Frank Castle is a man of pure, uncontrollable, animalistic rage. A man uncompromisingly capable of explicit violence in the blink of an eye. The vigilante who isn't afraid to use any means necessary on his quest for vengeance against those responsible for the death of his wife and two children.
Jon Bernthal's recent portrayal has spawned his own standalone series. The 39-year-old actor is a perfect fit for the role, but it hasn't been an easy journey. Since the characters creation, there have been ups and downs, including uninspiring feature films, cancelled TV shows and underselling comics.
Early Origins As Spidey's Comic Book Villain
The Punisher was created by writer Gerry Conway and artist John Romita Sr., and was given the go-ahead by Marvel godfather Stan Lee. Compared to some superheroes, Frank Castle is a relative newcomer, making his first appearance in 1974's The Amazing Spider-Man, Issue 129. In those early days, Castle features as a Spider-Man villain and wasn't intended to have his own series.
However, fans developed a fondness for the gun-wielding ex-Marine and eventually, in 1986, he secured his own self-titled series. At the time, the launch of the strip was seen as experimental and wasn't predicted to succeed. It went on to become a well-known instalment.
The Transition Into Live-Action Films
In the world of live-action, the character exploded onto cinema screens for the first time in 1989's The Punisher, where he was played by '80s action legend Dolph Lundgren. The film, directed by Mark Goldblatt, shows Castle as an ex-cop who has become a wanted man after killing 125 criminals in five years. That's a lot.
The first attempt at bringing the Punisher to the big screen wasn't well received; as well as being generally poorly regarded by critics — due to financial difficulties with distributor New World Pictures — the film never had a theatrical release in the US.
It wasn't until 15 years later that the antihero returned to the silver screen, this time with Thomas Jane in the 2004 version of The Punisher. John Travolta was cast as villain Howard Saint, with Jane's Castle an FBI agent. Again, the film flattered to deceive, and didn't impress critics.
Failed Sequels And Cancelled TV Shows
A planned sequel with Jane in the lead role hit the skids after the actor fell out with producers over creative differences, and in a 2007 interview with Ain't It Cool, he said:
"What I won't do is spend months of my life sweating over a movie that I just don't believe in. I've always loved the Marvel guys, and wish them well. Meanwhile, I'll continue to search for a film that one day might stand with all those films that the fans have asked me to watch."
Instead, the film was rebooted by Lionsgate for 2008's Punisher: War Zone, with Castle portrayed by Ray Stevenson. Again this wasn't an accomplished portrayal of the character, with the film flopping at the box office. Against its $35 million budget, the film made just $10.1 million.
Despite three major movies that failed to hit the sweet spot, the lure of Frank Castle remained strong. So much so, in 2011, Criminal Minds showrunner Edward Allen Bernero purposed a batch of hour-long episodes. But despite getting a "put pilot" — usually a stamp of confirmation for a full series — the cancellation was announced in May 2012 without much of an explanation.
The Punisher Fans Deserve?
Fast forward to 2016, and the story suddenly takes a turn for the better. While previous incarnations of the gun slinging antihero never fully delivered, the character had the perfect environment to make an explosive entry, in the form of Daredevil.
The Netflix series is murky, brutal and unflinching. The Punisher's entrance in Season 2 was, even by the high standards of the show, a scene stealer. Jon Bernthal manages to perfectly capture the nuanced paradox of an ultra violent mass murderer who follows a strict code. Somehow, despite our better judgement, he makes that mass murderer, dare I say it, likeable.
Bernthal excels at both ends of the spectrum. During Frank's most rage-fuelled moments, his eyes are enough to tell the story; honed in like a predator in the wild, lacking in fear, full of deadly intent. Yet conversely, in those intimate scenes talking to Murdock or Karen Page, he portrays a vulnerability which makes him undeniably amiable.
Such was his impact, Bernthal has been rewarded with his own standalone spinoff show, which will also arrive on Netflix. Crucially, when the announcement was made, head of Marvel Television Jeph Loeb highlighted fan power as being crucial to getting the series commissioned. He said:
“We want to thank the fans who are clamoring for more of Jon’s stunning and powerful performance as Frank Castle from ‘Marvel’s Daredevil. Now combined with Showrunner Steve Lightfoot’s compelling writing, we’re thrilled to bring 'Marvel’s The Punisher' to Netflix.”
Before the show was confirmed, in an interview with Complex, Bernthal spoke of what it would take to succeed with a spinoff. He said:
"This character is in my bones now, he's in my blood. If they want to go forward in any way, for me it's just really going to be about making sure we do it in a way that's raw and intense. I want to push the envelope. I wanna alienate more of the audience and try to bring them back."
With Bernthal in the driving seat, and Castle in his bones, now, finally, fans have got the Punisher they deserve.