I like the Punisher more than I probably should.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Punisher, here’s a quick rundown. The Punisher is a Marvel antihero who is a guy who wears a black shirt with a skull on it and kills bad guys.
And that’s about it. There’s a refreshing simplicity to the character. His origin story is similar to Batman’s: Frank Castle is an ex-Marine whose wife and two children were brutally murdered in front of him by gangsters when they had the misfortune to stumble across a gangland execution during a family outing in Central Park. I’m not sure why these particular gangsters decided to conduct their business in broad daylight, but there you go.
Castle survived and swore vengeance on all criminals, and became the vigilante known as the Punisher. So he’s similar to Batman with one key difference: Frank Castle doesn’t give a damn about petty things like “having a moral compass” or “not murdering absolutely everybody, as long as they are bad.”
By which I mean that he feels no qualms about violently murdering every criminal he comes across. The average Punisher comic book has a higher body count than most slasher movies.
So…if he’s so bloodthirsty, why do I like the guy? Well, in this age of morally conflicted superheroes, it is kind of a relief to find a character who has absolutely no problem with what he is doing, a character who sees the world in strict shades of black and white. In Castle’s mind, there is no question about whether or not his crusade is right. For him, it does not matter how violent his methods are. He is simply doing something which needs to be done.
I am not trying to justify Frank’s worldview, and I don’t mean to say that the ends always justify the means. I offer all of this as a means of explaining why I like the character, even if I don’t agree with his methods or his worldview. Besides, after so many years of fighting criminals and God only knows how many bullet wounds and punches to the head, there exists the very strong possibility that Frank Castle is not entirely sane, so it’s probably best not to read too much into it.
The Punisher has been portrayed on screen multiple times, most recently by Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal on the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil show. He was also played by Dolph Lundgren in a 1989 movie, and by Thomas Jane in 2004 and Ray Stevenson in 2008. For the rest of this post I’ll be talking about the Jane and Stevenson films, since they present very different versions of the character.
Both movies are, unfortunately, a bit of a mess, in some cases literally, since 2008’s Punisher: War Zone is one of the most grotesquely violent movies I’ve ever seen.
More on that in a bit. Let’s start with the 2004 Punisher movie, simply called The Punisher. As with most movies based on comic book characters that are named after the characters themselves (Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, X-Men, etc.) The Punisher is an origin story.
Sadly, it bungles that origin quite spectacularly. In the movie, Frank Castle is an undercover FBI agent who is involved in a sting operation when violence breaks out and several people get gunned down. Among those killed is one Robert Saint, who happens to be the son of mob boss Howard Saint, played by John Travolta in a hammy performance.
For some reason, Saint blames Castle for his son’s death, and orders Castle and his entire family killed. This doesn’t make much sense to me, since to my eyes, it doesn’t look like the killing of Saint’s son was even Castle’s fault.
Regardless of whose fault it is, Frank has the misfortune to be at a family reunion when Saint’s mob goons come calling, and several generations of the Castle family are wiped out in one fell swoop. Frank himself is nearly killed, but somehow survives despite being shot multiple times, brutally beaten, and finally blown up.
But in true tough-guy fashion, he survives and swears revenge on Saint, and embarks upon one of the most ridiculous revenge schemes in cinematic history. I won’t go into too much detail, but his plan involves parking tickets and a fake fire hydrant (can you just go to the hardware store and buy a fake fire hydrant?). Basically, he manages to convince Saint that his wife and his best friend were having an affair so he kills both of them, only to discover later that – Psych! – Castle tricked him into it.
But I have so many problems with this. Castle’s plan is so flimsy that it’s impossible to believe it could ever work, but this being a movie, it works flawlessly. But the bigger problem is that the freaking Punisher is not about grandiose schemes. At the climax of the movie, after he has tricked Saint into killing his wife and best friend and dismantling his criminal empire (which he accomplishes by blowing up a boat full of cash and tossing some of Saint’s mob money out a window) Frank assaults Saint’s mansion and kills all of his henchmen, saving Saint for last.
