Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Universe (Marvel)
Where: Daredevil #65 When: November 2004
Why: Brian Bendis How: Phil Hester & Ande Parks

Quick Fix...
We're running a slipper beyond fashionably late, but if you think back, you might remember a little film called Punisher: War Zone hitting screens, December 5. In fact, chances are, if you did venture out to cinemas to pay to see the film, you walked away remembering it vividly for all the wrong reasons.

The Punisher debuted way back in 1974 in the pages of Amazing Spider-man. Since, the character has grown to amass his own devout following. Best known as Marvel's resident skull-shirted lethal vigilante; Punisher operates under a rule set quite unlike anything in traditional superheroes.
Sharing much in common with Hollywood's mindless shoot 'em up action heroes of 1980's fame, it's little wonder the character's history on the big screen began at the end of that decade, in 1989.

Rocky IV baddy, Dolph Lundgren, stepped into the jet black boots of a brandless Frank Castle for the character's first cinematic outing. Smeared with polish from those same boots, a brunette Lundgren actually made for a pretty respectable likeness, delivering ninety minutes of cold stares that make Thomas Jane look like a blow-dryed pansy.
The death count was high, the quips cheesy, and the streets a fitting shade of grey. For a low budget movie filmed in Australia, it was a far better Punisher flick than it ever deserved to be. The bar wasn't set high, but it was set.

Ray Stevenson (Rome) steps in to the 2008 film, substituting for a frustrated Thomas Jane, who departed from sequel negotiations in 2007 amidst script difficulties. The third Punisher plays fast and loose, seemingly avoiding bogging itself down in cinematic history, to instead focus on reinventing the franchise with the gritty urban violence absent from the Tampa-based 2004 film.
That said, infused with a B-film action mantra, one almost gets a sense of the previous films colliding in War Zone, despite their irrelevence.

In referencing the source material; War Zone goes back to the well of 'Welcome Back, Frank,' borrowing elements the 2004 film left out. Director Lexi Alexander's distain for the death's head emblem was even negotiated, ensuring all the violence of '89, with the comics iconography seen in '04. It seems like the perfect blend, but response to War Zone has been mixed, at best.

Some fans have relished the over-the-top gratuity of War Zone's action, but mainstream reviewers seem far less inclined to indulge the mindless violence and barely-there plot. In a world that now sees a vengeful vigilante vying for oscar nominations, one can hardly be surprised that the Punisher has fallen short in the eyes of reviewers, but what about the ticket buying audience?

Without a doubt, nothing any critic says can be as damning an indictment as box office statistics. Marvel may want to rethink using the Marvel Knights brand in film, introducing it to the small handful of ticket buyers who raised a meagre four million dollars in the film's US opening weekend. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call in the business, a flop!

So, for a film hailed by some as a great splash of cinematic violence, and others, the most faithful recreation of the character in film, why isn't it working?...

Thanks to the internet, a lot of strange and unimaginative theories come to permeate the fanboy subconscious. I fully expect a disturbing number of people to reach the unanimous conclusion that the Punisher is just one of those things you "can't turn in to a movie." Which, of course, is riduclous.

A few bad apples in the bunch don't suddenly undermine the viability of apples as a food source. Likewise, nothing anyone says or does can change the fact that comics communicate their ideas through the visual and conceptual. No matter how abstract comics might become, they are dealing in a universal language of ideas that is readily transferred to live-action. The Dark Knight, Matrix, Sin City, and a host of other examples have done well to demonstrate this to various degrees. Of course, that's not to say the process isn't without it's difficulties.

Many interpretations of the Punisher exist within the comics, all as viable examples of what it takes to describe the character to it's fullest extent.

