Frank Castle. The Punisher. First meeting our lovely self-justified vigilante he was merely set out to murder our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-man in February of 1974, and has since grown to become his own independent success through writings of Garth Ennis in Punisher MAX, Carl Potts in The Punisher War Journal, and a multitude of comics and crossovers whether tagging or squaring with some unlikely heroes or even Eminem and Archie (those happened…).
From shows to video games to anything within the adult comic world media, Punisher has become a household name for one of the most unique Marvel properties that goes beyond the image of children’s content and puts him with an interesting psychological profile and determination that attracts us to his one-man war on crime.
What we’ll be talking about today – the Worst to Best list of the Live-Action Punisher Actors, ranking what they had to offer with the character, as well as comic accuracy & independent performances from each.
Let’s get started:
4. Dolph Lundgren
When it gets to a point most people believe the 2004 film is the “first” Punisher film probably means you had a very forgettable movie.
In 1989, around the time of Marvel’s other failed (and unreleased) films such as Matt Salinger Jr.’s Captain America and Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four, there was an attempt at The Punisher that cast Rocky IV‘s Ivan Drago himself, Dolph Lundgren under an Australian production. There is very little that can be said for the wasted time watching this film, but we’re here to talk about the very core of how well Dolph does as Frank Castle.
And really, it’s not too well done either.
Looking through the film, so much of the character of Frank Castle felt absent, as well as alterations in his origin that didn’t add up and having Castle seem like an overly angry (mumbling) crazed gunman. To me, Castle would have his feverish moments of rage in the comics, but what stuck by was this looming shadow, remorseless and bold, almost reaper-like.
To add insult to injury, the very insignia of the Punisher skull? Completely absent from the shirt he wears or any article of clothing (though the knives holding it are a cheesy but notable touch). Looking at him, you would never for the life you tell he was playing the Punisher.
Positives? Well, he did do most of his own stunts, which took until 2008’s Punisher: War Zone to get that sort of intensive training and choreography that sort of light again.
Sadly, that translation in the film was made with little story and very little solidifying to the acting of his character aside from a gun-running vigilante, very two dimensional.
Watching Dolph as the Punisher doesn’t make you believe he’s the Punisher, but more like any sort of superficial Steven Segal lead around the 80s and 90s.
Overall, very miscast representation of Castle, and even for his own interpretation, he had very little to live up to aside from a big name (ironically the biggest one writing this list around this time). Guess there are some things Dolph mustn’t break.
3. Ray Stevenson
After failed negotiations of a Punisher sequel to bring back Thomas Jane (ties got so severed that rather than doing a Punisher comic Easter egg in Jane’s other film The Mist, he opted to have it of Hellboy for his good friend Ron Perlman), the existence of a third reboot entitled Punisher: War Zone was made in 2008.
You could tell from the writing alone that it tried so hard to contain traces of a sequel, and even as a stand-alone title, it felt very mixed in its independence.
However, aside from Dominic West’s outrageously fun portrayal as Jigsaw being a huge step up from John Travolta as the antagonist, the casting of Ray Stevenson brought a new light to the Punisher, slightly more edgy and a bit more cutthroat to the comics.
We see a cold man for the majority of the film, and gristly eyes set out to just annihilate evil, truly a guy you don’t want to screw around with. Stevenson captured the killing machine better than Dolph for sure. Not many interpretations outside the comics show this with Punisher, but a man like him would make anyone uncomfortable working with, and showing that discomfort reflected from the other characters was one thing they really captured in the War Zone film.
However, while Stevenson was the fatal violence fans wanted to see, he had very little else to offer aside from intimidating looks and fantastic stunts. I do feel the problem serves with the script for that matter, as the writing for Punisher: War Zone was very mixed with tones, where it couldn’t make up its mind with being serious or just too ridiculous.
Seeing other roles by Stevenson (one that comes to mind is Isaak Sirko from Dexter), I really do feel he could have offered much more to his role as Punisher and he has a vast amount of potential of being the one fans want to a tee. However, the forced subplot of the mother and daughter and his “friendships” to characters feel a bit clunky to his persona built in.
He doesn’t capture the soul of the Punisher as much as the next two, but he deserves some great respect for what he was able to offer in such a mixed film, especially in his intense appearance and swift combat skills.
