The Punisher (1989)

I was one of those kids who only had a dozen or so comic books to my name but still read them constantly anyway. We’re talking constantly. Most of them were Batman titles, a few were Spider-Man or Darkhawk, one was an old Justice League issue featuring Eclipso. One was an issue of Weird War Tales with a soldier kneeling at a grave on the front cover and exclaiming to the soldier behind him “Hey! According to this…you DIED three weeks ago!”, and for some reason that shit freaked me out. Outside of the occasional Saturday morning cartoon, these precious issues were my sole window into the superhero world.

My favorite of the batch might have been a 64-page Annual issue of The Punisher, featuring a few different Punisher yarns and Part One of the mini-crossover The System Bytes. I read that thing until the cover and inside pages wore out and started to fall away and I had to cradle it like a fragile science project on the bus ride to school every time I wanted to read it. Punisher wasn’t my favorite superhero — I’d probably have told you he’s not a superhero at all, and that my Punisher issue was more similar to the Weird War Tales issue than to the guys-in-costume stuff. Spidey was the coolest and Batman was for some reason automatically my favorite, but I still went back to that Punisher comic over and over.

We can delve into my six-year-old psyche for the reasons why, but really that’s just it: I was six, and Punisher was about as forbidden, R-rated, adults-only, you-should-not-be-reading-this as it got in my neck of the woods at that time. Bang-bang-you’re-dead games were very definitely a no-fly zone, which of course for a kid meant playing with toy guns at every single opportunity; it meant surreptitious affairs with the GoldenEye N64 game; it meant scooting down under the covers with a tattered copy of The System Bytes to behold Punisher using a gun for pretty much everything. There’s a page in that issue where he’s trapped in a data center of some kind, the entire room walled with computers and wires and routers and gleaming technology. I don’t exactly remember the scenario, but I remember he’s trapped in that room (with a bomb, maybe? sure: with a bomb). How does he escape? He fires a machine gun at a wall until the hail of bullets rips a hole large enough for him to fit through, which he does, the room exploding seconds behind him (if there’s a bomb).

The Punisher works best as a non-superhero, as a guy who lives entirely in that forbidden zone of bang-bang-you’re-dead. For some reason this seems to be a difficult thing to bring to the silver screen. There have been three Punisher movies over the past quarter-century, all of which have been inarguably subpar. There’s the most recent outing, 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, starring Ray Stevenson as a really bored Frank Castle in a movie that has as little personality. Before that was the 2004 Thomas Jane version, a half-assed attempt that wasted a potentially good casting. These are post-X-Men superhero outings, flashy and sexy and pitted against supervillains with glaring deformities, and yet despite all of that flash and sex and deformed supervillainy both films are just colossally boring.

The original Punisher isn’t much better, but it’s the best of the bunch. Who’d have thought a late-’80s Dolph Lundgren version would stand up to modern superhero flicks? There’s a new superhero movie released every hour on the hour, and yet Ivan Drago’s pouty Frank Castle is still the most convincing one? Haven’t we figured this out by now? Lundgren is a lug, per usual (per Universal Soldier), and the rest of the acting (Louis Gossett Jr. aside) is even worse. Even if you’re not viewing the thing on VHS, it’s clear that this Punisher is a micro-budget B-film compared to the later versions. The action is your typical ’80s/’90s pyrotechnic stuff, complete with perfectly-placed zip lines and utterly implausible acts of athleticism. Most fight scenes end with Dolph rolling around on the ground in a chokehold with a henchman that he soon inexplicably overpowers. Sigh. Telle est la vie pour le Punisher.

It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination — so why is it actually kind of likable? Do I dare ascribe that childhood nostalgia of an old, loved comic book to a movie starring a guy who starred in movies with the guy who starred in Bloodsport? Perhaps I won’t — I like The System Bytes right where it is, thank you very much — but the fact remains that the original Punisher is just a hell of a lot more memorable than the predecessors. “What do you call a hundred and twenty-five murders in five years?” Gossett Jr.’s character demands of his partner-gone-bad. “Work in progress,” states Castle bluntly. Another exasperated samaritan implores him: “How long do you think someone can live after they’ve had their heart ripped out?” Castle, in a burst of anger/self-pity: “For a long time.” These are clunky lines delivered clunkily, but at least you remember them. I don’t remember a thing from the other Punishers.

There’s no doubt that we’ll get a fourth iteration of Frank Castle’s gun-toting vigilante someday soon, as the character is now back in the viselike grip of Marvel Studios. They might actually get it right this time, too, considering the current deal with Netflix and the dark street-level heroism of Daredevil (actually, The System Bytes continued in an issue of Daredevil after the introduction in that Annual Punisher). Maybe a series would do better justice to the Punisher than another film (2016 update: as predicted, Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle is integral to Daredevil‘s second season). For now, despite the good ol’ fashioned badness of Dolph Lundgren’s version, the best film representation of Punisher is the short exchange in which a character extends a friendly hand for a handshake, a sign of camaraderie with this emotionless killing machine, a possible breakthrough to the man that used to be — but Dolph’s Punisher thwaps the stock of a gun into his open hand instead.

As a parting gift, here is a supercut of every kill in the movie:

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