The Pull List: Public Enemy Punisher

PunisherThe Pull List started as a weekly spotlight on interesting new releases, but it has since redirected that spotlight to random thoughts about characters, storylines, and other comic book elements.

This isn’t about Punisher in the comics. This is about Punisher in the movies and how to distill his lengthy comic life.

His real name is Frank Castle. He was a member of the US Marine Special Forces fighting during the Vietnam War. After a close call at the tail end of the war, he retired to an instructor position in New York to be closer to his family. Years later, while on a picnic in Central Park, he and his family get caught in the crossfire of a mob execution. His wife and kids are killed, and the justice system is powerless to do anything about it. Castle decides to take matters into his own hands killing every single bad guy he can find.

THAT is a hard hero to root for.

I feel like I can already hear you disagreeing with me. As an American, I know how romantic we think about our outlaws and how precious we are with our firearms. Both are steeped in our delusion that we can be the “good guy” that stops the “bad guy,” never giving it a second thought that we might end up being the bad guy.

Frank Castle is absolutely the bad guy. I used to not really give it much thought. Comics have been going on long enough that every hero gets to be a bad guy and every villain gets to be a good guy at some point. However, after the third attempt to make a Punisher movie where he is the protagonist, I thought maybe its making him the heroic lead is the problem. 

The first movie starred Dolph Lungren and was released direct to home video. It lacked a lot of the signature elements, specifically the giant skull emblem on his chest. The next attempt came during the first comic book movie boom started by the 2000 X-Men movie. It starred Tom Jane in the lead role, and he at least understood the direction the character should go in. His movie was mostly goofy, but he glowered through most of it. He also hoped for a Taxi Driver inspired sequel but ultimately walked away when he couldn’t get it. This was followed up by the a neon soaked version directed by Lexi Alexander and starring Ray Stephenson. Ray played him more like the Terminator. Steel-faced, no charm. It probably should work on paper, but the movie itself just feels weird.

Way back before Daredevil was even announced as a Netflix series, I would have absolutely suggested that he show up in a Daredevil project as a villain (inspired mostly by those modern stories where Murdock defended him in court and than Castle got arrested when Murdock was put in jail so he could protect him). Lo and behold, Marvel had the same idea and followed through on one of their most inspired casting decisions: Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle.

At this point, Bernthal was probably most well known for his role as resident a-hole, Shane, on “The Walking Dead.” However, by that time, he also filmed an impressive supporting role as a yuppie New York attorney in HBO’s “Show Me a Hero” and a tough guy for Martin Scorsese in Wolf of Wall Street. Bernthal has definitely proven that he knows what makes Punisher a great character, and it ain’t his heroism. 

Bernthal’s performance was steeped in sadness and anger. He mixed Tom Jane’s sullen look and Ray Stephenson’s robotic body language to create man imprisoned by his own despair. He challenged us to like him with every plea for normalcy and strive for a real relationship, especially with Karen Page, but just when we thought we were beginning to like him, the violence would come way harder than it ever had to be. Bruised and covered in blood, not always his own, spewing pain from his eyes as he stared into the horizon. It was clear Bernthal wanted us to know that there was a good man stuck inside the body of a stone cold killer screaming to be let out. However, it was also clear he doesn’t want us to cut him slack because of that.

The Punisher is a villain, and if you give us a Punisher worth rooting for, than he’s not the Punisher.