The Checkered History of Daredevil and Punisher on Film

With Daredevil Season 2 bringing us the Man Without Fear vs. The Punisher, we look back at the success (if any) of their previous films.

With the release of Daredevil season 2, the characters of Matt Murdock and the Punisher are becoming more popular than ever. It’s been a rather surprising onscreen journey for the Marvel heroes since both characters tried with varying degrees of success to win audiences over in the realm of film.     

But with the new season of Daredevil upon us, how do these cinematic counterparts stand up today? Are they as bad as we remember or have they improved (or worsened) with time? And finally, do they work better in the jurisdiction of film or television?  Keep reading to find out.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)

Split Down the Middle: While this is meant to be more about The Incredible Hulk, Matt Murdock is heavily featured in this made-for-TV movie. Rex Smith’s take on Murdock is far different from future interpretations. Murdock is seen here as more playful, as evidenced by his interactions with his co-workers, and sarcastic about his disability. Yet at the same time, he is dedicated to his clients and wants to “see” them win.

What Works: All three big cast members (Bill Bixby, Rex Smith, and John Rhys-Davies) did an excellent job at portraying their characters. Bixby, who knows the character of David Banner, adds a more aloof quality to the role than he had previously attempted in the Hulk TV series. Davies’ Kingpin, meanwhile, is more measured and in control than what is currently playing on Netflix, but the TV movie only really shows him in a rather small capacity.

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What Did Not Work: For a TV movie called The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, there certainly seems to be a lack of a trial in the film. The “trial” only really appears as a hallucination and is very brief. Throughout the course of the film, the Hulk himself only appears a few times, as the adventure focuses much more on Banner. Finally, the film’s production value is noticeably cheap, even for a TV movie. Certain sets (the prison set, Kingpin’s tower) look strikingly fake.

Badass Superhero Fan Moment: Seeing both The Incredible Hulk and Daredevil together in the same scene is enough to warm any fanboy’s heart. While it’s only for a short time, witnessing these two Marvel icons together is a treat. Forget Batman v Superman, this is the real superhero team-up!

Daredevil (2003)

The Costume Makes the Man: In the wake of Spider-Man, it’s clear 20th Century Fox wanted something that would catch on as bright and memorable. Somehow, a red leather motorcycle suit doesn’t exactly come across as memorable, only ridiculous. Affleck looks like he is going to a rave rather than be a superhero. The TV show’s costume is more tactical and easier to move in, thereby making it more effective to use.  The reason why the 2015 TV show costume works so well is because they built it up as the season progressed, only making its appearance to serve as Matt Murdock’s full transformation into the persona of Daredevil.

What Works: Most of the cast does a pretty good job with their roles, with special note going to Ben Affleck, Michael Clarke Duncan, and an exceptional Colin Farrell. Duncan and Farrell are both highlights and seem to relish going over the top. Affleck, as the Daredevil persona, makes the character conflicted about the journey that he takes, and how far he will go. In addition, the film does take inspiration from the Joe Quesada arc “Guardian Devil”, even using direct visuals from the comic in the film.

What Doesn’t Work: Oh boy, where to start? For one, the Daredevil/Elektra love story feels more like something you would find out of a Michael Bay film, right down to the corny dialogue (example: “I wish you could see me tonight.” “Me too.”). Jennifer Garner’s Elektra is supposed to be mysterious and aloof, but comes across as uninteresting and boring. Finally, the script tends to be occasionally silly…. like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace silly. Moments like the playground fight scene come across as more laughable than action-packed.

Badass Superhero Fan Moment:  The big final confrontation between Daredevil and Kingpin may or may not elicit small squeals out of fans. Seeing both Ben Affleck and Michael Clarke Duncan, two pretty enjoyable actors, go up against each other in a brutal fistfight is beyond entertaining, and it’s certainly more enjoyable than anything our next film has to offer…

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Elektra (2005)

What Works: Jennifer Garner is a major improvement here over her performance in Daredevil. With Elektra, Garner manages to portray the assassin as disillusioned due to her resurrection. She’s become bitter because of the events that transpired in between films. Yet, we see Elektra transform throughout the course of the story, and Garner portrays that transformation convincingly. Garner turns Elektra from assassin to guardian, giving the audience a reason to become slightly invested in the character.

What Doesn’t Work: Nothing else works in this movie whatsoever. If you thought Daredevil bordered on ridiculous, Elektra dives in head first. This movie has one of the silliest comic book scripts ever conceived, one that makes Batman & Robin look like a classic. For example, if she’s supposed to be this stealthy assassin, I don’t think that looking like she shops from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’s fashion line is going to help. While keeping the costume in line with the comic is a welcome thought, here it’s out of place. The film also barely addresses her death in the last film, glossing over it in five seconds.

Couple that with a lame story involving ninjas, and you get the second worst comic book film on this list. Skip the next paragraph to meet the worst…

Badass Superhero Fan Moment: Even though he’s barely given anything to do, seeing Terrence Stamp (General Zod) portray Stick was perfect casting. He’s got the wisdom and sarcastic timing to portray the character perfectly.

