Marvel: “Go to Hell Castle” – The Punisher on Film

Punisher on Film

The Punisher’s back, skull, firearms and singular purpose complete and with its longest ride yet. Could the small screen at last give one of Marvel’s most adapted, and still most difficult character’s a break?

DAREDEVIL SERIES 2 HAS JUST UNLEASHED AN ALL NEW PUNISHER ON THE MASSES, THIS TIME FINDING A WAY FOR FRANK CASTLE TO BREAK INTO THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE AS HE DEBUTS IN SMALL SCREEN LIVE ACTION. That Netflix contained Hell’s Kitchen, so far shaped by the first closed seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, looks perfect for him. And in taking on the patch patrolled by the often more brutal Man without Fear, it looks like his anti-hero/villain status will have just the bridge he needs.

A square peg. With a skull on it

The Punisher is and has always been a difficult fit for the Marvel Universe, but typically, that’s exactly where the huge appeal the character springs from, continuing to attract creators no matter the Marvel imprint or scale of crossover event.

The Punisher doesn’t just have the potential to bring death and extreme violence into the comic book universe, darker and blunter than the various homicidal villains and amoral antiheroes in that huge universe, but also a complete lack of redemption. As countless films remind us, this is not vengeance or revenge as much as various storylines have found ways to drag up the tragic past that broke policeman Frank Castle. This is punishment. And as soon as the Punisher was born from that broken shell, as soon as the skull shirt was put on and the wicked punished, all hope of redemption was off the table. There sits on his shoulders the weight of many deaths, no matter how avenging or moral they seem. Rumour has it that’s a key part of him entering Daredevil’s universe…

Still, that’s a remit that makes the Punisher all the more difficult to slot into a film. You have all manner of three act and tragic precursors to drag this difficult slant into the mundane. One of the nearest comparators in comic books, with a career shaped by tragedy is of course Batman. But the Dark Knight quickly became a metaphor within his fictional city, and creators have had great fun playing with the idea of escalation that chucks increasing layers of the grotesque at him. The Punisher’s encountered his fair share of grotesques, but in the hard reality of his America, the two shadowy figures are entirely separated by the use of fatal force.

Issues. With a skull on them

Still, as with the Dark Knight, Punisher stories and particularly adaptations find it difficult to stop reminding us about Castle’s stark tragedy, albeit only one of the three film adaptations so far have wandered onto that difficult canvas of trying to solve it.

Batman represents the loss of childhood innocence. He was steered into a life where he sought to protect following a savage murder that he could not have stopped as a child. In comic book lore, Frank Castle was an adult, a highly experienced soldier who failed to protect his wife and two children. He was forged in the heart of Manhattan, in Central Park. While both may lurk in dark hideouts, unlike Batman Castle doesn’t have an incredible array of technology that can mimic and counter his grotesques. His brand of justice requires huge firepower, ultra-violence death and action. He employs every tool of the villain to make that happen. And many, many of his victims are minor mafia attached criminals.

Spider-Man may have jumped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe just in time to take up a valuable role in Marvel’s tent-pole film of 2017, Civil War, but there’s no chance the Punisher will. Frank Castle first appeared in the pages of a 1974 Spider-Man comic and wold go on to play a considerable role in Mark Millar’s original Civil War comic event. However, once again, the irreconcilable, utterly irredeemable qualities of what’s left of Frank Castle mean that even in moments of extreme Marvel crisis he’s no easy fit with the rest of the Marvel elite.

Peak Punisher. With a skull on it

There are three films starring Marvel’s awkward antihero to look at, but it would be impossible to ignore the work of the Punisher’s definitive contributor on the page. Above everybody else is Garth Ennis. As ever a writer who prefers to steer clear of superheroes, but unfortunately writes them brilliantly.

His ongoing series cancelled in the mid-90s, Castle spent some time clinging onto in mini-series before Garth Ennis’ 12-part run at the beginning of the 21st century returned his popularity. The Punisher’s look was pared down (farewell those Mickey Mouse gloves) and soon Ennis had moved across to the adult MAX imprint, legendarily given an unlimited run on the character; one that produced heavy, realistic and wonderfully dark tales for 66 issues. That series would continue tackling modern world events, having established a universe where Vietnam-veteran Punisher had been active for 30 years and taken over 2,000 lives, until the character’s own death. Other comic series would drag Castle into superhuman scraps, mutant meltdowns and even transform him into the undead like of FrankenCastle during the publisher’s Dark Reign event.

There’s nothing like a good antihero, and he’s one of the psychologically damaged originals. So it’s no surprise that aside from his devastating runs on animated series and his huge homecoming on Netflix, he’s fronted three feature length films. But none of these have sustained a franchise, each picking up a different actor for a different portrayal of Castle. Perhaps the prolonged serial story of the new Daredevil adaptation will finally be able to piece together a compelling persona for one of the most damaged Marvel has to offer.

