever he went out to take on the bad guys (and in many cases, the good guys too). I’m mean seriously, do you ever think some like Batman is actually in danger? Sometimes maybe, but it’s rare.

This was the Punisher, my favorite superhero of all time. Because he’s barely a hero. (My second favorite superhero is Ghost Rider, if you were wondering.)

If you don’t know, the Punisher is a tortured Viet Nam veteran whose wife and children are murdered by the mob. He quite literally loses his mind, dons some badass body armor, and becomes a ruthless vigilante, dealing his own brand of justice, killing any and all criminals, as well as killing everyone who gets in his way, without remorse. It is not vengeance, he says. It’s punishment. He has no gadgets like Batman (or at least, not really). Just body armor with a big skull on it, a shitload of guns, and a really shitty attitude. Pure awesomeness.

Hollywood has tried four times now to get the character of the Punisher right. All four have failed, though the degree of the failure varies. I’ll run through all four, ending with the current one who is getting his own show on Netflix soon.

Attempt 1: The Punisher (1989)

This was a dumb, badly acted, but very enjoyable and over-the-top movie starring Dolph Lundgren (of all people) as the Punisher. They had to dye his hair black and scuff up his face for the part. In this movie, the Punisher goes up against the mob, then later reluctantly teams up with the mob to take on the Yakuza. It’s big, loud, dumb, and violent as hell, easily a hard R.

Lundgren is woefully miscast, obviously, and his acting job is not that great. The dialog and acting is often cringe-worthy, though there are two characters (played by Louis Gossett Jr. and Jeroen Krabbé) who are very good.

The action scenes are very fun, and if you shut off your brain, this movie is enjoyable. It’s one of my guilty pleasures. The theme song is also fantastic. But in terms of a good Punisher movie, it sadly fails.

Attempt 2: The Punisher (2004)

Everything gets rebooted for the second attempt, and this time it’s Thomas Jane as the Punisher. This movie is a much higher quality movie than the first one. Thomas Jane is a good actor. Instead of fun and crazy like the first film, in this movie, the tone is very dark, but mixed in with just a little camp, which is exactly right for the Punisher.

Sadly, the movie has a ton of problems. The villains are badly acted and frankly, stupid. John Travolta is the main villain and that should tell you all you need to know. The action scenes are decent, but there aren’t nearly enough of them. There are perhaps three quick action scenes in the entire movie… not nearly enough for a fucking Punisher movie. Thomas Jane is a much better actor than Lundgren, but once again, he’s miscast. Jane doesn’t look like the Punisher at all. The Punisher is a huge, hulking, brooding, ugly badass with a big face and big frame. Jane is a skinny, fit, wiry little guy with too narrow a frame. It just doesn’t look right.

So again, a fail.

Attempt 3: Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Once again, Hollywood tries to get Punisher right. And once again, they fail. However! This time you can tell they really tried. This film is, by far, the most faithful to the character and the comics. It still screws up, and screws up badly in certain areas, but you can at least tell that unlike with the first two films, the people behind Punisher: War Zone are closer to true fans than just a Hollywood staff making a movie.

This time around, Ray Stevenson (from the utterly amazing HBO series Rome) is the Punisher. And… he’s perfect. Perfect! Now this is what the Punisher looks like and acts like. It’s literally the character come to life on the screen. Very well done and I was super impressed. Stevenson is the Punisher. The look, the attitude, the inner conflict, the stone cold face, the sad eyes. They nailed it.

They also took a real villain from the comic books this time, the first time Hollywood had ever done that. The big bad is Jigsaw, which is the Punisher’s version of the Joker, and Punisher’s main supervillain antagonist. His cannibal little brother is Looney Bin Jim, played by our old friend, Doug Hutchison, the 50 year-old guy who married the 16 year-old a few years ago.

All good, but the problem is they take the campy aspect of the Punisher and play it way up, way too far. The villains are good actors, they really are, but they overact so much they come off as goofy cartoon characters. Within about 20 minutes of watching this movie I was cringing in my seat. It’s pretty bad. The action scenes are also pretty shitty. There’s one okay one at the start of the movie, but from then on, none of the action scenes are memorable. You can’t have shitty action scenes in a Punisher movie, sorry.

A really good effort this time, but again, a fail.

Attempt 4: Netflix’s Daredevil, season two

In season two of Netflix’s Daredevil, they added the Punisher in as one of the characters. Like in the comics, he first goes up against Daredevil, then later teams off with him, sort of. He only gets a few action scenes and they’re decent, but there aren’t enough of them.

