The Punisher: The Bloody Legacy of Marvel’s First Superhero Movie

The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren, was the first true Marvel superhero movie. It's not as bad as you've heard...

1989’s The Punisher is Marvel’s first superhero movie.

When you see it written out this way, it is really weird, isn’t it? But it’s true. The Punisher, the 1989 movie starring Dolph Lundgren as Marvel’s premiere vigilante, really is the first Marvel superhero movie. While other Marvel superheroes (most notably Hulk and Spider-Man) had shown up in TV movies and series, they weren’t big screen concerns. The 1944 Captain America movie serial doesn’t count, because it’s a serial not a feature film. The 1986 Howard the Duck movie is technically the first Marvel film, but he isn’t a superhero. None of ’em check all the appropriate boxes. The Punisher, for better or worse, does.

The Punisher was written by Boaz Yakin (who eventually went on to direct Remember the Titans and co-write Now You See Me) and directed by Mark Goldblatt (Dead Heat, a zombie cop moviewhich starred the immortal team of…ummmm…Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo). Robert Mark Kamen of the Karate Kid and Taken franchises (as well as plenty more) produced. Along for the ride with Dolph Lundgren are Louis Gossett Jr. and former Bond villain Jeroen Krabbe.

Its shortcomings, are, of course, well-documented all over the internet. The $11 million budget, modest even by the standards of the late ’80s, means the cracks start to show pretty early. Shooting in Australia was likely a cost-saving measure, but it makes for some amusingly strange discrepancies–like when Frank arrives at a tiny, dilapidated amusement park with a sign that proclaims this is “Coney Island” (it most certainly is not), or the hilarious attempts at Italian-American gangster speak from some of the goons, all of whom make Fat Tony and his guys on The Simpsons sound nuanced.

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On the other hand, The Punisher can almost be applauded for deliberately avoiding the over-the-top nature of superhero movies. When you take away the Marvel brand and the famous name, it plays like virtually any other low-budget action movie, which is exactly what you want for this character at this time.

Incorruptible cop Frank Castle, who makes his living taking down gangsters, goes rogue when his family is murdered in a revenge killing. He wages a one man war on crime while his former partner (Louis Gossett Jr., who deserves better than some of the scenes he’s stuck with) searches for him in hopes of bringing him back to the man he once was. The Yakuza comes to town and make things personal by stealing the children of Mafiosi, forcing Frank Castle to work with the man who ordered his family’s murder in order to save other innocent lives.

You can probably guess the rest.

There’s nothing on display from Marvel lore. None of the mobsters are taken from the Marvel Universe, nor are the Yakuza. There’s a cigar-chomping bartender who faintly resembles Jack Kirby, one could imagine the old man who misses his stop when Punisher commandeers a city bus would make for a fine Stan Lee cameo (he didn’t do them back in those days), and perhaps you can pretend that the Yakuza who are here to make life difficult for the Italians are, in fact, a branch of Marvel’s famed ninja clan, The Hand. The movie does have its charms, however.

It’s difficult to dislike Lundgren’s Frank Castle/Punisher, and at least until Jon Bernthal came along, he was probably the best version of the character to make it off the comic page. Lundgren is noticeably leaner than in other films from this era, having given up his weightlifting routine to focus on cardio and martial arts, and he was a good 25 lbs lighter than his He-Man days. “Let’s face it,” Lundgren joked in an interview with Comics Scene in 1989, “Frank Castle is a guy who has been living in the sewers for five years. He could not look too healthy and be believable.”

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With his jet black hair and heavily mascara’d eyes, he often resembles a young Elvis Presley…the Cobra-era Stallone sneer he affects doesn’t hurt, either. Haunted and distant, Lundgren’s Punisher meditates naked (for those wishing to see Dolph Lundgren’s ballsack in silhouette, this is your movie) and moodily rides his motorcycle…through the sewers. To immerse himself further in the role, Lundgren stayed in character during much of the filming, muttering to himself and doing his own stunts whenever possible.

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Of course, one of the more notorious elements was the liberty taken with the Punisher’s costume. But really, the motorcycle leathers and boots appear perfectly functional from a “light protection” standpoint, and serves the dual purpose of giving Castle a sexy, rock n’ roll vibe. But the decision to keep the iconic skull emblem off of Frank’s chest was apparently added in during rewrites to Boaz Yakin’s draft. In a disgruntled letter to Comics Scene in 1989, Mr. Yakin wrote that the Punisher was supposed to wear a shirt with a spray-painted skull on it throughout the movie, but after pushback from the director and producer, it was ultimately removed. 

