Talking Movies [Punisher Month]: Punisher: War Zone


Back in February 1974, Spider-Man/Peter Parker faced a new enemy in the form of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned bloodthirsty vigilante. The Punisher separated himself from other, traditional costumed heroes by his willingness to kill and uncompromising, suicidal one-man war on crime and what better way to celebrate the debut of this nuanced and complex character by dedicating every Tuesday of this month shining a spotlight on Marvel’s most notorious anti-hero?


Released: 5 December 2008
Director: Lexi Alexander
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Budget: $35 million
Stars: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok, Doug Hutchison, and Colin Salmon

The Plot:
After losing his wife and daughter to mob violence, former Marina Frank Castle (Stevenson) has dedicated the rest of his life to eradicating criminal scum as “The Punisher”. However, when he accidentally kills an undercover Federal agent, Frank suffers a crisis of conscience; with Agent Paul Budiansky (Salmon) leading the charge to apprehend him, Frank’s life is further compounded when narcissistic mobster Billy Russoti (West) survives an attack by the Punisher, left brutally scarred as a result, and reigns chaos across the city as the sadistic “Jigsaw”.

The Background:
Having cemented himself as one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes following his impressive debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher soon became a recurring character in media outside of the comic books. Sadly, neither the 1989 Dolph Lundgren vehicle or the vastly under-rated 2004 film were critically or financially successful, despite one earning a cult following and the other legitimately being one of my favourite movies. Sadly, the story behind Punisher: War Zone is a pretty dour one as star Thomas Jane eventually grew frustrated with waiting for a sequel to his film and walked away from the role only for the sequel’s script to be retooled into a complete reboot that director Lexi Alexander aimed to be a throwback to the action movies of the 1980s. With Ray Stevenson replacing Jane and undergoing rigorous training for the role, tensions rose between Alexander and the film’s American distributor Lions Gate over the film’s rating, and the film’s limited theatrical release meant it was a box office bomb upon release. Reviews were mixed to negative, with some taking exception to the film’s graphic content and others enjoying its extreme violence and fidelity to the source material. For my part, I was annoyed that Jane was replaced as, with just a few tweaks, this could have easily been a direct sequel (hell, even with the recast it could have been) but I found myself enjoying the film’s excessive gore and over-the-top action much more than I expected and found it to be a worthy representation of Marvel’s infamous anti-hero.

The Review:
Punisher: War Zone was part of the sadly short-lived “Marvel Knights” sub-series of Marvel movies; completely unrelated to the two previous Punisher movies, the film begins with Frank Castle already some four years into his vigilante career. From his hidden underground lair, he observes local news and arms himself in the fight against organised crime and criminals all across New York City. This leads him to crashing a party for a known Mafia boss, which sees numerous mobster’s dead but also results in the death of an undercover FBI agent, Nicky Donatelli (Romano Orzari).

The Punisher is appropriately dressed and armed for war.

I initially didn’t think much to Stevenson’s Punisher gear; unlike his predecessors, he’s garbed head-to-toe in in heavy-duty, tactical riot gear that kind of makes him look like a turtle. However, in practice, the outfit works really well; the body armour protects Castle from both gunfire and knives, especially around vulnerable parts of his body like his chest and neck, and he has spray-painted a bad-ass skull on the front in luminous paint to intimidate his prey and draw bullets away from his unprotected head. Like the 1989 film, we learn about Castle’s tragic past through brief flashbacks, news reports, and exposition from other characters; his origins are probably to closest to the source material so far, with his wife and children being victims of a random act of mob violence, and his reputation is one of stark contrasts.

The Punisher’s reputation makes him a feared and controversial figure.

Police officers like Saffiotti (Tony Calabretta) praise his violent actions as he does what others can’t and isn’t restricted by the system, the mobsters are obviously in fear of him and constantly driven to frustration by his interference and persistence, and while Detective Martin Soap (Mihok) is clearly protecting Frank from reprisals as part of the laughable Punisher Task Force, Budiansky makes it his personal mission to bring Castle in after he accidentally kills Donatelli. Budiansky acts as the primary audience surrogate for those unfamiliar with the Punisher; initially angered that Castle has been allowed to run rampant, he eventually becomes a reluctant, and then willing, ally of Castle’s as their interests align.

The Punisher’s allies believe whole-heartedly in the sanctity of his mission.

Like his comic book counterpart, the Punisher also has help from his armoury, Linus Lieberman/Microchip (Knight), a tech-savvy figure who supplies Frank with weapons, armour, and leads to help him in his war on crime. A staunch believer in the Punisher’s actions, Microchip is aghast when Castle, wracked with guilt over Donatelli’s death, considers leaving town and quitting his vigilante ways. Microchip has taken on a protégé, of sorts, in the film, former gangbanger Carlos Cruz (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio), which initially angers Castle but, when Carlos gives his life trying to protect Donatelli’s daughter, Castle finds his black and white view of the world further skewed. While Frank is, as always, a man who has lost everything and has been driven to the edge, with nothing to life for but his suicidal, never-ending war against crime, his allies believe in him so completely that that are willing to not only defy the system for him but to give their lives for him and the greater good, something which Frank is determined to see avenged at every opportunity.

The Russottis are a couple of absolute madmen who steal the show.

Punisher: War Zone really emphasises the traditional Italian-American Mafia life; the film is littered with stereotypical mobsters, Dons, and the like, all of whom are dressed sharp and full of pride and gusto. None are more sharply dressed and full of arrogance than caporegime Billy Russotti; known as “The Beaut”, Billy is a mean, sadistic, gangster who is obsessed with his looks and has a chip on his shoulder about having the answer to tired old men. Dominic West is clearly having the time of his life in the role and this becomes explicitly obvious after the Punisher tosses Billy into a glass-crushing machine and he is left hideously disfigured. Now calling himself “Jigsaw”, Billy goes completely off the rails and, in addition to employing the services of his usual goons and a gang of freerunners, releases his psychopathic brother, James (Hutchison), from a mental institution Also known as Loony Bin Jim (a name both brothers despise), James is a cruel, animalistic cannibal who rips people open to feast on their flesh and innards and regularly (and wilfully) engages in all kinds of disgusting and self-destructive behaviour. James’s influence only encourages Jigsaw’s newfound madness and brutality, escalating Billy’s vendetta against the Punisher and his desire to become the top dog in New York. Thanks to some impressive practical effects, Jigsaw’s gruesome visage is wonderfully brought to life in a way that is both disturbing and ludicrous and West uses the make-up to accentuate his performance into a bombastic glee that is truly entertaining to behold. His referring to God as an “imaginary friend” always gets a chuckle out of me and his performance is perfectly in keeping with the film’s more exaggerated moments that are ripped right out of a Punisher MAX comic book.

The Nitty-Gritty:
One of the absolute best things about Punisher: War Zone is how massively over the top and gory its action scenes and violence are; this version of the Punisher is also a hulking brute of a man who is capable of throwing himself, and any nearby weapons, at his foes and caving in their skulls with his bare hands but, as you might expect, Castle is also a driven, determined, nigh-unstoppable one-man army who is adept with numerous firearms. When the Punisher shoots or stabs people in this movie, it’s not just a few squibs of blood or arterial spray, it’s a fucking bloodbath with bones breaking, heads exploding, and limbs being blown off and it’s absolutely fantastic!

A hardened vigilante, Castle continues to be haunted by his losses and to be a tragic figure.

Whenever the gun fights kick off or Loony Bin Jim gets triggered, the gratuitous violence is quite literally splashed across the screen; the Punisher coldly and mercilessly executes his prey with barely a flicker of emotion, sets his own broken nose at one point, and is more than capable of taking out entire rooms full of armed men all by himself. While Stevenson’s Punisher is a resourceful, militaristic, focused machine of a man, he is also more than capable of conveying the pathos and emotion that are associated with the character. He is haunted by the deaths of his wife and kids and so traumatised at having accidentally killed one of the “good guys” that he desperately tries to make amends with Donatelli’s. Like Lundgren’s Punisher, this sees him all but begging Donatelli’s wife, Angela (Julie Benz), to shoot him in recompense for his mistake.

The film is an unashamedly gratuitous and over the top, action-packed piece of entertainment.

Considering how over the top Punisher: War Zone is, the film is littered with some fantastic performances by character actors like Dominic West, Wayne Knight, and one of my absolute favourite actors, Colin Salmon (who really needs to have bigger film roles). Budiansky’s grouchy demeanour and interactions with Soap and Castle are a real highlight, bringing some levity to the film (his enraged reaction when Castle blows a mobster’s head off with a shotgun is hilarious!) I’m not massively familiar with ray Stevenson and, if we’re being honest, he’s not as good of an actor as Thomas Jane but, having said that, he really nails the Punisher role. Like I say, he’s much more of a stoic military man but he’s still, perhaps surprisingly, fully capable of conveying the character’s complex emotional dichotomy. While Castle’s mission is one deeply rooted in a personal desire for revenge, Jigsaw’s vendetta against him escalates things considerably; after he kills Microchip’s mother, Carlos, kidnaps Donatelli’s daughter, and forces Frank to kill Microchip, it’s incredibly cathartic when the Punisher finally gets his hands on Jigsaw and tortures him to death with a cold, brutal execution worthy of his name.

The Summary:
Even today, The Punisher remains one of my favourite movies and it was a bitter pill to swallow when Thomas Jane walked away from the role and the next film was made as a reboot. However, I was presently surprised at how enjoyable Punisher: War Zone is; it’s a very different type of film and much more over the top and action-orientated but that’s equally as fitting for the character as infusing the story with tragedy and pathos. While it would have been extremely easy to take another pass at the script and frame it as a continuation of the previous film with an older, more seasoned Punisher, Punisher: War Zone stands by itself as an enjoyably entertaining action film that doesn’t hold back one iota. I respect it for that, and for being over the top with its depiction of gratuitous violence and bloodshed, and it resonates with me on many levels as a fan of this genre. As a result, I find it disappointing that the film didn’t perform better as everyone did a really good job and I honestly would have liked to see more from this version of the Punisher and his world.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What did you think to Punisher: War Zone? How would you rank it compared to the other two Punisher films? Were you annoyed that Thomas Jane was replaced in the role or do you think this film improves on its predecessor? What did you think to Stevenson’s portrayal of the character and Dominic West as Jigsaw? Did you enjoy the film’s gratuitous violence or did you think it was a little too over the top? Would you have liked to see more from this version of the Punisher and the Marvel Knights sub-series of films? How have you been celebrating the Punisher’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on Punisher: War Zone, and the Punisher in general, leave a comment below.

Game Corner [Punisher Month]: The Punisher (PlayStation 2)


Back in February 1974, Spider-Man/Peter Parker faced a new enemy in the form of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned bloodthirsty vigilante. The Punisher separated himself from other, traditional costumed heroes by his willingness to kill and uncompromising, suicidal one-man war on crime and what better way to celebrate the debut of this nuanced and complex character by dedicating every Tuesday of this month shining a spotlight on Marvel’s most notorious anti-hero?


Released: 16 January 2005
Developer: Volition
Also Available For: Mobile, PC, and Xbox

The Background:
After his impressive debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, Frank Castle/The Punisher quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes thanks to his tragic backstory and unwavering commitment to the eradication of crime. The Punisher has also seen some success outside of the comic books, featuring in movies, cartoons, and a number of licensed videogames. Released to coincide with the 2004 movie of the same name, The Punisher was developed by Volition, a studio purchased by THQ in 2000 and perhaps best known at the time for their work on the Red Faction (ibid, 2001; 2002). Acting as a quasi-sequel to The Punisher (Hensleigh, 2004), The Punisher saw star Thomas Jane return to voice the role but incorporated its aesthetic presentation, storyline, and characters from the comics and was subjected to numerous edits and cuts to tone down its scene of explicit violence and gore and make it financially viable for release. While the game was met with mixed reviews, it sold around one million copies and was considered a success for Volition, who would go on to develop Saints Row (Volition, 2006).