Three films. With skulls on them.

The Punisher (1989)

“Work in progress”

Could any film signal the end of the ‘80s actioner better than the Dolph Lundgren starring The Punisher? There is much of its time about it, but the swearing, mix of visual and special effects and heightened caricatured mafia set it firmly in the 1980s rather than the rather duller blockbusters that would arrive in the 1990s.

To its immense credit, The Punisher reduces Castle’s backstory to constant references and flashbacks as he emerges instantly full formed, guns and stubble primed five years into his new career. Unfortunately, the dialogue is quite dire, none more so than when it gives Lundgren, an actor with a range suitable for Castle’s general mirthlessness difficult one-liners. When we first sink to his underground lair, The Punisher is pondering bluntly whether he is God’s “weapon of revenge”.

The mafia and police are particularly damned as pantomime and profane stereotypes whose cards are marked early on. Fortunately, the police are headed by Lou Gossett Jr, somehow pulling gravitas from his role as Castle’s ex-partner. On the other side is the consistently brilliant Jeroen Krabbé looking characteristically and wonderfully bored in his role as chief villain Gianni Franco.

Gossett Jr is the emotional catch here, the partner who’s pursued the Punisher for five years convinced that he really is Castle, the cop presumed dead since his wife and children were caught in a car bomb in a city that’s desperate to cover up any idea that the formally pastel suited copper could have darkened his hair, grown stubble and become the ultimate dangerous avenger. It does take the chance to explore the idea that Castle is a shell of a man, even if never greatly develops it. Most affecting is when the Punisher has been captured (after oddly letting himself deliver a group of rescued children to the police) and Lundgren slouches immobile on a cell bunk as he meets his old partner for the first time in five years.

That rescue mission is strange, and shows that while the Punisher had emerged fully formed at the front of the film, his role could still be subverted. Quickly running out of steam with the Punisher’s normal racket of burst in and shoot, he’s soon dragged into an explicitly anti-hero role. It takes hardly any time for him to become an avenging angel, although the film does have a care to point out that his successful campaign has reduced the power of his mafia enemies to such an extent they are at the mercy of outsiders like the Yakuza (who play the main and undeniable villains here). That twist of the Batman idea of villain escalation is intriguing, but splitting the enemies leaves the Punisher a clear role as a hero. He doesn’t have the mind set to deal with the conflicted role of two opposing sets of villains after all. It’s a message that gets through thanks to his thespian comic relief, Barry Otto’s Shake. The result, an endless cycle of one-up-man-ship.

Fortunately the addition of Shake is aided in a serious, action-orientated, but not terrible comic book feel by director Mark Goldblatt’s mixing the slight blunt lack of imagination with explosions, some of the best Punisher gunfire and rather fetching physical edits as weapons spin in mid-air. It’s all quite frenetic, even if the idea of the Punisher riding his motorbike around the sewers or how logistics of the Yakuza torture remains baffling.

Come the end, an extraordinary finish the Punisher’s pact with the devil (striking a deal with Krabbé’s Franco) could only result in one of their deaths. Indeed it results in the Punisher dispatching the mob boss who was originally forced out of retirement because of the vigilante’s half decade campaign.  And he murders him in front of his son, twisting life-changing tragedy into a warning of what will happen if he follows his father’s footsteps. That’s quite the shift; whether an immaculate realisation of the evil being punished no matter what the cost (the threats had been clear earlier), or painting Castle’s family as somehow elevated is unclear. But then, Castle is deranged and deserves a quite extraordinary finale.

Almost sadly, despite the cliff-hanger of an ending when the Punisher somehow escapes from the top of a tower block having made it very clear that he will be around for a good long while yet, leaves Gossett Jr lost and that quo very much in status. And it failed to ignite a sequel. It certainly isn’t the bad adaptation, skimmed down as it is, that its negative reviews suggested. A resurgence would have to wait until the next century.

1989 was of course a tough year. “Batman” even gets a namecheck.

The Punisher (2004)

“You were right. Good memories can save your life”

Following the lead set by the extraordinary pop-art and extended titles of the 1989 adaptation, Jonathan Hensleigh’s adaptation kicks off with a short burst of stylised comic art, backed by clinking shells. It’s refreshing to see the Marvel title appear with a flash of the Ennis run artwork behind it, a flash that casts a large shadow. This is a bold new world for adaptation, and one that writer director Hensleigh is taking seriously. But it’s not the influence of a new century or the intervening power of Ennis runs that cast the biggest shadow on this 21st century version.