Since the Punisher this time around is a supporting character in a TV series rather than the star of his own movie, it’s not quite fair to compare the Netflix version of the Punisher to the above movies. That being said, the actor playing him (Jon Bernthal) is a good actor and has a very tough demeanor, but like the first two Punishers, he looks nothing like the Punisher at all. He’s got a strong Italian look and is very small, standing at around 5’10” and with an average/small build. Once again, it’s hard for me to see him as the Punisher regardless of his acting ability or masculinity.

The good news, maybe, is that he gets his own show on Netflix, to be released by the end of the year. The trailer for the show is below. The trailer looks good, but lots of trailers look good for movies or shows that end up being terrible (coughSuicideSquadcough), so I’ve learned that good trailers usually mean nothing.

I’ll watch the show and give it a chance, but my guess is it will be like the previous attempts; they will do a few things right and a lot of things wrong.

The ideal Punisher movie/series would be to have the Punisher from Punisher: War Zone, the tone of the 2004 Punisher movie, the fun action of the 1989 Punisher movie, and the grittiness of the Netflix series’ portrayal. Will it ever happen? Probably not. Until then, such a thing will have to live in my imagination.

16 thoughts on “The Punisher

  1. and on the very rare occasion a superhero actually did die, there was no dramatic tension since you knew he would simply come back to life in a year or two (coughSupermancough).

    Like Dragon Ball Z. At some point you don’t even care if someone dies because you know they will either be revived by the dragon balls or continue their life in some kind of different dimension. As you say, it really takes the tension out of it.

  2. Interesting choice for your favorite comic character. I’ve always liked grittier, more realistic types of characters. But to be honest I’ve never been super into comics. Is this purely an American thing? I’m Asian but not American, if that helps.

    Funny things is that as a kid I’ve always loved classic 80s Hong Kong cop vs gangster, shoot-em-up, street fight action films. Who knows, this could be my equivalent of comics.

    And what about Ghost Rider do you like? And how about Deadpool? Would you consider him a cheesy superhero or not?

  3. Interesting choice for your favorite comic character. I’ve always liked grittier, more realistic types of characters. But to be honest I’ve never been super into comics. Is this purely an American thing?

    Yep, (non-manga) comics is purely an American thing. As usual, America is slowly exporting it’s love of comics (or should I say, superheroes) to the rest of the world, but it’s purely an American thing.

    And what about Ghost Rider do you like?

    He’s dark. He’s a fucking demon from hell. Love it.

    Though he’s a little more of a good guy than Punisher.

    And how about Deadpool? Would you consider him a cheesy superhero or not?

    No, Deadpool is fantastic. He would probably be my third favorite.

  4. Just so you know, Europe has a pretty big comic (non manga) industry. It just doesn’t get exported much. Translations are mostly into various European languages, often from French.

    Asterix and obelix for example. And the Valerian comics as another one. European comics have always been varied and interesting. Not just superheroes and superhero derivatives like the American ones.

    Look up the comics of Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman for example. If you are interested in science fiction, I highly recommend Transmetropolitan. If you are interested in modern times fantasy with a mythological bend, the sandman comics series.

  5. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue… natural justice. This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive, it’s an emotional response.
    No, not vengeance.
    Punishment.

    Much as I like the Punisher, to this I say “yeah, whatever buddy. You want to be Judge Dredd, just admit it. At least Judge Dredd doesn’t hold back when he says ‘I AM the Law.'”
    That being said, I agree with Caleb when it comes to superheroes. Hardly any of them can be taken seriously. Spider Man being (sometimes) an exception, but not really. I was NEVER able to take Superman lore seriously ever.
    I was also a Judge Dredd fanboy for the longest time.

  6. Like anon said, Europe has a long tradition of comic books, but it’s quite different from America, being more high brow usually and with way more variety in genres.

    And on that matter, I strongly recommend you to check out Corto Maltese, Caleb. I believe you’ll relate to the main character and enjoy his adventures. To quote his Wikipedia article:

    “As a boy growing up in the Jewish quarter of Córdoba, Maltese discovered that he had no fate line on his palm and therefore carved his own with his father’s razor, determining that his fate was his to choose.”

    He’s all about freedom, living life according to his principles and exploring the world.

  7. Have you seen Batman under the red hood? Or mask of the phantasm?

     

    I agree with most of your assessments of superheros. the goody two shoes acts always made me gag.

