Punisher: War Zone Avenge the Crimes of Past Punisher Films?” width=”560″/>
Nick Nadel’s Tuesday column examines the increasingly busy intersection between comic books and the movies.
Does the Punisher deserve a third shot at big-screen stardom? That’s the question haunting Marvel’s upcoming Punisher: War Zone after the crimes perpetuated by the 1989 Dolph Lundgren campfest and the 2004 Thomas Jane starrer. As I discussed last week, Wonder Woman can’t even get a debut film, but Frank Castle keeps getting to gun down an endless stream of bad guys. Will Punisher: War Zone be Frank Castle’s third strike? Or should Punisher fans be cautiously optimistic?
The new outing has three things going for it: A grizzled lead who actually looks like the character (Rome‘s Ray Stevenson), an interesting helmer (Lexi Alexander, the female action director-martial arts champ who broke some heads with the rough and tumble Green Street Hooligans), and, most importantly, absolutely no connection whatsoever to the 2004 film. (Punisher should never have gone to Florida.) Still, despite the hard R rating, reaction to early footage is mixed. Why can’t anyone make a decent Punisher film? He’s a gun-toting vigilante, not Thor. It should be a no-brainer. That said, here’s what Punisher War Zone will have to do to make me happy.
Make Him a Soldier
Punisher’s origin is about as simple as
it gets in comics: Vietnam vet Frank Castle’s wife and children are
gunned down after witnessing a mob execution. Instead of allowing the
judicial process to run its course, Castle slaps on some skull body
armor, grabs a few heavy machine guns, and gets to avenging. (He
continues to avenge his family for the next 30 or so years because,
well, it’s comics.) For some reason, every previous Punisher outing has
ditched the soldier angle and made him a law enforcement agent. Frank
Castle’s military training is as essential to the character as web
shooters and social awkwardness are to Peter Parker. Turning him into a
cop (or an FBI agent in Jane’s case) just makes him “Dirty” Harry with
a better arsenal. While the Vietnam angle doesn’t work today (he’d
easily be pushing 60 by now), making Castle a vet of the first Gulf War
— or Kosovo, or even Somalia — keeps him closer to his roots. Punisher: War Zone
thankfully appears to be skipping over the origin, but I hope the
filmmakers at least allow Castle to have a background in Special Ops.
Play Up the Black Humor
may be a monosyllabic killing machine, but he’s also a surprisingly dry
and witty killing machine. When handled correctly (as in Garth Ennis’s
now classic “Welcome Back Frank” storyline), Punisher comics
teem with corrosive black humor. Ennis used Punisher’s deadpan to great
comedic effect, placing him in increasingly violent and bizarre
situations. Let’s be honest: Punisher is a revenge story, and revenge
stories have been done to death on film. Incorporating Ennis’ black
humor will go a long way from distinguishing Punisher from, say, Kevin
Bacon in Death Sentence .
Give Him Wits and Uzis
Sure, Punisher leaves behind a
substantial bodycount, but at least he’s creative about it. The best
stories allow him to use his wits (and, again, military training) to
set elaborate traps for the various criminal types he punishes. Like
Batman, he’s always one step ahead of the lowlifes and thugs. Any good
Punisher film will transcend mere shoot-em-up, and allow Frank Castle
to show off his tactical skills along with his submachine guns.
Bring on the Supporting Cast
Ennis also realized
that Punisher is essentially a one-note character, and that he works
best when surrounded by a rich supporting cast. The 2004 movie briefly
brought in some of the supporting cast from “Welcome Back Frank” —
Spacker Dave, mousy neighbor Joan — but overshadowed them with John
Travolta’s hammy villain. Punisher: War Zone finally works in Castle’s archnemesis, disfigured mob boss Jigsaw (played by The Wire’s Dominic West. The cast is a who’s who of quality cable drama actors!) War Zone also makes room for hapless Det. Soap, and Microchip, Punisher’s long-standing assistant. (Wayne Knight, aka Seinfeld‘s Newman, is perfectly cast as the closest thing Punisher has to Alfred the butler.) The inclusion of Microchip already puts Punisher: War Zone ahead of its predecessors. Though, when your first outing is a Dolph Lundgren vehicle… the only way to go is up.
When not writing, Nick Nadel is in line at the comic book store
alongside the other geeks, er, fans of speculative fiction. His most
prized possession is a 1960s Batman comic wherein the Dynamic Duo are
trapped inside a fortune cookie factory. He lives in Brooklyn
and updates his aptly named website (nicknadel.com) with comedy writing and videos.