This is the twenty-third installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
With the success of “Batman,” it didn’t take long for other studios to start churning out their own superhero adaptations. New World Pictures – who still held a significant amount of rights to Marvel characters – wasted no time in putting one of those properties into production. While New World Television was currently working on several “The Incredible Hulk” reunion movies, and the characters of Thor and Daredevil were being looked at for possible television production, the Punisher was chosen for theatrical distribution.
“The Punisher” was the first Marvel Comics property adapted as a theatrical feature film. Several episodes of “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” had been released theatrically overseas, but they were produced for television. This was the fist one produced specifically for theatrical distribution.
For the role of Frank Castle, A.K.A. the Punisher, director Mark Goldblatt cast Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren had previously had a huge breakthrough role as Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” in 1985, and had previously played a superhero-type character when he starred as He-Man in 1987’s “Masters of the Universe.” Lundgren, who is naturally blonde, died his hair black to match the comic book appearance of the character.
Castle himself was the only character from the comic books used in the film. Original characters created for the film include Jake Berkowitz played by Louis Gossett, Jr, and Samantha “Sam” Leary played by Nancy Everhard. Everhard also played Matt Murdock’s legal partner – again an original character created for that film – in “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.” The Punisher’s sidekick, Microchip – who had only been introduced in the comics two years before – was replaced in the film with original character Shake, a homeless and alcoholic theater actor played by Barry Otto.
The film also doesn’t use the Punisher’s costume from the comics. In the comic books at the time, the Punisher wore black tights with white boots and white gloves and a huge white skull on the chest. Instead, the Punisher wears leather pants, a leather jacket and a simple black t-shirt. The t-shirt could easily have sported the white skull and still kept the more grounded and realistic feel the filmmaker was going for, but it was notoriously absent.
Japanese martial arts champions Kenji Yamaki and Hirofumi Kanayama were recruited for some of the film’s more intricate fight sequences. These fights were filmed full contact, partially for realism and partially at the request of Yamaki and Kanayama. Yamaki and Kanayama felt that faking the fights for the movie would dishonor them. Lundgren, who himself had been a champion martial artist, did his own fights and most of his own stunts.
Although there was a pre-title sequence in the original workprint of the film which set up the character of Frank Castle and showed the brutal murder of his wife and children – in the movie via car bomb – this scene was cut from the final version of the film. Instead, the film opens five years into the Punisher’s vendetta on the criminal underworld. The Punisher has been connected with 125 murders in that five year period.
“The Punisher” currently holds a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the critical consensus being, “Despite the seemingly indestructible Dolph Lundgren with a crossbow, The Punisher is a boring one-man battle with never-ending action scenes.” This criticism is unfair. While “The Punisher” does suffer from an extremely low budget and a rushed production schedule – due to the studio wanting to get it out around the same time as “Batman” to capitalize on that film’s buzz – it really does stay true to the spirit of the character, even if it isn’t a literal translation of the character.
While “The Punisher” did receive a wide theatrical release overseas in late 1989, financial issues at New World prevented a U.S. theatrical release. “The Punisher” would not be seen in the United States until it was released direct-to-video in 1991.
“The Punisher (1989)”, Internet Movie Database
Cecchini, Mike, “The Punisher: The Bloody Legacy of Marvel’s First Superhero Movie”, Den of Geek