In part one we looked, albeit briefly, at the history of the Punisher in comic books going back to his first appearance in 1974 all the way up to Garth Ennis’s great work in the Punisher MAX series of books. Now, let’s examine the efforts that Hollywood has made to bring Frank Castle and his story to the big screen.
The Punisher has been the subject of three live action films to date, starting with 1989’s The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren, again with The Punisher in 2004 starring Thomas Jane and finally, The Punisher: War Zone starring Ray Stevenson in 2008. Seeing a pattern? He’s also made appearances in may animated series’ and films and himself having starred in Iron Man: Rise of Technovore (2013) and Marvel Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014).
For now though, we’ll just focus on the live action films as his animated presence has been limited and not thought of as incredibly successful.
The Punisher (1989) was an Australian-American collaboration directed by Mark Goldblatt who was primarily known for editing up until that point, in fact this was his first directorial effort. The film starred Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle and co-starred Louis Gossett Jr. as Jake Berkowitz. The film would stray away from the character’s comic book origins in many respects the big one being not wearing the trademark “skull” image on any of his clothing. Due to financial problems with the producers at the time, the film would only get a theatrical release internationally and go straight to video in the U.S. Not an ideal situation obviously for an American born character.
The limited release combined with negative reviews would see to it that the film would gross only $533,000 on a $9 million budget. Many citing the fact, on top of poor performances, they strayed too far away from the source material that made the character interesting in the first place, making it just another 80s action flick. Ironically, that year it was another comic book based film, Tim Burton’s Batman, that would change the market forever.
It would take 15 years before another film would be made and so in 2004 The Punisher was released starring Thomas Jane this time around and co-starring John Travolta. Long time writer and first time director Jonathan Hensleigh decided this time around the focus should be more on the source material than the previous attempt. And so a majority of the plot was based on two of the more popular books in particular, The Punisher: Year One and Welcome Back Frank. Hensleigh would also draw bits of inspiration from several other storylines throughout the series.
The film would receive mostly poor reviews citing a lack of focus and hum drum action sequences perpetrated by a smaller than normal budget and shortened shooting schedule (52 days). Many scenes were cut from Hensleigh’s original script to accommodate the trimmed budget and the final product was not what the director or the actors had envisioned when talks had first started. The movie did manage a small profit however, $55 million on a budget of $33 million, and a sequel was already in the works 3 months prior to the films release so hopes were high. The sequel, which would have been called The Punisher 2, would have reunited Thomas Jane in the lead role with Hensleigh taking the directing/writing role again. Interesting point of note was this movie marked Marvel’s first major independent release as an equity owner, something that would eventually pave the way to ultimately become the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It didn’t take long for things fall apart between Jonathan Hensleigh, Thmoas Jane and the studio however, so indie director Lexi Alexander was brought in to direct a Nick Santora/Art Marcum script and Ray Stevenson was cast as Frank Castle, replacing Jane. They changed the title of the film to Punisher: War Zone and the villain this time around would be Billy “Jigsaw” Rissotti, something that had been decided upon back when Hensleigh and Jane were still involved with the project. This would also be the first film that featured Frank Castle’s longtime armorer and friend Linus Lieberman aka Microchip, played by Wayne Knight. It’s interesting because the omission of Microchip from the previous Thomas Jane film was Hensleigh’s idea as he did not like the character.
Things got off on the right foot between Alexander and the studio (Lionsgate/Marvel)as her vision of the film, “a throwback to the ’80s era of action films”, matched exactly the kind of film the studio was looking for. The good times didn’t last long however as early on rumors began to swirl that she had been replaced as director when the studio wasn’t happy with cuts of the film and the release date had to be pushed back. In spite of her contentious relationship with the studio, she stayed on to complete the film and is credited on the final cut, something she disputes, but it is generally understood that neither side walked away happy. Alexander was quoted as saying…
“It came at a price, I would say, but I made the film I wanted on the screen. I think personally, in my opinion, it would have been very dangerous to put a compromise on the screen for my own career…”
Whatever the final product would look like, it appears fans and critics just weren’t that interested in an 80’s action blood fest, ironic since that’s what both sides aimed at making. Critically panned the film grossed $8 million domestically, making it the lowest-grossing Marvel comics property to date, below Elektra and Howard the Duck. In total, it would only make $10 million worldwide on a budget of $35 million.
It would make an additional $10 million on DVD sales but that wouldn’t stop the bleeding as it made almost $100 million less than the 2004 Thomas Jane Punisher film after DVD sales.
But, in keeping with the Punisher’s moxie, it ain’t over ’till it’s over. And it would only be a few years later until Frank Castle’s name would come up again, this time however, on the small screen…but more on that in Part 3.
Till next time…