Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, finally got his full story told in the recent Netflix series, but before that, cinema took the tactic of reimagining him in one-off movies with different styles and creative teams. First was Dolph Lundgren’s “Punisher” (1989), which is oddly flat and emotionless; then came Thomas Jane’s “Punisher” (2004), a slightly better quippy actioner; and finally there’s Ray Stevenson’s “Punisher: War Zone” (2008). The four years between versions of a character must be a record for shortest gap.
The Punisher” (2004) is a prime example of a movie that’s less than the sum of its parts. Obviously, it fails in a one-to-one comparison with Netflix’s “Punisher,” and it’d be easy to tear it down that way, but even on its own merits, it feels lightweight for a revenge movie. Thomas Jane is a good actor, but his performance as Frank Castle leans toward stoic action-hero mode rather than tortured brooder, and Frank seems to enjoy doling out punishment – which might be a fascinating trait in a government agent except that the film doesn’t stop to reflect on it.
Mere months after Batman got his first faithful big-screen treatment and ushered in a new era of dark and serious superhero films, “The Punisher” (1989) followed suit as arguably the most notable Marvel movie up to that point (even though it has since faded into more of a trivia answer than a movie people watch or discuss). At first blush, it’s odd to bring Frank Castle to the big screen before Spider-Man or the X-Men or the Fantastic Four or the Avengers, but it makes sense in a way. The Punisher is a ready-made machine-gun-toting Eighties action hero. People already knew how to make this type of movie.
Here are my 10 favorite characters from the last 12 months of television, from networks to cable to streaming, counting down from 10 to 1:
The Punisher” Season 2 (January, Netflix) might be the most violent season of TV I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the budget listed fake blood and wound makeup as the biggest expense. Some episodes are bleak enough to affect my overall mood for the next day. Still, while the usual Netflix Marvel Cinematic Universe problem of slow pacing is present in the middle episodes, this is overall solid serial storytelling.
After his memorable introduction in “Daredevil” Season 2 (2016) – which could’ve been called “Daredevil and Punisher” – Frank Castle/Punisher (Jon Bernthal) gets the spotlight in his own 13-episode season. The revelation of who killed Frank’s wife and two children at the merry-go-round leads to a conspiracy that goes to the highest levels of the U.S. government and military. One approach for showrunner Steve Lightfoot’s “Punisher” Season 1 (2017) might’ve been 13 mini-“John Wick” movies. That would’ve been viscerally satisfying, but I appreciate the meaty roster of characters. The season is not faced-paced, but nor is it boring.
After I finished Season 1 of “Daredevil,” my buddy Shaune told me Season 2 (2016, Netflix) is even better. I scoffed at the notion. Now, after finishing Season 2, I have to admit he is right. The cinematography and Hell’s Kitchen locations are still amazing, but now we see even more striking rooftops, water towers and tunnels. Plus, the whole thing plays like an epic morality play about the struggles of noble vigilantes.