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Marvel Movies Project: The Punisher

I’m seven films into this Marvel Movies Project and one of the most interesting things so far is the widely different target audiences for these first few films. There’s Spider-Man, which despite being quite violent is fairly kid-friendly. The X-Men franchise seems aimed at teens and up.  The rest of the movies, perhaps surprisingly, are more adult in tone. Daredevil is not as dark as it probably should be, but it does hold the distinction of including the first Marvel movie sex scene. (Granted, it is about as non-graphic as sex scenes get, but still.) Eric Bana’s bare butt makes an appearance in Hulk; on top of that, it’s hard to imagine kids being very interested in Bruce Banner and his weirdo father. Finally, there’s the Blade movies, grotesque and darkly violent with plenty of swearing: definitely not for the children. Which brings us to movie number eight:

Movie poster for The Punisher (2004)

Marvel’s most twisted hero character made it to the screen in 2004 in a movie I hope no one took their kids to see. The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane as Frank Castle, is sadly not about a superhero who loves puns, but rather a retired FBI agent who turns to vigilantism after his entire family is massacred. When I say entire family, I mean his wife, child, mother, father, siblings, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, cousins — this is a very thorough job. (Luckily, cousin Rick and his daughter Alexis skipped the family reunion that year.) Castle just wants his family back, but this is impossible. So, instead, he decides to seek revenge on the man responsible for their deaths — Howard Saint, played by John Travolta — by taking out his entire family, plus his entire criminal empire.

While carrying out his plan, Castle lives in a very strange apartment building with some very odd neighbours, two of whom are played by Rebecca Romijn, also known to Marvel fans as Mystique, and Ben Foster, who would go on to co-star in X-Men: The Last Stand. His interactions with these individuals gives the vengeance-obsessed Castle a bit of a connection to the human world and their scenes serve to lighten things up for a few minutes … until a team of hitmen shows up at the building and Foster’s character is having his piercings ripped out because he won’t give up Castle’s location.

Overall, this film is a dark and violent affair with offbeat characters and several bizarre moments (singing assassin Harry Heck!). Dark, violent, and weird: based on the stuff I’ve read (admittedly not that much), that is a pretty faithful representation of what Punisher comics are like. The movie contains a few very cool sequences, notably Castle’s insane fight with the blond Russian giant and his absolutely epic final revenge on Howard Saint, but I don’t think there are any outstanding performances. Thomas Jane is acceptable but not excellent (though hunky) and John Travolta is, well, John Travolta. It’s not a bad movie. It’s not a great one either.

The Punisher, who first appeared in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, can be an interesting character; unlike Marvel’s other heroes, he kills people on purpose and he does it without much regret. He’s a descendant of wild west vigilantes — a lineage the film seems to draw on by including a couple of western elements, notably in the opening credits — and the ancestor of Dexter Morgan and other anti-heroes who right wrongs by illegal and morally questionable means. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t deal with the character’s shades of grey at all, never really questioning whether what Frank Castle is doing might be wrong, and ending with the idea that “in certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law.” The whole thing ends up feeling a bit like an NRA propaganda piece. It’s unfortunate.

Marvel Movies Project: Daredevil

Daredevil (2003)

After the huge hit that was Spider-Man, the next Marvel character to make his way to the big screen was blind lawyer Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, the Man without Fear, in 2003. Daredevil is a much less popular character than Spidey, of course, and Daredevil the movie unsurprisingly didn’t come anywhere close to matching Spider-Man‘s box office performance. This is not only a reflection of the two characters’ relative popularity; it also reflects the quality of the two films, as Daredevil is unfortunately one of the weaker entries in the Marvel movie genre. (I should note that, for this rewatch, I went with the theatrical version of the movie. People kept telling me the director’s cut was far superior so I watched it a few years ago and concluded that actually, it’s not that much better.)

It’s too bad, because Daredevil is a pretty cool character and this movie has a semi-decent cast. Ben Affleck, who seems like a good guy and has become a very good filmmaker in the last few years (Argo was one of my favourites of 2012), stars as Matt Murdock. It’s not one of his greatest performances — safe to say Affleck might go back in time and erase 2003 if he could: his other big movie that year was Gigli — but it’s also not his fault he has to deliver terrible lines like “I hope justice is found here today … before justice finds YOU.” The late Michael Clarke Duncan is quite menacing as Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin — I totally believe he could throw Ben Affleck across a room, too — and Colin Farrell gives an enjoyably psychotic performance as Bullseye. Jennifer Garner is good as both versions of Elektra: early Elektra, who’s a typical superhero love interest, and the revenge-obsessed post-father’s murder Elektra. (And doesn’t her stance on the poster bring to mind that “male superheroes posed like female superheroes” meme?) In some ways, this film works better if you view it as an origin story for Elektra; overall, though, there isn’t enough focus on her arc to make that totally effective.

The major problem I have with the movie is that it can’t decide what it wants to be. It starts off trying to be all gritty, with a muted colour palette and the miserable Matt Murdock’s sad life of isolation. But then it becomes a cartoon with Matt and Elektra’s absurd fight in the park, which is one of the most ridiculous meet cutes ever. Bullseye is also more on the funny side of psychotic than the scary side. Personally, I’d have preferred it if they’d stuck with the darker version of the story, because that’s more how I, being most familiar with the character from Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker’s runs on the comic, see Daredevil. Instead of going for the full on noir version of Daredevil, the movie goes with a watered down emo take on the character, complete with a training montage of Elektra stabbing sandbags set to an Evanescence song.

Ah well. Despite its flaws and general silliness, this movie is fairly fun to watch. If I saw the blu ray on sale for under $5, I would consider buying it.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Daredevil in the movie world at this point is the situation with the character’s film rights. 20th Century Fox, which produced Daredevil, needed to get another Daredevil movie in production by October 2012 in order to hang on to the character. They did not — though they had something in the works — and so the rights have now officially reverted to Marvel. Interestingly, at one point, Marvel is said to have offered Fox more time to get their Daredevil reboot going in exchange for Fox returning the rights to Galactus and the Silver Surfer, which Fox owns as part of its ownership of the Fantastic Four, to Marvel. Fox, who appear to be firmly committed to the idea of a Fantastic Four reboot, declined. It seems both 20th Century Fox and Marvel see more potential for box office glory with the Silver Surfer than they do with Daredevil, but I think Daredevil done right could be a great movie. Let’s hope Marvel comes up with something that shows off the character’s full potential.