Dolph Lundgren’s ‘The Punisher’: Marvel’s First Cinematic Superhero

We need to talk about The Punisher. No, not Jon Bernthal’s Netflix version. Nor Ray Stevenson’s take on the character in War Zone (2008). Not even Thomas Jane’s 2004 offering – you should be so lucky. Instead, we’re heading back even further, all the way to the late ’80s we go. Thirty years on from its release, it’s time to take a look at Dolph Lundgren’s 1989 “classic”, The Punisher

Transport yourself back to the era of the action star. Between The Terminator and Predator, Arnie had made himself a household name. Sly was busy popularising the man-on-a-mission movie with Rambo. The Muscles from Brussels himself Jean-Claude Van Damme was roundhousing the crap out of villains left, right and centre. But iconic as they all were, none of them got to play The Punisher. One man did though. Hot off A View To Kill, Rocky IV (both 1985) and Masters of the Universe (1987) Dolph Lundgren was a big deal. And it was with him that the responsibility of bringing Marvel Comics character Frank Castle – aka The Punisher – to theatres for the first time fell. Only it never actually got its theatrical launch in the US, thanks to the financial wranglings of its now-defunct production company New World Pictures, and it was altogether banned in Sweden and South Africa: that the film is bookended by shots of a meditating Lundgren’s sweaty arse crack doesn’t seem to have been the main concern, more so the extraordinary amount of violence. Don’t worry though, the rest of the world was blessed with its cinema release.

Mark Goldblatt, editor of heaps of the great ’80s and ’90s action movies – including T2, Predator 2 and Commando – hopped into the director’s chair for his second (and final) feature film…and it seems he’d learned a few tips on how to crank up the carnage from his time in the editing suite. With ninety-one on-screen deaths (The Punisher racking up sixty of those alone), it’s a wild shower of bullets and blades. So. Many. Knives. The core of Frank Castle’s tale from the comics that inspired the film remains intact: his family are violently killed, so in turn, he retaliates against those who took his loved ones from him. And yet gone is Castle’s military past (here he’s a former cop), there’s not a traditional Punisher villain to be seen (sorry Jigsaw and Kingpin fans), and you can say farewell to his instantly recognisable skull vest entirely.

Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher.

Instead, Goldblatt delivers a giant serving of 1980s cliché. Think weird amounts of leather, with characters ceaselessly squeaking into scenes. Add an army of gangsters, all slick-haired, barring one unlucky bald mob boss who sticks out like a sore thumb in a sea of hair oil. Throw in some very unfortunate homophobia and sexism. And top it off with a plethora of dodgy style choices. We’ve also got the cop who only works alone (and inexplicably carries a picture of Castle’s children in his wallet), played by Louis Gossett Jr., and his spunky new partner Sam (Nancy Everhard, though Nicole Kidman is said to have auditioned for the role), who disappears two-thirds of the way through, apparently having served her storytelling purpose. Already hackneyed upon its release, it holds up even less well now.  

Not that it’s devoid of fun. On the run from the law, Frank Castle finds himself living in the sewers, much like a big ol’ rat. Only Dolph Lundgren can make a grown man bombing around sewage tunnels on a motorbike looks so effortlessly cool. The Yakuza are introduced as the big bad, and with them, they bring martial artists Hirofumi Kanayama and Kenji Yamaki who reportedly flat out refused to fake the action sequences because it would be dishonourable. And with the number of people that have knives poking out of their heels/toes, it’s a wonder that knife-shoes didn’t catch on as a fashion trend after the film’s debut. The introduction to The Punisher is literally just his disembodied leg stabbing at enemies.

Sure, it’s imperfect. But it’s not every movie that you get to witness creepy pandas getting shot.

Or ninjas shooting machine guns as they hurtle down slides on their knees at the funfair (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write).

It serves as a reminder of a time when Marvel’s cinematic reach wasn’t as all-encompassing as it is today, nineteen years before Robert Downey Jr. donned the Iron Man suit, and eleven years before the X-Men popularised superheroes on the big screen. Whilst Howard the Duck was the first Marvel character to get his own live-action feature-length film, The Punisher was their first superhero to do so. A $9 million budgeted dipping of the toes into the superhero movie waters for the company, then owned by New World Pictures. Which is less than the salaries Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans each bagged individually for Avengers: Endgame.

Just like Frank Castle’s killing spree, comic book movies were a work in progress. And while we can be thankful that we get to see our favourite heroes in their full pomp multiple times a year nowadays, let us not forget the poor Marvel-loving cinemagoers of the ’80s who had just Howard the Duck and The Punisher to cling on to…punishing times indeed.

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