Despite the simple setup of the character, The Punisher has had a surprisingly tricky time on the big screen. There have been three attempts thus far to turn the comic into a movie franchise - first up was the 1989 version starring Dolph Lundgren, then came Thomas Jane’s The Punisher in 2004, and finally, Punisher: War Zone with Ray Stevenson in 2008.
Out of all those attempts, the Jane version was easily the most successful financially, but even then it suffered mediocre reviews and failed to launch sequels. Of course, Frank Castle finally found his footing with Jon Bernthal’s take on the character in season two of Netflix’s Daredevil, where he proved so popular that Marvel quickly greenlit a highly anticipated solo series.
All three movies suffered poor critical notices upon release, but in the years since, they’ve become notable cult movies, with War Zone in particular coming to be considered a hyper-violent but underrated gem by fans of the comic. The production stories and trivia behind each of the three movies are fascinating in their own way, featuring alternate castings, deleted scenes, and sequels that never happened.
Ahead of the launch of the Netflix Punisher series, let’s revisit the three movies and reveal some of the most fascinating facts you may not know about them.
16 Christoper Lambert And Steven Seagal Almost Starred
The modest budget for The Punisher 1989 ruled out nabbing any huge names like Sylvester Stallone for the title role, but a few well-known faces were considered. Highlander star Christopher Lambert was approached to play Frank Castle, but when the director met with him, he was on crutches from a recent injury, ruling him out of the highly physical role.
Steven Seagal, who at the time had only starred in Nico: Above The Law, was also considered, but he was busy on other projects. While Seagal doesn’t have the muscley physique the character is known for, his martial arts and weapons skills would have made him an interesting choice.
Finally, Michael Pare, star of cult eighties movies like Streets Of Fire, was briefly considered, but the producers quickly decided that Dolph Lundgren was the ideal choice.
15 The Punisher's Missing Logo
One of the biggest disappointments about the first Punisher movie is that the character never dons his famous skull logo. Director Mark Goldblatt vetoed the idea, feeling it would look too silly and comic booky, where he wanted a more stripped down look; he’s since confessed that this was a mistake.
Screenwriter Boaz Yakin was also disappointed with the choice, and wrote a version of the finale where Castle spray paints his logo onto body armor before heading into battle with the Yakuza. Again, the director felt it would look silly, so the idea was scrapped.
The logo can still be seen in the movie though, as the various daggers the character uses featured his symbol on the handle. The spray painted body armor idea also found its way into the 2004 Punisher movie.
14 The Batman 1989 Injoke
Any movie fans who were around in 1989 will remember Tim Burton’s Batman dominated the summer, becoming a huge blockbuster and a landmark for comic book movies. The same can’t be said for The Punisher 1989, however, which barely made a fraction of its nearest rival at the box office.
The two films were in production around the same time, so director Goldblatt decided to add a little easter egg for fans of the DC Comics character. When Castle is being tortured on the rack, he’s asked by the evil Yakuza boss who sent him. “Batman,” is the deadpan response.
Goldblatt was slightly afraid fans would take this as an insult, but the gag is seen as a good-natured jab towards the film that would eventually destroy it at the box office.
13 A Fifteen Minute Prologue Was Cut
When The Punisher 1989 begins, Frank Castle has operated as a vigilante for over five years, but in the original cut, viewers were given a lengthy introduction to Castle before he became The Punisher.
This opening section included Frank’s home life with his wife and kids, his friendship with his partner (played by Louis Gossett Jr.), and their failed bust on the mobster the Punisher kills in the film's theatrical opening. This section also shows the death of Castle’s family in a car bomb, which is briefly glimpsed during a flashback in the movie.
While this unused opening is an interesting curio for fans, it was the right move to cut it. The movie doesn’t miss any of the deleted footage, and it likely would have slowed the story down.
12 Stan Lee Hated It
It’s well known that Marvel didn’t have much luck turning their properties into movies during the eighties and nineties. Hard as it is to believe now, studios didn’t really see the value in selling superheroes on the big screen, so often, the rights ended up in hands of B-movie producers who only wanted to sell a movie based on the famous title.
