So I read that Punisher: War Zone isn’t doing too well at the box office.
I’m not really surprised. To be honest, every time I read about a Punisher movie getting made, I’m reminded of a story Stan Lee told once about a meeting with movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis.
It goes like this. In the 70′s, when Stan was a recent arrival in Hollywood, he was making the rounds of all the movie people hustling the Marvel properties to anyone and everyone he could think of. So of course he approached De Laurentiis, thinking that maybe he could finally get some serious studio interest in Spider-Man or Captain America or something. Stan had sent Dino a package of comics material about the different characters that were up for grabs. Dino called Stan saying he was very interested in a couple of the books and so Stan went in for a meeting.
The first character that had caught Dino’s eye was Ghost Rider. Stan was a little surprised, thinking that was an odd choice, but, being Stan, he was totally willing to work with Dino on it.
Then Dino beamed and held up another comic, saying, “I really like thees one! Thees should be our movie!”
The book was Werewolf By Night.
Remember, this was the late 1970′s. That was about to be the early 80′s. So Hollywood had just done or was about to do Wolfman, The Howling, Wolfen, Full Moon High, An American Werewolf In London, The Company of Wolves, and Teen Wolf.
Stan was a little nonplussed. He pointed out that there wasn’t anything particularly special about Werewolf By Night, there were already lots of werewolves out there, was Dino sure he didn’t want to try something more like, say, Daredevil?
Nope. Nothing doing. Dino wanted Jack Russell.
So the deal either got made and the project stalled, or the deal fell apart, I forget which, but nothing ever came of it. It’s probably just as well. Because one more bad werewolf movie wasn’t really something the world was waiting for back then.
You see where I’m going with this?
There are some movies that may look good on paper or in a pitch meeting. But they get made and… enh.
Now, I’m aware that Punisher: War Zone was a troubled project from the get-go.
Rewrites, cast and crew walkouts, personnel shuffles of all kinds. Those are never good omens. But even if War Zone is brilliant — which it’s not– I have a hunch it would probably have belly-flopped anyway.
I don’t think it has anything to do with quality. This is just one of those areas where comics’ best is cinema’s mediocre.
There’s a lesson here and I will get to it, I promise, but let me give you the context for it first.
Let’s backtrack a little. First of all, it’s impossible to have any intelligent conversation about the Punisher without acknowledging where he came from.
Most of you reading this are probably a little too young to remember what an incredible phenomenon Don Pendleton’s Executioner series of paperback originals was when it hit spinner racks in 1969. Pendleton himself was a pulp-fiction factory, and after writing thirty-some books himself about Mack Bolan’s one-man war on crime, he franchised out the series and it became an unstoppable juggernaut.
It’s still going today, and I think at this point there are something like six hundred Bolan novels out there. But the real heyday of the series was the seventies.
There were all sorts of imitators cashing in on the genre Pendleton created, too. The Destroyer, The Butcher, The Penetrator, Kill Squad, The Sharpshooter, The Death Merchant, Narc… there were dozens of them. All featuring a hard guy or guys, usually ex-military, who were declaring War on Organized Crime because This Time It’s Personal and they had Nothing Left To Lose.
I’m being snarky, but really I confess I have great affection for all of these weird little pulp-action paperback series. Some of them even ended up in comics, like Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter (as recounted in an earlier column here.)
So it was hardly unthinkable that Marvel would pick up on this trend sooner or later. In the seventies Marvel was all about jumping on pop-culture trends.
What made it interesting was that the success of these various paperback book series was (I think) driven largely by a slight streak of sadism, and maybe jolted upward by a vague feeling of distrust and anger toward what the world was turning into. In the late 60′s through the early 70′s, the two subjects that were on the American consciousness were the war in Vietnam and the rising youthquake of protest in reaction to it, and generally, the response from average citizens to those things was to be pissed off. (What I remember most about being a teenager walking around downtown in the 1970′s was how adults hated you on sight, especially if you had long hair.) My hunch is that these adventure novels were an outlet of sorts for all that seething macho rage, especially over how our returning soldiers were being treated. And they featured villains you didn’t have to feel sorry for or empathize with, getting offed in imaginative and exciting ways. Win-win.
But the guys working at Marvel in those days were largely hippie peacenik types…. so when Don Pendleton’s basic Executioner archetype got morphed into Marvel’s Punisher, he wasn’t presented as a hero, but as a villain.
And to be honest that was what I always liked about the character of Frank Castle. He was a villain who thought he was a good guy. The Punisher and his single-minded pursuit of his goal makes for a great contrast with someone like Spider-Man who’s always agonizing about the rightness of what he’s doing. The outer conflict dramatizes the inner one. It’s heroic fiction 101.
Which is not to say that Marvel didn’t make a couple of attempts to get on board the macho-adventure gravy train back then. I mean, they weren’t STUPID.
But their hearts weren’t in it. This is one of those genres that you genuinely have to have a feel for and I don’t think anyone working at Marvel in the 70′s really could have pulled off that kind of unrepentant macho. The closest anyone came was Roy Thomas over on Conan, and you’ll note that Roy’s version of the mighty barbarian was quite a bit more thoughtful and poetic than Robert E. Howard’s was originally.