The Plot:
Having dedicated his life to the eradication of crime after losing his family to mobsters, Frank Castle has been working his way through New York City’s underworld as the Punisher. Having carved his way through the low-level street gangs and the Yakuza, he allows himself to be captured and interrogated in order to get closer to the town’s newest head gangster, the mysterious “Jigsaw”, who has a personal grudge against the Punisher.

Gameplay:
The Punisher is a third-person action shooter in which you’re placed into the iconic trenchcoat, combat trousers, and skull-shirt of Frank Castle, the titular Punisher, as he mows his way through countless thugs, lowlifes, and criminals in a one-man war on crime. Although he can’t jump, the Punisher has a number of combat and movement options available to him: he can pick up and swap weapons with the Circle button (note that, while he can dual-wield weapons, he can only hold two types of weapons at once; a smaller weapon like a pistol and a bigger weapon like a shotgun), select between his weapons by pressing down on the directional pad, fire his weapons with R1, toss grenades and other such explosives with L1, and enter a more accurate aiming mode (which is further expanded when he has a sniper rifles) by pressing in the right analogue stick.

Frank’s methods of interrogation basically amount to brutal and sadistic torture.

The Punisher can also dive ahead with a press of R2, duck and crouch walk with L2, and grab thugs and use them as a human shield with X. In this position, or when up close to enemies, you can execute them with a quick kill by pressing Square. Enemies can also be interrogated by pressing X; in this mode, you’re ask to tilt or move the left analogue stick to keep a meter in the right area long enough to “break” your victim, which will award you with hints and Style Points. As you kill enemies, rack up kill combinations, and pull off successfully interrogations, you’ll earn Style Points that can be used to upgrade the Punisher’s various skills and attributes from the main menu in Frank’s apartment. As you encounter enemies and head into fire fights, you’ll notice glowing white Punisher skulls over the heads of certain enemies; once you’ve cleared the immediate area of all other enemies, these guys will give up and you’re tasked with performing a “Special Interrogation” using various parts of the environment (drills, furnaces, shark tanks, or dangling off a ledge, for example). Once you break them, they’ll often lead you to secret areas with new weapons or cause enemies ahead of you to stand down so you can progress easier. You can kill them, but it will cost you Style Points (which can be a little confusing as you’re otherwise rewarded for killing criminals; indeed, you can kill these guys normally after breaking them and not be penalised). Other times, you’ll see a glowing gold Punisher skull in the environment, which allows you to pull off a “Special Kill” (locking a scumbag in a coffin and tossing in a grenade, for example) for additional Style Points.

Enter Slaughter Mode to make short work of your enemies but watch your fire around friendlies!

Considering how linear the game is, it’s surprisingly easy to get lost as you’re often exploring dark, grey corridors and very bland environments; there’s no map or onscreen indication of where you need to go so it’s easy to get a bit turned around at times. Often, you’re joined by a partner character (Natalia Romanova/Black Widow, Nick Fury, and agents of the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate/S.H.I.E.L.D.) who cannot be harmed by either you or enemies and are, surprisingly, very useful and competent for computer-controlled characters. Occasionally, you’ll be asked with solving some very simple puzzles that amount to finding a key or pulling a lever, rescuing hostages, placing explosive charges, interacting with a hidden switch to open a door, or forcing certain enemies to open doors; it’s nothing massively taxing but, again, it can sometimes be confusing as to where you need to go. The Punisher is quite a durable character whose health is refilled as he breaks thugs through interrogations or talks to rescued innocents but it also regenerates when you press Triangle; this puts you into “Slaughter Mode”, which slows time down to a crawl, turns the screen black and white, and has you tossing throwing knives and performing instant kills as long as the meter lasts. This can be a great way of clearing out rooms filled with perps but, honestly, I generally tended to save it for boss battles as the game is pretty generous with its checkpoints and not especially difficult to get through and I found this mechanic to be quite disorientating. Most of my deaths and mission failures came from accidentally dropping from high ledges or killing innocents; occasionally, enemies will grab hostages and use them as human shields and, if you kill them, you’ll instantly fail the mission so be sure to use your more accurate aiming in this situations.

Graphics and Sound:
For a PlayStation 2 game, The Punisher is pretty decent to look at when you can actually see what’s onscreen. Character models are pretty good, if a bit blocky, but not much to shout about when it comes to enemy variety and aesthetic. Indeed, the character who looks the most dynamic and impressive is, fittingly, the Punisher himself. Decked out in a long trenchcoat, combat trousers, army boots, and skull shirt, the Punisher looks exactly like he stepped right out of the pages of a Garth Ennis comic book. Punisher even dons different outfits for different missions, including ditching the trenchcoat, decking himself out in war paint, and wearing prison clothes and, while he doesn’t have Thomas Jane’s likeness, he looks very much like his comic book counterpart.

Environments can be a bit boring and drab but there are a few that stand out as visually interesting.

Where the game falters, though, is in the level variety and presentation; you’ll skulk around seedy alleyways, dark corridors, and dingy crack houses, which aren’t massively impressive. Even areas like the chop shop, the zoo, and Fisk Industries’ skyscraper aren’t much to shout about as the game’s visuals are dulled with a dark, moody presentation that, while fitting, can make things visually very lifeless and boring. It’s not all bad, though; one mission takes place in a jungle, which helps to spice things up, as does battling through the research and development department of Stark Industries and a nightclub/bar, all of which bring some life and clarity to the action.

While many of its more brutal kills are censored, The Punisher is still a gloriously violent game.

As mentioned, the game’s more brutal and bloodier executions have, sadly, been censored; nevertheless, the game is extremely violent, with enemies spurting blood and being blasted to death as best as the PlayStation 2 can render. The Punisher’s interrogation sequences basically amount to a version of torture and see Frank beating, choking, kicking, or intimidating his victims or threatening this lives using various parts of the environment, which is all very fun to see and take part in and, while these are censored, the implication is still very clear to see.

While the CG cutscenes are a bit fuzzy, the in-game graphics are pretty decent and there’s some fun cameos.

The music isn’t really that interesting or memorable; the game doesn’t seem to pull any tracks or influence from the movie, which is a shame, but the voice acting is top notch. Thomas Jane was always a fantastic Punisher and he continues to narrate events around him, offering wry commentary, dry quips, threats, and conveying just the right amount of dread and anger in the title role. The few amount of CG cutscenes the game uses are decent enough but the icing on the cake were the appearances and cameos from some of Marvel’s more recognisable characters, such as Matt Murdock, Tony Stark/Iron Man, and Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin, which are fun hints at the wider Marvel universe that exists around The Punisher and the cries and screams of the goons you fight are satisfying to hear.

Enemies and Bosses:
As you might expect, the Punisher is confronted by a horde of nameless, faceless goons, thugs, and scumbags in his quest to destroy all crime. Enemies will react with fear and hostility at your presence, shoot at you from behind cover and doors, and throw weapons at you but, for the most part, are quite stupid and easily taken out even when they have the higher ground or the numbers advantage. As the story progresses, though, you’ll come up against more formidable enemies or enemies wielding more powerful weapons, such as shotguns, sniper rifles, and flamethrowers. Enemies will also fire rockets at you from helicopters, commandos don more protective armour to withstand your shots, and Yakuza will dog you at every turn in waves. Thankfully, you always have plenty of options available to take these guys out, from tossing them to giant snakes, smashing their faces into mounted guns, or simply blasting them away with your weapons and, while you’re often asked to hold out against a timer as an endless swarm of enemies rush at you, it’s never like you’re not capable of defending yourself.

Bushwacker gives you the slip more than once before you finally confront him head on.

In terms of bosses, The Punisher has an interesting variety both visually and in terms of how you fight them. The game’s first few missions see you busting up the Gnucci gang; when you get into a shootout with Bobby Gnucci, you need to make use of nearby cover to get a good bead on him to take him out with a headshot. Later, you’ll burst out of a coffin and gun down countless minions of the family and find yourself running around in circles in a confusing attic maze as enemies continuously spawn in and you desperately try to find take out Eddie Gnucci in one of the game’s more confusing and frustrating boss battles. One of the more elusive bosses in the game is Carl Burbank/Bushwacker, a muscle-bound freak with a gun for an arm who constantly dogs your progress and escapes your retribution until you finally confront him in the library at Ma Gnucci’s estate. Goons will continually spawn into this fight and, if you attack Bushwacker head-on, you’ll take massive damage so I found the best tactic was to do a continuous circuit of the library, shooting at Bushwacker as and when, and bust out the Slaughter Mode to bring him down. Afterwards, you are given four minutes to escape the estate as it burns down, shooting sprinklers on the ceiling to get through the flames and performing a Special Kill to make short work of Ma Gnucci.

Though seemingly impervious to pain, environmental hazards and flames will bring the Russian down.

At the end of the docks, you’ll have to grab a nearby rocket launcher to take out the tank that blocks your exit, which is pretty easy to do thanks to all of the handy-dandy containers that offer cover. Afterwards, the game recreates a classic scene from the movie and comics with a battle against the nigh-invulnerable Russian in Frank’s apartment; here, you must stay away from the Russian and stun him with nearby melee weapons, mount his back, and use the Special Interactions to best him. Later, you’ll battle him against around a missile silo; this time, you need to shoot the barrels he grabs before he can throw them at you and, when he comes down to your level, use your grenades, the explosive barrels, and the missile’s flame jet to put him down once and for all while dispatching the endless goons.

Bullseye is a slippery, tricky devil who eludes your attacks and keeps you on the move.

When you infiltrate Fisk Industries, you’ll encounter another elusive and annoying boss, Bullseye. This slippery devil will somersault about the place, tossing knives at you and only really taking damage when you land a headshot thanks to his fancy body armour. You’ll fight him again in an area of the skyscraper that is under construction, which makes it harder for you to get a clean shot thanks to all the walls and obstructions, before you have a finale showdown in Fisk’s penthouse where he pulls a gun out on you. In each of these three areas, you’ll find a weapons cache to keep your ammo topped up and I would recommend returning t it again and again to grab grenades to deal the most damage to Bullseye and knock him down so you can get a cleaner shot at his stupid head.

The finale sees you battling Jigsaw, who is in stolen Iron man tech, on the prison rooftop.

The finale of the game sees you facing off against Jigsaw (who, in a change to the source material, is revealed to be John Saint from the 2004 movie) who has donned stolen Iron Man armour. This is a two-stage boss battle; in the first stage, Jigsaw fires seeking missiles and repulsor blasts at you while hovering in the air and the only way to bring him down and damage him is to run underneath him and fire at his jetpack. Once he’s brought to ground level, he’ll chase after you and blast at you while goons spawn in to back him up. While you can shoot at him, it’s far easier to run to an area of the rooftop where the explosive mines (or “RAMs”) continually respawn; simply position yourself behind parts of the environment and toss these towards Jigsaw and remote detonate them and you’ll blow him away in no time at all.

Power-Ups and Bonuses:
The Punisher is afforded a great deal of weaponry for his crusade, most of it he liberates from defeated enemies or picks up from weapon caches in the environment. You’ll get access to a number of pistols (which Frank can dual-wield), revolvers, sub-machine guns, rifles, and shotguns and you can swap these out at any time when you see a weapon on the ground. You can also find and use flamethrowers (but be careful as flaming enemies can harm you as well) and a rocket launcher, which is perfect for bringing down helicopters, and a sniper rifle to take enemies out from a distance and defend your gondola in the jungle. Other time, you can acquire melee weapons to put a beatdown on your enemies.

