After the success of 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man, the bell had been rung: Comic book movies were viable once again, and every studio was eager to push their own Marvel heroes into the ring. Outside of the further adventures of the X-Men and Spider-Man, the next few years brought with them cinematic outings for the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil and more, with everyone behind them eager to launch franchises. It’s easy to take for granted now how good we have it thanks to Marvel Studios’ uncanny ability to push out hit after hit, but only just a decade ago comic book films had begun leaving more failed corpses behind than success stories, many of whom deserve to disappear into film history.
That’s not to say that even some of the worst didn’t have their occasional merits – for all of X-Men: The Last Stand‘s faults, for instance, the casting of Kelsey Grammar as Beast was a stroke of genius – but nearly all of them will rightfully be remembered for what they got so painfully wrong, products of studio mandates and interference where too many heads came together with the idea that “bigger means better” only to forget the actual importance of that second part. But then there’s a film like 2004’s The Punisher, an adaptation of Marvel’s violent anti-hero that has been retroactively lumped in with some of its miserable and/or forgettable contemporaries despite never actively attempting to exist in the same circle that they played in where spectacle frequently trumped substance.
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The film – directed by Jonathan Hensleigh and starring Thomas Jane in the titular role – wasn’t even the first attempt (nor the last) at bringing the character to life on the big screen. In 1989, Dolph Lundgren had the honor of being the first to portray Frank Castle in live-action, and after several years of turbulence after Hensleigh’s film released in which Jane continued to push for a sequel, the actor finally threw in the towel, giving way to the 2008 reboot, Punisher: War Zone, which only wound up marking the third time that the character’s potential to launch a franchise was wasted. It wasn’t until 2016 arrived that a take on the character was finally met with universal acclaim from critics and fans alike thanks to Jon Bernthal’s performance in the second season of Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil.
All this is to highlight the fact that the Punisher has never had an easy road when it comes to his live-action life, and while many now consider Bernthal’s performance the “definitive” version of Frank Castle we’ve been waiting for – something I won’t argue with – I would argue that the Jane-led film, which turns 13 this year, deserves to be remembered as more than just a footnote in both the character’s legacy and the history of comic book movies in general.