'The Punisher': Why Every Movie And TV Show Failed So Hard
The 1989, 2004, and 2008 live-action Punisher movies, plus the standalone Netflix TV show, have all been godawful. But in St. Thomas Jane's name, please don't take this opportunity to "Actually …" me about how whichever cinematic equivalent of Viagra for the goatee-truck-sunglasses combo crowd was in reality great. I'm not saying there wasn't some good in those films/shows but if I, say, served you a bowl of slop of undetermined color, and you found a few nice slices of pepperoni in it, that wouldn't mean I didn't royally screw up that pizza. Though I guess I could always call it "Chicago-style" and have a few unhinged lunatics defend it to the death-like some of ya weirdos do with Punisher movies.
My point is that it's okay if you like crappy, bad cinema. It's okay to admit it. I swear to you that no one will think less of you for it because no one thinks about you at all.
But the big question is, WHY did all those live-action Punisher projects fail so hard? The comic book character has been around since 1974, so he's obviously doing something right. What did the movies and shows lack that the comics have? Well… the story and character from the comics, for one. All the live-action portrayals of Frank Castle took some liberties with the source material, which is usually a good thing because some things that work in comics may not always work on film. But the Punisher seems to be the rare, bizarre exception because it apparently only works when you follow his specific formula to the goddamn letter with no deviation or substitution.
Take the character's origin. In the comics, Frank's family is killed by the mob because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Feels like this wouldn't be such an important detail. All you need is a dead family, and, wham, you got the Punisher. That's what Dolph Lundgren's, Thomas Jane's, and Jon Bernthal's Punishers thought, replacing the random slaughter of the Castle family with targeted hits that gave Frank a specific enemy to hunt down.
That's not what the Punisher is supposed to do. The Punisher should not be going after a single person/group who wronged him. He is fighting an eternal war against ALL CRIME, which you only get if the death of his family was random. If you take that away, he ceases to be the Punisher and becomes … I don't know, the Vengeanator? If only there was a better word for someone who avenges other people … Sadly, because of weird-ass comic book copyright issues, there isn't.
Okay, but what about Ray Stevenson in War Zone? His character's origin followed the comic's "two wrongs (time/place), one family" story. Great. But why did the movie have to have such cartoonish violence …? It's like War Zone takes place in an alternative universe where humans evolved from pumpkins because everyone's face meat and brain helmets are so goddamn squishy in this film, at one time, Stevenson manages to punch someone through the head.
Violence in a Punisher movie should be a lot of things, but it should not be funny. Then again, it is a comic-book story, so the action needs to be big and over the top and even shocking, and I admit that that is a very fine line to walk, but that's my bigger point: the Punisher is a surprisingly complicated character. No, really.
The best way to describe him is that he is like a real-life person transported into the world of comic books. He is a traumatized war veteran with the superpower of guns who first appeared in comics to kill a teenager in a red-and-blue spider costume. The only times when the character works is when he seems to be on some level aware of how insane his situation is.
At his finest, Punisher should feel like he's wearing his skull logo in mockery of the colorful world of mutants, meta-humans, and caped gods who go on about demons from dimension X trying to steal their alien crystals while all Frank wants to do is shoot mafiosos in the face. So even if you don't feature other superheroes in your Punisher movie, you should still portray the main character as someone who doesn't fit into the world and tries to fix it in his own, dark, twisted way. This not only brings the original Punisher to life, but it also helps movies not to, you know, glorify a serial killer.
It's a tough balancing act, but if you can get all of those things right (the random killing of his family, the right level of violence, and the whole "subtly deconstructing the comic book vigilante trope" vibe), you can create a great Punisher story. So far, every movie and show has messed with the formula, so the concoction blew up in their face.
So, here's a wild idea. How about the next Punisher just … gives us the Punisher from the comics? No new spins, no updates, no reimaginations. No more soup pizza. Just the only version of the Punisher that remained popular where every other take has failed. Again, I acknowledge that some stuff from comics may not work in a live-action setting, but what the hell does Hollywood have to lose at this point? You can't damage the Punisher's cinematic image, same as you can't damage the goddamn Titanic. Those ships have both sailed and sunk a long time ago.
P.S. YES, I'VE SEEN DIRTY LAUNDRY. IT WAS FINE BUT ALSO NOT A FEATURE MOVIE, SO I DON'T COUNT IT. WHY ARE WE YELLING?!
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Top Image: Lions Gate Films, Columbia Pictures