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Marvel Movies Project: Punisher: War Zone

Movie poster for Punisher: War Zone (2008).

Like The Incredible Hulk, Punisher: War Zone (2008) is a reboot. Thomas Jane is out as Frank Castle, replaced by Ray Stevenson. In The Punisher, Castle was an undercover cop whose entire family, including his wife and son, was killed in revenge for the death of a mobster’s son; in this version of events, Castle’s wife and two children are murdered after the family witnesses a mob execution during the worst family picnic ever.

Also like The Incredible Hulk, though, Punisher: War Zone largely skips over its protagonist’s origin story, only providing bits and pieces through explanatory dialogue and some brief flashbacks. Again, we get the feeling we’re supposed to come into the movie with prior knowledge of who this guy is and an understanding of his mission statement. That mission, of course, is killing criminals — specifically, the members of mafia crime families.

Enter Dominic West doing a very bad Italian-American accent as “Bobby the Beaut,” an extremely vain mobster who falls into a vat of broken glass; due to the resulting facial scarring, he renames himself Jigsaw. He and his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Dough Hutchison, who will always be Tooms from The X-Files to me), are the cartoonishly horrible bad guys in this film. First Omar shows up in The Incredible Hulk, now we’ve got McNulty in this movie: The Wire fan in me is loving this trend. Speaking of classic HBO, I’ve been having a bit of a Sopranos marathon lately, which made the mobsters in this movie feel even more exaggerated than they already are.

In a raid on one of Bobby/Jigsaw’s hideouts, The Punisher accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. He feels immensely guilty over this and tries to make up for it by protecting the agent’s wife and daughter when Jigsaw’s crew goes after them. In an interesting bit of casting, Julie Benz, known to many as Rita from Dexter (and also Darla from Buffy and Angel), plays the wife. Dexter Morgan, the serial killer who only kills criminals who escape justice, is of course very similar to The Punisher in a lot of ways. (Ray Stevenson has also appeared on Dexter since this film was made.)

My main complaint about the first Punisher movie was that it made almost no attempt to deal with the character’s moral ambiguity. Punisher: War Zone does a slightly better job of at least raising the issue, but ultimately it pretty much lets him off the hook, with Benz’s character telling him he’s “one of the good guys” and an ending that seems to compare Frank Castle to Jesus!? Right then. It occurs to me that Dexter might provide a good model for any future Punisher-related projects. The show is masterful at making the audience think of Dexter as the hero while also reminding us how messed up it is that we think of him that way. Both Punisher movies have leaned too close to the side of glorifying him for my taste.

This one is also a little too violent for me. Never before have I seen a movie with so many exploding heads in it. I am generally not that bothered by violence, but this was excessive to the point that I felt a little sick to my stomach. I also feel this film suffers from the same mixed tone issues that sunk Daredevil. On the one hand, Frank Castle is the dark, broody, stoic hero. On the other hand, the villains are all totally outlandish. It doesn’t quite gel.

Apparently, the movie rights for The Punisher are now back with Marvel and there are plans to put him on screen in some form again, or at least there were in 2010. Call me crazy, but I think it would be possible to do a really excellent, high class Punisher movie or TV series. I’d use Dexter as a model, and I’d go with a more serious tone: No Country for Old Men comes to mind as something to emulate. (Ok, maybe I really am crazy.)

Alternatively, get Quentin Tarantino to direct the next one. That’s a match made in heaven right there.

Marvel Movies Project: Ghost Rider (and Half-Way Roundup!)

Movie poster for Ghost Rider (2007).

Ghost Rider (2007) is the story of stunt motorcycle rider and monkey documentary devotee Johnny Blaze, who sells his soul to the devil, here named Mephistopheles, in order to cure his father’s cancer. To work off his debt, Johnny is forced to become the “Ghost Rider,” which involves being the devil’s bounty hunter. Then there is some deal about a contract so evil that another Ghost Rider hid it, and now Mephistopheles’ son, whose name is Blackheart, wants to used it to show his father up … or something. Meanwhile, Johnny reunites with Roxanne, the love of his teen years. Eventually, Blackheart threatens Roxanne and Johnny has to save her.

Nicolas Cage is a fun actor and he seems to enjoy being Johnny Blaze, who is an offbeat character with some absurd quirks. The whole movie, really, is odd and cannot be taken seriously, with its paper thin plot and the cheesetastic delivery of lines like “I am speaking to the fire element within me” and “My name is leeeeeeeeegion. For we are maaaaaaaaaaany.” Most of the cast give silly performances to match the movie’s tone. Peter Fonda hams it up as Mephistopheles. Sam Elliott, making his second Marvel movie appearance after playing General Ross in Hulk, is in full mysterious stranger mode as a former Ghost Rider named Carter Slade.

