Anghus Houvouras on why the Punisher works better as a supporting character…
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited. The first season of Daredevil was a gift. The best thing Marvel Studios has put out to date. An almost perfect interpretation of the character in a world where he feels outgunned, under-powered, and fighting a perpetual uphill battle. I’m also excited for all the rumors and announcements for season 2. Jason Statham taking a villainous role? Turkish as Bullseye? Sign me up.
Then this week we heard that the Punisher will be rearing his ugly mug back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and will be played by John Bernthal. It just keeps getting better. I’m excited about the casting, but I’m more excited about how the character is being re-introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Punisher is a character that has been adapted about as terribly as any comic book character in history. From the first attempt in the early days of comic book movies, Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher is a barely passable B Movie with the most tenuous ties to the character. They stripped all the bombastic elements away and delivered something pedestrian.
Thomas Jane’s attempt at the Punisher was equally worthless. A movie that took one of the best Punisher stories (Welcome Back Frank) and white-washed it into an undistinguishable, laughable piece of pabulum that Thomas Jane never seemed to recover from.
Punisher: War Zone is a masterpiece of shit. One of the worst movies ever made and arguably one of the most enjoyable bad movies ever. Dominic West’s Jigsaw is a legendary example of scenery chewing. Ray Stevenson’s Frank Castle was at best, laughably melodramatic.
It’s amazing how much effort has been made to make a decent Punisher movie with zero success. But I think I know why.
The Punisher works better as a supporting character.
From his earliest origins in the comics, the Punisher was always one of those characters that electrified fans when he made appearances in Spider-Man or Daredevil. His story was painfully simple: an ex-marine whose family was murdered by the mob out for revenge against those who would do harm, seeking to exact vengeance on the criminal scum of the city. A simple story for a simple character. But then things got complicated.
The Punisher got popular. Successfully mini-series led to a regular series, followed by a second series. Before you know it, Frank Castle had become second only to Wolverine in over-used Marvel characters being shoehorned into Marvel mainstream titles.
In spite of his solo success, The Punisher was always a character who worked better in a supporting role. A black and white, two-dimensional character who always benefited as being the foil to Daredevil or a loose cannon that needed to be reigned in by Spider-Man. He always felt wildly out-of-place standing next to the super-powered Marvel heroes. At the height of his popularity Marvel indulged his popularity by releasing insanely plotted What If scenarios in titles like PUNISHER KILLS THE MARVEL UNIVERSE. A story that showed just how insanely popular the character had become and how willing Marvel editorial was to deliver fan service to the willing Frank Castle fans.
The Punisher has always been a guy with a gun and a grudge. That plot has carried Frank Castle into for four decades. His trademark white skull is firmly sketched into the pop culture lexicon showing up in movies like American Sniper. The Punisher has achieved iconic status in the superhero world, which is kind of impressive seeing as he’s little more than a gun-toting mass murderer.
Still, the character works on a number of levels, and it seems like after two modern attempts to capitalize on the The Punisher’s popularity, Marvel has found the perfect vehicle for him. The first season of Daredevil proved that the grittier, more grounded corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be as (or even more) interesting than their big budget blockbusters. This is the perfect place for the Punisher: a supporting player. A guy who can come in and make things more complicated for Hell’s Kitchen. The anti-hero that is willing to kill for his cause… something that Matt Murdock struggles with. Frank Castle works as part of the larger moral spectrum. One where characters like Daredevil are one side and The Kingpin are on the other. The Punisher helps make the debate more interesting. Another shade of grey in already muddied moral waters.
The Punisher is perfectly suited for the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil as part of a larger ensemble. After that, I’m sure they’ll spin him off into his own solo series, but I don’t think that will be nearly as interesting…
…unless they re-cast Dominic West as Jigsaw.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.