Choose from a wide selection of weapons and use Skill Points to upgrade Frank’s abilities.

After clearing a mission, you’ll be awarded with both Medals and Style Points. You can spend these points upgrading a number of the Punisher’s skills and attributes from Frank’s apartment. You can upgrade Frank’s body armour to increase your resistance to damage, increase the duration of your Slaughter Mode, increase your clip capacity, and add a scope or grenade function to certain weapons. Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about upgrading every weapon individually so increasing your accuracy or ammo capacity will do this for every weapon by default.

Additional Features:
The Punisher offers three difficulty settings, which will increase the aggressiveness and durability of your enemies and also allow you to obtain different Medals and gameplay modes. You can earn Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medals in every mission, but Gold Medals are only available when playing on Hard Mode; however, every time you finish a mission, you’ll unlock an additional “Challenge Mode” that presents you with a specific objective to fulfil to unlock extra stuff. Sadly, there is no option to don a different skin or outfit when replaying missions but there are cheat codes to unlock alternative outfits, so that ’s something, at least.

Take on challenges and play on Hard Mode (or cheat…) to unlock additional modes, cheats, and costumes.

From Frank’s apartment, you can view all of the Punisher’s weapons (Thomas Jane even narrates what each weapon is capable of), enemy biographies, cutscenes, flashbacks (which are triggered and unlocked when interrogating certain enemies), and comic books covers (unlocked by clearing challenges). When playing on Hard Mode, you’ll also gain access to “Punishment Mode”, which has you holding out against waves of enemies to earn points and medals. Additionally, clearing Hard Mode will unlock cheats for you to use; you can also unlock these manually but, while it’s fun to run around without fear of harm, you won’t actually be able to progress through the story with these activated.

The Summary:
The Punisher is a pretty decent third-person shooter; considering it’s a licensed game, which are generally regarded as being terrible, it’s a pretty solid effort. I think choosing to veer more towards the source material than the movie was a good choice as it made it more appealing and fresh and, rather than going through the beats of the movie step by step, it crafts an entirely new adventure that is appealing to fans of the film, the comics, and this genre of videogame. It’s not perfect by any means; the censoring of the torture scenes is disappointing, environments are bland and dark and confusing, and certain sections can be frustrating at times but there is a lot of variety and mayhem on offer thanks to the wide array of weapons and kill options at your disposal. It’s probably the most accurate Punisher videogame we’re ever likely to get and has quite a lot of replay value thanks to the additional challenges and such. There might be better third-person shooters out there but The Punisher is definitely worth your time for the violence alone, to say nothing of the references to and cameos of other Marvel characters. Team this up with Deadpool (High Moon Studios, 2013) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Raven Software, 2009) and you have some of the best and most accurate videogame depictions of Marvel’s more violent characters.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Have you ever played The Punisher? If so, what did you think of it? Were you disappointed that it didn’t follow the movie closer, or have more ties to the movie, or did you enjoy that it was more in line with the source material? What did you think to the game’s violence, executions, and action? Which of the cameos and/or boss battles was your favourite and were there any you felt were missing from the game? Would you like the see the title remastered for modern consoles or do you think it’s best left as a relic of a bygone era? Which Punisher videogame, story, or adaptation is your favourite? Whatever you think about The Punisher, feel free to write a comment below and be sure to check out my other Punisher content.

Talking Movies [Punisher Month]: The Punisher: Extended Cut (2004)


Back in February 1974, Spider-Man/Peter Parker faced a new enemy in the form of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned bloodthirsty vigilante. The Punisher separated himself from other, traditional costumed heroes by his willingness to kill and uncompromising, suicidal one-man war on crime and what better way to celebrate the debut of this nuanced and complex character by dedicating every Tuesday of this month shining a spotlight on Marvel’s most notorious anti-hero?


Released: 21 November 2006
Originally Released: 16 April 2004
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Distributor: Lions Gate Films
Budget: $33 million
Stars: Thomas Jane (also billed as “Tom Jane”), John Travolta, Will Patton, James Carpinello, Laura Harring, and Russell Andrews

The Plot:
Frank Castle (Jane), an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) and former Delta Force veteran, is left devastated and believed dead after crime boss Howard Saint (Travolta) orders the death of his entire family following Frank’s part in the death of his son, Bobby (Carpinello). Turning to alcohol and fuelled by rage, Frank embarks on a suicidal plan to destroy the Saint’s operation from within to punish them for their deeds.

The Background:
While Marvel Comics has its fair share of bright-coloured do-gooders swinging or flying around and dispensing justice, they are also have their fair share of anti-heroes and one of their first, and most notorious, was the Punisher. As one of Marvel’s more “realistic” and low-key characters, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Punisher has seen his fair share of live-action adaptations over the years. While the first attempt at adapting the character was received rather poorly, by 2004 things had changed; superhero movies were now increasingly popular and profitable, with films like Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002) and X-Men (Singer, 2000) paving the way for the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Development of a new Punisher movie can be traced back to 2000, when Marvel made a long-term agreement with Artisan Entertainment to adapt fifteen of their characters into films and TV shows, and writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh came onboard with the specific intention to draw inspiration from seminal Punisher writers like Garth Ennis and Dan Abnett. Thomas Jane was producer Avi Arad’s first and only choice for the role and, though not a comic book fan, Jane soon threw himself into meticulous physical and mental preparation for the role. Unfortunately, Hensleigh was not afforded the same budget as other superhero films at the time, meaning he was forced to excise certain scenes from the film, which was an unfortunate financial and critical failure. This stalled plans for a direct sequel and Jane left the role after waiting three years for news of the follow-up, only for a completely unrelated reboot to be produced soon after! Still, I feel The Punisher’s negative reception is unwarranted; it was an instant favourite of mine upon first viewing and I went out of my way to purchase this “Extended Cut”, which added an animated prologue and an additional subplot, both of which add a great deal to what is, in my opinion, already a pretty poignant and bad-ass film.

The Review:
After a short but incredibly effective title sequence set to Carlo Siliotto’s fantastic Punisher theme, “The Skull”, which is like a dirge of military horns, The Punisher immediately sets the stage for its events by opening not in New York City like in the comic books, but in the gorgeously alluring city of Tampa Bay, Florida. While I’m sure some purists lamented this choice at the time, I actually always really enjoyed it; it’s nice to see comic book movies mix the locations up a bit so that they’re not all set in the same damn high-rise cities and the film ends with Frank clearly heading off the New York to continue his work so it’s pretty clear to me that the intention was always to get to the big city in a follow-up movie.

Ruthless mobster Howard Saint is driven to near madness by Castle’s vengeance.

As far as I am aware, Howard Saint has no basis in the source material but, for me, he’s an extremely effective antagonist in this interpretation of the Punisher. While I’m not a fan of John Travolta, he makes for a captivating and enigmatic villain; exuding confidence and authority, Howard clearly believes himself to be the most powerful man in the room and he lords his position as a money launderer and high-ranking mobster. Sharply dressed and living in luxury, it’s implied that he has worked his way up the ladder of success from nothing and he is clearly living his best life with expensive suits, jewellery, opulence, and accessories. In many way, even his wife, Livia (Harring), is another trophy to hang from his arm and he has kept himself in power by being both extremely reliable and extremely protective about his business, personal life, and family. Howard’s empire is vast and wealthy thanks to him funnelling Mike (Eduardo Yáñez and Joe Toro’s (Omar Avila) misbegotten funds through his legitimate business, such as his incredibly successful club, Saints & Sinners (whose unfortunately garish-looking sign looks like it was whipped up using WordArt). In an effort to impress his father with his business acumen and proactivity, Howard’s son, Bobby, agrees to finance an arms deal with the Saint’s lackey, Mickey Duka (Eddie Jemison), only for it to be part of an undercover bust in which Frank has been posing as Mickey’s contact. Frank’s assumed identity is killed in the ensuing conflict, thereby protecting him and his family from reprisals, but, unfortunately, Bobby is also killed by an errant shot, which greatly disappoints Frank as he was hoping for a bloodless end to the operation.

After his entire family is murdered, Frank becomes a hardened vigilante.

Frank, a former Marine, is heralded by his friends and colleagues as the “finest undercover op” in the F.B.I. However, as capable as he is and as legendary as his reputation is, Frank has grown weary of his time in conflict and around death and, with the conclusion of this particular bust, is planning on moving himself and his wife Maria (Samantha Mathis), and son Will (Marcus Johns) to London so he can take a much safer desk job and never have to worry about his identity or their safety being compromised. Unfortunately for Frank, Bobby’s death comes back to haunt him as both Howard and Livia are heartbroken to the point of fury; although Howard spares Mickey’s life, despite his part in Bobby’s death, he actively uses every resource at his disposal to learn Frank’s identity and, upon learning that Frank and his entire family are at a family reunion in Puerto Rico, Livia demands that the entire Castle line is executed as recompense. Accordingly, although Frank and his father, Frank Castle Sr. (the excellent Roy Scheider in one of his last roles) try to hold off Saint’s hitmen with their weapon proficiency, Frank is forced to watch every single member of his family be gunned down in cold blood. Maria and Will try to escape and are run down and killed, leaving Frank wounded and completely at the mercy of Bobby’s twin brother, John (also Carpinello), and Howard’s right-hand man, Quentin Glass (Patton), who beat him, shoot him, and leave him to die in an explosion.

Thomas Jane is the Punisher and captures the character’s spirit amazingly.

While the Saints toast their victory, Frank somehow survives this onslaught; after being nursed back to health by a local medicine man, he returns to the scene of the massacre to acquire his father’s guns and a shirt baring a gruesome skull visage gifted to him by his son the day that he died and, with a grim glare and a stoic utterance (“God’s gonna sit this one out”), vows to have his revenge. He moves into a dilapidated apartment block and begins busying himself sprucing and armouring up an American muscle car, boobytrapping his apartment, cleaning and preparing his guns and drinking himself into a stupor with glass after glass of whiskey. Haunted by his family’s murder and suffering the weight of survivor’s guilt, something flips in Frank’s head and he enters into a cold-blooded, merciless vendetta not just to kill the Saints but to punish them. Although he doesn’t take the name “The Punisher” until the final moments of the film, Frank looks very much the part; unlike Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane spends the majority of the film decked out in his iconic skull-branded shirt and sporting a bad-ass leather trench coat and looks like Tim Bradstreet’s impressive artwork come to life. Add to that his physical stature and stern commitment to the role and you have probably one of the best, if not the best, portrayals of the character ever put to film and it still annoys me that Jane never got the chance to feature in a second feature-length Punisher film.

Frank attracts the attention of his misfit, but good-natured, neighbours.

