My Punishment.

In 1973, writer Gerry Conway conceived of a gun-toting vigilante to pit against Spider-man. He passed a rough doodle along to artist John Romita, suggesting the name “The Executioner” and hinting at a small skull motif. Romita finessed the design, enlarging the skull, and in 1974 The Punisher made his debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-man #129. At the time, Conway had Spidey facing off against the diabolical Jackal, and intended the Punisher to be little more than a pawn of that villain. He had no idea the popularity the character would gain, starring in his own title by the ‘80s.

I've never really cared for the Punisher in the anti-hero role later writers crafted for him. While many comic book superheroes are vigilantes in the sense that they operate outside the law, most aren't cold-blooded killers. Frank Castle became the Punisher after his family was gunned down by mobsters. When Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered, he too lost a piece of his sanity as he became the Batman. Yet while guns became anathema to Batman, a weapon he swore never to use in his fight against criminals, the Punisher embraced the very arsenal which ripped his family from him, turning villains instruments of destruction against them. The best heroes evolve out of tragedy, and Spider-man's had his share of losses, from Uncle Ben to Gwen Stacy. These tragedies made the webslinger more vigilant than vigilante, and a more responsible protector of human life.

I've seen Dolph Lundgren's 1989 depiction of The Punisher. It's neither a great movie, nor well-acted, and the iconic skull logo appears only on the base of his knife and not on his costume. At the heart of it there is the basic revenge story. Man loses family; man goes out and shoots everyone responsible for it. In sparing a mobster's children he has his moment of humanity and redemption, but there are no illusions about what he's become. When the first images of Thomas Jane appeared for 2004's The Punisher, the skull was on his chest, but as a clean t-shirt any kid could find a convention or comic book store. It didn't seem promising, I didn't have much interest in it, and bad reviews from both Jerry and Rey further convinced me that there was no rush to see it.

Two years later, I would see the DVD in a sale at my company for a mere seven dollars. I figured it was worth at least that much, and couldn't be any worse than Daredevil. The design of the character had evolved from the early posters, and the skull was more distressed. Jane looked the part, moreso than Lundgren, and I'd later learn how his commitment ranged from intense body building to suffering through most of his own stunts. The movie posters and promotional artwork from Punisher comics cover painter Tim Bradstreet magnificently bordered between illustration and reality. The movie had a good lead, and great visuals. Everything else was horribly, horribly wrong, as I'll now elaborate upon without regard for spoilers.

In the comics, Frank is in the park with his wife and kids when they see something they aren't supposed to, and the mob guns them all down. He's the only survivor and he snaps. It's a simple enough formula. In the film, this apparently isn't enough. When a police operation orchestrated(though not solely) by Castle results in the death of a mobster's son, he becomes their object of vengeance. For the mobster, played by John Travolta, killing Castle would be enough. His wife, the lovely Laura Harring, wants his family dead. Conveniently, his entire extended family happens to be at a reunion on a small island, so an army of gunmen can take out Castle's aunts, uncles, parents, cousins, nieces, nephews, second-cousins, first-cousins-once-removed, grandparents, father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate and more in addition to his wife and son. It's not enough to simply kill his nuclear family.

Castle is the last to be shot. Then he's left on a gasoline soaked pier. Rather than finish things with a head shot, professional mobsters set the dock on fire, and assume the resulting explosion will finish the job. Instead, it propels the bullet-ridden protagonist out to sea, where he washes up on another island to recuperate. He returns much later, indicated by a beard, and collects his father's guns as well as the last thing his son ever gave him, a t-shirt with a skull on it. When the man who helped him wishes him “Vaya con dios,” Castle replies with a straight face: “God's gonna sit this one out.”