The 1990 Captain America and the unreleased 1994 Fantastic Four movie are two examples, and Stan Lee’s dislike of the 1970s live-action Spider-Man show is well-known. He wasn’t fond of Dolph’s take on The Punisher either, with director Mark Goldblatt revealing that Lee – who acted as a consultant for the movie - found it “too violent”. The comic legend seems embarrassed whenever it’s mentioned in interviews.
The Punisher was also made in a time before Lee's famous cameos, so sadly, he doesn’t appear in the movie.
11 It Went Straight To Video In The U.S.
While Dolph’s Punisher went theatrical in most territories, it went straight to VHS in the U.S. There were a couple of factors in this, including the dire financial straits of the studio behind it. They told the director if he was willing to pay for the costs of marketing and prints himself, they’d consider a theatrical push in America, but he (wisely) declined.
Secondly, Dolph Lundgren’s most recent star vehicle at the time, Red Scorpion, failed to make much of a dent upon its release, with many studios at the time losing faith in the actor’s ability to open a movie.
The negative reviews of The Punisher didn’t help either, but on the bright side, it did well on video upon release and has since become something of a cult favorite.
10 Thomas Jane Accidentally Stabbed Kevin Nash During The Russian Fight
The apartment fight between Frank Castle and The Russian in the Welcome Back Frank comic series was instantly iconic, so director Jonathan Hensleigh was wise to bring it over to the 2004 film. This scene is the action highlight, where Thomas Jane's Castly has to fight off Kevin Nash’s almost unkillable hitman.
The two actors really got into their roles during filming, to the point that Jane forgot to switch out a real knife for a prop one. This resulted in him accidentally stabbing his co-star, but Nash was so hyped up that he didn’t realize what happened during the take.
Jane was naturally full of apologies afterwards, but he was also the victim of an on-set mishap. In the scene where Joan is sewing his wounds, co-star Rebecca Romijn accidentally broke skin for a few stitches; Jane didn’t say anything until the take was finished.
9 Microchip Was Cut From The Script
Microchip, the high-tech sidekick to the murderous vigilante, is a divisive character for Punisher fans. Micro – aka David Lieberman -- provided Castle with weapons, intel, and even a battle van, but this era is one most fans of the comic don’t like all that much. They want the Punisher to be a stripped out, lone wolf character, and this buddy element wasn’t welcome.
This corner of the fanbase included Punisher 2004 helmer Jonathan Hensleigh, who featured Micro in a couple of early drafts. He ultimately snipped the character out because he wanted to keep the story relatively lean; that, and he just plain doesn’t like Microchip as a character.
The character would eventually show up in Punisher: War Zone played by Wayne Knight, where he provided some nice comic relief in between gory set pieces (including his own brutal death).
8 The Unknown Animated Prologue
Hensleigh lamented in various interviews about his modest budget for The Punisher, which led to key scenes being scaled down or cut completely. This included his planned opening - a Kuwait battle scene where Castle saves his friend Jimmy Weeks from an ambush.
At the end of this scene, Castle makes a choice that results in the death of another soldier, which has an impact on his actions later in the story. The director felt this was a crucial moment, but there was no room in the budget to film it.
The Punisher proved to be a solid hit on DVD, so when it came time to produce an extended cut, the director decided to add an animated version of the scene. This sequence is a little too cheap to be really effective, but it’s an interesting tidbit for those who liked the movie.
7 The Dirty Laundry Short Was Thomas Jane's Love Letter To Fans
While Thomas Jane wasn’t a huge fan of the comic before making The Punisher, he fell in love with the character during filming. The actor is also the first to admit the movie’s many shortcomings, feeling the goofy humor and campiness hurt it.
He eventually left the role when he felt the sequel was on the wrong track, but he was later approached by producer Adi Shankar with the idea of doing an unofficial short film where he reprised the role. Jane used Dirty Laundry as a showcase for his vision of the character, and as a love letter to the fans who supported him.
Reaction to the hyper-violent short has been largely positive, with the fanbase all but demanding Marvel produce another movie with Jane playing Castle. Ultimately, the studio opted to reinvent The Punisher again and cast Jon Bernthal as the character in Daredevil.
6 War Zone Was Supposed To Be A Direct Sequel To Punisher 2004
While Thomas Jane’s Punisher wasn’t a smash hit, it made a tidy profit when DVD sales were taken into account. The studio was keen to get a sequel going, but they wanted to keep the budget modest. They also ran into trouble with Jane, who wanted legendary director Walter Hill to helm it, while they wanted a director they could control.
