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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: The Incredible Hulk

Movie poster for The Incredible Hulk (2008).

The second Marvel Studios project is The Incredible Hulk (2008), starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, William Hurt as General Thunderbolt Ross, and Tim Roth as Blonsky, a soldier who eventually turns into something even more … abominable than the Hulk. This film has no connection to Ang Lee’s father-focused Hulk from 2003, which we have already discussed. Marvel reacquired the film rights to the character around 2006 because Universal failed to start production on a sequel to Hulk on time.

So The Incredible Hulk is a reboot of sorts, though not quite: it seems to work on the assumption that the audience already knows the main characters and therefore doesn’t spend time introducing them. It also mostly skips over the Hulk’s origin in a science experiment gone wrong, showing it quickly in the opening credits.

That said, the origin story does have serious plot implications, and it’s rather different this time around: in Hulk, Bruce Banner is working on independent research on regeneration of cells for medical purposes; in The Incredible Hulk, the military was attempting to use Banner’s experiments to re-create the super soldier serum that produced Captain America, although Banner himself was not aware of the true purpose of the project. This idea of the dangers of military application, or perhaps appropriation, of superhero-related research ties in to what we’ve just seen in Iron Man via Tony Stark’s ideological conflict with Obadiah Stane.

Mostly, though, The Incredible Hulk is a monster movie which recalls classics of sci-fi like Frankenstein (Mr. Blue refers to his scientific research as “Promethean fire,” an image which goes back to Mary Shelley), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (incidentally, the last movie I saw before I watched this was the 1931 version of Jekyll and Hyde starring Fredric March — appropriate), and Godzilla. At least, I for one thought of Godzilla as I watched Abomination rampaging down a New York street. (The other thing I thought as I watched that scene is, hey, was that Omar?

It IS Omar!

Yep, that random bystander in the brightly-coloured shirt is in fact Michael Kenneth Williams. Huh. “Abomination! Abomination is coming, yo!”)

The Incredible Hulk is a decent enough movie — better than Hulk, which, granted, doesn’t say much — but nothing earthshattering. I thought Edward Norton was a good choice to play Bruce Banner, but I was actually a little disappointed with his performance and I suppose with the direction of the film. It would have been interesting to see Banner as a man constantly on the edge of snapping — a type of performance I think Norton would have done great things with; instead, this Banner is a scared weakling, and I don’t know that we ever feel his rage.

To me, this movie’s place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon became a bit questionable when Edward Norton was booted from The Avengers and replaced with Mark Ruffalo. Now it’s sort of the awkward movie that’s still part of the continuity, but somehow doesn’t really count. If they do another Hulk movie, presumably they’ll recast Betty and General Ross again, too.

Whether they’re going to do another Hulk movie at all is still up for debate: Mark Ruffalo tweeted about it a few times last week, noting that while there are currently no plans to feature the Hulk in anything other than Avengers 2, there are no concrete plans not to do another solo Hulk movie either. Ruffalo apparently signed a six movie deal with Marvel. That seems to suggest something will happen … at some point. Joss Whedon seems to have big things in mind for the Hulk in Avengers 2, but has also noted he feels the character is “the most difficult Marvel property” to build a movie around.

The big green guy can be pretty awesome as a supporting character, though, as we shall see in a few movies’ time.

SMASH! and Trash: 2012 in Review

Happy New Year! Now that we’ve made it to 2013, it’s time to look back on 2012. It was an ok year. I don’t know that I accomplished much. I learned how to make books. I finished paying off my student debt! That was actually quite exciting. I went canoeing and walked a few of the trails in Algonquin Park. I was a good aunt. I visited Newfoundland, which was the only province I hadn’t been to before. But enough about my actual life: here’s my take on the year in pop culture.

Movies

Every year, I set a goal of watching 50 movies I haven’t seen before; I accomplished that in 2012 with a final tally of 108 movies. A personal highlight of the year in film for me was going to Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival. This was something I’d been thinking about doing for a few years. I saw five films, including one of my favourites of the year (see below). If I can swing it, I’d definitely like to go back in 2013 and possibly see even more movies. Looking at the list of 2012 releases I saw, it seems I saw more movies I didn’t really care for than movies I loved. However, there were four standouts on both ends of the spectrum:

Best

1. The Avengers. I’d been looking forward to this movie ever since that amazing moment when Nick Fury showed up in the Iron Man post-credits scene. Marvel superheroes + Joss Whedon + the generally high quality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies = lots and lots of hype and expectations. I was living in fear of the possibility that The Avengers would be disappointing. Luckily for me, it wasn’t! At all! In fact, it was superb. It was one of the most awesome movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life and possibly the best thing to happen on Earth in 2012. A massive (they have a Hulk) and massively entertaining summer blockbuster.