While in the building, he attracts the interest and attention of his neighbours: Joan (Rebecca Romijn), Spacker Dave (Ben Foster), and Nathaniel Bumpo (John Pinette). While Dave and Bumpo basically act as the film’s comic relief (which they both perform admirably through great use of comedic timing, line delivery, and physical performance), Joan feels a great swell of pity and attraction towards Frank, especially after they learn about what happened to his family. Having suffered from a number of abusive relationships and alcohol problems, she is naturally attracted towards damaged people and has formed a kind of oddball surrogate family with Dave and Bumpo. Nevertheless, she attempts to reach what little remains of Frank’s humanity; seeing that he is on a self-destructive, potentially suicidal path, she stresses the importance of clinging on to good memories rather than letting the bad or dark ones tear him apart. While Frank is initially dismissive of his neighbours, he cannot in good conscience ignore their plight when they’re in danger and is mortified when Dave is tortured and mutilated by Quentin simply to hide Frank from Saint’s men. In that moment, Frank realises that there is life after tragedy and is touched by their loyalty to him, a veritable stranger, and thus gifts them with the Saint’s ill-begotten gains when he moves on at the end of the film out of his appreciation for their affection.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Those who have seen the original theatrical cut of The Punisher will immediately notice the differences made to this extended version of the film as the opening is proceeded by an animated prologue that details Frank and Jimmy Weeks’ (Andrews) time as soldiers in Kuwait. While the original version of the film works without this and does allude to Frank’s time as a solider, it only adds to the emotional depth and complexity of the character to see some of the horrors he witnessed in combat. Specifically, we see how Frank openly defied his commanding officer, who wanted to execute some terrorist prisoners, and watched him die when one of the captives pulled a grenade for a suicide blast. This brief animated sequence also does a great job not only of showing that Frank was a veritable one-man army even back in those days but also of lending just a little more depth to Frank and Jimmy’s relationship as we see how Frank saved Jimmy’s life by single-handedly taking out a group of snipers and how Jimmy saved him, in turn, from an RPG attack.

Jimmy’s character is greatly expanded upon in this Extended Cut.

Also added to the film is a new sequence at the start where we see that John tries, unsuccessfully, to talk Bobby out of going along with Mickey’s arms deal, and a scene in the Toro’s casino where they detail some of their past and history with Howard and help him to get leverage on Jimmy by fixing the odds against him. Indeed, Jimmy benefits the most from the Extended Cut by virtue of a number of his excised scenes being restored to the film; this shows how Jimmy has a known and destructive gambling habit and makes it explicitly clear that Howard Saint was able to get the lead on Frank’s name and location by capitalising on Jimmy’s vices. Jimmy is understandably disturbed when Frank returns from the “dead” not just because his old friend turns out to be alive, as in the original cut, but also because he knows that he will eventually fall into Frank’s crosshairs. Indeed, while Frank is too preoccupied with his vendetta against the Saint’s to really socialise with Jimmy all that much, he immediately becomes suspicious of Jimmy’s involvement in his family’s murder when he notices that his friend has traded away his fancy new car and is missing the watch Frank gifted him after Kuwait. As a result, we get an extremely tense, volatile, and heart-wrenching confrontation between the two where Frank gives his old friend and comrade the chance to end his life by his own hand rather than be “punished”.

Castle enacts his revenge by manipulating Saint into killing his friend and wife.

For such a small, low budget film, The Punisher certainly packs a lot into its run time. I said when reviewed The Punisher (Goldblatt, 1989) that, compared to many colourful superheroes, the Punisher is probably one of the easiest to adapt as you simply give a decent actor a gun and a grim visage and do an eighties-style action film. This version of The Punisher, though, both escalates the stakes involved (killing Frank’s entire family rather than “just” his wife and kid/s) and really runs with the implications of Frank’s pseudonym: he’s not just clinically punishing the guilty by murdering them indiscriminately, he’s literally punishing the three people most directly responsible for his family’s murder by turning them against each other and destroying Howard’s operation from the inside out. He does this by coercing Mickey into divulging the Saint’s entire schedule (which is, admittedly conveniently, very predictable and routine), which allows him to make it seem as Livia and Quentin are having an affair and thus manipulates Howard into murdering his wife and his best friend.

Castle is an extremely adaptable and capable foe and expertly wields a range of firearms.

Of course, that’s not to say that The Punisher doesn’t have its fair share of fight fights and action/fighting scenes. The slaughter of the Castle’s is basically a prolonged execution full of big explosions, squibs, and guns going off all over the place that reminds me very much of a tamer version of the sort of gratuitous violence seen in RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987). When Frank infiltrates Howard’s bank to disrupt his money laundering activities, the film takes on aspects of a traditional Western, with tense, prolonged shots of Frank and his adversaries getting ready to draw and shoot, and Frank’s final assault on Saints & Sinners sees him take on an entire room full of goons and mobsters with a variety of firearms while decked out in skull-stained body armour.

Hitmen Harry Heck and the Russian try, and fail, to stop Castle’s disruptive rampage.

Of course, there are two standout action sequences in The Punisher. Driven to frustration by Frank’s disruptive actions, Howard grows increasingly desperate to track down and stamp out the Punisher; to do this, he hires a couple of hitmen to do the job for him, both of whom unsuccessfully attempt put a stop to Frank’s vendetta. The first of these is Harry Heck (Mark Collie), a Memphis hitman who moonlights as a musician. After trying, fruitlessly, to intimidate Frank (who, by this point, as adopted a permanent “thousand-yard stare”) with a chilling song, Heck runs Frank off the road (sadly totally the proto-Battle Van before it really gets a chance to do anything, which may have been a budgetary thing) and taunts him while holding him at gunpoint only to wind up with a ballistic knife in his throat! Next, Howard brings in the Russian (Kevin Nash), a mute giant who is superhumanly strong and seemingly impervious to pain. This fight, which is almost an exact adaptation of a fight between the two from the 2001 “Welcome Back, Frank” (Ennis, et al) arc, is mostly played for laughs thanks to Bumpo’s opera playing over it and is much more comical compared to the otherwise gritty and grim tone of the film. Still, it’s incredibly enjoyable to see the Russian absolute decimate Frank and a great showcase of Frank’s tenacity, endurance, and adaptability as, although stabbed and brutalised from the assault, he continually finds new ways to try and hurt the behemoth before finally charging him on the stairs and breaking the giant’s neck.

After completing his mission, Frank heads out to hunt more criminals as the Punisher.

Still, a central aspect of the film is Frank’s emotional detachment and grim commitment to enacting his revenge. To pull off his complex plan, he feigns torturing Mickey and specifically targets Livia and Quintin; by following them and compiling a list of their habits, routines, and dirty little secrets, he’s easily able to predict where they’ll be and how best to turn Howard against them. Once he has manipulated Howard into giving in to his jealousy, rage, and the enraged monster dwelling just beneath his façade of respectability, Frank launches a direct assault against the remnants of Howard’s empire. Having lived his entire life by a strict code of honour and within the bounds of a lawfully just system, Frank sees his newfound vigilantism not as a simple matter of revenge but rather as a necessary action to ensure that those who do evil are punished for their misdeeds. As a result, he shows no mercy to John, whom he leaves helpless and holding an anti-personnel mine, and takes absolutely no pleasure in revealing what he has done to Howard. With Howard grovelling and bleeding at his feet, Frank nonchalantly ties him to a car and has him driven into a massive (and, sadly, poorly rendered) series of explosions to finally put an end to those who wronged him. With his mission complete, Frank prepares to end his own life but, at the last minute, stops when recalling a “good memory” of Maria. Although this scene is a bit confusing in the way it’s shot, the intention is made explicit with Frank’s closing narration: realising that there are more scumbags out there who need to be punished, he vows to wage war against them all as “The Punisher” until the day he dies.

The Summary:
While I’ve always been a fan of the Punisher, I have to admit that I haven’t really read many of his comics so my experience of him as a character is a bit limited compared to guys like Spider-Man and Batman. Still, I love the concept of the Punisher as this merciless, unrelenting force that is fully committed to killing as many criminals and low-lifes as he can until he inevitably dies; it’s an incredibly simple, incredibly bleak, and incredibly realistic concept that I feel Marvel Comics really need to try and put a bit more effort into pushing a bit harder as a stark contrast to other, more colourful and law-abiding superheroes. When I first watched The Punisher, I was immediately impressed by just how raw and emotional the film was; it wasn’t just another superhero film or even a bombastic action movie like its predecessor. It was a heart-breaking examination of a man who has literally lost everything, been driven to the very brink of death, and come back with only one thought in mind: punishment. You could substitute the word “vengeance” or “punishment” there if you like but it doesn’t change the fact that The Punisher, to me, perfectly captures the uncompromising and gritty spirit of the source material and presents it in a fresh, new way by setting the film in Tampa rather than the traditional New York City.

Not just a great Punisher film but also, legitimately, one of my favourite films period.

As I said, I’m not a Travolta fan but he really impressed me in this film; exuding power and total authority one moment and then descending into a maniacal rage the next, he gave a performance just shy of scenery chewing and was a perfect foil. The film is, honestly, full of great performances from some really talented actors; Will Patton was fantastic as the subdued, sadistic Quentin Glass, Rebecca Romjin and Samantha Mathis did a great job as the film’s emotional anchors, even the guys playing the Toro brothers and guys like Mark Collie and Kevin Nash were clearly having a great time on set. Of course, the real star of the show is the lead actor as Thomas Jane remains probably my favourite actor to portray the Punisher; not only does he look just like the comic book character, he has exactly the right level of physicality and acting ability to really own the role. It is, as I’ve said, a simple character in many ways but it does require a great deal of emotional range to properly portray the gamut of Frank’s turmoil and Jane did a spectacular job as this grim, haunted avenger who will stop at nothing to punish those responsible for his pain and The Punisher, especially this Extended Cut, remains probably my go-to recommendation for anyone looking to get an idea of what the character is all about.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What did you think to the Extended Cut of The Punisher? Did you prefer to the theatrical version and how do you think it works as an adaptation of the character? What did you think to Thomas Jane’s performance in the film? Did you like the changes the film made to the source material or do you think it maybe changed a little too much? What did you think to the film’s action scenes and soundtrack? Did you enjoy the slapstick nature of the fight between the Punisher and the Russian or do you think it kind of went against the otherwise grim tone of the film? Which live-action portrayal of the Punisher is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating the Punisher’s debut this month? Whatever you think about The Punisher, feel free to write a comment below and be sure to check out for my review of the videogame tie-in to this film.

Talking Movies [Punisher Month]: The Punisher (1989)


Back in February 1974, Spider-Man/Peter Parker faced a new enemy in the form of Frank Castle, the Punisher, a veteran of the Vietnam War turned bloodthirsty vigilante. The Punisher separated himself from other, traditional costumed heroes by his willingness to kill and uncompromising, suicidal one-man war on crime and what better way to celebrate the debut of this nuanced and complex character by dedicating every Tuesday of this month shining a spotlight on Marvel’s most notorious anti-hero?


Released: 25 April 1991
Director: Mark Goldblatt
Distributor: New World International
Budget: $9 million
Stars: Dolph Lundgren, Louis Gossett Jr., Nancy Everhard, Barry Otto, Jeroen Krabbé, and Kim Miyori

The Plot:
After his family are killed by a mafia-planted car bomb intended for him, former ex-Marine Frank Castle (Lundgren) has taken to a life of vigilantism as “The Punisher”; killing criminals and mobsters with special skull-engraved knives and operating from the sewers, he has become New York’s most wanted man. However, when crime boss Gianni Franco (Krabbé) comes out of retirement and butts heads with Lady Tanaka (Miyori) of the Yakuza, the Punisher is the only man capable of stopping all-out war in the streets.

The Background:
Having made an impressive debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes thanks to his tragic backstory and unwavering commitment to the eradication of crime. This, in turn, led to him appearing in videogames, cartoons, and a surprising amount of live-action adaptations of the source material. The first of these was produced in 1989 at the end of the action movie renaissance of the 1980s; muscle-bound stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone had redefined the criteria for the action genre but Dolph Lundgren was no slouch in that department either. The Swedish strongman made quite a name for himself in his own right, even if he was often overshadowed by Schwarzenegger, and adapting the Punisher character into the trappings of an eighties action film made perfect sense at the time. Sadly, the bizarre decision was made to not have Lundgren don the character’s iconic skull shirt and The Punisher was denied a widespread theatrical release in favour of being released straight to video. While most reviews agreed that the film was unimpressive, to say the least, and criticised its presentation and content, others praised Lundgren’s performance and the dark and gritty nature of the movie, though it would be nearly fifteen years before the character would receive another live-action adaptation.