Unlike 1989, 2004 found a greater commitment to the character’s back story. It’s a risk, creating a revenge tale, no matter the edict of the character in question. It’s an instant shift as we discover new Frank Castle deep undercover, in disguise and faking his own death, even as an operation goes wrong. “The finest soldier, the finest undercover cop, the finest man I’ve ever known” – the audience is clear that this Frank Castle has a long way to fall.

Consciously the action is transferred away from New York to the sunny climes of Florida. It’s a tropical twist, this Castle being a happy nomad set to take his wife and one son to London. It’s a comparison and locale that can’t avoid the obvious.  When the family gathering is slaughtered and Castle and Castle Sr attempt to take down a Puerto Rico massacre a good 20 minutes into the film, the pier run, shotgun, wife and single child unravel much like the original Mad Max. Of course, that’s a fine emotional comparison on papers, especially two decades after the last Mad Max film. Max’s ‘mission’ wasn’t one of revenge as soon as the murderers of his family were eye-poppingly mown down. Instead he collapsed into fire and blood and indifferent survival. Thing is, that was a persona built for a closing scene and then over another film or three. This Castle is shot, blown up and pulverised at 28 minutes. Saved by locals, he recuperates for five months before heading to Florida with only one thing on his mind.

Later retcons in the page of the comic had a traumatised Castle ready to testify against the Mafia and berate a police force he was formerly a part of for some time until his body and mind snapped. Here, Castle doesn’t hide, even if he all too soon realises that he has to take matters into his own hands (and plonks his gravestone on the villain’s golf course). Other comics would also delve into the creation of the Punisher psyche, notably Ennis’ Born miniseries, that sunk back to his Vietnam service. Others would have the Punisher’s extreme shift placed squarely on exposure to mind-altering drugs. Without some additional modification, the weight placed on his opening story makes such a transformation difficult, even when he appears in that tee-shirt, with that skull at 49 minutes.

This time with a secret hideout above ground, taking in b-plots that paint him as a saviour of the weak, this Punisher drinks. A lot. He has foibles, more feelings. Thomas Jane is no Lundgren, built but no giant, he’s a believable guy who takes on the role of a punisher when nothing’s left for him. While it suits the beats of a character piece, it’s a shame there wasn’t more than the Jane produced short Dirty Laundry to explore this Punisher following the promise of his final voice-over, when freed from revenge. On the way the Punisher takes a lot of punishment, just as he should. And while Jane has brilliant comedy about him – take the superb and brutal fight with ‘the Russian’ there is precious little of the gun spilling action of the comic covers of the Lundgren adaptation. Jane’s Castle is maladjusted, but not insane and pathologically brutal.

As a two front attack, where from early on Castle and his prey take pot shots at each other, it’s no surprise that the film’s effective trailer was actually a little too confused to drag folks to the cinema.

It’s a well-meaning adaptation, with various effective and enjoyable touches. But unlike the original or the semi-sequel that was to follow, it’s not short nor punchy enough. When this Punisher first strategically demolishes Saint’s operation, depositing his cash onto the street thanks to the insider information, from Vinny (who both put Castle into this situation and provides the comedy sidekick) he comes across as a softer Robin Hood in a tale dedicated to vengeance. That’s odd, as such behaviour isn’t unfaithful to the comics.

After the Russian attack, in an extraordinary long section of the film, Castle’s emergence from the protection of those outsiders he’s growing close to is almost Frankensteinian. But what emerges isn’t a hardened vigilante but a true antihero whose dangerous game has put his allies in jeopardy (hospital) and an increased intent on feeding from paranoia and strategy.

Castle finally takes on the Saint Tower after his slow and slightly unsavoury decimation of the Saint organisation; exploiting weaknesses and rather oddly repaying tragedy on the family in a very slow fashion. Overall, it was one last job, one terrible coincidence and come the end odder to hear the villain and antihero trade off the killing of their children, more so than the first film’s final threat. But as effective and slimy as Travolta is as Howard Saint, continuing the trend of making up for difficult roster of opponents with big names, it all kicks off as a Biblical eye for an eye. And Castle’s case is diminished when the key accident that dooms his family is not as arbitrary as the comics made sure it was. Indeed, it’s Saint’s vengeance that comes first. And to murk things up further, as manipulated as the death of Saint’s wife is there’s little pathos in the criminal family when we see her Lady Macbeth give the simple order to destroy Castle’s family and not just the Punisher alone.

Castle’s huge takedown of Saint ends with an eruption of cars scarring the familiar skull mark in flame. Although, after an all too specific mission of revenge it’s difficult to see who this aimed at, there’s a helpful voiceover to set this out. “Read your newspaper every day, you’ll understand” says the trench coated figure (with Max-style car of course), surveying Tampa from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. “Frank Castle is dead. Call me the Punisher”. In truth, for this traveller it all seems a little too Bixby Hulk. The quest for justification a little too heavy:

“”Si vis pacem, para bellum – If you want peace, prepare for war.”

