As the year comes to a close, most fans start to look back on all the things that made 2008 great for our beloved hobby. Comic books and comic book characters seem to be more in the forefront of popular culture consciousness now, thanks in large part to huge performances from blockbuster films based on comic book properties. In a year where theaters have already been graced with arguably three of the best comic book films thus far (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight), The Punisher, the relentless Marvel Comics’ vigilante, returned to theaters for a third round of punishment with Punisher: War Zone. Though the film was heavy on fertile action movie territory like violence, blood, guts, shooting, and brutality, Frank Castle struck out with moviegoers yet again. The Punisher has definitely set out an impressive stake on an unwanted claim as Marvel’s unluckiest movie star. According to Hollywood.com, Punisher: War Zone has thus far only been able to shoot up $7.9 million dollars worth of damage at the box office. Compare that sum to the other Marvel starlets of 2008 and Punisher comes off look pathetically weak. Iron Man was invincible for Marvel, hauling a whopping $318.2 million in theaters, while The Incredible Hulk smashed up $134.5 million. Punisher is a guy who has gone toe to toe with the likes of Wolverine, Batman, and even Dr. Doom in the past. He should be able to make more than $8 million, right?
So what went wrong? What happened with this mighty Marvel movie that did not happen with Hulk or Iron Man? I am a huge Punisher fan and always will be a fan. While I actually did enjoy Punisher: War Zone on a “guilty pleasure” level, I understand how it would not click with a larger audience outside of the Frank Castle faithful. Some things worked, but much of it did not.
Both Iron Man and Incredible Hulk feature some stellar acting on the part of the primary characters. Robert Downy, Jr.’s Tony Stark and Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner were both compelling actors turning in solid portrayals of these larger than life comic characters. The same roughly holds true for Punisher: War Zone. By and large, Ray Stevenson does a bang-up job as Punisher. He was cold, ruthless, and domineering. He nailed the essence of the Punisher by embodying an unfeeling character well. Was it as good a job as what Ed Norton or Robert Downy brought to the screen this past summer? Definitely not, but Ray Stevenson deserves more kudos for doing a great job playing Frank Castle. He walked into a hard position here by walking into a role that has garnered little esteem in the past and managed to do a pretty decent job.
Does Frank Castle need a hug? Punisher: War Zone, just like the previous 2003 film, tried to humanize Punisher too much. In War Zone, we find Frank Castle accidentally killing an undercover agent, causing Punisher to rethink his war on crime. Frank decides to apologize to agent’s widow, leading to some very “touching” scenes between the slain man’s daughter and Frank. That was sarcasm. That type of civilizing just does not work for me, and I do not think it works for the big screen. I do not think the Punisher needs to be humanized. He is a cold, blunt instrument. He shoots criminals. That is as simple and complex as it needs to be. I do not think it is necessary to make Punisher a likable guy. Frank Castle is not a likable guy. At his root, he is basically a crazed murderer. His reason for being is taking out criminals. Period. Viewers do not desire or need to see Frank hand a teddy bear over to a little girl. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner can be humanized. They are moral tales with flawed, yet essentially good-natured heroes, where right triumphs over wrong. Punisher is not that kind of story. The area between right and wrong should be blurry with regards to Frank Castle. He cannot be saved, no matter how many little girls want to hug his neck at the end of the film.
The Punisher is only as good as his villain(s). This is true in both comic books and in film. One of the most compelling aspects of Garth Ennis’ long run on Punisher was his ability to bring in villains that did not seem to be caricatures or farcically deranged men in brightly colored tights. However, Jigsaw just did not cut it in this film. He was laughable at best and completely ignorable at worst. Jigsaw was so blatantly over the top and outrageous that it was hard to even believe you were watching the same movie when he came onscreen. The scenes featuring both Jigsaw and his brother were excruciating to watch. Jigsaw just never fit in with the rhythm of the rest of the film. He was an outlier occupying screen time that could have been better spent. I think I would have rather seen a movie where Punisher killed low level crack addicts for ninety-minutes than to have ever seen Dominic West’s Jigsaw for even a single frame. Dominic West is a solid actor, but this role was just brainless, especially in the face of such great villainy in Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and especially The Dark Knight. The villain should compliment the hero, not overshadow him with ineffective goofiness.
Will Punisher ever make it as a hit comic-to-film character? Maybe, but he probably will not get another chance for a long time. The Punisher’s star has faded for now, with War Zone effectively killing off the brand for the foreseeable future. It will practically take a miracle to bring Frank Castle back to life on the big screen, but it is not impossible. Many people thought batman and Robin would kill the dynamic duo for years to come, but Batman Begins helped reinvent the franchise and energize excitement in the character of Batman. Could a Punisher Begins be too far down the pike? The possibility, though unlikely, is still there and that is all we Punisher fans have to hold onto for now