All Four Live-Action Punishers, Ranked

Frank Castle has bad memories of the past.
(Image credit: Netflix)

It boggles my mind, but there have actually been more live-action depictions of The Punisher than there have been of Daredevil and Moon Knight COMBINED. Now, this is shocking to me since I wouldn't really think that the guy who "punishes" people with extreme prejudice would be considered more marketable than a lawyer who moonlights as a vigilante, or Marvel's version of Batman (I know Moon Knight's so much more than that -- in fact, I even wrote an article about Batman vs. Moon Knight, but you catch my drift).   

But, The Punisher apparently is more marketable than those two characters, as there have been three movies and a "magnificent" Netflix TV series about The Punisher already, with each interpretation being surprisingly different. This might be because we got vastly different actors portraying Frank Castle, with them being Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane, Ray Stevenson, and Jon Bernthal, chronologically.

That said, which Punisher has been the best? Well, for this article, I thought I'd consider a number of factors to determine who's the best live-action Punisher, most notably how close each actor got to the character from the comics, but also how good their actual material was to work with (because a good Punisher is really only as good as the world he's, er, punishing). So, without further ado, I'm going to determine who's the best live-action Punisher to date. Oh, and please don't hold my face dangerously close to a wood chipper if you disagree with me! We're all friends here, right? 

Thomas Jane as The Punisher

(Image credit: Lions Gate Films)

4. The Punisher - Thomas Jane

In this 2004 film, Thomas Jane portrays Frank Castle as an FBI agent-turned-vigilante who is on the hunt for a crime lord named Howard Saint (John Travolta) after the man murdered his family. Pretty standard Punisher stuff.

And, this might be why it feels slight and insubstantial to me when compared with the other live-action versions of the character, even despite Thomas Jane being utterly amazing in the short, "Dirty Laundry." It might be because John Travolta doesn't make for a very compelling antagonist against this version of Frank Castle. That said, Thomas Jane, who I loved in the Stephen King Netflix movie,1922, has the toughness and the look of the character, but it feels like he would have been better suited in a film more catered toward Jane's style of menace.    

Even so, I can’t help but think how cool Jane would have been in Rob Zombie's canceled The Punisher 2. Oh, well. We can always imagine.    

Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher

(Image credit: Live Entertainment)

3. The Punisher - Dolph Lundgren 

In the very first live-action Punisher movie, released in 1989, Rocky's Dolph Lundgren plays a Frank Castle who hides out in the sewer like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. This is after his family is murdered in a car bomb explosion, and he's taken to the streets to exact vengeance. In this version, he's a former police officer who turns to a life of vigilantism, and he's lacking the trademark skull on his shirt. Because not everything can be perfect.  

Speaking of perfect, in a perfect world, Dolph Lundgren would be in a better Punisher movie, since he’s pretty much the perfect Frank Castle. In every way, he has the look, the cold, almost-Ivan Drago, demeanor, and the standoffishness of a man who’s lost everything. In short, he’s the best thing about this movie.  

That’s a shame, too, because even though I think the movie’s okay, in a campy sort of way, it’s also kind of goofy, and that goofiness kind of robs Dolph Lundgren of being the best Punisher. So, yeah, he’s great! It’s just the movie around him that could be better.  

The Punisher in jail, doing what he does best.

(Image credit: Netflix)

2. The Punisher - Jon Bernthal  

In this Netflix version of The Punisher, this time, the titular character is a war veteran with PTSD, which is explored thoroughly throughout the series. Jon Bernthal plays a man with a skewed moral compass (as all Punishers should), but he’s also able to spread his range a great deal over the course of his two seasons, as well as in his debut on Daredevil.  

That’s right, this is a Punisher who exists within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (And bringing him back may be a good idea now that the multiverse is wide open), but he’s still on the fringes, as when he met up with Daredevil for that first time. This Punisher is brutal, but he’s also suffering in a way we hadn’t really seen before in other portrayals of the character.     

It also helps that The Punisher in this universe had the benefit of being in the more realistic Netflix portrayals of the Marvel characters, so Jon Bernthal gets to exist in a more fully realized environment than other live-action versions of the character. As Frank Castle himself, I think Dolph Lundgren is superior to Bernthal, but the world this Punisher lives in is much better than Lundgren’s, so Bernthal gets one over on Dolph. But, he’s still not the best version of this character. That honor goes to… 

Ray Stevenson as The Punisher

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

1. Punisher: War Zone - Ray Stevenson  

In this underrated (Yeah, I said it) movie from 2008, this Punisher is out to murder the scum who killed his family, but this time, he simply does not give a flying flip about anyone whatsoever. All of the Punishers I’ve mentioned before have pretty much been a one-man army, but Ray Stevenson takes it to a whole other level with his violence in War Zone, as this is the grimmest and bloodiest Punisher we’ve seen yet.  

In fact, next to Dredd, which will probably always be my favorite comic book movie, Punisher: War Zone is also high up on that list, since unlike Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher movie, the tone in War Zone blends well with the character, and Ray Stevenson is just the absolute best version of Frank Castle. This is a highly trained killer, and he shows no remorse whatsoever. He’s just dead inside. You can see it in his eyes.  

This is a Punisher who I don’t think could hold his own series, but, I wouldn’t want to stay with this Frank Castle for any longer than a 100 minutes. He’s scary! Just as Frank Castle should be. And, for that reason, I deem Ray Stevenson the very best live-action version of the character.

But, what do you think? Who’s your favorite live-action Punisher? For more news on everything Frank Castle, make sure to swing by here often. 

Rich Knight
Content Producer

Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.