…And despite how terrible the show it, his cameo as Punisher in The Super Hero Squad Show shows if he could make a monologue about grocery items sound menacing, then he definitely has something to offer for future interpretation (as well as a very questionable reference to Dirty Laundry):
2. Jon Bernthal
For the first time, a live action Punisher was to be introduced to a series as a secondary character rather than a main, that being the critically-acclaimed Netflix Daredevil series.
I may have a distaste in Marvel’s film series, but where I can see real potential shedding is the in-depth characters and mature writing made only in the television department, so when hearing of Castle being in the show, I was ecstatic.
Jon Bernthal was already a growing success in television with his likeness in The Walking Dead (Fun fact: fellow Punisher Thomas Jane was considered for Rick Grimes before scheduling conflicts, would have literally been Punisher vs. Punisher had it happened), but part of what really spun the handle for me was his grudgingly hardass performance in Mob City, showing he had the chops to take on the role. Perhaps not the best likeness or build to the traditional look of the Punisher, but his enigma and energy was one that could be for the taking with a role like this.
His performance was a real jump to us. From his first moment at the store to the massacring of mobsters to even the prison block fights (the previous champion for hallway fights went to Daredevil last season), he was a force to be reckoned with.
His fuel was really in his anger and though more enraged than previous ones, his actions are just as remorseless. Even his exchanges with Matt with the infamous chain scene shows he sees the wrong in the world for every reason he should, and to beat monsters, he had to let himself be one.
Even a true vulnerability was actually done surprisingly well for him, which majority of the interpretations can never recreate the magic of how emotional it must be for a man like Frank to lose his family.
“One Batch, Two Batch, Penny and Dime”, we hear him mutter to Murdock, and from that moment he bursts over the loss of his girl, we have such a deeper understanding of what he goes through. Bernthal drives an emotional flame during the right moments, and unlike Dolph or Stevenson having their concerns with being out of the dredging hard personas, it really has the favor with Bernthal’s acting alone.
Unlike the previous interpretations, the advantage of a television series helps with the development in a longer span of time as opposed to a feature film, which really works with the advantage as we follow the shadow of Castle as he dispenses his hit-back-hard motives, even giving us the right feeling of accomplishment when he grows through and finds the infamous skull to symbolize his loss into a weapon.
In a way, that gives a handicap to Bernthal, and although a fantastic run this season of Daredevil and looking forward to his spin-off series, most of the previous actors got little or even much chance to “improve” or mature into the character. There is one in mind, however…
1. Thomas Jane
I’m expecting some serious ammo shot at me from your skull insignia-painted glocks with a “How dare you, Bernthal was perfect!” or “Your nostalgia glasses are on backwards!” But let me explain my reason, or rather, reasons, for choosing Jane as opposed to the others.
Despite being my personal introduction to the man behind the skull and albeit a guilty pleasure, 2004’s The Punisher was by no means a great script film. There was wonky decisions and much like War Zone followed with more questionable decisions for what mood they were going for.
The romance subplot was tripe, John Travolta was laughably awkward as Howard Saint, and there was a bulk of “wtf” at points in the film. But if I could argue one thing, Thomas Jane really stood out his performance as Frank Castle in a traditional-feeling western revenge atmosphere.
“But he’s not Punisher!”
Exactly my point.
For the moments that built into the film, I didn’t believe he became Punisher until the moment he took the gun away from his face in the scene of suicide in the last five minutes of the film. We followed the visage of the title itself and I saw the whole film as an origin story of a man trying to become what he wished to be: cold like the men who took his family in a dog-eat-dog world. But such a transformation doesn’t simply take place at once.
Frank spoke of his Declaration of Intent, which was pure soul from the War Journal series, but if you think about it, he himself never went through with it as his mind WAS vengeance for Howard Saint. He felt he had little to live for after as he felt there was little else to do until he realized what he is capable of doing to all evil and found that purpose again, likely following the code from thereon.
There were signs of the evolution to me: the eyes as he saw the shirt on the shoreline, the gearing of the final shoot-out, and the menacing conflict he had against Howard Saint in the end. Admittedly, the high stakes of his extended family being massacred just added to the high stakes of the situation.