They went through various drafts which picked up with Jane’s Punisher in New York a few years on from the previous film, but the actor decided to jump ship when he read a script he flat-out hated. With Jane gone, it was decided that they would rework the script, turning it into a soft reboot.
The movie distanced itself by giving The Punisher a different origin from Jane’s version, and it styled itself after Garth Ennis' famed Marvel MAX take on the character instead.
5 Freddie Prinze Jr Gave A "Fantastic" Audition For Jigsaw
When director Lexi Alexander was prepping the movie, she was asked by Lionsgate to allow Freddie Prinze, Jr. to read for iconic Punisher villain Jigsaw. Alexander thought this audition would be a total waste of time, as she couldn’t see the guy from She’s All That making for a credible villain.
To Alexander’s surprise, it turned out that the actor was a big fan of the comic and knew more about the character than she did. He went on to give what she called a “fantastic” audition for Jigsaw, and she reported back to the studio that Prinze, Jr. would be a great choice for the villain.
To her surprise, they flat-out rejected the idea and claimed to have only let him read as a favor. This frustrated Alexander, but she was ultimately pleased with Dominic West’s ultra hammy take on Jigsaw.
4 Kurt Sutter Came Up With Jigsaw's Gruesome Accident
Sons Of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter was hired to polish up the script for War Zone when it was still a sequel to Thomas Jane’s Punisher, and the writer used the gig as a chance to explore the damaged psyche of the character.
When he handed in his script to Kevin Feige and Gail Anne Hurd, he immediately realized in a meeting with the two that it wasn’t what they were after, and he was fired shortly after. Almost nothing of his script survived to the final film, save for the brutal creation of villain Jigsaw.
Sutter came up with the concept of the character being thrown into a glass crushing machine, which mangles the once handsome gangster beyond recognition. Sutter refused to take credit for War Zone’s story, but he's proud this nasty addition made it through.
3 War Zone's Punisher Doesn't Speak For The First 25 Minutes
By his very nature, Frank Castle isn’t much of a talker. He’s an isolated vigilante with little in the way of attachments or friends, and speaks only when necessary. The Dolph Lundgren version of the character stuck close to this take, while Tom Jane’s version was probably the chattiest big screen Punisher of the bunch.
Lexi Alexander decided to withhold hearing Frank Castle speak for as long as possible, so he doesn’t utter a word until after the twenty-five-minute mark of War Zone. This adds to the mystique of the character, who suddenly appears and begins slaughtering mobsters in the opening sequence.
Stevenson is also captivating enough in the role that words really aren’t needed, and even when he does start talking, dialogue is kept to a bare minimum.
2 Lexi Alexander Didn't Want To Use The Skull Logo
Even for fans who enjoy the Dolph Lundgren Punisher, the lack of his trademark skull logo hurts the movie for them. While even the director of the 1989 version has since acknowledged that this was an error, it turns out that Lexi Alexander wasn’t a big fan of it either.
She felt the design looked “pre-schoolish” and didn’t want to use it at all, but the studio insisted the character had to wear it. She compromised with a faded, worn out take on the iconic logo, which seemed to please everyone.
Interestingly, there were various complaints about the teaser trailer for the Thomas Jane movie, with many feeling the t-shirt worn by the actor was too clean and made him look like a fanboy instead. In the final movie, the skull was degraded to make it look a little cooler.
1 War Zone Is The Lowest Grossing Marvel Movie
While War Zone has since developed a reputation for being a gleeful violent, over the top action flick, it was panned back in 2008. Lexi Alexander intentionally made the film a colorful, cartoonish romp, but critics felt it was too silly and campy for its own good.
The bad reviews and lackluster marketing contributed to the film’s miserable box office results, where it only recouped $10 million off the back of a $35 million budget, plus marketing costs. This makes Punisher: War Zone the lowest grossing movie to date based on a Marvel property; behind even Howard The Duck and Elektra.
Despite this, the film has managed to attract a sizable cult following since its release, thanks to its politically incorrect violence, creative gore, and tongue in cheek humor.
Which of the big screen Punishers was your favorite? Do any of them hold a candle to the Jon Bernthal iteration? Let us know in the comments.