In his effort to explore the motivations of the character, Jonathan Hensleigh embellished the historic premise upon which Frank Castle develops a new persona. In doing so, he created an economy that pushed a film stronger than standard revenge flicks, but failed to indulge the fiction, to an extent that distanced his Punisher from the core of the comics' concept.
While there's a backstory worthy of acknowledgment, in the demanded function that led to conceiving War Zone, Punisher is a two-dimensional vigilante. He is unmoved by his world. By definition he is a character almost without arc, and in the formulaic world of Hollywood, that can be a pretty daunting prospect.

Today's feature spotlights Punisher as he is in a world of other heroes. A supporting character just as likely to clash with the titular hero, as he is to team-up in the name of the greater good. In the case of Daredevil, this showdown comes uniquely as a result of Daredevil's recent actions. It is here that it's revealed that Frank Castle was interrogating a goon in the back room when DD dumped Wilson Fisk's beaten body before the criminals of Hell's Kitchen and declared himself the new Kingpin.

Ten months later Castle runs afoul the horned hero as he busts up weapons smugglers operating on his turf. Failing to see any subtext in Murdock's coup, Punisher comes armed to the teeth to confront the hero. It is a decision not taken lightly by Daredevil, who fires the first shot, whipping his billy club into the barrel of Punisher's aimed machine gun. It narrowly avoids backfiring, throwing shrapnel between Punisher's legs while the club splits from the barrel.

DD leaps into the air, forcing him to narrowly avoid a knife tossed by the floored Castle. Punisher pulls a pistol, but finds himself firing at shadows.

A voice from beyond questions Castle's sanity as he scrambles toward the automatic weapons previously being traded. He doesn't get a chance at a clean shot, suffering a baton to the throat, before Daredevil descends from the shadows above to strike the knockout blow -- a stiff kick to the face!

It's a scenario familiar to many of Frank Castle's encounters with his conemporary heroes. It's also very interesting. Regardless of interpretation, it seems Punisher is only as interesting as the story being told. Here, Bendis opts to write the character with a suggested insanity that reflects upon DD, as much as Castle. While it seems unfeasible to portray Punisher in a starring role while also undermining his competence, it's the psyche of the character that remains the most interesting piece of the puzzle not especially well explored.

War Zone probably approaches this with the best balance of all the films, out-doing 2004's humanized Punisher, and 1989's quippy emo.
With the massive failure of the film, it might be the closest we get to the depiction of a man trapped in a dissociative state. A man desensitized to the distain of the people after pledging himself to the war that could not be won in Vietnam. A man steeped in horrible violence, who knew no other way to lash out when he was broken by the death of his only loved ones.

Punisher: War Zone is presumably still in theatres.
We're running disgracefully behind schedule, so we'll leave you to find your own thoughts on the fate of the Punisher and his cinematic future.

The Fight: 4 The Issue: 5
Winner: Daredevil

You can find Daredevil's confrontations with Frank Castle, Dr. Strange, Captain America, Mr. Fantastic, and others from the Marvel Universe, collected in the tenth volume of the Bendis and Maleev Daredevil trades. The stellar run on the series might make the perfect late Christmas gift for you, or others. By using Amazon purchase links provided on the site you help sponsor future entries! Be sure also to check out the Infinite Wars Gift Shoppe, packed with collected editions of most issues reviewed!


Steve V said...

I have to say I'm not a huge Punisher fan. He is a cool character but the stories and plots he's found in just don't grab me and feel very repetative. BUT I have to say I really enjoyed the part Frank played in World War Hulk the symbolisim and relatability he found in the alien attackers was really well done. Not to mention a pretty kick ass final battle.

Mike Haseloff said...

@Steve V: Aye!
As a wee lad I especially struggled to understand the appeal of a guy running around with guns in a world of rock-men, web-slingers, and one-man tanks.

I always liked the character as a guest (especially in Spider-man), but I think guys like Garth Ennis have done a lot for the character.
In wrapping the entry up, I didn't really get a chance to point to some of those MAX stories, which would probably be just as interesting without the Punisher, as they are with.

I'm much more fond of the character when there's a little bit more to it than running around shooting.