The Punisher is the kind of character that is really popular because he satisfies a certain animalistic part of the audience's mind. Here is a guy who ignores all of the moral quandaries of being a superhero and simply takes out villains, mobsters, and other nefarious sorts with lethal force. To him, that is the only form of justice that matters. Sometimes Frank Castle can seem like a one-note character, a man who operates only in black and white and shows no remorse or growth through his actions. The character has faced criticism for promoting violence and lethal vigilantism. That said, there is more to Frank Castle than meets the eye, enough that the character has been brought to the screen a total of four times. Each actor brought their own take on the character, and each one of them had their own strengths and weaknesses.
The first Punisher film was made in 1989 and starred Dolph Lundgren in the title role. It was a small film that never even saw a major theatrical release in the West. Yet it remains a cult classic of the action and comic book film genres. The next Punisher film didn't come until 2004 when the character was played by Thomas Jane. This film also had its own issues, but there are plenty of fans who still love Jane's portrayal. After that came Punisher: War Zone, which starred Ray Stevenson in the lead role. Stevenson played the character entirely different from Jane, for better and worse. Finally, Jon Bernthal took over the role of Frank Castle in Netflix's Daredevil and The Punisher. Here are five reasons why each actor was the best in the role.
20 LUNDGREN: FIRST ON-SCREEN PUNISHER
The very first Punisher film came out all the way back in 1989. It got a worldwide release that surprisingly did not include the West, where it finally came out as a direct-to-video feature in 1991 due to the financial troubles of the production company, New World Films. It finally premiered theatrically in 2008, when director Mark Goldblatt played his own 35mm copy at the Escapism Film Festival.
Dolph Lundgren might not be the best version of the Punisher, but he was the first, and there's something to be said for that. He didn't have any other on-screen portrayals of the character to work from or give him inspiration, leaving him to make his own interpretation of the character purely from the source material and the script.
19 JANE: MORE SYMPATHETIC
There wouldn't be another attempt at a Punisher film until 2004, when The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane in the lead role was released. Critical reception for the film was mixed, but Thomas Jane's portrayal of the character was far and ahead better than what fans had been given in the 1989 film.
Thomas Jane's Frank Castle doesn't begin the story as a hardened, cynical seeker of lethal justice. In fact, he is just a guy who is trying to do his job. Unfortunately, any Punisher fan knows how the rest of that goes down, but Jane's nuanced take on the character made him feel more vulnerable and sympathetic than other portrayals.
18 STEVENSON: A FORCE OF NATURE
Punisher: War Zone was released in 2008 as a sort of spiritual sequel to the 2004 film. It was also an attempt at rebooting the films to make them more intense and violent. Punisher: War Zone was not successful by any metric, failing to make a splash at the box office or win over any critics.
However, it did win some fans over for the vastly different portrayal of Frank Castle by Ray Stevenson. This version of the Punisher has been operating for about five years and has become the jaded, driven Frank Castle fans know and love. Stevenson played him less like a human and more like an unstoppable force of nature; a man whose only goal was to take out as many criminals as possible.
17 BERNTHAL: CONSIDERED THE DEFINITIVE VERSION
In 2016, Frank Castle was revived once more, appearing in the second season of Daredevil and played by Jon Bernthal. To many fans, this was the Punisher that they had been waiting for. Bernthal brought a hardened edge to the character while also imbuing him with enough personality to keep Castle from being two-dimensional.
Jon Bernthal now stands as essentially the definitive on-screen Punisher. He took inspiration not only from the comics, but from other portrayals of the character. When the standalone Punisher series premiered in November 2017, it was praised as one of the best and most consistent MCU TV shows produced.
16 LUNDGREN: GAVE A COMIC CHARACTER A DARKER TONE
The original Punisher film that released in 1989 came out in limited markets just a few months after Tim Burton's Batman. Before those two films came out, the only serious on-screen adaptations of a superhero were Richard Donner's Superman films. While these remain classics of the genre, they had a decidedly lighter and more optimistic tone.
Batman is often cited as the turning point for serious superhero films, but The Punisher should get some of the credit too. While it was not a perfect film in any sense, it did attempt to give a comic book character a more serious portrayal than many thought the material deserved. The Punisher was a gritty adaptation before anyone had even thought to use that phrase.
15 JANE: HAD A SENSE OF HUMOR
While the Punisher is a more serious and intense comic book character than most, there is still a little bit of room to have fun with him. The 2004 Punisher film found a way to walk that line pretty well, making Frank Castle's endeavors both lethal and at times humorous. The best example of this is Frank's fight with the Russian.