It’s almost there, though.

The film’s final sequence features Frank Castle teaming up with the villainous Gianni Franco (a miscast but still amusing Jeroen Krabbe) to take out the Yakuza. On screen, when offered a bulletproof vest by Franco, Castle refuses. A little flourish involving Frank spraypainting the skull on the vest made it to Marvel’s comic adaptation of the movie (along with a number of other deleted scenes and holdovers from the earlier script), but it was never filmed.

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There were clearly some hiccups in the creative process for this one. Producer Robert Mark Kamen claimed he “rewrote the dialogue and structure of the script,” which means the idea of skipping the origin story in favor of opening five years into Frank’s career as a vigilante was ultimately his idea. Boaz Yakin, on the other hand, refutes this, telling Comics Scene that’s how his script was originally structured in the first place, and the 15-minute origin sequence that opened an early workprint of the movie was an afterthought by the director and producer. 

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That workprint is an interesting curiosity. For one thing, Lundgren has far more dialogue as a pre-Punisher Frank Castle in these 15 minutes than he does in the entire rest of the film. He plays off Louis Gossett Jr. quite well in these scenes, and his laid-back, gum-chewing Castle (who spits slow, deliberate profanity at gangsters) again feels like it was written with Sylvester Stallone in mind.

The final cut of The Punisher is superior to the workprint, however. That extended origin sequence drags everything down, with too much exposition made to set up the final 90 minutes. The vast majority of the other deleted/extended scenes are completely disposable with one exception. At the film’s end, when Gianni Franco’s little boy presses a gun to Frank’s head, Lundgren is more intense, demanding, “blow my brains out.” It’s a better version of what was already one of the movie’s stronger moments.

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Oh, and the best part is that the workprint ends with the camera panning up the Punisher’s black-suited body…to the sound of what appears to be an excerpt from Pink Floyd‘s tuneless, menacing, psychedelic opus, “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” 

Originally intended for release in August of 1989, The Punisher languished in vaults until it finally got a home video release the following year. It’s probably for the best. Audiences drunk off the spectacle of Tim Burton’s Batman in the summer of 1989 might have had higher expectations than what The Punisher and its $11 million budget could have delivered.

But even in the comics, Frank Castle barely qualifies as a superhero, and to its credit, The Punisher never really tries to play with the tropes of that genre, instead coming across as only a slightly larger than life action flick. There are hints of the alpha action franchises of the day in this movie’s DNA; the cold open on the news broadcast feels lifted from RoboCop, the Stallone-esque qualities of the title character are obvious, and then there’s the Lethal Weapon dynamic between crazy Castle and his “too old for this shit” former partner. Perhaps without the expectations that came along with the Marvel brand name, history might have been a little kinder to The Punisher.

The movie does seem to have one serious legacy in Marvel Comics: this was the first attempt to change Frank Castle’s origin. In the comics, Castle was a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, whose family was wiped out during a Central Park picnic simply because they got caught in the crossfire of a mob hit. It’s a fairly basic, revenge-driven origin story, but it tied the character to a particular point in time (over the years, Castle’s military service has crept forward in time, as does the rest of the Marvel Universe).

But here, in the film, Frank Castle was simply an exceptional police officer and detective, whose family is wiped out with a car bomb that was intended for him (which is essentially the plot of the 1953 noir classic The Big Heat). The idea of Frank Castle as Frank Serpico was used for the Ultimate Marvel Comics version of the character, as well as in his other big screen outings.

While 2004’s The Punisher (starring Thomas Jane in the title role) and its follow-up/soft reboot Punisher: War Zone (with Ray Stevens) certainly had larger budgets and more star power at their disposal, and Jon Bernthal’s take on Frank Castle for Netflix is absolutely the definitive version of the character, none quite approach the tone of the action movie zeitgeist that was such a key part of Punisher’s popularity in the 1980s. And in that respect, the shortcomings of Dolph Lundgren’s sole outing as a Marvel hero end up working strangely in its favor. 

Mike Cecchini never thought he’d have to watch two versions of this movie for any reason, let alone for work. Punish him on Twitter.