Behind The Cape – The Punisher (1989) and Steel (1997)

Sam Thorne delves into the history of the superhero movie genre; next up is 1989’s The Punisher and 1997’s Steel….

A bit of a delay since the last instalment, it’s been a hectic few days, but here we are. We started last time by talking about a vastly underrated superhero film, The Punisher (2004). Funnily enough, Marvel’s gone to the bank on that intellectual property three times in hopes of a successful and popular adaptation, with it failing financially on every count. So it only seems suiting we follow that trend with a look at another adaptation of the skull-wearing vigilante with a glance at The Punisher (1989) starring Dolph Lundgren (The Expendables, Rocky IV)

The Punisher (1989)

There’s a certain irony in looking at the cinematic landscape of the 70’s-80’s compared to now, in regards to DC’s and Marvel’s battle for supremacy over the cinematic market. The Superman films were highly acclaimed, iconic, and created the genre (not so much number III or IV) while Tim Burton’s Batman (released the same year as Punisher) and Batman Returns also made quite a financial and cultural splash. Meanwhile over at Marvel headquarters, they basically had nothing. Not unless you count Howard the Duck which was panned universally by critics (we’ll get back to this one later, don’t worry) or several TV episodes from The Incredible Hulk and such which were edited into feature format. The Punisher was extremely popular in the 80’s and early 90’s thus it’s not too much of a surprise Marvel went there for one of its first cinematic ventures.

The film itself was a generic action film with very little relevance to The Punisher character. It’s a shame to say but it’s unavoidable. There’s no real attempt to establish the character of The Punisher except through passing lines of dialogue, whilst the skull is nowhere to be seen. In addition to any shred of relevance from the character being stripped, the acting is incredibly hammy and there’s almost no sense of direction. On the whole The Punisher (1989) is vaguely watchable, yet entirely forgettable. I’m not entirely sure why Dolph Lundgren was considered at all for the role of Frank Castle.

There are a few lessons to be learned in its wake though. The rights to a superhero character for a film adaptation shouldn’t simply be handed over. There needs to be some form of co-operation and understanding between both the company, and the production staff/writers etc. A clear example of this being the Marvel films of the early 2000’s and onwards when Avi Arad starts to oversee the projects in a producer role, which seemingly causes them to run much more smoothly. You need some clear mediation between the guys making the film, alongside the writers who made the character what they are. You need to translate from page to screen seamlessly, while also making it seem relevant to potential viewers.

Steel (1997)

Steel seem a logical choice for this edition because its also an example of the huge irrelevancy in the genre at large in the 90’s, due to sheer stupidity regarding the kind of material that studios wanted to adapt. First, some context. In ’92 DC decided to spice things up by having it’s flagship character Superman die (for at least a little while). To fill the gap while the storyline finished, they launched a tie-in known as ‘Reign of the Supermen’ in which 4 characters were teased to fill the role of Superman before he was resurrected via a rather convenient ‘regeneration matrix’. That’s how John Henry Irons came about as a working man turned superhero, through the means of metal armour and a large intimidating steel hammer.

A few years later Kenneth Johnson creator of Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk TV series, was hired to direct a film about the rather obscure metal-man. He was reluctant at first before eventually being convinced. An essential problem with Steel is that it was originally penned to be a tie-in film for a Superman feature that intended to tell the story of Steel’s origins as noted above. Because Steel floundered in development hell for so long, the film it was attached to had been cancelled, meaning the script was not based on comic book canon. It wasn’t only that, but also Shaquille O’Neal’s amateurish acting alongside Kenneth Johnson’s very dated understanding of the comic book genre coming from the TV series he directed. Basing a major feature film on an obscure character is jumping the shark in some regards – audiences want to see superhero movies to because of the spectacle of superhuman feats.

If the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taught us anything, it’s that it’s all about patience, timing, and development. Start with the flagship characters, create the links, and the audience will eat it up depending on your execution. You can’t just plod on with irrelevant characters that non-comic book fans will have no connection to, no reason to care about. It simply won’t sell and very rarely does it lead to good content.

That’s all we have time for on Behind The Cape this edition, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Until next time.

Sam Thorne

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