The Punisher (2004)

[12 May 2004]

By Stephen Rauch

Last year, when the reviews for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen started coming out, the most encouraging sign was that most reviewers noticed that the film version came nowhere near the wit, humor, and erudition of the source material, the comic book of the same name by Alan Moore. Sure, the film was moronic, the plot nonsensical, and the characterization one-dimensional, but for the first time I could remember, mainstream reviewers were not simply using the label “comic book” as shorthand for all these things, and were in fact going out of their way to praise Moore’s work. It was an acknowledgement that comics (as a medium, not a genre) are not only capable of producing interesting, worthwhile work, but have been steadily producing it for quite some time.

And while The Punisher is certainly a bad movie, I haven’t seen anyone making the same point about its source material. For those unfamiliar with the title (since this has not been publicized at all by the studio, Artisan Entertainment), the guts of the movie, under all the mob movie clichés, come from Garth Ennis’ recent writing run on the Marvel Comics title of the same name, particularly his first storyline, 2001’s Welcome Back, Frank. However, while the colorful outer markers are still there (Frank Castle’s tragic history, his war with the mob, the bleached-blond “Russian”, his neighbors), the film makes a determined effort to do the one thing Ennis avoids: to try to redeem the Punisher, at least a little bit, in our eyes.

If you’ve only seen the movie, this may seem strange; Thomas Jane’s version of Frank Castle is as hollow and nihilistic as they come. However, at every turn, director Jonathan Hensleigh and screenwriters Hensleigh and Michael France remind us that The Punisher is a revenge story, and while we shy away from revenge as a valid motive, at least we still understand it. Jane’s voice-over specifically argues against revenge as his driving motive, but everything is tied back to his family: the mobsters, led by Howard Saint (John Travolta), are the ones who ordered or carried out the murders of his entire family (with Castle himself as the primary target). The guns he uses were owned by his father, who had enhanced them to make them more powerful. Between “missions,” we see Frank drinking excessively and contemplating suicide—as if the wrongness of his deeds tortures him. Even the famed skull emblem of the Punisher is explained as a spooky-looking t-shirt Castle’s son bought just before he was killed. And the film ends when Castle kills Saint, after working his way through the rest of his gang.

In the Punisher’s original back-story, however, he and his family are not the targets of violence; they simply choose the wrong time to go for a picnic in the park, and get caught in the crossfire of a mob hit. Ennis’ run picks up decades after this tragic event, which makes revenge-as-motive much less convincing. Frank admits that he has long since killed anyone even remotely involved in his family’s death: the shooters, the people who ordered the hit, its intended targets. He has left them behind, and in the ensuing decades racked up a body count that must number in the thousands. When his neighbor Joan (more on her later) asks him why he kills “the bad people,” she wants to hear that he is making the world safer for people like her. He simply responds, “I hate them.” Ennis’ run of the series is filled with characters trying to explain Frank’s crusade, or to get him to see the error of his ways; he rejects all of them. He does what he does simply because he hates criminals and wants them to die.

He is not an Avenging Angel, or a Fighter for the Good and Decent People; he is a psychopath. Curiously enough, this was Clint Eastwood’s appalled reaction when he found out people were reading the Dirty Harry movies as a kind of right-wing propaganda justifying vigilante justice (or at the least, police brutality). Eastwood (who Ennis mentions in the introduction to Welcome Back, Frank) sees his character is a different light: he’s a monster. That’s the same view Ennis takes of Frank Castle. That said, his writing is entertaining as hell.

With the morality question (which comic vigilantes so often agonize over) out of the way, Ennis is free to depict what makes the Punisher so good at what he does; he is cool, quick-thinking, and methodical, falling back on his Special Forces training and experience in Vietnam. Here we come to another key difference between the comic and the movie: Thomas Jane’s version served in the first Gulf War; the original Punisher was in Vietnam. Ennis, in the mini-series Born, highlights this as the true origin of the Punisher, and shows Frank as a man who, in all the killing he saw, found a part of himself that liked it. The deaths of his family were merely the trigger that let out the beast. (And while Vietnam may have happened too long ago now for a “Year One” story, the difference is key: Vietnam brings with it many associations that supposedly “good” wars like Desert Storm do not.)

Finally, there are Frank’s neighbors: the obese Mr. Bumpo (John Pinette), multiply-pierced Dave (Six Feet Under‘s Ben Foster), and Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos)—all created by Ennis. In the comic, Bumpo and “Spacker” Dave are essentially comic relief, and are only made more palatable to a mainstream audience—Bumpo less obese, Dave less pierced—in the film. Joan is another matter entirely: Ennis’ Joan is a timid, mousy woman who is afraid of the world and, in the one truly touching subplot of Ennis’ run, develops a bit of a crush on Frank. Her character is turned into the leggy-supermodel-next-door, a sweet and beautiful but troubled girl who just needs to find a decent guy to straighten her life out. This change effectively removes one of the great joys of Ennis’ writing—the touching, almost sweet, subplot in the midst of all the carnage—and replaces it with the generic movie-pretty-love-interest-girl.

The only part of the movie that is not based on Ennis’ work is the story of Howard Saint and his family. He is new, as is the deception Frank plays in making Saint think his wife is having an affair with his (gay) consigliore. This subplot seems out of place, given Frank’s usual M.O., except that it absolves Frank in the killing of Saint’s wife Livia. She still has to die (she is the one who expanded the initial hit from just Frank to his whole family), but the studio could never show Frank killing a woman (much less a beautiful one) to a mainstream audience. Thus, the film goes out of his way to establish that Saint (as A Bad Guy) is responsible for killing his wife and best friend—not Frank. As Frank stands triumphantly over Saint, he says, “I made you kill your wife. I made you kill your best friend.”

It seems curious that, for a character with so much blood on his hands, so much effort goes into keeping Livia’s blood off of them. (In contrast, Ennis’ version has Frank attack mob queen Ma Gnucci with a bunch of polar bears, and later kicks her now-limbless body back into her burning house.

It is also strange to see a movie as violent as The Punisher and think that this is the toned-down version. But it is. It seems that the movie is willing to make Frank a monster, but to go only so far in doing so. A large part of what makes Ennis’ writing so entertaining (with such an otherwise staggeringly lifeless and boring, one-note character) is that he starts with the idea of the Punisher-as-vigilante and sets out to see just how far he can take it.

After the witch-hunts of the 1950s, comics were saddled with the oppressive Comics Code, which restricted stories to simple morality plays that, with few exceptions, were only fit for children’s entertainment. In the 20 or so years since writers and artists started abandoning the Code, they have produced work as interesting, complex, and thought-provoking as any other medium. Still, few people outside of the comics world seem to have noticed And so the irony of a medium considered too dumb to be a legitimate art form being dumbed-down for a film may be lost on most people. The Punisher is far from Garth Ennis’ best work (for that, see his epic collaboration with Steve Dillon, Preacher), but it is still readable, interesting, entertaining, and it occasionally makes you think. If only the film (which is the first and only version most people are likely to encounter) could be any of these.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/punisher-20042/