He proceeds to trick out what I first thought was an abandoned building. Guns are hidden in secret compartments along with grenades. He somehow gets a car and adds armor. Over the course of this montage we learn he shares this tenement with three neighbors: perpetual beauty Rebecca Romjin, comedian John Pinette, and extraneous Angel Ben Foster. The dark tale ventures into a strange sitcom territory as these three wonderfully mismatched neighbors stand around commenting how weird the new guy with the guns is, but never call the police. Castle himself casually visits some of his former allies at a courthouse to let them know he'll be taking matters into his own hands. Other than “hey, cool, you're not dead!” and a stern warning to stay away from Travolta and his crew, this is the last we see of the law. No wonder this world needs a Punisher.

The movie could easily have deviated into a shooting spree at this point, and may have been better if it did. First Castle meets a guitar player in the diner where Romjin's character works. The guy serenades him with a fairly decent folk tune reminiscent of Johnny Cash. I enjoyed the song(which has since been put to better use in promotions for Day Break) but thought it odd that the musician, Harry Heck by the name on his case, goes on to announce that he wrote it for Castle's funeral. It's no surprise when he attacks him further down the road, but weird that he announces his intentions in such a matter. Castle also faces a Lundgren-esque Russian who knocks holes in his apartment and counteracts every single trick Castle spent time setting up in the earlier montage. He bats a grenade back at the anti-hero with a pipe, and smashes a gun with a weight. Jane's comic expressions of surprise would be great in any other context.

As for the main object of his revenge, Castle goes through a convoluted scheme too tedious to explain, in which he ultimately gets Travolta's character to kill his wife and gay best friend, after tricking him into thinking those two were having an affair. Yeah. This wacky gag also includes a fake fire hydrant and million dollar earings regularly left under the front seat of a car. When Castle finally does seek his revenge, there's a lot of shooting and archery and explosions and about ten minutes that actually reflect his four color counterpart. He then rips off Daredevil in a ridiculously over the top series of controlled explosives that kill a bad guy and leave a burning skull the size of a parking lot visible from the air. Is signing his work really that important to a grief-stricken madman? What worked in The Crow, a far superior tale of loss and vengeance based on a comic, doesn't work in either of the films that stole from it.

To continue my punishment for being stupid enough to even spend seven bucks, I watched the special features and listened to the commentary. I'm always interested in segments about the source material so interviews with Romita and Conway were particularly good. The director meanwhile defended every criticism of the film. He didn't set it in a big city or urban environment because of the budget. Any out of place comic elements, or extreme characters like the Russian, he blamed on source material, a graphic novel by Garth Ennis. I've read Ennis' masterpiece Preacher, and if his Punisher was anything like that series, something clearly was lost in translation. I can't believe there's going to be a sequel. I do believe that I'm going to save my money when that one comes out. It'd only be just.


Anonymous Jeff (aka neolithic) said...

Well, unfortunately, I can actually believe they are making the sequel. Maybe the film was just profitable enough to justify another installment to squeeze a few more dollars out. But alas, I am becoming dismayed at the quality of features out there. The gems are too few and far between. Television, however, has taken a positive turn (well, outside of big network TV). 24, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds, amongst others, show creativity and strong story, whereas features are more and more regurgitated.

And yes, I will work a bit more on my series soon too ;)

11/25/2006 3:09 AM  
Blogger Darrell said...

I really disagree with almost every other comic fan I know on this movie. I also thought that Daredevil was decent-to-good (at least a 3 out of 5) and I loved Ang Lee's Hulk, which makes me a member of a very small but devoted cult of fans of that particular adaptation. ( I admit, Hulk had an awful ending, but up until the last fifteen minutes it was stellar.)

MCF: It's a simple enough formula. In the film, this apparently isn't enough.

Yeah, but that's always the case with comic movies. Even the Spider-Man films have taken major liberties. Remember how offended we were (I'm assuming this is a "we" thing) when they made Pete's webslinging a part of his spider abilities rather than a product of his genius? In the time I've had to get used to it, I actually prefer that idea. Even the amazing Batman Begins took important liberties, most strikingly the loving relationship between the young Bruce and his dad. There is always a change and I try to be willing to forgive and accept … even embrace … changes that are made well and made for legit cinematic reasons.

