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.
~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.