The Review:
The Punisher opens with a depressingly low budget title sequence that’s like something out of a sixties James Bond film; rather than getting you pumped up for a high-octane action film, it’s more like the opening to a bog standard television cop show from the seventies, despite the brief shots of the Punisher gearing up or randomly unloading his machine gun. In many ways, this sets up the tone for the film but, at the same time, misrepresents The Punisher; while it’s not quite the same over-the-top spectacle as the likes of Commando (Lester, 1985) or Rambo III (MacDonald, 1988), it’s a decent enough representation of its genre that is, perhaps, unfairly overlooked against its other, more popular counterparts.

After five years killing mobsters, the Punisher goes public to enact his revenge.

Frank’s tragic background is initially reduced to a brief news report (we later get a proper flashback that shows it but, again, this is more of a snippet rather than an extended sequence) that informs us that the man responsible for the death of Frank’s family, Dino Moretti (Bryan Marshall), has been acquitted for the charges. Moretti arrogantly laughs off concerns about the Punisher seeking retribution against him, despite the fact that Frank has become a notorious underworld vigilante and has at least 125 kills to his name. As you might expect, Moretti’s arrogance is misplaced and Frank not only murders his armed bodyguards one by one but also blows up the mobster’s stately home in a very public display.

While there’s not much for Leary to do, Berkowitz has an emotional connection to the Punisher.

The Punisher is a hot news item; though they are unaware of his true identity, reporters are desperate to cover him and milk his violent actions but the police, and the mayor, would prefer to downplay his actions. After the Punisher appears to die in the explosion at Moretti’s house, the official line is that he is dead but his former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Gossett Jr.), refuses to let the subject lie. Although he has no interest in working with a partner, and has become quite jaded since Frank’s apparent death in a mob hit, Berkowitz is convinced to work with Detective Samantha Leary (Everhard) when she shares his suspicion that Frank is the Punisher. Leary uses what is sold to us as a state-of-the-art computer algorithm to pinpoint the Punisher’s location, which is pretty much her sole contribution to the film other than being a very basic audience surrogate. Berkowitz, however, is a constant highlight of the film; his relatable, no-nonsense attitude stands out amidst a few mediocre performances, with his escape from Mafia custody stands out as a notably amusing sequence. His emotionally-charged reunion with Frank is another standout moment; Berkowitz desperately tries tor each Frank, screaming and manhandling him and clearly heartbroken at the state Frank has found himself in, while Frank remains impassive and unapologetic for his actions.

Already weakened from the Punisher’s actions, Franco wages all-out war with the Yakuza.

The traditional, mostly Italian-American world of organised crime is shaken up by the arrival of the Yakuza. Led by Lady Tanaka, the Yakuza strikes with silent, surgical precision and effectiveness and are easily able to consolidate a stranglehold on the criminal underworld thanks to the Punisher thinning out the competition. Their presence, and the Punisher’s actions, force former kingpin Gianni Franco (Krabbé), a well-dressed and eloquent mobster, out of retirement; to sway him and the remaining Mafia family members into agreeing to a lop-sided alliance with her, Lady Tanaka arranges to have the mobster’s children kidnapped. Tanaka is portrayed as a cold, calculating, merciless foe who willingly slaughtered her own brother and employs any means necessary to get her way while still being confident and cultured and exuding a quiet menace and authority. This is in stark contrast to the hot-headed Mafia Dons, who are driven to the point of desperation by recent events and find themselves easily outmatched at every turn by both the Punisher and the Yakuza.

Frank is convinced to expand his focus from vengeance to rescuing the kids.

One of the kids taken by Tanaka is Franco’s son, Tommy (Brian Rooney), who, unlike the other hostages, is completely unaware of his father’s criminal activities. Having successfully culled much of the Mafia’s numbers in the five years since he became the Punisher, Frank is content to let the remnants fight and kill themselves and has no interest in saving the children or getting involved in the brewing war between the Mafia and the Yakuza. However, he is swayed into action after a guilt-trip from one of his few allies, “Shake” (Otto), a former stage actor turned vagrant who informs Frank of underworld activities and gives him leads in exchange for alcohol.

The Nitty-Gritty:
When talking about the big action stars of the eighties, I can’t help but feel like Dolph Lundgren often gets overlooked; this isn’t massively surprising in a lot of ways as he was largely overshadowed by the bigger and more charismatic Arnold Schwarzenegger and lacked the big-hit franchises associated with Arnold or Sylvester Stallone. Still, he was a pretty decent choice to portray the Punisher at the time despite never wearing the iconic skull-branded outfit of his comic book counterpart. Lundgren’s strained narration also peppers the film as he laments his lot in life and God’s apparent refusal to do anything to protect the innocent and punish the guilty and he throws himself into the action and fight scenes and exudes just the right level of stoicism, vulnerability, conviction, and capability that are so crucial to the Punisher’s characterisation (he even tosses in a bit of snark here and there when faced with agonising torture).

While not as bombastic as its peers, The Punisher still contains a decent amount of action.

As such, Lundgren’s portrayal of the Punisher is as a weary, disassociated man who has lived a life of such extreme violence and hardship that he has become numb to anything and everything around him. While you could argue that Lundgren simply comes across as bored, he excels in the film’s many action scenes, which are surprisingly varied, exciting, and full of gratuitous eighties-style gun fights, a ridiculous amount of explosions, blood squibs, and even some sword-based combat. Here, the Punisher is in his element and has a purpose but, when not in combat, he is a morose and sombre figure to be pitied, which is perfectly in keeping with the Punisher’s character. Best of all, unlike other eighties action heroes, the Punisher is not infallible; he gets hurt, feels pain, and regularly has to perform extreme surgery on himself to stem his wounds.

The Punisher remains a complex and layered character.

Again, this speaks to the Punisher’s roots as an anti-hero; he does good things by association but doesn’t head out into the night expecting to be heralded a hero. Instead, he is completely focused on the brutal eradication or organised crime; he walks (or rides) head-first into gun fights and rooms and crowds of armed opponents with no fear and protected only by his heavy arsenal and his force of will. When captured and tortured by Lady Tanaka, Frank refuses to give in to the pain and expertly breaks free of his bonds to save Shake when he is subjected to the same torture and, when Berkowitz’s life is threatened by Franco, he agrees to an alliance with the remnants of the Mafia, which was a great way to emphasise the character’s adaptability and loyalty to his few allies.

Though lacking the iconic skull, Lundgren embodies the spirit of the character admirably.

The Punisher’s softer side also gets some play when he successfully rescues the kids from their captivity; it seems to be a constant truth that Frank’s hardened exterior cracks somewhat when kids are involved, which is understandable given that he was a father at one time, and it goes a long way to showing that there is still some humanity left in the character. Furthermore, Frank’s suicidal tendencies are also a notable factor in the film; as I mentioned, he makes very little effort to protect himself from damage (he literally refuses body armour for the finale) and walks into firefights without a second’s hesitation and is haunted by nightmares of his family’s murder but this attitude is made heart-wrenchingly explicit at the film’s conclusion. After entering into a frosty alliance with Franco, the Punisher wages all-out war against Lady Tanaka to rescue Tommy; this results in the once efficient Yakuza being reduced to little more than cannon fodder, Lady Tanaka receiving a skull-branded knife to the head, and Frank murdering Franco before Tommy’s eyes. When Tommy holds Frank at gunpoint,  Frank submits to his mercy, welcoming death but when the boy chooses not to pull the trigger, Frank briefly comforts him before warning Tommy not to follow in his father’s footsteps lest he have to punish the boy in the future and returns to his never-ending war against the guilty.

The Summary:
The Punisher is quite a brisk and inoffensive little action movie. It might not really measure up to some of its competition, and there are definitely better eighties action films out there, but you could do a lot worse than this. For me, the Punisher is a ridiculously easy character to adapt compared to his other more colourful and fantastical superhero counterparts; you simply get a rugged actor who can portray the character’s complex emotions, give him a gun and some knives, and put a lot of bodies in his path and, in that respect, The Punisher succeeds very well. Sure, other iterations of the character has done a better job of handling the character’s pathos and complex ideology and attitude but those aspects are still present in The Punisher. Frank Castle isn’t just some muscled up meathead who care barely string two words together and the film tries its best to explore the character’s fading humanity and mental instability; obviously, the typical bombastic eighties action mostly drowns a lot of these elements out but, again, that’s a good thing because who doesn’t like a bit of over-the-top eighties action? I’d even go as far as to say that it doesn’t really matter that Lundgren doesn’t wear the skull-shirt since he does a pretty good job of embodying the character regardless and, while it might be the worst of the three Punisher movies and lacking the star power of Commando and Rambo III, The Punisher is worth your time if you’re a fan of the character and the genre.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you ever seen The Punisher? If so, what did you think of it? Were you disappointed that Dolph Lundgren didn’t wear the skull-shirt or were you not really all that bothered? What did you think to the film’s action scenes and gratuitous violence? Were you a fan of Lundgren’s casting; if not, which eighties star would you have cast in the role? What did you think to the film’s portrayal of the Punisher and the overall plot and where would you rank this film against others in the genre and the other Punisher adaptations? What is your favourite eighties action movie? Which Punisher videogame, story, or adaptation is your favourite? How are you celebrating the Punisher’s debut this month? Whatever you think about The Punisher, feel free to write a comment below and be sure to check out my other Punisher content!

Game Corner: The Punisher (Arcade)

Released: 1993
Developer: Capcom
Also Available For: Mega Drive

The Background:
Frank Castle, Marvel’s resident one-man army, first debuted in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129. Though originally depicted as an assassin with a specific code of honour, the character went on to become one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes; thanks to his tragic backstory and unwavering commitment to the permanent eradication of crime, a mission that he fully admits is a never-ending battle that will (and has) result in his death, the Punisher has subsequently seen some success outside of his comic book origins. Although far from the first videogame to feature the character in a starring role, the arcade version of The Punisher stands a cut above its predecessors thanks to being developed by Capcom and heavily borrowing from classic arcade beat-‘em-ups like Final Fight (Capcom, 1989) and Captain Commando (ibid, 1991). Directed by Noritaka Funamizu, who would go on to be heavily involved in the Street Fighter series (ibid/Various, 1987 to present) The Punisher is notable not only for its classic arcade-style action but also for being the first title in a long and successful partnership between Marvel Comics and Capcom.

The Plot:
After his family is gunned down by mobsters in Central Park, Frank Castle swears revenge and begins a one-man war on crime as the Punisher. Joining forces with Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D.) agent Nick Fury, Frank enacts bloody vengeance on New York’s criminal element, leading to an inevitable clash with the Kingpin of Crime himself, Wilson Fisk!

Gameplay:
If you’ve played Final Fight or any one of a slew of sidescrolling, 2D beat-‘em-ups, then you know exactly what The Punisher is all about. If you’re player one, you control the titular Punisher while player two controls Fury but, in either case, you’re tasked with making your way from the left side of the screen to the right through six action-packed stages filled with a variety of mobsters and other scumbags for you to beat the shit out of. The differences between the two characters are aesthetic, at best; both are capable of punching, jumping, and jump-kicking enemies, grabbing and throwing them when they’re up close, and utilising a slew of weapons to cut down their foes. Pressing punch and jump at the same time will see the two unleash a super move to deal massive damage at the cost of some health and the two are also capable of performing an impressive roll to cover large distances quickly and dash into enemies. The only real difference I noticed between the two is that Fury feels a little faster to control but, whichever character you pick, you’ll be more than capable of taking out anyone that stands in your way.

