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Shut Up, Crime! The Punisher at the Movies

  The Punisher was not always a hero, or antihero to be precise: he started life in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man as a villain obsessed with killing the webslinger and was never intended to have the durability he did. Created by writer Gerry Conway, with artists John Romita Sr and Ross Andru perfecting his mostly black-costumed look - with the white boots, gauntlets and that distinctive skull emblazoned across his torso - Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics supremo gave him his name and all of a sudden he was a hit with the readers. Considering this was 1974, you could understand why, as the vigilante in crime fiction was really taking off in popularity what with Charles Bronson in Death Wish making headlines across the world, so The Punisher was the ideal character for inhabiting an urban hellscape as he took down the gangsters he believed were blighting the modern world. Thus, with the occasional dip in popularity since, he has become the comics' most notorious protagonist.

Well, the longest lasting one, for he was not without controversy. While Batman was perhaps comparable, the Caped Crusader had a code of conduct that meant he never used guns, never mind killed anyone, whereas Punisher Frank Castle was a one-man army who had a seemingly limitless arsenal of firearms at his disposal. As the nineteen-eighties gave way to a specific type of action hero, the man who could go it alone against overwhelming odds and succeed, it was only a matter of time before he would make the leap from the page to the silver screen, though it took so long it was almost the nineties before 1989's The Punisher arrived in cinemas. Not in the United States, however, as New World who produced it opted to release it on home video, looking at the meagre profits it was making elsewhere and deciding not to chance any more of a loss, therefore this Australian-made thriller wound up neglected.

According to its fans, that was, who saw the strapping Dolph Lundgren as the ideal embodiment of the character, though you could quibble that he never actually wore the proper uniform, mostly because the star got cold feet about strutting about with a large skull on his chest, therefore it was a black leather jacket, jeans and T-shirt he wore, though he did sport steel-capped boots as a small concession to dressing up. You could also have an issue that he resembled death warmed up for most of his scenes, largely because of the amount of physical abuse Castle suffered, getting beaten up and stabbed and even shot (requiring the red hot hunting knife to the wound trick, natch), so with his hair dyed, yes, black especially for the occasion, Lundgren looked about to keel over at any moment. Even in the de rigueur torture scene, where his muscular frame was fetishized by director Mark Goldblatt's camera, his grey pallor seemed a fashion statement.

The villains, as they always were with The Punisher, were the mobsters, who after all were the ones who had murdered his family and sent him over the edge, leaving the body count reaching absurd levels rarely seen since Arnold Schwarzenegger mowed 'em down in Commando. This incarnation was not up to that level, it had to be said, never finding the right tone and if in doubt, simply having Lundgren wield a machine gun and let him loose on the anonymous extras playing the bad guys. Although Jeroen Krabbé was the almost sympathetic gang boss who sees his son and his colleagues' children kidnapped by the Yakuza, this was more indicative of Hollywood's suspicion of the Japanese at this point, which saw them playing the antagonists in many movies thanks to America believing that nation was buying up their assets. It all ended with a moral amounting to "don't be bad, be good", so cheers, we’d have never been able to work that out ourselves.

It took a whole fifteen years for The Punisher to return to the movies, though he had appeared in episodes of the Spider-Man cartoon, voiced by John Beck and toned down for the child audience. But 2004's fresh reboot The Punisher was part of Marvel's grander scheme for their superhero franchises, and with Thomas Jane in the lead and action flick expert Jonathan Hensleigh on scriptwriting and directorial duties, it was unleashed to middling box office success - but it was released into cinemas, and remains the most successful of the three Punisher movies to date. Whether it was the best was debatable, Lundgren's outing was all about the blood and thunder, but here there was a more ambitious try at a seventies style revenge thriller as befitting the protagonist's decade of origin. However, while it had its fans, there were plenty who felt it failed to capture the grit and nastiness of the source.

By this stage, the comics had been running in various forms for a good thirty years of ups and downs, and with the market for the media growing older the material was getting more adult in their depictions of violence - you wouldn't necessarily give a little kid a Punisher issue in the way you would buy them a Spider-Man one to keep them contented (and quiet) for a while. To mirror that, the '04 effort was assuredly R-rated and featured some blood and gore as befitting that mature audience, but as well as shooting the baddies, it shot itself in the foot by adhering to the Marvel preoccupation with presenting its series' origin stories, as arguably Castle's reasons for getting into the vigilante game were the least interesting element of his personality. Sure, he was known for his brooding, but making him an angel of vengeance with no purpose other than to visit his, well, punishment on evildoers should really have been sufficient.

Not here, as we were made to sit through a good three quarters of an hour of backstory as Castle was present at a cops' raid on some smugglers which saw boss John Travolta lose his son in the crossfire, and was targeted by him in a massacre that saw off not just his wife (Samantha Mathis) and child, but everyone he had ever met, or so it appeared. Left for dead, he spends a few months gathering his wits with a plan to get his own back, which was curiously similar to what Jigsaw would contrive in the newly arrived Saw films, only without the trapping. Not the comic villain Jigsaw, it should be pointed out - he wouldn't show up till the following movie. Then there were the endeavours to humanise the killing machine with wacky sidekicks that even he doesn't seem keen to encourage, but every so often there would be something promising, such as the singing hitman or the cartoonishly massive Russian assassin, that reminded you of the intense potential in the property.

