So … exciting news this week that Marvel’s favourite anti-hero the Punisher might be getting his own TV show.
It’s welcome news on the back of the announcement that the American vigilante will feature prominently in the next season of TV’s Daredevil.
For many, former soldier Frank Castle – aka the Punisher – is the most interesting of Marvel’s Heroes That Kill. The other big star in this category is, of course, Wolverine. Yet while Wolverine was served masterfully right out of the gate in his first movie appearance by Hugh Jackman – whose acting chops skilfully allowed us to forget that the Wolverine was in fact a five-foot-something Canadian rather than a six-foot-plus Australian actor – the Punisher’s on-screen exploits have been, well, mixed.
So far we’ve had three actors play the Punisher in movies: Dolph Lundgren in 1989’s The Punisher, Thomas Jane in 2004’s The Punisher and Ray Stevenson in 2008’s Punisher: War Zone.
Interestingly, I would say the best movie has been the one with the least budget and worst actor: 1989’s The Punisher.
Mean Swede Lundgren really seems to tap into the soul of a formerly good man turned vigilante after the murder of his family by mobsters. His Punisher is surly, taciturn and dark, with no irritating attempts at “humour”. And it doesn’t hurt the many fine action scenes that Lundgren is a black belt in real life (and, for those who think he’s just a brainless himbo, is actually a Fulbright scholar with a degree in chemical engineering).
And the worst Punisher movie – although it pains me to say it – is Ray Stevenson’s outing: a shame, because he is the best actor of the lot. Just check him out as Titus Pullo in Rome.
In Stevenson’s case – and in the case of the others – the resulting script let the movie down. For some unknown reason the writers have failed to capture the essence of the dark vigilante knight, failed to transmit Castle’s aching, ongoing pain at the loss of his family, pain he can only temporarily alleviate with gun-toting, goon-killing rampages.
Whatever the dark recesses of Castle’s soul, the movie creators have not fully taken us there. The box office has followed in kind.
And yet, movie makers are still fascinated by the prospect of getting the Punisher RIGHT. It is the great white whale of action movies … a decent Punisher film that will satisfy the fans and the multiplexes.
What we need to make Castle sing on either the big or small screen is to draw upon the darker material: in particular, The Punisher MAX series. There are two series under the MAX banner that best depict Castle. Firstly, The Punisher MAX 1-22, which begins with the rise of the Kingpin and Bullseye trying to fully understand what makes Castle tick (and where we discover something truly shocking about that day in Central Park where mobsters killed Frank’s family), through to his last confrontation with Fisk and ninja assassin Electra.
Start there, I say.
The Punisher: MAX: In The Beginning is also essential source material, featuring his old associate Microchip and the latter’s attempt to get Castle to work for the CIA.
To me, these are the source material equivalent of what The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke were for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Start there, and perhaps we can finally have a movie or TV show worthy of Castle. Because his is a story that deserves to be told … and told well.
(Note for the hard-core comic fans … and if they ever want to do an “Old Man Logan” treatment for the Punisher, they should look to The Punisher: The End, featuring an ageing Castle plying his trade in the ruins of World War III.)
It is an encouraging sign that Jon Bernthal will play Frank Castle in the second season of Daredevil, particularly considering his great work in The Walking Dead.
It will be fascinating to see how Castle clashes with Daredevil. One kills. The other doesn’t. And yet, by not killing, Daredevil allows monsters such as Wilson Fisk to go free.
It’s the same dilemma faced by Batman, another member of the Thou Shall Not Kill Club, who constantly bangs up the Joker in Arkham Asylum only to watch him escape and commit murder again and again.
Therein lies the crux of Daredevil and the Punisher’s eternal philosophical and violently physical argument, played out many times in the Marvel comics. It’s one of the great grudge matches in comicdom. Sometimes Daredevil, with his ninja training and heightened senses, wins. Sometimes former special forces soldier Castle wins. But the reader wins every time.
Can’t wait to watch it all play out on the small screen.
My ebook military thriller, The Spartan, is out now on Amazon.