I guess I look at the movie adaptations as "alternate universe" stories. They don’t have to be that faithful to the story as long as their either faithful to the heart of the series or if they make changes that surprise and entertain me. Even Spider-Man, which I'm quasi-religious about, is an area where I'm willing to forgive big changes if I have the impression that they're made for the right reason. I'm fine with Sandman being responsible (or appearing to be responsible) for Uncle Ben's death as long as it makes sense in the context of the story … and I foresee a smart story about how the drive for revenge can eat us alive … the symbiote will probably just be revenge personified (there's no way they could have even approached Secret Wars) and the third movie will see Spidey almost succumb to his own desire for revenge … and Harry completely succumb to his own desire for revenge (hey, they gotta kill the crybaby off sometime).

I enjoyed The Punisher because I saw it with low expectations and it exceeded them. It was just a basic little revenge shoot-em-up action movie that touched on the Spaghetti Westerns and paid homage to Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi and Desperado (hence, the balladeer villain). Not an amazing film but if you try to leave your expectations at the door and watch it for what it is, not a bad hour and a half of entertainment.

I'm not a Garth Ennis fan. Preacher is, I admit, brilliant. But it was extreme enough to actually upset me and I've never read beyond the first seven issues collected in the first bound volume. I think I knew I'd not be reading further when I saw the guy with his face peeled off and nailed back on, upside down. It was just more gore than I wanted, and for far too little dramatic impact. I like the characters, though, and sometimes think about reading more … but then I remember all the gore, how much it bothered me, and I shelve the idea.

Some of my favorite Batman moments have involved his use of guns, by the way. I love the page in Dark Knight Returns (I can't remember which issue) when he shoots the mutant punk who's holding the little girl hostage. ("Don't come any closer, man! I'll kill her! I mean it!" BAM! "I know you do.")

11/25/2006 11:48 AM  
Blogger MCF said...

The organic webbing made more sense than a teenager inventing this super miracle adhesive and dispensing system, and I accepted that early on. Again, The Punisher isn't a character I like to begin with, and the Rodrieguez nod was too heavy handed to fit in with the rest of the story. In throwing in Ennis touches here and there without context, it all felt very patchwork to me.

Preacher isn't an easy read at times, and I can think of one or two images that bothered me more than the nailed-on face. There are some obvious jabs at the Catholic church, though as a work of fiction I was able to get past them, because the main characters were so engaging, especially the vampire. And I like that it's a complete series and comes to a full conclusion after 60-70 issues, one that was clearly thought out from the beginning. You've criticized Lost and Heroes for stringing viewers along, but most comics do the same thing and are ongoing soap operas. When I finished reading Preacher, I felt like I'd just watched an epic cinematic trilogy; it felt like movies.

I didn't hate Daredevil. I liked the music, liked Garner's Elektra, Farrell's Bullseye, Pantoliano's Urich, and definitely the soundtrack and atmosphere. Favreau was the perfect Foggy too. I didn't think Affleck was a convincing Murdock, and there were some corny moments like the playground fight. Would Murdock show how adept he was despite being blind, just to impress the girl? Actually he might, but the execution was cheesy. Moments in it definitely move me though, from Urich's "Go get 'em Matt" and the sweeping rock music to the Evanescence moment in the cemetary when Elektra puts up the umbrella and disappears from Matt's "sight".

The desert scene in the Hulk was great, classic 70s imagery. Jennifer Connelly is gorgeous. Nick Nolte was ridiculously over the top though, and I had trouble with the Hulk being a big green balloon and inflating to ridiculous sizes and proportions.

I didn't really see the Thomas and Bruce relationship as any kind of liberty. I thought in any mythos from the comics to the animated series, the Waynes were amazing parents. The only real deviation for me(besides training with Ra's) was when he almost uses a gun. But it made sense in the story for him to hit rock bottom before rising up from the shadows as something else, something more frightening than deadly.

11/25/2006 1:12 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow said...

In my opinion, the creation of the Punisher marked the beginning of the end for comics as I knew and loved them as a kid. It was that character -- along with Wolverine -- whom comics creators used as an excuse to take the genre down an increasingly dark path.