This scene is an intense hand-to-hand fight, but it perfectly straddles the line between action and slapstick. With Frank trying everything he can to take down his massive attacker, only to find himself being thrown around and dragged like a ragdoll. Thomas Jane plays this scene with a sense of desperation and almost cartoonish determination.
14 STEVENSON: MADE THE CHARACTER UNSYMPATHETIC
While 2004's The Punisher and, to an extent, the Netflix Punisher series took great strides to ensure that the audience could sympathize with Frank Castle, Punisher: War Zone decided to make the character as hard to empathize with as possible. Ray Stevenson took that note and ran with it.
This version of Frank Castle is not a guy that the audience can connect with. He's far less human than other portrayals of the character. However, in a way, that works to the film's advantage. Frank Castle was never supposed to be a character that was supposed to be admired or condoned. He's a cautionary tale, and that's how Stevenson carried the role.
13 BERNTHAL: DEFINITELY LOOKS THE PART
Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane, and Ray Stevenson all brought their own specific charms to the role, but when Jon Bernthal finally showed up as the character in Daredevil, fans realized that he was the first actor to actually look like the Punisher they knew and loved from the comics. That might have something to do with his distinctive nose (which was broken 14 times before playing the role), but it also has to do with his intense physical training.
Bernthal went through a lot to get his physique ready for the role. In an interview with Men's Journal, Bernthal said of his training regime, "it's pretty all-encompassing, man. I’m on it pretty hard. If you’re playing a character like Frank Castle, it may not necessarily be all about aesthetics, but he needs to look a certain way."
12 LUNDGREN: SKIPPED THE ORIGIN STORY
We put a lot of stock in superhero films that skip the origin story these days (Spider-Man: Homecoming might have been the most high profile superhero film to leave out an origin entirely), but back in 1989, The Punisher jumped right into Frank Castle's story without spending a significant amount of time explaining how he got to where he was.
The film opens five years into Frank's career. At this point, he has taken out 125 criminals on his own. while there are some brief flashbacks that explain how the Punisher came to be, the film chooses to instead focus on Frank as he is in the present moment. This left more time to tell a compelling story without getting bogged down by where Frank came from.
11 JANE: LEANED INTO THE TRAGEDY
2004's The Punisher, on the other hand, leaned right into the tragedy of Frank losing his family. While the 1989 Punisher film chose to just jump right into the action, the 2004 film instead made the decision to show Frank's loss up close, letting the audience feel the pain of his loss and understand why he became the Punisher in the first place.
The film went even further with Castle's tragedy than other stories have. Rather than just losing his wife and children, Castle's entire extended family is taken out during a family reunion. It's a harrowing scene to watch, and it really emphasizes the immense amount of sadness and rage that someone would feel in that situation.
10 STEVENSON: WAS REALLY SCARY
While Tom Jane was a more sympathetic version of the character, Ray Stevenson made the Punisher truly upsetting. In Punisher: War Zone, Frank Castle is not a man that criminals are willing to try and take on. When they see him, they run away (if they even get the chance to do so).
Ray Stevenson's Punisher was the kind of "hero" that could give people nightmares. Punisher: War Zone took a decidedly darker turn than its predecessor, and Stevenson let that tone seep into his portrayal of the character, making him an absolute nightmare. This Frank Castle was less human and more like a Terminator: totally unstoppable and highly dangerous.
9 BERNTHAL: ABSOLUTELY MEANT BUSINESS
Jon Bernthal finally hit the middle ground in his portrayal of the Punisher. This was a guy who could be friendly and even joke around when he wanted to, but he was also the kind of guy who could really lay some hits on people who deserved it. He never seemed to take pleasure in what he was doing, but he did seem to know he was good at it.
For proof of Bernthal's absolute brutality as the Punisher, you need look no further than his own Daredevil hallway fight, taking place in a prison. This fight scene is one of the most violent displays of fighting prowess in a television show and is reminiscent of Rorschach's declaration in Watchmen. Frank Castle wasn't locked in there with them, they were locked in there with him.
8 LUNDGREN: DID HIS OWN STUNTS
The 1989 Punisher film has many, many flaws, but the bright shining spot in it is Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren has long been a celebrated action star (who also holds a master's degree in chemical engineering), and really made a name for himself when he played Ivan "I must break you" Drago in Rocky IV.
The Punisher was only Lundgren's fifth film role, but he put himself into it entirely. He stayed in character most of the time while on set and even chose to do most of his own stunts. He even worked on his physique so it would better reflect a man who has been living in the sewers for years, saying in a 1989 interview with Comics Scene "[Frank Castle] could not look too healthy and be believable."