And the scenes that involved more mental set-up than murder, such as the popsicle scene everyone complained about? Ripped straight from the comics.
Frank Castle and Punisher are by no means all gun and talk, as tactical approaches and psychological advantages have also been demonstrated by him in other media. Not many people would put credit to such silly scenes, but I feel in core, he knows how to get what he needs with intimidation alone. And what better way to kill the man who caused your lost by killing him inside with having him lose everything himself?
Fast forward to 2012, 8 years after the release of the film without a sequel. We had a spiritual continuation of Thomas Jane as the Punisher, but different. Adi Shankar’s Dirty Laundry was a masterful example of fan films done right and still regarded as one of the best short films adapted from Marvel property, unofficial or not.
Here, we see Castle as not exactly as we hoped to see. We see a worn man who has seen the darkness too many times and can’t win with a one-man army. He goes by to do his mundane task of laundry while the reeking crimes of GoldTooth and his gang are shown full scale.
It isn’t until the very end when he speaks to Big Mike (Ron Perlman) that he takes one last ride onto the murder train to show he’s still the same man who will do anything to show true justice, a la Punishment, especially to save an innocent kid.
The most iconic scene (aside from the greatest shirt unfold and greatest use of Jack Daniels of all time) with the lighter placed on the road and allowing the prostitute to be given the honor of burning the gangster showed that anyone can be capable of dispensing their brand of justice, anyone can become as savage as Punisher can be given the rigged circumstances of evil we see in our lives.
In that sense, Punisher and the skull is a symbol much like Batman was a symbol for the Nolan trilogy, even influencing military figures and such in real life, showing the kind of impact a man like him could have. Not exactly the ideal Punisher, but in a realistic sense, a very accurate “what if” of a man who probably has done nothing but sink into the dark with a very limited light and patience.
So through the list for Jane, we have a pre-Punisher Frank Castle, and on the next, a Punisher who has seen enough. You guys may think that he did two interpretations of Frank Castle AND a retired Punisher, but not the IDEAL Punisher we all know and adore from the comics.
But what if I told you he did? We come to exhibit C, going a bit back to 2005…
Probably forgotten now but a controversial game back in the day (even the only comic book based game to receive an AO rating on the PC), there was indeed a game based off the Punisher. And yes, Thomas Jane himself supplied the voice. Even for a gory and straight-up brutal game (yes, even more brutal than Bernthal’s or Stevenson’s interpretations), this game held the true grit that the comic Punisher we know and love and more.
“But that’s just a voice!”
And it’s still acting. As a person who has done professional voice work himself, I can tell you people may not realize that voice work can be as difficult, if not more, than camera acting. With camera, everything is shown to help you with the physical body, the emotional view of the face, and so on. Voices alone? It’s a bit difficult to pull off using only the sound you make of your mouth with only audio and having to expect the same impact as one would see with you as a whole person.
And even with a question like that, it’s a very effective one at that. Every comic I turn to read, every image of the Punisher I see, every sadistic and self-just phrase and noir-like monologue is that exact voice I hear it through.
The voice of a man who has seen the dark and has never blinked since. Much like Kevin Conroy as Batman, Jane really took the liberty of the Punisher we love, almost void of his previous performances. Just the very scene at 2:52 on his monologue on New York was enough to send the chills behind your spine and know everything you needed to about this Punisher, which was the damn closest we’ll ever have to the comics from anywhere.
And with those three interpretations, the key word for my choice for Jane? Versatility. Punisher is really a character with only a few ways to go about him than a murdering Batman, but Jane offered a sense of individuality with a more dimensional presence – the past as a vulnerable man trying to become beyond vengeance, the future of a dying candle with one more burn for the darkness, and finally, the void shell of a man with only punishment fueling his motives – all adding up to more for the symbol of the anti-hero. And that is why Thomas Jane, to me, is the best Punisher.
….Oh, and Jane is the only Punisher who can weaken Superman and call him “bitch”.
Of course, this is just my own critical opinion and analysis on the mile I’ve walked getting to know one of my favorite and influential fictional characters, both in a comic and film sense.
Have your own thoughts to discuss? Disagree? Still planning to put the safety off of your pistol? Sound off your thoughts in the comments below!