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Monday December 1, 2008 11:23 am

Why Is It So Darn Difficult to Make a Decent Punisher Movie?

Punisher War Zone movie posterI know that in the general scheme of things, getting any kind of decent movie made is something of a miracle, but when you look at the succession of comic-book-related movies we’ve had in the last decade or so, it strikes me as rather ridiculous that this Friday we’re about to get the third Punisher movie made since 1989, and from everything I’ve seen, it looks to be just as painful as the first two.

A slight caveat here, of course, is that I haven’t seen Punisher:War Zone, so it could actually be good… but if it is, the studio and their marketing team sure are doing everything possible to hide that fact, including the horrible and extremely loud heavy metal soundtrack that hits you when you go to the official movie site—click the link at your peril.

Read More | Punisher Movie Site

Unlike many other examples in the “superhero” genre, on paper, the Punisher seems like he should be a pretty straightforward character to throw on the screen: he doesn’t have superpowers, he doesn’t wear a mask, he’s got a pretty simple backstory (wife and family killed by criminals, so now he kills criminals—it’s like Death Wish minus a cool mustache and plus a big skull costume), and really, his “costume” should be pretty easily adaptable to the big screen—just a little body armor with a skull painted on it, right? Well, infamously in the first go-round, for some reason the producers felt like that was too difficult to accomplish and dropped the skull entirely, replacing them with (admittedly) the only cool thing to come out of that Dolph Lundgren fest, skull-handled knives. For us Punisher fans back in the day, that was akin to dropping the “S” symbol on Superman’s costume or having Spider-Man not shoot webs. And even though they were pretty sharp—no pun intended—knives? Why in the hell would the Punisher walk around with knives? Though I still remember as a kid checking out the full page movie ad on the back cover of my comics and looking forward to checking out the Punisher on the big screen.

Punisher Dolph Lundgren

The movie itself was awful, of course, as you would expect a Dolph Lundgren-headlined vehicle to be, and went almost if not entirely direct to video. I’m not sure when exactly I saw it, but I’m sure I was shaking my head at it the whole time.

Then came 2004’s Punisher, which promised to be a hardcore take on the character that had been recently slightly revamped and popularized in the Marvel Universe after a fairly fallow period—during which, believe it or not, at one point our beloved Frank, having been dead and buried, was brought back as some sort of specter to wreak havoc on evildoers; very crazy comic-book times indeed. Thomas Jane was a self-avowed comics fan, Jonathan Hensleigh wrote Die Hard with a Vengeance, a perfectly acceptable Die Hard sequel, and was making his directorial debut. And they even got Tim Bradstreet, now the Punisher cover artist, to help do poster and graphic design. And then they released this promotional image:

Thomas Jane as the Punisher

While it was trying—maybe a little too hard—to evoke that Bradstreet vibe, the only thing I could see was that horrible, horrible T-shirt. It looked like the kind of thing you’d buy on the Venice Beach boardwalk for ten bucks. And, as it turned out, that’s basically how they set it up in the movie: Frank Castle gets his iconic “I Am Death and Scare the Crap Out of Bad Guys” look from a t-shirt his kid buys him for his birthday or something because he thought it was “cool.” Oy. That turned out to be far from the only thing wrong with this movie—John Travolta, I’m looking at you—but it was an indication of the ways in which it went wrong from the very beginning.

Which brings us to this newest iteration of Frank Castle on the big screen. And at the very least, they got the look of the character right. But from the day-glo red and green coloring and absurd dialogue in the preview, again, that looks to be about all they got right. The killer for me at this point is the “ooh, look how cool” shot in the preview of the Punisher hanging by his feet and spinning over the floor while spraying the room with machine-gun fire. Though it is a cool shot, the nerd in me can’t help but wonder how Frank’s going to get himself down… and what a target he makes in case anything goes wrong. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but then again, there’s a similar sequence in Dolph’s movie, too, which doesn’t give me much hope. I hope I’m wrong, I really do.

It just amazes me that we’re on the third and probably final—at least for a while—film featuring Frank Castle that’s apparently going to get it wrong, especially when there’s been such a wealth of stellar material in the comics to work with, what with Garth Ennis having just finished his five-year defining run, any arc of which would make a killer movie. I guess the problem with adapting the Punisher is that he almost needs to be treated like the shark in Jaws —he should pop out of the dark to strike and then slink back into the shadows. Me, I’d really like to see an adaptation of the Mike Baron/Wilce Portacio issues where Frank infiltrates a band of freaks and killers to help break a Charlie Manson figure out of prison just so he can take him out. Now, that’s a movie I’d pay ten bucks to watch.

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