There’s not much to distinguish the Punisher and Nick Fury beyond cosmetic differences.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Punisher if you didn’t get to shoot some fools and, whenever armed enemies pop up on screen, your character will pull out their pistol and the mayhem will begin. A targeting reticule appears and automatically targets the enemy closest to you and, as you have unlimited ammo, all you have to do is press attack to riddle your victim full of bullets. This comes in handy during encounters with the game’s tougher enemies and in boss battles but can be a little unreliable as a dependable ranged attack as you can’t safely camp out of range and take shots at your enemies since your bullets only travel so far. Luckily, there are other weapons available to make up for that. Being an arcade game, one of the many objectives you’ll also have is wrecking the game’s large and detailed environments to find bags of cash, gold bars, weapons, and items to not only increase your score, increase your chances at dishing out punishment, but also to restore your health. All the standard goodies are on offer here, from roasted meat dinners to pizza to pudding, and I recommend grabbing them as soon as possible to keep your health bar topped up. As if the swarms of enemies and large, formidable bosses weren’t enough, you’re also battling against a time limit so it pays to make quick work of your enemies wherever possible.

Grab as many points as you can and rosted meat dinners for health.

Naturally, you can pick up and throw a variety of objects at your enemies (from arcade machines to barrels), toss them off moving stages, and set up explosive traps to clear them away. Some enemy and boss attacks also seem to damage other enemies, which is helpful if you can set things up in the right way to take advantage of this feature. Every now and then you’ll also be taken to a bonus stage to mix things up a bit and earn yourself some extra points; here, the Punisher and Fury are pitted against each other to see who can shoot the most barrels under a time limit. At the end of every stage, you’ll also receive a detailed score tally that awards bonus points for how many items you used and your remaining vitality and grenades. Of course, it’s an inevitability that you’ll probably lose all of your lives and be taken to a continue screen where Microchip and fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents attempt to revive your character; input another coin, though, and you’ll helpfully be dropped right back into the action where you fell to continue on.

Graphics and Sound:
The Punisher is a gorgeous example of classic arcade, beat-‘em-up action. Sprites are large and detailed and, while the Punisher and Fury don’t have idle animations, they do breathe heavily when you leave them standing and Fury is constantly smoking on a cigar, which is a nice touch. Additionally, some enemies will stop and mock you with laughter and there is an incredible amount of detail applied to the game’s sprites to emulate the look of the comic books as closely as possible.

Cutscenes move the game’s simple plot along at a brisk pace.

While the game’s music is nothing to shout about (and there are some laughably distorted and grainy voice samples to be heard throughout the game), the sound effects carry a decent amount of kick to them. You’ll also be treated to a few pretty decent cutscenes; still images and text relate the game’s story in the opening, in-game graphics and dialogue (which changes depending on which character you’re playing as) feature as transitions between stages, and large, comic book sound effects pop up onscreen as you attack enemies for extra emphasis.

Stages are full of destructible elements and little quirks to bring them to life.

Stages are pretty standard fare (you’ll fight out in the streets, in a sewer, and, of course, on a moving elevator) but quite large and detailed and full of interesting little touches; there are numerous destructible elements to every stage and all sorts of little things to see in the background to bring some life to the stages, like harmless rats running around in the sewers and a dog tied up on the streets. The game also features a decent amount of blood effects, too (fitting considering the carnage onscreen and the violent nature of the Punisher) but this is taken to the next level when you find you can attack and destroy mobster’s cars, leaving a chargrilled skeleton behind!

Enemies and Bosses:
For the most part, you’ll be punching or gunning down a slew of generic street thugs and mobsters; these guys will attack with punches, grab and hold you, or carry melee weapons which you can retrieve after defeating them. While many enemies can swarm the screen at any one time, you’ll generally not have much of a problem against the usual cannon fodder as you’re more than capable of grabbing them or hurling them into one another. Very quickly, though, you’ll come up against armed mobsters who can attack from a distance. You’ll also encounter sword-wielding ninjas who teleport all over the place, fly into a whirlwind of blades, send you crashing down to the ground from the top of the screen, and can even deflect your bullets back at you!

Do battle with some of the Punisher’s most recognisable enemies.

Faster martial artists can also pose a greater threat but perhaps the game’s most troublesome enemies are the Pretty Boys, cyborgs who can take a licking and keep on ticking, attacking with extendable arms, explosive heads, and continue to be a threat even with their torsos blown off. Bosses feature a few names that will be familiar to fans of the Punisher; you’ll encounter Bonebreaker (little more than a cannon-wielding, Mohawked punk fused with a tank), Bushwaker (who can transform his limbs into devastating armaments), and even Jigsaw (though, sadly, he’s more of a mini boss and isn’t too indistinguishable from other machine gun-toting enemies).

Bosses are accompanied by swarms of enemies to keep the action fast-paced and frantic!

You’ll also encounter the Kingpin’s laser-spewing Guardroid on a couple of occasions and have to deal with large, but low level, mooks in the game’s early stages. Each boss battle comes with wave-upon-wave of the game’s regular enemies to help whittle down your health and drag the battle out, though you can often find weapons and health-restoring items in the boss arenas and invariably also have access to your gun to help tip the odds in your favour.

Dodge the Kingpin’s dangerous attacks to topple to rotund mastermind!

Once you reach the Kingpin’s hotel, though, you’ll come face to face with the Kingpin himself. Rendered as a humongous sprite, the Kingpin takes up a good chunk of the screen with his sheer mass and deals devastating damage with just a swipe of his hand to say nothing of his laser-firing cane and…fire breath (…?)….all of which take away a massive chunk of your health. Kingpin is also swarmed with constantly-respawning enemies to distract you and he can hurl you clear across the screen if you get too close but, luckily, he takes damage just like any other boss or enemy and doesn’t appear to have any cheap invincibility frames so you’ll soon be leaving him to crumble alongside his hotel with enough patience and pocket change.

Power-Ups and Bonuses:
There are no invincibility or speed/power-ups to be found in The Punisher; instead, you’ll find a variety of different foods to eat to restore your health or gain access to a slew of additional weaponry to exact justice on New York’s criminal scum. You’ll be wielding the standard beat-‘em-up fare like knives, baseball bats, axes, hammers and pipes but you’ll also get to use throwing stars, boomerangs, M-16 assault rifles, Uzis, fire extinguishers, and even a flamethrower.

Wipe out enemies with a super move or your grenades.

Every time you pick up a weapon, the amount of uses it has is displayed next to it on the lower left of the screen so you always know how much “ammo” you have left; if you’re running low, you can toss the weapon in a diagonal arc by jumping and pressing attack, leaving you free to switch to a fresh weapon. The Punisher and Fury can also pick up grenades as they progress through the game’s stages; these are also tallied in the bottom left and are best saved for bosses or to clear the screen of enemies. By jumping and pressing jump and attack, you’ll toss a grenade downwards, which explodes to deal massive damage and help to thin out the herd.

Additional Features:
Being a coin-operated, arcade beat-‘em-up, the sole thing to play for is that coveted high score. Aside from that, the game allows for two player simultaneous play, which slightly alters the game’s cutscenes and dialogue and gives you another good reason to play through it.

The Summary:
As far as arcade beat-‘em-ups go, The Punisher is just as iconic and enjoyable as the likes of Final Fight. It doesn’t necessarily add anything new to the genre, or anything you haven’t seen before if you’ve played any of the many beat-‘em-ups released by the likes of Capcom and Konami back in the day, but it shines a little bit thanks to its unique licensing of the Punisher character. With large, detailed, comic book-like sprites, environments that are full of destructible elements and fun little inclusions, and by fully embracing the larger than life aesthetic and hyper violence of its source material and title character, The Punisher is a great way to spend an hour or so. Fast-paced and action-packed, the game is a joy to play through; the music isn’t very memorable and, while the game is quite short at only six stages, it’s well-paced and well-balanced enough that it never begins as tedious and monotonous as some beat-‘em-ups.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you ever play The Punisher out in the wild? Perhaps you are lucky enough to own the Mega Drive port of the game; if so, how do you think it holds up compared to the arcade original? Which character did you prefer to play as? Can you think of a better character to partner up with the Punisher or do you think Nick Fury fit the role nicely enough? What is your favourite beat-‘em-up game? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.

Back Issues: The Amazing Spider-Man #129

Story Title: The Punisher Strikes Twice!
Published: February 1974
Writer: Gerry Conway
Artists: Ross Andru, Frank Giacoia, and Dave Hunt

The Background:
By February 1974, Marvel’s iconic web-slinger had become a mainstay of the publication since his 1962 debut in Amazing Fantasy #15. Having earned his own ongoing title, The Amazing Spider-Man, the following year and already running afoul of the likes of Doctor Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus, Flint Marko/The Sandman, and, of course, Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, who had recently played a pivotal role in the death of Parker’s long-term girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. It’s into this tumultuous and emotional time of Spidey’s life that Gerry Conway and Ross Andru introduced not only the Jackal, a crazed scientist whose cloning technology would later result in one of Spider-Man’s most infamous storylines, but also the Punisher. Inspired by The Executioner (Pendleton, et al, 1969 to present), designed by Gerry Conway, and named by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, the Punisher was a hit with readers, despite being introduced in more of an antagonistic role, and began to appear in other Marvel comics, as well as his own self-titled series in 1986, with each subsequent appearance adding more layers and motivations to his character.

The Review:
The Punisher, and the Jackal, are first seen in the Jackal’s hidden laboratory where the goblin-like villain expresses great admiration for the Punisher’s ability to shoot a stone statue of Spider-Man…as though destroying a static target is any indication of the Punisher’s prowess against a moving target, especially one as acrobatic as Spider-Man. The Punisher echoes these sentiments, stating that he’ll need his “Mechanic” to look over the Jackal’s concussion rifle before he takes on the real thing. While the Jackal also describes the Punisher as “[liking] the death – the killing – the joyful revenge”, Punisher rebukes this and claims that he only kills those who deserves to die….and that Spider-Man deserves such a fate.

Spider-Man is just as angst-ridden and burdened by guilt and responsibility as ever.

Speaking of Spider-Man, we join our heroic web-head in the midst of breaking up an armed robbery; it’s pretty standard fare for Spider-Man, showcasing his impressive agility, strength, and dexterity with his web-shooters as he stops the crooks and leaves them at the mercy of New York’s finest. Still, even with the prospect of earning some coin from his action-packed photographs of the bust, Spidey is tormented not only by the fact that the entire city is convinced that he killed Norman Osborn but also by the death of his beloved Gwen Stacey and the fact that he cannot bring himself to reveal Norman’s identity as the Green Goblin out of fear of devastating Norman’s son, Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn (oblivious that Harry is already aware of this fact).

The Punisher lands the first strike against Spider-Man!

After flirting with J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary Betty Brant, Peter tries to sell his newest pictures to Jonah and is made aware of the Punisher’s one-man war against the mob. Chomping at the bit for a piece of “the most newsworthy thing to happen to New York since Boss Tweed”, Jonah orders Peter to bring him pictures of the Punisher yesterday! Switching to Spider-Man, Peter has barely enough time to worry about how he’s going to track the Punisher down when he is immediately fired upon by the skull-garbed mercenary! Saved by his patented spider-sense, Spider-Man confronts the Punisher on a rooftop where the hitman momentarily ensnares Spidey in a titanium alloy wire, brands Spidey a murderer, and expresses his hatred of criminals no matter what form they take.

The Punisher is angered and insulted by the Jackal’s interference.

