Now that there just are just as many big (and little) screen adaptations of Frank Castle (aka The Punisher) as The Hulk, it’s time to take a look back and see who played Marvel’s favorite sociopathic vigilante anti-hero.
Jon Bernthal is yet another gold star casting decision for Marvel, who has consistently been landing big and upcoming stars for their major adaptations. Bernthal was one of the best performers on AMC’s The Walking Dead during his run there and has been a major supporting player in films like Fury, showcasing just how good he is playing dark characters. This makes him the perfect choice to step into the shoes of Frank Castle, a former cop turned vigilante who is one of the few Marvel heroes who kills his enemies after his family is murdered by criminals. This makes The Punisher a perfect rival to Matt Murdock’s Daredevil, as the title hero has made a stance against murdering villains and his struggle to come to that conclusion was a major subplot during the first season.
My favorite comic run of The Punisher is Jason Aaron’s PunisherMAX and in that series, Frank Castle goes toe to toe with The Kingpin so I’m excited to see a small screen adaptation where both of those characters inhabit the same world. It would be amazing if they utilized elements of that series too because it was so gripping and edgy. Bernthal looks the part and I’m excited to see this character come off as more of a villain this time around even though I’m sure he’ll wind up teaming with Daredevil to battle even worse opposition, likely in the form of Bullseye/Elektra and The Hand. I won’t rank Bernthal because that’s unfair but here are my top three Punishers so far:
#3 Dolph Lundgren
I watched the 1989 Punisher movie when I was a wee lad so I grew up ignorantly loving Dolph Lundgren’s performance as Frank Castle because I didn’t know any better. I haven’t revisited this film in YEARS and I don’t plan to because I don’t want to tarnish my childhood memories of Dolph kicking Yakuza ass.
But honestly, I know this film iteration of Frank Castle is considered just as blasphemous as that first 1990-something Captain America direct to video disaster but I’d like to think of it as being the ‘Blade’ of its generation: An R-Rated superhero adaptation that was well ahead of its time. Lundgren takes a lot of shit for being a meathead with no acting chops, but Castle is dead inside anyway so take his performance with a grain of salt – it kinda worked back then.
#2 Thomas Jane
Because of movies like Blade, Studios were more willing to give big screen comic flicks a shot at being more gritty and violent. Thomas Jane’s performance is probably the most well-rounded out of the bunch so far but the film itself didn’t push any boundaries. It didn’t help matters that the villain was played by Jon Travolta. Nothing against that actor but everything felt so polished in this adaptation and I was still in Dolph mode even all these years later so I wanted Frank Castle to be crazier.
Jane is still many a fan’s choice as the best Punisher to date and it’s hard to argue with them. They nailed the horrible origin of his family’s murder in this big screen adaptation and really drove home the vengeance fueled crusade of Frank Castle, making him the most sympathetic Punisher yet and one you truly could cheer for so that worked at the time.
#1 Ray Stevenson
Not only does Stevenson look exactly like Frank Castle in all of those Garth Ennis-era Punisher comic runs, but the film Punisher: Warzone is tonally the closest we’ll likely ever get to the pure violent and bloodsoaked essence of this character. Stevenson plays Castle almost exactly like Dolph did (but probably on purpose this time around) as an emotionally distant and deadpanned killer who knows nothing but death and imposing his will on the criminal underground. The reason why Warzone is critically panned was because of the over-the-top performance by Dominic West after he becomes the villain Jigsaw.
It was almost like the film turned into the Batman & Robin of R-Rated action movies and it just didn’t work… Despite all of the problems Warzone has, and there are a lot of them, Stevenson is my favorite so far because he looks like they actually created him in a lab to play this part. His portrayal was spot-on because he’s not sympathetic, he’s frightening and despite his arguably justifiable means to kill criminals, he doesn’t come across as a super-hero and that’s what makes The Punisher so compelling as a character.