Up until Jon Bernthal brought Frank Castle to such memorable life on Netflix, it looked as though Marvel would never be able to figure out how to make the Punisher work in live-action. Prior to Bernthal’s casting, there had been three feature films made over the course of two decades, none of which managed to score decent enough critical or commercial returns to launch a multi-film franchise.
Dolph Lundgren got there first in the forgotten 1989 version, while Ray Stevenson’s War Zone endures as a cult favorite based largely on the almost hilariously exaggerated levels of violence, and how unintentionally well they play off the leading man’s straight faced central performance. Thomas Jane’s 2004 turn is widely help up as the best Punisher movie, but a box office haul of less than $55 million on a $33 million budget was hardly great, although it did go on to do strong business on home video.
A sequel was originally announced, with director Jonathan Hensleigh slated to return alongside Jane, and Jigsaw would be brought in as the villain. However, after spending years stuck in development hell, Hensleigh eventually dropped out in 2006 before his intended replacement John Dahl also bailed, and the following year Jane revealed he’d walked away due to creative differences over the budget and tone, while Walter Hill was rumored as a potential candidate for the director’s chair and Kurt Sutter took a crack at the script.
Jane did eventually reprise the role in the unofficial 2012 short film Dirty Laundry, and he recently admitted that he’d be open to the idea of directing Bernthal as the Punisher. However, his tenure as the comic book vigilante was arguably cut short before its time, even if the financial returns weren’t as strong as the studio had hoped.