Eva Mendes plays Roxanne. It’s not much of a role; she wears tight, low-cut clothes and looks pretty — as if to drive home the point, Roxy even desperately asks a waiter at one point if he think she’s pretty — and gets rescued after making ineffectual attempts to help Johnny. Ghost Rider is probably the worst movie so far in terms of female representation.

Ghost Rider also marks the half-way point of this Marvel Movies Project, being the 14th of 27 films! To celebrate this milestone, here’s a quick look back on some of what we’ve seen so far.

Origin Stories

Blade, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider all show us how the heroes got their powers. All of these except Blade and Daredevil, which pick up the action with the protagonist already in evil-fighting mode, also show the characters’ transitions from normal person to something more.

In every case but Fantastic Four, the hero’s story involves the death of a parent or loved one — several loved ones in poor Frank Castle’s case. Castle, Matt Murdock, Peter Parker, and Johnny Blaze have all lost their fathers, while Bruce Banner is haunted by the sudden reappearance of his. Castle, Blade, and Banner’s stories are different enough that you almost don’t notice the similarity, but I think Daredevil and Ghost Rider probably suffer from being too similar to Spider-Man, which is the original and still the best dead father figure story in the Marvel Universe.

It’s also worth noting that Daredevil acts as an origin story for Elektra in some ways, and it’s the death of her father that prompts her to put all her martial arts training to use.

Sequels & Spinoffs

Blade, the X-Men, and Spider-Man all feature in more than one film. I’ve watched three sequels and two threequels so far. The X-Men films rely strongly on continuity, with developments that take place in the earlier films affecting the later ones. The Blade movies are less continuity-based: there are very few references to the earlier films in the sequels; it would be pretty easy to follow Blade: Trinity without having seen Blade. Spider-Man 2 most definitely builds on a foundation established in Spider-Man, and in my opinion the two movies work best when seen in relation to each other. The core characters are all the same and many scenes in Spider-Man 2 call back directly to scenes from the first movie.

Elektra is the lone spinoff so far. The link to Daredevil exists but the filmmakers obviously intended Elektra to be a standalone movie.

Villains

Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the Green Goblin (sort of) are the only villains who appear in sequels. Every other villain appears in one movie only. Most of the main villains have personal connections to their adversaries: either they’ve known each other for a long time, or the villain was involved in the murder of someone close to the hero. The exceptions are the Blade sequels, where the villains want to kill Blade mostly because he’s a pain in the butt.

My picks for standout villains are probably Magneto and Mystique from the X-Men series, as well as Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. Doctor Doom was unfortunately disappointing; I was all ready for him to be awesome after I saw the first photos of his costume, but then he pretty much just relived Norman Osborn’s arc from Spider-Man.

Romance & Love Interests

Doomed pairings (Bruce and Betty, Daredevil and Elektra), token love interests (Eva Mendes in Ghost Rider, Goran Visnjic in Elektra), some extremely disinterested heroes (The Punisher, Blade — no woman in the Blade trilogy even makes it into more than one film), and one love triangle which turns into a doomed pairing (Wolverine-Jean-Cyclops) add up to not much in the way of heartwarming romance in the Marvel movies. There are a few bright spots, though. In the X-Men trilogy, Bobby and Rogue’s young love is very sweet. In Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm meets the kind-hearted Alicia after being dumped by his horrible wife. Reed’s hilariously inept attempts to woo Sue are also enjoyable, and their story ends well.

The one epic love story to be found is Peter and Mary Jane’s. Their courtship plays out over the course of the first two films and Peter’s love for Mary Jane drives a lot of the action. They’re both fully-developed characters who know each other well and support each other, even though their actual relationship has its fair share of bumps. By the end of Spider-Man 2, Mary Jane is aware of Peter’s secret identity and has made the choice to be with him anyway. The final shot of the movie is a closeup of her worried face, setting up their relationship to continue as a major source of drama in Spider-Man 3.

Best & Worst

Spider-Man 2 is possibly my favourite movie of all-time, so obviously I’m sticking with that as my choice for the best film so far. X2, Spider-Man, and X-Men are also a cut above the rest. Blade and Fantastic Four stand out as very enjoyable, too.

I’d probably place Blade: Trinity, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Hulk, and Daredevil in the bottom five.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I haven’t found some of the movies I thought were awful the first time around as painful this time. Even Daredevil and Hulk, though I still don’t think they’re good, don’t seem quite as bad now that my expectations are lower. Elektra is probably the movie that benefited most from this “adjusted expectations” effect: I remembered it being terrible, but this time it seemed ok. On the other hand, I remembered thinking Ghost Rider was ok at the time, and when I watched it again I was disappointed.

My opinion of Blade: Trinity hasn’t changed. It sucked then and it still sucks now.

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.