Breaking free of his bonds, Spidey begins to pummel the Punisher but is attacked from behind by the Jackal; disorientated and stunned by the Jackal’s “negatively-charged electro-prods”, Spidey tumbles from the rooftop (much to the Punisher’s dismay) but manages to save himself on instinct. After recovering and returning to the scene of the battle, Spidey discovers a clue on the Punisher’s discarded weapon but returns home, exhausted, to repair his damaged costume and catch his breath, unaware that an increasingly paranoid and disturbed Harry is eavesdropping at his door. After a brief segue to Mary-Jane Watson (who is still in her annoying, flaky “party girl” mindset at this point), the story dramatically cuts to the Punisher swatting the Jackal and berating him for interfering in his battle against Spider-Man. Punisher is angered at being roped into the Jackal’s murderous ways as Frank desires the complete destruction of crime, not the deaths of innocents.

Spider-Man subdues the Punisher and reveals the truth of the Jackal’s deception.

Later that day, Spider-Man follows through on his clue and arrives at the Punisher’s armoury on to find his “Mechanic”, Reiss, dead on the floor. The Punisher manages to get the drop on him (no spider-sense to save Spidey this time) and immediately pins the crime on Spider-Man. Refusing to believe Spider-Man’s pleas of innocence and yet unable to counteract his superhuman speed, strength, or agility, the Punisher is eventually subdued and forced to listen to reason when Spidey shows him the all-too-familiar claw marks on Reiss’ body and reveals that the Punisher’s gun was labelled up specifically to incriminate him. Realising that he has been manipulated by the Jackal, the Punisher swears revenge and heads off into the night. Spider-Man beats a hasty retreat as the police arrive and the Jackal looks on, vowing to destroy them both and ending the issue on a cliff-hanger that would later lead to Spider-Man doubting his very identity!

The Summary:
“The Punisher Strikes Twice!” is a fairly run-of-the-mill Spider-Man story, indicative of the story style of Marvel Comics back in the day; there’s a lot of extraneous dialogue, text boxes, and thought balloons that constantly keep the reader up to date with where we are and what characters (specifically Spider-Man) are thinking and feeling. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it hasn’t aged well for me and I often find it a bit of a chore to read through some of the older Marvel stories because of their tendency to favour stilted writing, exposition-heavy dialogue, and antiquated narrative devices. Still, it’s quite a pivotal issue, introducing one of Spidey’s most nefarious foes in the Jackal and continuing his sense of guilt and dismay over the whole Gwen Stacey/Green Goblin/Harry Osborn saga. The Jackal isn’t much to shout about here in his debut, being little more than a monstrous ghoul who manipulates the Punisher into trying to kill Spider-Man presumably so that he can take over New York as the top crime boss. The issue does a decent job of establishing the Jackal as a manipulative asshole but we learn almost nothing about him beyond his desire to want Spider-Man dead; considering the Green Goblin has only just been taken off the board, it might have been a little too soon for another mysterious, imp-like puppet master enemy whose identity is a secret to crop up.

The Punisher is pretty durable and parts ways with Spidey on…partially amicable terms.

Yet, the issue is exciting and action-packed thanks not only to Marvel’s distinct, eye-catching colours and Spidey’s dynamic versatility when in action but also due to the inclusion of the Punisher. Introduced with a bang (despite how lame destroying a statue is…), the Punisher wastes no time trying to kill Spider-Man, believing him to be a murderer and little more than a masked criminal thanks, no doubt, the Jonah’s numerous news stories in the Daily Bugle and the city’s belief that he killed Norman (and, as I recall, Gwen and George Stacey as well). We don’t learn much about the Punisher in his debut appearance but we learn enough; he’s decked out in his iconic skull costume (which makes an immediate impression) and his aggressive, focused mindset separates him from the usual hired guns seen in Marvel Comics at the time (who were generally little more than just generic thugs with guns). As the issue progresses, we learn that the Punisher has a strict moral code (he is angered when the Jackal’s interference nearly causes Spider-Man’s death in a dishonourable way), an intense hatred of crime and criminals, and that he was a Marine for three years. The Punisher is also quite a sturdy and formidable opponent; not only is he a crack shot and loaded with little gadgets and tools to help give him the edge in battle but he’s also fast and strong enough to get the drop on Spider-Man, take blows from Spidey, and to cause the web-head pain when he lands a good, solid kick.

It’s a fairly standard Spider-Man story elevated by the debut of the Punisher.

In the end, he remains tight-lipped about his past and his exact motivations but is satisfied enough that Spidey isn’t the true enemy and returns to his endless war on crime maybe not on “friendly” terms with the web-head but certainly on far more amicable terms than they began at the issue’s start. Overall, it’s a pretty decent story; it’s standard sixties/seventies Spider-Man fare, with all the angst and action you can expect from this era of Marvel and Spider-Man, with the added bonus of a mysterious, intriguing new anti-hero at a time when violent anti-heroes weren’t as played out as they would come in later years. Thanks to Spidey’s endless internal monologue, it’s easy to pick up the issue and get right into the story and catch up with where the characters are and the art is both simple and yet beautifully detailed at the same time. Obviously, this was just the tip of the iceberg for the Punisher but Marvel certainly had a way with introducing dynamic, complex new characters as antagonists and then fleshing them out later on and I’d say they did just as good a job with the Punisher in his debut as they did with other characters who got a full-blown origin story in their first appearance.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you read “The Punisher Strikes Twice!” when it was first published? What did you think of the Punisher’s dramatic debut? What do you think of the Punisher as a character and which storyline of his do you think is the best, or the worst? How are you celebrating the Punisher’s debut this year? Whatever you think about the Punisher, drop a comment below.

Screen Time: That ’70s Marvel Cinematic Universe

Superheroes may dominate television screens these days, but it all started back in the seventies. Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) took cinemas by storm and drummed up enough cash to sink a small cruise liner, Marvel Comics had ventured into live-action adaptations of their comics books by licensing their properties to studios like CBS and Universal Television. This produced the iconic Incredible Hulk (1977 to 1982) television show that firmly entrenched the Green Goliath in the cultural consciousness and produced tropes that became synonymous with the character for years to come.

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You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…

However, The Incredible Hulk wasn’t the only live-action adaptation of a Marvel Comics property to be produced in the seventies; in fact, there were so many productions (or, at least, so many Marvel characters) around this time that a version of the MCU can be seen to have existed long before Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) graced cinema screens. So, today, I’m going to take a quick look back at some of these productions and have a chat about the MCU we very nearly saw come together back in the days of Pink Floyd, frayed jeans, and mullets…

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As I mentioned, The Incredible Hulk kicked all of this off; starring Bill Bixby as Dr. David Bruce Banner, the show depicted a scientist recklessly experimenting on himself with gamma radiation in a bid to unlock the hidden strength and potential of the human body. When he absorbs too much gamma radiation, moments of stress and anger cause him to transform into the green, bestial Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), a creature of limited intelligence, immense rage, and incredible strength.

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McGee relentlessly hounded Banner.

Believed dead at the Hulk’s hands, Banner is forced to wander around the country in search of a cure, helping those in need with both his intelligence and the strength of the Hulk when pushed too far, all while being relentlessly pursued by reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). The show was famous for coining the phrase: “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”, which has since become so synonymous with the character that it has appeared in most Hulk adaptations. Equally popular was both Bixby’s portrayal of Banner as a wandering nomad, desperate to cure himself of his alter ego and return to normal life, and Ferrigno’s portrayal of the Hulk (a role that Arnold Schwarzenegger auditioned for and that originally went to mammoth actor Richard Kiel).

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Ferrigno always had a place in Hulk adaptations.

Ferrigno has since become so associated with his role as the Hulk that he went on to not only voice the character in the animated Incredible Hulk (1996 to 1997) television series but also collaborated with Mark Ruffalo in voicing the Hulk in the MCU and cameoed in both Hulk (Lee, 2003) and The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008), a movie that was heavily influenced by the ‘70s television show.

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It took some time to get Hulk properly articulating.

If there’s any downside to the show, and Ferrigno’s performance, it’s that they both popularised the notion that the Hulk is a feral, growling creature rather than a semi-to-impressively articulate individual. While Stan Lee himself may have signed off on this at the time (“I had the Hulk talking like this: “Hulk crush! Hulk get him!” […] that would have sounded so silly if he spoke that way in a television show” (Lee, quoted in Greenberg, 2014: 19 to 26)), I feel this was more a case of Lee signing off on anything for the licensing revenue. This portrayal even carried over into the MCU, where the Hulk was capable of rudimentary speech (one or two growling lines here and there) but did not properly articulate until Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017); to compare, Bradley Cooper was snarking up cinema screens as Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) before Hulk was allowed to properly talk.

The Incredible Hulk returned with a bang.

In any case, The Incredible Hulk ran for eighty episodes before finally coming to an end on 12 May 1982. Banner’s adventures, however, continued in the made-for-television film The Incredible Hulk Returns (Corea, 1988). While the TV show shied away from including any Marvel characters aside from Banner and the Hulk, much less his fellow Marvel cohorts, The Incredible Hulk Returns featured two of the most unlikely inclusions you could imagine given the show’s relatively rounded approach to its source material. After successfully suppressing the Hulk for two years, Banner’s idyllic life is turned upside down when an old student of his, Donald Blake (Steve Levitt), seeks him out. Right as Banner is on the cusp of finalising a potential cure in the Gamma Transponder machine, Blake reveals that he discovered an enchanted hammer in Norway that, upon his command, releases the mighty immortal warrior Thor (Eric Kramer) from Valhalla.

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I honestly can’t tell the difference…

When Thor upsets Banner, he briefly battles with the Hulk and damages Banner’s the Gamma Transponder, but the two (three, I guess) are forced to work together to stop criminals from stealing Banner’s research and harming his life interest, Dr. Margaret Shaw (Lee Purcell). In the end, while Shaw is rescued, Banner is forced to destroy a vital component to the Gamma Transponder and, with the Hulk’s presence catching McGee’s attention, promptly returns to the road to seek out a new cure for himself. When I was a kid, I never got the chance to watch The Incredible Hulk, so one of my first exposures to it was with The Incredible Hulk Returns, which I found to be hugely enjoyable largely because of the thrill of seeing the Hulk in live-action and the banter between Blake and Thor. Rather than transforming into Thor, as in the comics, Blake instead brings Thor forth with the hammer and is charged with guiding him in life and in the fulfilment of a number of heroic deeds so he can take his place at Odin’s side in Valhalla. It’s absolutely mental, especially as a continuation of the TV show, but Kramer is so much fun as the loud-mouthy, arrogant, meat-headed Thor that you can’t help but smile when he’s onscreen, especially when he’s drinking and fighting in a bar or battling with (and alongside) the Hulk.

Banner forms a kinship with Daredevil.

I said I never really watched the show but, in truth, my first ever exposure to the Bixby and Ferrigno team was the follow-up movie, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby, 1989), in which Banner, now a desolate soul who’s lost all hope, wanders into a city and, after disrupting a mugging on an underground train, is wrongfully imprisoned. As luck would have it, his appointed attorney is none other than Matt Murdock (Rex Smith), a blind lawyer who also patrols the streets at night as the black-clad vigilante Daredevil. Murdock is pursuing evidence against Wilson Fisk (John Rhys-Davies), an entrepreneur whom Murdock (rightfully) believes is a dangerous crime boss. While Banner is content to stay safely locked up in jail, the idea of being put on trial causes him to Hulk out and, eventually, team up with Murdock/Daredevil in bringing Fisk to justice.

John Rhys-Davies was great as Fisk.