  8. Just so you know, Europe has a pretty big comic (non manga) industry.

    Yeah, you’re right, I stand corrected. France in particular is big on this stuff. (Valerian, et. al.)

    What I should have said was superheroes are American, not comics.

    Much as I like the Punisher, to this I say “yeah, whatever buddy. You want to be Judge Dredd, just admit it.

    Haha yes!

    I strongly recommend you to check out Corto Maltese, Caleb.

    Ok; I’ll check it out.

    Have you seen Batman under the red hood?

    Yes. One of the best Batman movies ever made, period.

    My daughter has a fucking picture of Red Hood framed on her bedroom wall, along with Deadpool.

    Or mask of the phantasm?

    Oh yes. I don’t love that one as much as other nerds do (Red Hood is better), but a great movie, yes.

  9. comic (non manga)

    Speaking of which, I’ve always preferred Japanease works over western entertainment because it’s a breath of fresh air. Sometimes, I feel like western writers have this box that no one dares to think outside of. Everything is generic and nothing feels groundbreaking anymore. (Which is why Rick and Morty is so popular just because it’s a little ballsy)

    Anime and manga leave no lines uncrossed and nothing is too holy for them to write. There’s literal incest, rape, torture, psychos and all manner of crazy concepts that are mainstream. More importantly, the concepts and plots lines are very creative. Just take a look at Attack on titan.

    One recommendation I have that suits the monosphere’s tastes is Berserk.
    It’s a tragic tale in a medieval european dark fantasy setting. It’s a long spanning work so it’s divided into arcs and each of them are different and unique. The story follows a swordsman named Guts from birth. He’s a hulking, silent and lonely protagonist who’s literary born into the mercenery life. The entire theme of the story is mostly his struggle with death. It’s so cleverly written that you actually feel the danger to his life in combat. It’s an underdog story so while he manages to survive through badassery (He’s very strong and resilient), he barely manages to do so sometimes. Very masculine and self-reliant.

    (No spoiler story)
    At the start he basically a merc doing merc shit until he finds the merc group known as the band of the hawk. The band leader is… a very interesting and ambitious character. A genius psycho, he is the anti-Guts and obssessed with him. He defeats Guts and ropes him into his group, then starts a campagin to become king of the land.

    A lot of shit happens that I won’t spoil but somewhere along the way a literal shitstorm called the eclipse happens that leaves a vindictive Guts behind with a severed arm, blinded eye and an inner demon. Here’s where the fantasy part really kicks in. The entire world is changed as monsters and demons invade the known world. The story really kicks up from here on out.

    Where can one read/watch the story? I’d go for the manga though it has been adapted into anime several times.
    There’s a 1997 TV series with outdated but detailed visuals (The manga is praised for it’s attention to detail that modern animation can’t replicate but I personally don’t care for detail anyway)
    There’s the Berserk: The Golden age arc movies. I haven’t watched them but they look good.
    And finally the CGI disaster that is the 2016/2017 anime. It didn’t bother me that much but some people really hated it.

    In the end, IMO the manga is the best choice. I think the adaptations take certain liberties that might make it better or worse but in the end, all of them cover parts of the story anyway so just check the manga.

  10. Yeah man, The Punisher rules!!!

    Kudos for remembering the movies…the Dolph Lundgren piece is just a classic of action thrash, but I too still love it!

    Honestly, I loved how Bernthal played the character on Daredevil. They got the tone right and some action scenes are great (like the jail battle)! Too bad we did not have enough time to see the other side of the character, which I hope they get right on his solo show.

    Honestly, right now I can’t think of the right guy to play him. I love Bernthal since his Walking Dead days but, like you said, too short and not bulky enough. This is a tough one.

    BTW, his best histories in my opinion are the graphic novel Assassin’s Guild (not perfect but the ending is really tough) and Born (one of the best super hero tales ever)!

     

     

  11. Speaking of which, I’ve always preferred Japanease works over western entertainment because it’s a breath of fresh air

    Funny, due to reading a lot of euro comics growing up, and a lot of other diverse science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, fairytales etc. I find manga/anime pretty boring and derivative. Did like attack on titan and berserk, but who didn’t.

  12. Funny, due to reading a lot of euro comics growing up, and a lot of other diverse science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, fairytales etc. I find manga/anime pretty boring and derivative. Did like attack on titan and berserk, but who didn’t.

    Well, I guess I should have mentioned that I’m not familiar with Euro comics before I said that about Western works.

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