Since his introduction in 1974, Frank Castle, better known as the Punisher, has skyrocketed to popularity as comics’ premier anti-hero – amassing over seventeen different comic runs to his name as well as countless crossover appearances. So, with that in mind, why has it been so difficult for live-action interpretations of the character to capture the heights of the beloved anti-hero? Overall, the real archenemy of the Punisher’s adaptations isn’t Jigsaw, it’s a misunderstanding of what makes the character so appealing.
The Punisher has always existed in a middle-ground when it comes to his place in the Marvel universe. When one takes a look at his power-set (or lack thereof) they would fairly assume that he belongs with the Heroes for Hire or the Defenders. These characters are often considered to represent what has been called the ‘street-level’ of the Marvel Universe, the more violent and grounded corner of Marvel Comics and one that’s been explored by the various Marvel Netflix shows.
Despite this, Punisher as a character is not one who shines when he is where he ‘belongs’, and so he often finds himself wandering into the more high-stakes corners of the Marvel Universe. Due to the violent nature of Frank’s stories, his supporting cast doesn’t tend to stay alive for too long. Additionally, Frank doesn’t have all too many core villains, since his MO doesn’t leave room for sparing enemies like other heroes may. Due to this, writers are left with the option of establishing a villain that constantly gets away, making Frank seem incompetent when considering the fact that his main purpose in life is killing villains, or they have to kill that villain, leaving Frank without any recurring enemies and back to step one. Because of this unique issue, Frank oftentimes has to borrow villains from other heroes, butting heads with Norman Osborn, Frost Giants, and Baron Zemo (among many others) over the years. At his core, Frank Castle needs more of a selling point to make his character worthwhile, and the magical, alien, or otherwise fantastical sides of Marvel can offer that sell.
But now it’s worth going back to the original question, why don’t the Punisher adaptations work?
When getting him described to them, one might quickly realize that Frank Castle isn’t a particularly compelling character, an antihero who lost his family and uses that pain as fuel in his fight against crime, generally starting with the people who took his wife and children from him, he is, at his core, a traditional action hero. This fact was emphasized further in 1989’s The Punisher, a movie that stripped anything remotely ‘comic book-y’ from the character, including the now-iconic skull logo. Despite attempts to make the movie more widely marketable, it was not well received. Though later movies, 2004’s The Punisher and 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, added the skull logo to Frank’s design, not much else was changed from this take on the character, every single film appearance of the Punisher makes the same mistakes, turning the character’s story into that of a formulaic, discount Rambo.
Frank first appeared in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man and despite his cartoonish design at the time, the sentiment was still there, Frank was a gruff, grounded antihero caught in the clash between Spider-Man and the Jackal, two extremely over-the-top characters, especially in comparison to Castle. One of the most interesting thing you can do with the Punisher is focusing on the contrast, a John Wick-type going against a world of gods and monsters. Yet these movies looked to remove anything above street-level entirely, instead placing Frank into a setting where he would ‘belong’, therein breaking the charm the character has. So, if the direction that the last three film adaptations took isn’t going to work, what will?
After three attempts of convincing audiences to get invested in a character by removing everything interesting about him, Daredevil Season 2 premiered in March of 2016. While the world that Daredevil presents is dark and grounded, the titular character still feels like a comic book hero, if not more nuanced in terms of internal struggle and emotion. Many of the standout scenes of the season would feature Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle challenging, both physically or morally, Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock – a character representing the idealistic worldviews that comic characters tend to have with Frank’s own brand of simplistic cynicism. Even despite the grounded nature of Netflix’s Marvel universe, by the time the season finale came around for Daredevil, viewers were treated to Frank Castle in full costume as the Punisher, gunning down undead ninjas.
The real problem with this version of Castle is that once the credits roll on the last episode of the season, Frank all but exits a world populated by superheroes. Sure, the version of the Punisher we see in both seasons of his spin-off show is still fundamentally the same version that battled Daredevil, but he’s now in a world populated not by the aftermath of the events seen in Marvel’s The Avengers, but by government conspiracies, traitors, and criminals. These are active steps backwards, leaving the audience to once again find Castle in a by-the-books action movie plot. While Netflix’s The Punisher still finds its time to shine, it can often feel hollow, a play version of a story we’ve seen in movies, novels, and other shows for decades now when it could have been so much more.
With all this said, it might be noted that the original home of the Punisher, the pages of Marvel Comics themselves, have been left nearly untouched. While the Punisher has obviously had hundreds of story arcs, all ranging in tone and scale, recent takes on the character have been headed in the right direction. These include Castle being gifted a version of the War Machine suit, joining a spin-off Avengers line-up, having his future self revealed to be both a Herald of Galactus and a Ghost Rider, having tie-ins to the Thor-centric War of the Realms event, and more.
This isn’t the first time that Castle made his way into the larger scheme of the superhero world. One great example of this being Rick Remender’s 2009 Punisher run, a run focusing on Frank’s doings during Marvel’s Dark Reign status quo. Remender wrote Frank battling characters like the Sentry, the Hood, and even being killed by a dark version of Wolverine, only to be revived as a Frankenstein’s monster dubbed ‘Franken-Castle’. So, with all this in mind, why is it that Frank always ends up back where he started when put to live-action?
Marvel MAX is a label of Marvel Comics that was established in 2001. The label was created in order to allow the company to publish more explicit comics. Safe to say, it worked. Punisher MAX began in 2004, ending 5 years later. Though it was critically praised, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to call this series unpleasant or distasteful. The world of Punisher MAX is cynical; everyone is a creep, a monster, or a victim. There is nothing to juxtapose Castle against, the world around him has been built to suit Frank, to play into his comfort zone, and that’s why it doesn’t work. Every problem with the live-action adaptations can be mirrored in this exact series. MAX represents an era in the character of the Punisher that Marvel comics have all but moved beyond, despite this, adaptations of the character continue to cling to it.
With the Punisher’s Netflix series getting canceled after a two-season run, Marvel Studios have received the rights to the characters formerly inhabiting the Netflix side of the universe, with Charlie Cox’s Daredevil already reported to return. Though many are hoping that Disney places these characters onto Hulu, something fans believe will allow the characters to retain their dark and grounded tone, the alternative is much more interesting. Marvel Studios are being presented with a unique opportunity, the chance to place the Punisher right in the middle of a world that’s been ravaged by Thanos, one where the Guardians of the Galaxy battled alongside the Avengers for the fate of the universe, one where the Punisher would stick out like a sore thumb – just as he should.