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is notable for a couple of reasons; it features Stan Lee’s first-ever live-action cameo in a Marvel production, it heavily adapts elements of Frank Miller’s iconic run on the Daredevil comics, and the titular trial only actually takes place in a nightmare Banner has while imprisoned. Nevertheless, Rhys-Davies is exceptional as Fisk; he’s never referred to as the Kingpin onscreen but that doesn’t stop him being a cool, calculating puppet master of a villain; his eventual escape (in a God-damn rocket ship!) is a loose end that was never tied up as the final TV movie, The Death of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby, 1990), chose to bring an end to the Incredible Hulk series and did not feature any additional Marvel characters.

Hammond was a decent Peter Parker…and he had a great stunt double.

Hulk wasn’t the only one to get his own live-action TV show though; after the feature-length pilot, Spider-Man (Swackhamer, 1977), proved popular, Marvel’s web-head got his own thirteen episode series in the form of The Amazing Spider-Man (1977 to 1979). In addition, episodes of the show were edited (“cobbled”, is probably a better word) together into two made-for-television movies, Spider-Man Strikes Back (Statlof, 1978) and Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge (ibid, 1981), both of which (along with the pilot) are the only exposure to this show I’ve had. The Amazing Spider-Man starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker (with the show’s stunt co-ordinator, Fred Waugh, taking the role of Spider-Man, which was pretty obvious given their wildly contrasting size and builds) and, if you thought that this show took more from the source material than The Incredible Hulk then you’re going to be woefully disappointed.

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I mean…they did the best the could…

Jonah Jameson (played by both David White and Robert F. Simon) featured quite prominently but Robbie Robertson (Hilly Hicks) and Peter’s Aunt May (Jeff Donnell) only appeared in the pilot episode and, though Spidey tussled with hypnotists, terrorists, and gangs, he never once butted heads with any of his colourful rogues gallery. Spidey (and Parker) also initially ran afoul of Police Captain Barbera (played with gruff, loveable glee by Michael Pataki), but this character was sadly dropped for the show’s second season. The Amazing Spider-Man was an ambitious project, especially for the seventies; Spider-Man is a character who requires a lot of effects and stunt work to pull off correctly and is arguably far more dependent on modern computer effects than the likes of even the Hulk. As a result, while the show featured an incredibly faithful recreation of Spidey’s origin, costume, and web shooters and did its best to portray Spidey’s wall-crawling and web-slinging through wires, pulleys, and other camera tricks, the show always came across as being far more absurd than its Universal counterpart.

70sMarvelDrStrange
For whatever reason, Doctor Strange got a movie too.

There was more to come from Universal Television, however, as they also produced a Dr. Strange (DeGuere, 1978) made-for-television movie that featured Peter Hooten in the title role (I guess Tom Selleck was unavailable…) and Jessica Walter as Morgan Le Fay. This one’s especially obscure and many have probably never heard of or seen it; it actually got a DVD re-release in 2016, coincidentally around the same time as Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) was released in cinemas. Interestingly, Stephen Strange is portrayed as a psychiatrist rather than a physician and stumbles into his destiny as the Sorcerer Supreme when Le Fay possesses one of his patients, Clea Lake (Eddie Benton). The movie also featured other recognisable faces from the source material, such as Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) and the Ancient One (Michael Ansara), which is already a bit of a leg up on the Hulk and Spider-Man outings.

70sMarvelObscure
More like Dr. Obscure, am I right?

What scuppered Dr. Strange, though, was, again, the fact that it was produced at a time when special effects simply were not up to the task of doing the character justice. It also didn’t help that the film was criticised for being overly long and boring and lacking any real urgency. In all honesty, there really isn’t much to see here that’s worth you rushing out to watch except the novelty of seeing a C-list character like Strange get a live-action movie well before his time.

70sMarvelCapBikeKITT
Yeah, I don’t think K.I.T.T. had anything to worry about…

CBS also had one another Marvel character to offer the seventies; Captain America (Holcomb, 1979) brought the star-spangled Avenger to life on television screens and…dear Lord, is this a sight to behold! Reb Brown starred as Steve Rogers, a former marine-turned-artist living in the present day whose patriotic father was known as “Captain America”. After he’s nearly killed by an attempt on his life, he’s inexplicably chosen to be administered with the super-serum F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain), which turns him into a superhuman. He then decks himself out in a horrendous version of the Captain America costume and takes to the streets on a modified super-cycle so massively over-the-top with gadgets and features than even K.I.T.T. would blush!

70sMarvelCapBike
Cap does love a good motorcycle.

Luckily, by the end and the sequel, Captain America II: Death Too Soon (Nagy, 1979), Rogers adopts a more faithful version of the costume and uses his abilities to oppose the plans of General Miguel (inexplicably played by Christopher Lee!), who desires to create a dangerous chemical. I’m actually far more familiar with the equally-lambasted Captain America (Pyun, 1990), which is still a guilt pleasure of mine. Nevertheless, both films were released on DVD and, while Dr. Strange was lost to the mists of time and obscurity, these films appear to have at least partially influenced the MCU as Cap (Chris Evans) does favour a motorcycle (but, to be fair, so did the comics Cap…).

70sMarvelDaredevilThor
I would’ve watched a show with either of these two in.

Both The Incredible Hulk Returns and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk introduced Thor and Daredevil with the intention of setting them up for spin-off shows of their own but, for a variety of reasons, this never came to be and that’s a bit of a shame. Smith is no Charlie Cox but, while his Murdock was quite dull and boring, he gave a pretty good turn as Daredevil and it would probably have been easier and far cheaper to produce a Daredevil TV show than a Hulk or even Thor one. Similarly, I love the portrayal of Thor in Trial; sure, he doesn’t look or act anything like his Marvel Comics counterpart, but it could have been pretty fun to see him tossing fools around, getting into bar fights, and learning lessons in humility on an episodic basis. One thing that is equally unfortunate about all this is that the inclusion of Thor and Daredevil really took a lot of the focus off of Banner and the Hulk; sure, in the show, he was often a supporting player in a bigger story and other character’s lives, but these movies devoted so much of their runtime to pushing and establishing their new characters that it’s easy to forget that Banner and Hulk are even in them. The Death of the Incredible Hulk rectified this, but at the cost of killing both characters off in what was, while emotional (as a child, anyway), probably the lamest way imaginable.

70sMarvelTeamUp
All these guys co-existed at about the same time…

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much love shown to The Amazing Spider-Man over the years; it’s never been released on home media outside of a few VHS tapes and, while Hammond appears to have been the basis for Parker’s design in the Spider-Man (1994 to 1998) animated series, he’s never returned to the character or the franchise again, not even for a quick cameo or a voice role (though I’m hoping the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman, 2018) will rectify that). Interestingly enough, there were apparently talks in 1984 to produce a movie that would see Spider-Man cross paths with Banner and the Hulk, with Spidey even donning the black costume during the film. There were, apparently, also talks of an additional made-for-television Hulk movie, The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk, which would have seen Banner (somehow) revived and forced to recreate the accident that turned him into the Hulk (or be reborn as the Hulk with Banner’s intellect, depending on what you read) but neither of these ideas ever came to fruition and were ultimately halted when Bixby sadly died in 1993.

70sMarvelMagic
Magic linked these shows together, however tenuously.

However, none of this changes the fact that, sometime around 1978 to 1979, there were all these Marvel characters running around on television screens at about the same time, all produced by two studios and, in some cases, airing on the same networks. What this effectively means, then, is that it’s easy to imagine an alternative world where negotiations never broke down and the shows and movies proved popular enough for Spider-Man to crossover with the Hulk and, by extension, interact with Thor and Daredevil. So, what if…? What if there were a threat so big, so far beyond petty street crooks and one-note villains that these heroes would be forced to band together? Dr. Strange was heavily steeping in magic and mysticism, which was already (however unfitting) be proven to be a part of The Incredible Hulk’s world; hell, even The Amazing Spider-Man dabbled in the paranormal at times.

70sMarvelFiskVigilantes
It’s easy to image these guys existing in the same place and time.

Perhaps the threat would involve Fisk waging a war against Daredevil and all costumed heroes? The city is never named in The Incredible Hulk Returns but it could easily be New York City, the same New York City that Spider-Man swings around in. Perhaps this would be a chance to do a supervillain team-up, of sorts, between Fisk and Le Fay or to introduce other classic Marvel villains, such as Loki and the Red Skull. I would have loved to have worked Nick Fury (David Hasselhoff) into this imaginary Marvel team-up but it’s difficult to do that seeing as Bixby died in 1993 and Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Hardy, 1998) didn’t release until 1998 but what if…? What if Bixby hadn’t suffered from cancer, or had beaten the disease and Banner had been resurrected in The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk? Perhaps we would have seen a version of the Professor Hulk or Grey Hulk personas, one that merged the brawn and the strength together, and Fury could have banded these heroes together to fight a common enemy.

70sMarvelSpideyDaredevil
Spidey and Daredevil often work well together.

Personally, though, I would have preferred to see Banner and Hulk as they were portrayed in the television series; Bixby would have been the veteran actor who held this team up together and I would have limited his Hulk outs to two or three occurrences. Have him be the team’s moral compass, the hesitant advisor who learns to reconcile with his enraged alter ego through working with the other heroes. Murdock, as the older of the two, could have also acted as a kind of mentor to Spider-Man as the two are often portrayed as friends in the comics and have a lot in common with their “everyman” approach to super heroism. While the effects would not have allowed us to properly see the two swing across the New York rooftops, I think they could have cobbled together enough to produce some semi-decent, maybe even slightly acrobatic, fight scenes between the two.

70sMarvelCapCompare
These guys are worlds apart.

You’d obviously think that Captain America would be the natural leader of this group but, remember, this isn’t the war-tested superhero we all know and love and I am not proposing an Avengers movie; Brown’s Cap is more of a secret agent, an enhanced super soldier who hasn’t nearly a fraction of the combat experience that Cap is usually known for. Because of that, I’d imagine him as the public face of the group and (in the absence of S.H.I.E.LD.), a source of the group’s intelligence resources. Perhaps Cap prefers to work alone and he has to learn to work with a group, rather than tackling everything head-on.

Thor still had a lot to learn about humility.

Instead, I’d have Doctor Strange be the de facto leader of the team by virtue of his age and power as the Sorcerer Supreme. His arc, perhaps, would have revolved around him needing to shift his focus from the bigger picture to factoring in the smaller issues that his peers face on a daily basis, effectively making himself both a public figure of the superhero community and improving his interpersonal skills. And then there’s Thor (and Blake, of course); Thor would be the group’s hot-headed jock, the guy who runs in, hammer swinging, trying to fix every problem with brute strength. This team up would be the perfect opportunity to teach Thor proper humility, to accept that he must work alongside mortals and lead by example rather than being a blundering buffoon. While he learned some of this in The Incredible Hulk Returns, it was clear that there was more to tell with his story and, perhaps, this team up and his learning of humility would be the final heroic act that would earn him his place in Valhalla, allowing Blake to, however sorrowfully, begin his life anew.

70sMarvelConclusion

In the end, for as hokey and cringe-worthy as a lot of these seventies Marvel shows were, it does disappoint me that we never got, at least, to see Spider-Man, Hulk, and Banner crossover onscreen. There was a lot to like about each of these, from the impressively realised costumes to the heart-felt emotion, to even the woeful action scenes and I would honestly have loved to see all of these characters come together to battle a common enemy. What do you think about Marvel’s television show and movies from the seventies? Do you have fond memories of The Incredible Hulk? Do you also wish that The Amazing Spider-Man would get a release on DVD? Perhaps you hated the monotony and ridiculousness of these shows. Whatever your opinion, leave a comment below and get in touch.