That potential came closest to realisation in the next Punisher entry, essentially a reboot of the previous reboot for while Jane and Hensleigh wanted to return, they wanted a more realistic incarnation of the protagonist and when it was clear that was not happening, they exited, leaving new star Ray Stevenson (when it looked as if he could make a go of a credible leading man) and Lexi Alexander (who found herself relegated to helming series television after this). With concerns about real life violence in the news once again, and the influence of the media in those crimes, she opted to make the action as comic book as possible, therefore Castle was introduced shooting up an entire dining room full of gangsters by hanging from the chandelier and spinning, machine guns blazing, which may have been absurd but a sense of humour was what may well have been missing from movies like this, albeit a grim one.

Apparently, this was the wrong way to go, for the resulting Punisher: War Zone turned out to be the lowest grossing Marvel movie of all time; fair enough, this was just as the company was transforming into a movie entertainment behemoth and it seemed outside that family-friendly target audience with its extreme bloodshed, but as time would tell, later works of theirs like Deadpool and Logan demonstrated the most full-on violence did not necessarily indicate nobody was going to want to see them, indeed that had been the selling point of Logan and it did very well at the box office. It may be frustrating to note that if this had been released alongside those other two it could have found its audience, but by that point The Punisher had found a new home on television, which appeared to suit him better. Still, this previous reboot continues to find its appreciative audience, and has become a genuine cult movie.

That is likely because it adopted the eighties model of going way over the top, ramping everything up to eleven, therefore Castle is given a few sops to some kind of personality before Alexander gave in and admitted he was not a three-dimensional character, he was a wafer thin one who happened to strike a nerve in those who liked revenge tales thanks to his easy to understand modus operandi and motives. Bad guys exist. Bad guys must be punished. So why not punish them with The Punisher? It was almost childishly obvious, as befitting the comic book origins, and this third try was not going to mess with that formula, it was going to embrace it. Thus the villain was Jigsaw (Dominic West) who early on has an unfortunate meeting with the bottle recycler that gave him his nickname, and he and psychopathic brother Doug Hutchinson laid waste to New York, specifically menacing the remaining family of the FBI agent Castle accidentally killed, a rare and valued example of his style making a serious mistake. It was about as good a Punisher movie as he deserved.

As that effectively flopped, it seemed as if this would be the last we saw of Frank Castle, but this was not the case. After the dust had quickly settled, a fan film lasting ten minutes appeared in 2012 under the name The Punisher: Dirty Laundry, or rather it didn't because it was designed to be seen at conventions where the title character's nickname was a secret until the last few shots. That said, the savvier viewer might have guessed since returning to play him was Christopher Lambert looky-likey Thomas Jane, who had always expressed affection for his starring role in 2004 and was not averse to going back to the antihero. Directed by Phil Joanou, it was a low budget affair, and saw Castle wake up in his van after yet another nightmare to decide to wash his clothes at the nearby laundromat, then find it difficult to ignore a gang beat up prostitutes and try to force a kid to run drugs for them. Ending as you would expect, it was a short, sharp piece keeping Frank alive.

It turned out this was the end of the line for Jane as far as The Punisher went, for the actor who would take up his mantle in 2016 was Jon Bernthal, who co-starred with Charlie Cox in his Daredevil series for Netflix, and in 2017 was awarded his own series. The first season of Daredevil had seen the titular, blind superhero battle his greatest foe Kingpin, but here he was pitted against The Punisher, or he was at least for some of the episodes. This allowed musings on the worth of vigilantism and how it could be justified: Daredevil does so because he refuses to kill anyone, while for Castle his entire bloody purpose is to murder those who cross him and the decent citizens he seeks to protect. In the subsequent solo series, however, they plunged ill-advisedly into politics, with Frank now at the centre of corruption in high places, some particularly weaselly anti-gun control themes and scenes, and the anti-hero getting beaten to within an inch of his life.

Not once, but more or less every episode, which made for repetitive viewing to say the least. With Bernthal apparently offered more scope for characterisation, they fumbled the post-traumatic stress disorder plots by indicating the best way to get over exposure to extreme violence was to get back in the figurative bike and become even more violent. Who wanted serious themes in a Punisher TV series anyway? In season two, the essential joylessness of the Marvel Netflix shows continued to be a problem; episode two was the best, an Assault on Precinct 13 homage, but otherwise having Frank babysit a teenage runaway was less than compelling and once again with these, the plot was simply too drawn out or committed to business that came across as superfluous. To make him cartoonish and pitting him against a rogue's gallery of grotesques would have been far preferable, but Marvel wanted to make their lead gunman a talking point on this evidence. This was at the crux of the character, yet not often tackled as in those three movies his activities were rarely questioned, their morality as black and white as his skull logo, in effect serving up a fantasy where the complexities of crime and its associated issues could be solved by a barrage of bullets. As long as we recognised that it was indeed a fantasy, The Punisher would entertain, for he sure as Hell was too one-dimensional to bear up to any kind of close scrutiny otherwise.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018