July 30, 2012

Why is The Punisher so Hard to Adapt in Live Action?

News of this possible TV Series where Frank Castle is a Detective by day, Vigilante by night raises a question fans have been asking for a long time. In a time when comic book based movies are dominating the Box Office, and even some of the most far out there characters can get decent adaptations what is so hard about a man, some guns and a city full of criminals to punish? This is not a new concept for Hollywood either. Hollywood loves a good Vigilante from Dirty Harry, to Paul Kersey in Death Wish. So far Punisher has had 3 movie adaptations starting with the Dolph Lundgren version in the 80’s, the Thomas Jane version in the early 00’s, and more recently the Ray Stevenson version WAR ZONE. Each of these movies has its good elements, but as far as Punisher adaptations there each flawed in their own ways.
The Punisher (1989) is a fairly accurate depiction of what the character was in the 80’s. In the comics he was basically a B grade action hero at the time, and the movie was a B grade action movie so in that regard it captures at least the essence of the comics from that era. It was low budget and starred Dolph Lundgren who was at that time a poor man’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. They made a big mistake in that movie by making Frank Castle a cop instead of a Vietnam Vet. I guess to make him more like Dirty Harry, or the Vietnam thing was getting old at that point I don’t know. They also left out the most important piece of the lore, the Skull on the chest which is a major part of the iconography of the character. Sure he used skull handled throwing knives, and they did something with make up to make Dolph’s face resemble the skull design somewhat, but it’s not the same. It’s like Superman without the S, or Batman without the ears. It’s a movie very much of its time so if you like B grade action movies from the 80’s it’ll probably be in your wheelhouse, otherwise forget it.
The Punisher (2004) came at a time when comic book adaptations exploded in popularity, so fans were eagerly anticipating this version which promised a more faithful adaptation than the previous one. So far its the best movie of the character to date, and has the best portrayal of Frank Castle played by Thomas Jane. The movie plucked elements from the comics over the years like the popsicle gag, the piercings scene, The Russian fight, and even the apartment tenants where taken directly from Garth Ennis’s Welcome Back Frank. The movie was severely limited by budget though which forced changes like filming in tropical Tampa, Florida. The Punisher belongs in a decaying urban environment, he’s a gritty noir character so sunny beaches kinda kill the doom and gloom atmosphere. They also tried to give him a Police background making him an undercover agent, though they still made him a former Marine. It’s a good movie, but as far as a full on Punisher adaptation it leaves much to be desired. It lacks the visual aesthetic of dark alleys, rooftops and urban sprawl that’s another key element to the lore, and is very bare bones on the action. Something fans thought would be in the sequel, but that never came.
PUNISHER: WAR ZONE was a reboot that seemed like it would finally give the diehard fanbase what it always wanted. There was Ray Stevenson who looked like he stepped off a Tim Bradstreet comic cover, The Punisher was back to operating in NYC, the trailer was full of action, and there was a classic Punisher villain this time around in the form of Jigsaw. Things were looking up. The movie delivered on all those things, but the main problem it had was with the tone. It was so over the top and campy at times it became a live action cartoon, it wasn’t the raw reality grounded adaptation fans had been clamoring for. I enjoy the movie as a guilty pleasure myself, but at the same time I can see why others don’t.
For years now I’ve been saying The Punisher would make a great TV Series. Shows like The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, The Shield, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad have proven the potential something like The Punisher has if adapted right. That’s why news of this watered down network friendly version, which completely rewrites the origin is so disappointing. It’d be easy to just blame this on FOX or CBS whom are behind it, but the rights reverted back to MARVEL so there not only allowing this to happen there behind it as well. It sounds just like every other bland cop show littering primetime on network TV these days.
The Punisher is not a Cop, so why they keep trying to make him one is beyond me. He does not believe in the justice system, if the justice system worked The Punisher would not have to exist. He’s a man that says your system doesn’t work; innocent people are getting caught in the crossfire while the guilty get away with murder. You know who they are yet you can do nothing about it, I have the skills, the training, the motivation and the tools to do something about it, and I don’t need your bureaucracy tying my hands. Frank Castle is not a man that follows orders, or conforms to systems he does not believe in. Something they explored in the BORN miniseries about Frank’s time in Vietnam where he takes it into his own hands to discipline a soldier that raped a villager. His training as a Marine is big part of who he is, he declares war on organized crime using the skills and tactics he learned in battle. They fact they keep trying to change that is an insult to the fans.
So what would a great Punisher TV Series be like, well here’s my thoughts. First strip away the superhero aspects of the character just like Garth Ennis did with the MAX series. It should be grounded in a gritty reality, just Frank VS. The Mob. Being a TV series they can delve deeper into the character, they can do flashbacks to his time in war or to his home life with his family to really flesh him out and let us see who he was, and how he becomes The Punisher. That could be the first season, and then they could show how far down into the darkness he falls, and how he struggles to find his way back to humanity. The third season could be about him coming to terms with his family’s death, and the things he’s done then trying to find balance in his soul. Deciding if he still wants to punish the guilty, or try to live a normal life again. There’s so much that could be explored with this character that it’s just begging for a great TV adaptation, and after the success of The Walking Dead networks like AMC, FX, HBO and SHOWTIME would be dumb to pass it up.

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Nite Owl



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