The Punisher (1989)

Storming the Castle: Dolph Lundgren seems to mumble his way through the script, as his take on Frank Castle is never developed. After killing his family, the film has a hard time justifying Castle’s need to be present in his own film, just like Elektra failed to justify its own existence. The costume is not only insulting but incredibly lazy (we don’t even see the famous skull logo). It comes across as if the filmmakers were going for a Death Wish meets Terminator vibe, albeit made on a budget of $1.

What Works: Well… it’s mercifully short. That’s all the positives this movie has to offer.

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What Doesn’t Work: How about the rest of the movie? Rather than tell an engaging story about a man seeking vengeance for the death of his family, the film decides to be a D-rate action movie that you would find on Cinemax at two o’clock in the morning.  The action scenes are so laughably bad that you begin to wonder if this was less a comic book adaptation and more of some mediocre film student’s attempt at making an action movie.

Badass Superhero Fan Moment: The minute the credits started rolling on screen was an amazing moment, because it meant the movie was blessedly over.

The Punisher (2004)

Storming the Castle… Again!: Thomas Jane conveys a different interpretation to The Punisher than previous (or future) incarnations of Castle. His Punisher is much more methodical and cunning, simply biding his time until the perfect moment strikes. In addition, we see the character as a bit more of a cynic than as previously depicted. Jane shows the anger and bitterness at how his family’s murder is being handled, as well as delivers some very Charles Bronson-esque one-liners (“You shouldn’t play with Knives”).

What Works: The film is heavily influenced by film noir, which enhances the film’s setting. From the use of shadows to the film movement’s other tropes, we glimpse an almost noir anti-hero in Jane’s performance. This might be one of the most mature and adult comic book movies to date, thanks in part to its gloomy tone…

What Doesn’t Work: …which is also part of the film’s downfall. At times, its dark tone is TOO morose, coming off as a depressing Lifetime movie rather than an action-thriller. Not every cast performance works either. For example, this might be the calmest John Travolta has ever been, and that’s not exactly a good thing. For once, it would have been nice to see Travolta go completely unhinged in his performance, delivering a scene chewing performance.

Badass Superhero Fan Moment: The film isn’t without its fair share of fights, but the best one is easily Frank’s fight with The Russian, which manages to blend both comedy and action. Comically set to “La Donna E’ Mobile,”the film features great hand-to hand combat with some pretty funny moments of not only Castle reacting to the Russian’s invulnerability, but of his neighbors dancing to the music as well. It’s a pretty light moment in what’s otherwise a grim film. But the action here has nothing on what’s to come….

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Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Storming the Castle… One More Time: Unlike the previous two films based on the character, this one shows a Castle who is years into his one-man quest for vengeance, leading to the weariest and most tired interpretation. Ray Stevenson conveys this exhaustion extremely well and even shows Castle feeling some remorse over the actions he has taken. For once, we see the Punisher experience guilt over what he has done and take steps to ensure what he can do to rectify it, such as protecting the family of the cop he accidentally killed.

What Works: So. Much. Violence. The amount of violence this film contains makes the 1989 version look like a kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon. In addition, the film feels like a comic book come to life, from the film’s color scheme, production design, and beautifully over the top characters. The villainous Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim look and sound like they walked out of a Dick Tracy strip, and Dominic West and Doug Hutchison chew every scene they’re in in (you will never hear a more beautiful line than “yummy, yummy, yummy in my tummy tummy tummy”).

What Doesn’t Work: Surprisingly, very little. The only major complaint is that some characters feel unnecessary to the central plot, with the big ones being Soap, who really adds nothing to the story, and Micro, who is supposed to help ground Punisher, but ends up sounding like a giant Punisher fanboy.  They are about as unnecessary as making the Punisher’s shirt all black or having him played by Ivan Drago.

Badass Superhero Fan Moment: The final 30 minutes deliver some of the most beautiful onscreen carnage ever captured in an action movie, as Castle takes out hundreds of hired guns. Waves upon waves of baddies are mowed down, some being taken out all at once, in a beautiful mix of carnage, heavy metal music, and excellent camerawork. The best kill shot has to belong to Castle using one grenade to take out 10 goons. The action is so violent that it makes Commando look tame by comparison.

After revisiting all of these films, the question now must be asked: do these characters belong in the TV realm or the land of film? In Daredevil’s case, he very much works best on the small screen. Television not only allows for the story to be fleshed out further, but also allows time for Daredevil’s character to develop. He has complex issues regarding his internal struggle as to whether he is the right man to carry out this mission or not. He is also conflicted with keeping it a secret from those he loves. The film barely showed any of that, only bits and pieces mixed in with angry rock music and poor dialogue.

In Punisher’s case, however, it could go either way. He works in both television and film. The story of Frank Castle’s quest for justice is something that is easily translated. As proven with his latest two films, the character can play within any action-based genre. The same could be said for television. It could be made into a weekly action show, or a limited event series. It could also open the door for new interpretations of the character.

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