But this begs the question: why bother? Why bother with the convoluted revenge schemes? Why doesn’t he just wade in and kill Saint and his henchmen right off the bat? Why wait? Frank doesn’t have much trouble taking out about 20 dudes in the film’s climax, so why didn’t he just do that earlier? He’s like the villain who wastes time explaining his brilliant plan to the hero before the hero inevitably escapes. Just shoot him already! Who cares about explaining your brilliant plan? If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching action movies, it’s that shooting is never too good for your enemies. Just kill them and get it over with already.
But despite how sloppy and frankly unnecessary the film’s story is, there are things about it that I like. For one thing, the film’s action is solid. There’s not as much action as I would have liked (but considering that the movie had a fairly low budget I suppose I can give them a pass for that), but what action the film does have is well-executed. The centerpiece brawl between Frank and a hulking assassin known only as the Russian is quite fun in the creative ways that it demolishes Frank’s apartment. And Thomas Jane does good work in the title role, I think he would have made a good Jack Reacher.
But ultimately I feel like the movie misses the point of the character. Like I said earlier, he’s not particularly complicated: he kills bad guys and doesn’t feel bad about it. I read a Punisher comic where the bad guy digs up the corpses of Frank’s family and does some bad stuff to them in an effort to piss him off. Frank’s response to this is simple: he finds the guy, beats him into submission, then drives him out to the middle of the woods, shoots him in the gut and leaves him there to bleed out.
And that’s about as complicated as the Punisher’s revenge schemes get. He would never bother with fake fire hydrants and other such nonsense. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to add a bit more meat to the story, but the meat they added to this story is mostly gristle.
2008’s Punisher: War Zone, by contrast, is much more stripped-down. In it, Frank Castle has been punishing criminals for years. Ray Stevenson plays Frank as a hollowed-out shell of a man, so numbed by violence that one wonders if he’s still capable of emotion. Seriously, he doesn’t smile once in the entire movie.
Not that he has anything to smile about. Punisher: War Zone is one of the most violent movies I have ever seen, I would even venture to say that it is one of the most violent movies ever made. Bring an umbrella for this one, you’re gonna need it to keep all the viscera off of you.
War Zone easily has quadruple the body count of the 2004 movie, and you can rest assured that every one of those kills is accompanied by a squishy, splattery sound effect. Not only are dozens of people shot to death, but limbs are blown off, heads are removed by bullet and blade, and people are stabbed, skewered and blown to bits.
Many of these kills are so over-the-top, some of them have gained fame (or perhaps infamy would be the more accurate term) for how ludicrous they are. For some reason, there is this gang of Jamaican parkour guys in this movie who one character says are “always on a constant meth high” (is that even possible?) and are always jumping around between buildings.
During one such episode, one of these guys attempts to jump across the gap between two buildings, only to be blown up midair by a grenade launcher. The only response to this is guffaws. Following this, Castle interrogates one of the other Jamaican parkour gangsters by shooting him in both legs. He then chucks the dude off a building, where he gets impaled on one of those sharp spiky fences that seem to only exist in action movies for people to get impaled on. Frank then somehow jumps off the building and lands on the guy’s head, snapping his neck backwards.
Geez, is he dead enough for you yet? The violence Frank inflicts on people in this film borders on sadism (he also punches a dude’s face in, like, literally, and blasts another henchman’s head off with a shotgun point-blank).
And these are just some of the more noteworthy examples. The movie is so full of graphic shootings, stabbings, and beatings that after a while it just becomes numbing. The characters are all wooden, the villains have corny Russian and Italian accents, and the cops and FBI agents are all incompetent buffoons (with the one exception of a cheesy tough-guy FBI agent who refers to the local cops who have repeatedly failed to catch the Punisher as a bunch of “Krispy Kreme motherf*ckers,” which is one of my favorite stupid movie insults of all time. Seriously, what does that even mean?).
Still, despite all of that I feel like Punisher: War Zone is truer to the character of the Punisher than the 2004 version was. War Zone is not interested in overly complicated revenge schemes; its protagonist is a guy who has his sights firmly set on one thing (killing bad guys) and is not about to let anything stop him from achieving that goal.
At the end of the movie, he kills the main bad guy by beating the hell out of him, impaling him on a pole, and setting him on fire. I really hope that you all don’t think I’m a budding psychopath when I say that I like this character, but I do find him interesting as a sharp contrast to more moral heroes. It’s intriguing to me in this politically correct era that a character this violent could still be as popular as he is, but somehow the Punisher manages it. Make of that what you will.