Punisher War Zone (2009)

“Who punishes you?”

Things got more serious under the Marvel Knights imprint in league with Lionsgate. Conversely, they also got sillier. This was a year after Nick Fury’s post-credit appearance in Iron Man but the development under imprint demonstrated that there was no rush to bring the difficult character under the umbrella of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To all intents and purposes, The Punisher 2 had collapsed when Hensleigh departing citing creative differences after the 2004 moderate success that had blossomed on home media. Jane had finally passed too, as the film slipped back, the tone twisted and the irresistible idea of a reboot stepped on the franchise like a size 12.

Similar to the 1989 adaptation, the film opens with a gangster’s escape from justice… And that’s not where the similarities end. As the Punisher watches the news report as comic book titles roll he assembles his mighty arsenal, interspersed with cartoon panel previews of the film to come.

The set-up is remarkably similar to the Lundgren film. We see the origin of Dominic West’s horribly over the top, face-shredded Jigsaw, after the Punisher hits a family gathering. Just as everybody expected. This Punisher’s been active for some six years and has a task force in pursuit, although as we’ll find, that small team of one actually feeds him information. Castle has great sympathy in the poor police departments, even if there isn’t a partner trying to reach him. In many ways he’s become a brutal Batman. And that’s a comparison the reveal of Jigsaw’s savaged face and increasingly deranged persona in a backstreet surgery a la the Joker rubs in like face paint.

What the film gets right is the explosive entrance of the vigilante at the start. Appearing visible in a red flare, the first take-down is savage and maximum gore. Most importantly, Ray Stevenson is brilliantly cast. The skull on his body armour this time, the hair slicked back, the chiselled efficiency and rage. Even better, this Punisher doesn’t speak for 25 minutes when confronting his crisis of conscience is killing a Fed in the field (one of his own in this version). He’s a man of few words (many lines apparently improvised by Stevenson), and despite being in quite probably the most overtly funny film in the series the balance works when the antihero is hard as nails.

There’s trap though, and that’s when the Punisher is distracted almost to the point of stopping his six year rampage by the killing of that undercover operative. From that point on, he’s locked into a single vendetta by his accidental creation of the villainous Jigsaw. The man of few words even gains a surrogate mother and child to protect and rescue on the way.

The Punisher’s origin can’t be left alone during his crisis of ‘conscience’ of course. Even though what looks like the most faithful recall of the original printed picnic massacre is very redolent of the constant flashbacks dug up in the 90s Batman flicks. All the above combined with a greater number of allies than ever before, one of whom would even sacrifice himself, mean that things soon come unstuck.

The action doesn’t of course. Action focussed director Lexi Alexander was not only a shining light of a female helming a superhero film but also manages a neon, but never Gotham, dank solidity in brick walls that explode under gunfire and wonderful barrel flare sublimely. Apparently 120 guns were used throughout. Alexander’s also happy to sink the larger than life characters into comic book pulp. See particularly the patriotic call up “For a Few Good Men…” – a deliberate and unsubtle parody of army recruitment. As a fine director, tackling action on big screen and small with aplomb, the action and power of the Punisher shines through the narrative missteps and ensure it cult status that Hensleigh’s tried too hard to be able to muster. Delayed the rebooting because of scripting issues, Alexanders comments subsequently suggested that the merry equality between Marvel and Lionsgate was the film’s ruination.

“Let me put you out of my misery”

There is room for some great subversion, like the certainty of foreshadowing that came with the Irish parquer boys – or should I say McGinty and his Urban Free Flow gang – that ends in a hilariously explosive way. But this is mostly undermined by some obvious plotting. The script relies on obvious tropes, like using Castle’s allies against him (that should have taught any vigilante) and tussles with the idea of the Punisher as really “one of the good guys”. While the comedy on the villainous side may add colour to match the three lead colour grading but is slightly misjudged.

War Zone’s real shame may be that the closing act, where the Punisher scales the oddly temple-like Bradstreet Hotel (named for legendary Punisher cover artist) in a sequence that echoes the plots of 2012’s The Raid and Dredd. If only it had seized that initiative earlier.

The resounding feeling is one of compromise, particular damning after as Jane had walked away from a second turn after bulking up and taking fan notes to the studio that would have surely set aside some of the problems that came to light in 2004. Odd and conflicting then that Ray Stevenson is certainly one of the highlights.

Having disappeared with a threat in 1989, surveyed Tampa with a voiceover in 2004, this Punisher closes the film under a Church and the legend “Jesus Saves”. He clearly has unfinished business. “This is just the beginning” And so it proved, but one again through the power of the Punisher to reboot like loading a shotgun.

The Punisher is currently streaming on Netflix and making quite the impression. He might be back on Jokerside you know. He’s that kind of guy.

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