Why is it so hard to make a good Punisher movie?

There have been no fewer than three attempts to bring the Punisher to the big screen. So why have they all been so terrible?

There is a question that has plagued me for years, one that I have thought about time and time again, and each time I have failed to arrive at an answer. Why is it so hard to make a decent Punisher movie?

I have been a fan of The Punisher for as long as I can remember. He is the ultimate superhero, a man without superpowers who is only too willing to let the punishment fit the crime. A man whose understanding of good and evil is so black and white, it’s the same as the skull which adorns his Kevlar-covered chest.

There have been some brilliant comic book films which have captured the essence of their characters and the world in which they live, such as Superman, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and Iron Man. So, why have they dropped the ball on The Punisher, not once, not twice, but three times?

Every one of three attempts (so far) have failed to capture the complexities of Frank Castle’s transformation (some would argue, descent) into becoming The Punisher, and accurately depict the ongoing rage that he battles with to fuel his one man war on crime everywhere.

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Let’s have a look at these films now and what went wrong…

The Punisher (1989) starring Dolph Lundgren

No one will ever argue that the original version of The Punisher was a great movie, let alone a good movie, but there are two moments that I liked and that therefore make this version tolerable for me.

The first was the monotone and weary delivery of the inner monologue, which captured just how long the personal war on crime had been going for, and which suggested that it’s not something that he chooses to do, but rather something he needs to do. It’s his driving force.

The second was a scene told in flashback, which showed the murders of Frank’s family, no longer portrayed as a gangland slaying in a park, but rather a car bomb in a driveway. It’s a scene that attempts to show the emotional impact of the murders and quickly cuts from a fresh-faced Frank Castle to a battle scarred Punisher.

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Besides these two points, the movie could have easily have been called ‘Mafia vs. Yakuza’. There is nothing else that adds value to The Punisher origin story.

The Punisher (2004) starring Thomas Jane

There are so many things wrong with this version of The Punisher that it’s hard to list them all. This marked the first time that Hollywood had seriously attempted to make a Punisher origin film, and given the success of other superhero films, I had very high hopes.

This film didn’t just disappoint Punisher fans, but it disappointed action movie fans in general. From cheesy dialogue to ridiculous action scenes and overacting from most of the cast, unless you’re Thomas Jane, then you can just look mildly miffed throughout the film.

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As a Punisher fan, the main reason why I felt so betrayed by this version is that Frank Castle was not relatable or even likeable before his family was murdered. Thomas Jane played him as a dark, brooding, stoic, unfriendly undercover police officer who was a play-by-his-own-rules kind of guy, as shown in the opening scenes.

The film doesn’t convincingly portray Frank’s wife and son as the centre of his universe. If this is not conveyed, then how can the decision to become the Punisher be justified? The death of the Frank’s family is the driving force behind his continued and unrelenting assault on crime.

The scene where Frank is mourning the loss of his family in the creepy hotel with even creepier neighbours is made to feel cheap. Personally, the less said about the mood lighting and bourbon whiskey decision to become The Punisher, the better. It’s a disservice to the comic book.

As for the arrival of Kevin Nash as The Russian? Don’t get me started.

Punisher: War Zone (2008) starring Ray Stevenson

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When I heard that they were making yet another Punisher film, I was hesitant and sceptical at the news. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, even though I had begun to have visions of a film which would right the wrongs of the previous two films.

Then came the day when I watched the trailer.

My heart couldn’t have sunk any faster. It looked about as B-grade as you could possibly get. It looked like they had decided to go full-blown action and make it as over the top as possible, without any desire to make it the ultimate Punisher origin story.

Being a Punisher fan I had to go and see what the final product looked like. It was so bad that I couldn’t take watching the whole thing, I had to turn it off halfway through. It was just so abysmal, it made the previous version look like Iron Man by comparison.

It actually caused me physical pain to sit there and witness a character that I had grown up reading in comic books turned into a cartoon version that offered absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. It was an excuse for copious amounts of mayhem and destruction littered with cardboard cut-out gangsters and paper thin plot.

Now, I am not saying that I don’t mind the odd empty-headed action movie, but don’t do it with a character who has more to offer than just being a mindless killing machine.

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With all the attempts to make a decent version of The Punisher, what are some of the key ingredients that must be included to ensure not only success but a faithful adaptation?

To understand that Frank Castle was a family man who was dedicated to his wife and kids and it was that devotion that now fuels the rage for his war on crime.

  • Frank needs to be shown to be relatable, and perhaps even likeable whilst his family is alive, because that part of his personality gets buried once he becomes The Punisher.
  • The violence needs to be realistic and not like a cartoon. This is important, because even when reading the comic books, the violence was never shown to be ‘cartoon-y’ and seemed appropriate for the world in which it was set. The best example of a comic book film where the violence appears gritty and realistic is The Dark Knight. This shows that it can be done, and done perfectly.
  • The criminals in the film need to feel like a real threat and not like a two bit gangster, as portrayed in War Zone. Well, actually in all three films. They need to have real dialogue and not something that sounds like it was written by a teenager. They need to make the audience feel scared, intimidated, and uncomfortable. (Sean Harris as Stretch in Harry Brown delivers one of the most creepy and disgusting drug dealers I’ve ever seen. That type of character would be ideal in a Punisher film.)
  • There needs to be several scenes showing Frank’s compassion towards innocent civilians who are caught up in whatever criminal situation. Whilst Frank has no hesitation in pulling the trigger on someone he deems evil, he has a very strong moral compass when it comes to protecting the innocents.

Combine these elements with any one of the Marvel MAX Punisher series written by Garth Ennis (most notably In The Beginning, Slavers, and Mother Russia), and you will have a dark, complicated, action-packed Punisher film that could soar to the same heights reached by Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Your move, Hollywood.

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