The final straw landed when Frank Miller got hold of, first Daredevil, then Batman. Game over.

As for the films, I'm a member of Darrell's small but devoted cult of Hulk-lovers. (And I'm not a big fan of the character in general.) Daredevil was okay, in spite of its talentless leading man.

11/25/2006 8:37 PM  
Blogger Rey said...

I had low expectations going in and although I did laugh at points it was never in a tremendously good way. But I remember specifically warning you about this movie and you compound error by buying it?

11/25/2006 10:37 PM  
Blogger Darrell said...

MCF: When I finished reading Preacher, I felt like I'd just watched an epic cinematic trilogy; it felt like movies.

Dang. Now I'm wanting to read more again. Without saying to much, can you give me hints? Do we find out how the heck a guy as cynical as Jesse ended up as a clergyman? Does Jesse actually find God on Earth somewhere? Does the existence of Vampires in the story play into the "theology" of the story (re: the hierarchy of angels, etc)? Most importantly, what becomes of my instant favorite character, Arse Face?

Dammit, I'm gonna have to read the rest of this thing, aren't I?

I was bugged by the fact that I couldn't pigeonhole Jesse Custer with any of the classic arc-types I'm used to. He didn't seem to be a typical savior allegory, nor was he the obvious "Frankenstein's monster" kind of arc-type who's angry at his creator for creating and abandoning him. I recognize that as a fault of mine rather than of Ennis's, but it still hinders my enjoyment of the story.

11/25/2006 11:18 PM  
Blogger Otis said...

I really liked the Hulk. I think it probably holds up better on the big screen than dvd.

I really liked the Punisher. I was never a big fan of the comic(I need special powers for my heroes) but visually Castle was always a cool guy. While some of the scenes may have been over the top, it still managed to entertain me the entire movie.

Daredevil is a character that I have loved since I was a small kid.

They butchered him in that peice of crap movie.

So if we have learned anything it's that movies that are about characters we love usually don't live up to our own expectations. I think I didn't enjoy X-men 1 as much as I should have because I was too busy picking it apart.

11/25/2006 11:29 PM  
Blogger MCF said...

Rey said...

...I remember specifically warning you about this movie and you compound error by buying it?

Wait, you gave me good advice, I didn't listen, and paid the price? Well, that's unprecedented. At least it was only 7 bucks.

Darrell, there are no loose ends in Preacher. You find out exactly why someone like Jesse became a Preacher, and why he was so jaded about it. The dude had a HELL of a childhood. Vampires are explained in the heirarchy. Even Arseface's saga has a resolution, one that ties in with another character and you won't see it coming but when it happens you'll realize it's perfect.

Jesse was just a regular guy. He doesn't discover an amazing power and become a superhero any more than he abuses it to become a villain. He's human, makes mistakes, and acts on emotions. He also has an old school Western code of honor. So many situations arose in which the voice could have been an easy out, and he(via Ennis) chose not to rely on it. I didn't know what to make of the story as I made my way through, and ultimately realized that I liked that it didn't fit a preexisting archetype. Maybe you do need to finish reading the whole collection.

11/25/2006 11:51 PM  
Blogger Darrell said...

Otis: Daredevil is a character that I have loved since I was a small kid. They butchered him in that peice of crap movie.

You and I have talked about that before. It's very likely that my ability to enjoy that movie hinged on the fact that I'm not a particularly devoted Matt Murdock fan. You and I, by the way, are in the teeeeniest, tiniest minority in that we both liked X3. Hope you don't mind me outing you on that issue.

MCF, I might read the rest of Preacher ... I dunno. I'll say this, I can't remember any graphic novel, comic, etc, that bothered me as much as Preacher did. It might be that I just expected more of a satirical "romp" and was surprised to be reading, instead, a hardboiled, cynical, hyper-violent action story.

By the way, did you know that a few years ago some studio started working on a Preacher movie? (Or so I've read.) It never got to the shooting stage, but they did develope some actual make-up tests for Arseface.

11/26/2006 6:51 AM  

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