7 JANE: LOVES THE CHARACTER
Before he appeared as Frank Castle The Punisher, Thomas Jane didn't actually know all that much about the character. He actually turned the role down a few times because he did not think he was fit for a superhero role. However, after Avi Arad sent Jane some of Tim Bradstreet's artwork of the character, Jane suddenly became interested.
He took the role, and because he wanted to do it right, he started reading as many Punisher stories as he could get his hands on. In the process of preparing for the role, Jane fell in love with the character. He even turned down the role in the 2008 film because he thought it didn't do justice the character.
6 STEVENSON: DOESN'T GET BOGGED DOWN IN MORALITY
With the Punisher, it's easy for filmmakers to get tempted by the idea of Frank questioning his mission, wondering if what he is doing is really the right thing. That, or they have other characters telling him that he can't do the things he does. Essentially, they somehow insert the idea of a conscience into their story.
This is not played on as heavily in Punisher: War Zone. While the film does take some moments to question what Frank is doing, for the most part, it is told from his point of view. It takes the moral position that Frank's methods of taking out criminals are fast, effective, and keep them from ever hurting anyone again.
5 BERNTHAL: EXPLORES THE CHARACTER'S PSYCHOLOGY
It's no secret that one of the main facets of Netflix's The Punisher is exploring the cost of war and what it can do to a person's psyche. It was the first Punisher adaptation to explore the idea that Frank's vigilante mission could have something to do with PTSD related to him losing his family.
The show not only explores how being a soldier changed Frank, but other characters as well. Beyond that, the show also takes a close look at how men communicate with one another, particularly in the conversations between Micro and Frank. Hopefully, The Punisher can continue to explore the complicated psychology of a character who is often criticized as being one-note.
4 LUNDGREN: DIDN'T PLAY HIM LIKE A SUPERHERO
Back before comic book movies were a dime a dozen, it was hard for actors and filmmakers to find the right tone in their films. That was what made the 1989 Punisher film so special. Sure, it's nothing to write home about, and it suffers from a lot of the worst conventions of 80s action films, but Dolph Lundgren refused to go over the top with his portrayal of Frank Castle.
Lundgren didn't approach the role like he was playing a comic book character. Instead, he played Frank like the troubled vigilante that he is. This version of Frank Castle is not a superhero. He's a broken man who is trying to find some sort of satisfaction in his mission to rid the world of criminals in his own lethal manner.
3 JANE: FUNDED HIS OWN PUNISHER SHORT FILM
Jon Bernthal has done amazing things with the character of Frank Castle, but there are still plenty of fans out there who consider Thomas Jane to be the best on-screen Punisher. We mentioned before that Thomas Jane became a huge Punisher fan while filming the movie, and it even inspired him to make his own Punisher short film.
Punisher: Dirty Laundry might just be one of the best pieces of Punisher media out there. Rather than an all-encompassing story, Dirty Laundry looks at a single day in the life of Frank Castle, and how he can't even wash his clothes without having to deal with some bad people. Before the Netflix series, this was the version of the Punisher that fans loved most. For some, it is still the best.
2 STEVENSON: TOOK OUT ENEMIES CREATIVELY
One of the most entertaining things about any Punisher story is watching how Frank takes out his enemies. This was even a huge aspect of the Punisher video game that came out shortly after the 2004 film. The player got to interrogate criminals in creatively dangerous ways, and then finish them off once they had the information they needed.
That was an aspect of the character that really made its way into Punisher: War Zone. It wasn't enough for Frank Castle to take out all of his enemies with guns (even though he does that a lot). He's perfectly at home taking guys out with chair legs, elbow drops off of a fence, and even lethal face punches. This was a Punisher who embraced the saying that variety is the spice of life.
1 BERNTHAL: SHOWED WHAT FRANK WAS LIKE BEFORE LOSING HIS FAMILY
Anyone who knows the Punisher's story knows that it is tragic, heartbreaking, and enough to drive a man to do what Frank Castle does. However, with the exception of 2004's The Punisher, there is never really a lot of time given to Frank's life before he became the Punisher. That is something that was remedied very well in Netflix's The Punisher.
For the first time, a significant amount of time was given to Frank's backstory, showing what his family life was like, and the kinds of lessons that he wanted to impart to his son and daughter. On top of that, there is a fantastic scene where Frank and Micro talk about how they met their wives, allowing them to bond over their own stories of finding the right person.