Monday, December 08, 2008

The Third Day of Comic-mas: Three Franks Hence

The release of The Punisher Xmas Special two weeks ago and Punisher: War Zone in theaters that Friday definitely put the red back in the red and green decor of the Christmas season, and I'm just talking about all the blood spatter. Punisher: War Zone didn't even make the top five movies of the weekend, and as an opening movie, that's sadly disheartening. Now, it's become the third least grossing Marvel film, behind Howard the Duck and Elektra. I saw War Zone at its first midnight showing, which I try to do for every mainstream cinematic comic book adaptation, so my initial impression was clouded by fatigue. Awake and aware now, I confess that I really liked the flick . . . and apparently I'm in the minority.

Back up. Punisher: War Zone suffers from the recently dubbed "requel" syndrome -- it expands an established franchise without acknowledgement of, and makes a subtle effort to redo, previously established material. Batman Begins did this, The Incredible Hulk did this, and this film does, too, all with good reason. Regarding Batman and the Hulk, both characters had experienced so many different on-screen incarnations that screenwriters and directors, like Tim Burton and Ang Lee, felt little reservation for putting their own spin on their adaptations. While the result is a movie that best captures the director's style, it also becomes a dated representation of the character, like all the rest. However, the Punisher benefits from a little discontinuity between films, because he is essentially an one-dimensional character. He shoots bad guys. The end. Why have three Punisher films to date if the story is basically the same, if not to allow different directors their take at the anti-hero?

Now, I've never seen the Dolph Lundgren Punisher, but I've heard things. Personally, I had my fill of Dolph in Masters of the Universe, and my inner child, as disappointed as even he was in that movie, can't accept He-Man playing Frank Castle. So, the Thomas Jane vehicle of a few years ago was my first on-screen Punisher, and, while I wasn't disappointed, I did find a few fanboy-nagging flaws with the film. I was grateful for the mining of Garth Ennis' Welcome Back, Frank, but I couldn't swallow the tropical Florida setting. Also, Jane's Punisher suffered from B-list actor syndrome -- when a better established actor is cast as the villain. (Nicholson's Joker is the classic example; on the 1989 Batman movie posters, his name trumps Keaton's, and Keaton is the hero, the title character!) While we see familiar faces like the Russian and Spacker Dave, they take a backseat to the Punisher's foe, whose familiar face is, well, John Travolta, which disconnected me from the film every time he appeared on screen. Finally, the Punisher uses a bow and arrow. I know his arsenal is extensive, but when that shot was one of the movie's first promo stills, I was ill at ease. Call me shallow.

Enter Punisher: War Zone, which I think became a requel when Jane pulled out of the project, and all the better at least for my little qualms with its predecessor. In this incarnations, we're spared the origin story and instead see the Castles' killings via flashback -- thankfully, in Central Park where it belongs. Yes, welcome back, Frank, indeed . . . to New York, to supporting characters like Microchip and Detective Soap, to a familiar nemesis like Jigsaw. Sure, the violence was campy, but I don't know why fans of films like From Dust 'Til Dawn wouldn't dig it. Sure, Dominic West's performance was over the top (the best comparison I read on a message board likened West's Jigsaw to Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face), but the things he says are comparable with any funnybook foe on a vengeful tirade. I'm truly perplexed why War Zone didn't have a similar opening weekend to the likes of Daredevil or Ghost Rider? While all Marvel movies are not equal in quality and storytelling ability, aren't all Marvel fans at least willing to give them an equal chance?

Of course, the most beloved incarnation of Frank Castle remains in his native comics, yet even that original Punisher has experienced experimentation for popularity's sake. Remember when Punny died and came back as a spirit of vengeance? Consider Hollywood's challenge, sifting through decades' worth of material to create ninety minutes that both consolidate the character's essence for longtime fans yet capture a new audience with a fresh appeal, too. I can imagine a similar challenge for the one writing Punisher's annual Christmas special, since the holiday one-shot appeals to holiday-spirited fanboys like me, vaguely familiar with Castle's roots, along with those regular readers. At this point, I suppose the Punisher Max Xmas Special has been categorically more successful than the film that followed. By way of body count, Frank is the gift that keeps on giving.

I actually anticipated the Punisher Max Xmas Special some weeks ago when I saw preview pages up at Comic Book Resources. Roland Boschi's art is gritty and energetic, and when I read the story's synopsis, I had high hopes for its potential for allegory. My wishes were fulfilled, as Punisher strives to deliver a baby in the crosshairs of a gang war, in a Herod-like attempt to eradicate the son of a premiere crime family. Of course the Punisher takes the expectant parents to a manger (in a race track, but still), where, despite (or because of) the birth of their innocent baby, they get their just desserts, too. It's a fast-paced tale rife with violence and holiday symbolism -- in other words, it's the most wonderful time of the year.

Not so much for Marvel cinema. MSN has an article about the future of comic book adaptations, and whether or not the future is bright. Please. The Punisher has killed a lot of things, but comic book film adaptations aren't one of them -- in any incarnation.

Punisher MAX Christmas Special was published by Marvel Comics for February 2009 and was written by Jason Aaron, illustrated by Roland Boschi, colored by Daniel Brown, and lettered by VC's Cory Petit.

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