Anyway, it wasn’t just the lack of properly-suited talent available. The cultural climate had to change too. Eventually it did.
The interesting part– well, interesting to me, because I’m such a pop-culture nerd– is that the Punisher, by and large, didn’t change at all. His context did. There have been reams and reams of sociological essays written about how the eighties were about greed and consumerism and so on and so on. I’m not going to get into that part of it except to point out that the common denominator there is “guilt-free.”
The way that translated to popular entertainment was the slow realization that you really could get away with doing that stuff. It wasn’t just comics. It was everywhere: movies, TV… as though there was this giant moment of “Hey, wait a minute, who the hell cares how many bad guys get blown up? This is all just fiction! Let’s go for it! Get out there and wreck some shit!”
It wasn’t as sudden as I’m making it out to be. But it was pretty quick, over the course of maybe five or six years, for things like the Dirty Harry movies or the Executioner novels to become not just hits or even mega-hits, but actual genres… with their own set of tropes and rules and, eventually, cliches.
Today, you can call something an “action movie” and everyone knows what you mean. That wasn’t always the case.
How did this genre translate to comics? Depends who you ask. You can make a case that it was pioneered by Frank Miller in his work on Daredevil, though I think that’s maybe a little arbitrary. But he was one of the first guys to do it loud and proud.
Certainly, Miller gave us the best Punisher anyone had seen up to that time with his controversial “Angel Dust” story in the pages of Daredevil, and you can’t discount that factor: at Marvel, the hippies had left the building. First Frank Miller in Daredevil, and then Steven Grant and Mike Zeck in their own Punisher mini-series, clearly didn’t give a good goddamn how this stuff might look to any parents out there (which had often been cited as a concern up to that time.) They didn’t care about any of that sissified crap– comics weren’t for kids any more, damn it! They were firmly in the pulp tradition of Mickey Spillane and Don Pendleton and all of those guys and they were going to get out there and wreck some shit.
At the time it was a breath of fresh air for superhero comics and sales reflected it. It wasn’t long before Mike Baron and Klaus Janson launched Frank in his own ongoing, which gave us a Punisher even more gleefully, unrepentantly violent than Miller’s or Grant’s had been before it.
I recall vividly some comics journalist talking to Mike Baron about the level of violence in the book and Baron’s response was essentially to snort, “Are you kidding? Hello, it’s the PUNISHER!”
To me that said it all. (Baron’s laughing dismissal probably struck me harder than most readers because I remembered Byron Preiss agonizing about how to revive the pulp tradition over in Weird Heroes without condoning “violence as a solution,” just a couple of years before.)
Hell with that. Violence RULED. Peaceniks were out, hardcases were in. But debating whether this was a result of the culture changing AT Marvel or the wider culture changing AROUND Marvel is something that strikes me as not being an either-or question; I think it was probably a little of both. Whatever the reason… the bottom line is that finally, the Punisher had arrived. He was a huge success. There were spin-offs, tie-ins, the guy was everywhere in the 1990′s.
So why not a movie? Isn’t that the logical next step?
Now, I actually saw the first Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie, and it’s not horrible taken on its own terms. Truthfully, that’s the problem…. it’s not really much of anything. It’s just another ‘meh’ action movie.
In comics in the early 1990′s, the Punisher was doing something relatively unique. In theaters? Not so much. Not by then. Like I said before, by the 1990′s it was a genre and there really wasn’t anything new to audiences about the Punisher that they weren’t getting done better in movies like Die Hard.
And to me that’s the real problem. No matter how badly or well-done a Punisher movie might be, at the end of the day it’s still just going to be another action piece about an angry tough guy taking on the mob.
I rather liked the Thomas Jane effort a couple of years ago, but it suffered from essentially the same problem. On film, there’s nothing unique about Frank Castle. He’s a couple of decades too late. Today we have Dirty Harry and Death Wish and Die Hard and a zillion others. No matter how good a Punisher movie might be, it’s still going to look like it was ripped off from a bunch of other movies. No way are you going to get the same power of a movie like, say, Iron Man, where audiences were getting their first taste of something unique to Marvel Comics.
Marvel should probably be looking to their other properties for film success. Hell, it might even finally be time for someone to try Werewolf By Night. It’s been a while since anyone’s done a really bad-ass werewolf movie…
Ironically, Mack Bolan himself finally made it to comics in a complete story. (There had been a mini-series from Innovation a decade or so ago, but it was never finished.) But this year IDW put out a nice little five-issue mini-series (story by Doug Wojtowicz, art by S.L. Gallant) that’s just been collected in trade.
This one will please fans of the Executioner, I think, but here’s the irony; in comics, Bolan looks like a pale imitation of the Punisher.
The way Ennis and co. have been tearing it up on Frank’s own book in recent years, it sets a standard for this kind of story that’s hard to beat. Sadly, I don’t think the IDW book did; though it was a worthy effort, and worth picking up.
But maybe Bolan’s at his best in prose, the way the Punisher is at his best in comics, and maybe we should just accept that neither one of them can match what we’re seeing in the Jason Bourne or Transporter movies in terms of macho action on film. Maybe some things just shouldn’t BE adapted.
That’s the lesson. I told you we’d get there.
See you next week.