2. Les Misérables. I only saw this last week so it’s possible my opinion will change after the movie sits with me for a while, but right now I’m totally enamoured with it; I liked it so much the first time that I went again the next day — that’s a pretty strong recommendation. I was obsessed with the musical as a teenager and admire the songs very much. All I wanted from the film was solid performances that captured the tone of the musical well, and it delivered. Everyone in the cast is great. The film, while not perfect, is a stirring and emotional experience that is as grand as the songs.

3. Argo. This is the one I saw at TIFF, and the one I’m going to be rooting for come Oscar time. (Sorry, Les Mis. I still love you the most.) It’s a tense thriller about U.S. relations with the Middle East, mixed with a comedy about the movie industry — a mix that works very well and is highly enjoyable. Ben Affleck has turned out to be an excellent filmmaker. I’m honestly surprised this movie wasn’t a bigger hit: it has all the makings of a real crowdpleaser.

4. The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson shine as Katniss and Peeta in what I felt was a mostly successful adaptation of a book I like very much. The movie has suspenseful action as well as genuinely affecting emotional scenes plus all the terrible spectacle of the Capitol and the Games. The fact that a movie about the horrors of consumerism is now the centre of a vast moneymaking empire is of course a bit ironic, but oh well.

Worst

End of Watch. Vomit-inducing shakycam combined with lots of incoherent shouting. I remain convinced that this was originally pitched as a comedy and someone somewhere along the way accidentally took it seriously.

Cosmopolis. This was at least nine hours long. Why, David Cronenberg, why?

The Amazing Spider-Man. I liked this 10 years ago when it was just called Spider-Man and was actually amazing.

The Sessions. Heroic actor plays severely disabled person! Heroic actress no one’s thought about in years takes off clothes! “Well then,” say the critics, “it must be good.” No.

Music

I was really planning to make an effort to discover more new music in 2012, but alas. I failed quite miserably and basically spent the whole year listening to Florence + the Machine. The only new album I can say made an impact on me is Battle Born by The Killers. I’ve also been enjoying Muse’s The 2nd Law, particularly the unexpectedly beautiful song “Madness.”

As for the worst in music, I was dismayed by Tori Amos’ “new” album Gold Dust, which features orchestral “reimaginings” of some of Tori’s older songs. Sounds like an interesting idea … except that many of the songs included already featured orchestras in their original versions, which made me wonder what exactly the purpose of all this could be. The only thing I can think is that she’s actually run out of crappy new material to record so she’s decided to start destroying her good music, too. The horror, the horror.

Books

My biggest literary excitement of 2012 was no doubt the fact that two of my favourite authors, J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket, released new books within a couple of weeks of one another. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy was a very good entry in the English country village genre; Snicket’s Who Could That Be at This Hour? takes us back into the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events for a look at the author’s youth. I enjoyed both, but I think my favourite book of the year was Such Wicked Intent, the second book in Kenneth Oppel’s The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series. Aside from drawing with great skill on the themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oppel brings in other influences — the main one being H.P. Lovecraft — and writes in a convincing Victorian style. I look forward to the final book in the series.

In the world of graphic novels, Jeff Lemire is my cartoonist of the year: I read both Essex County and The Underwater Welder in 2012 and have totally fallen in love with his art. Lemire’s strange and haunting Sweet Tooth is one of two comics I discovered and enjoyed catching up on this year, the other being Mike Carey’s very literary The Unwritten. I also continued making my way through Bill Willingham’s great series Fables, but I’m not caught up yet.

Television

I already covered the first part of 2012 quite extensively in my Memmys blog post so I won’t go on much here. In terms of things that have aired since I wrote that post, I felt Dexter returned to form this season. Yvonne Strahovski was a surprisingly good addition to the cast. Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire was also very impressive, and the most recent season of Survivor is probably one of its best ever, despite the presence of one of the all-time most irritating castaways (Abi, in case you weren’t sure).

I bade farewell to three old favourites as One Tree Hill, Weeds, and Gossip Girl made their final appearances. I discovered a couple of new to me, old to everyone else favourites in the utterly brilliant The Wire, the hilarious Community, and the very endearing Parks and Recreation. I rewatched Lost, and in doing so discovered that it works better the second time through. My rewatch cemented Lost as one of my top five favourite shows.

Finally, a couple of surprises, one good and one bad. Good: I am loving the newest season of Castle. I always thought it would annoy me if Castle and Beckett ever became a couple, but they’ve actually been really fun to watch. Bad: the final season of Fringe has been a real disappointment. I was so happy when it was renewed, but now that I’ve seen what they’re doing I will go so far as to say that unless the remaining episodes are mindblowingly amazing I will probably skip season 5 on any future Fringe rewatches I undertake. It’s a bummer.

So that’s 2012 in a nutshell. There is literally no chance that 2013 will be able to top The Avengers, but here’s hoping it provides some good stuff nonetheless.