Last Shot?: FOX Tries Transitioning "The Punisher" from Its Cultural Ghetto

Jeremiah Massengale
FOX's choice in playing Frank Castle's Punisher to a more mainstream audience might well pay off. (Artwork: The Punisher: Barracuda)

It's only fair to balk at the idea of some changes Criminal Minds producer Ed Bernero has planned for his FOX-optioned pilot of The Punisher. Frank Castle is black-and-white, right? What if the real issue is more complex, and goes to the heart of comics fandom? What if the real issue is, can The Punisher be for everyone?

Frank Castle’s known for having a high pain tolerance. It helps the character brood, it helps the ruthlessness. And a high tolerance for pain helps the character's high concept as well. After three transitions to big screen, a certain amount of pain must be involved. The 1989 film starring Dolph Lundgren was honestly expendable, the underrated 2004 film with Thomas Jane underperformed at the box office, and the most recent film starring Ray Stevenson was, well, punished by dreadful reviews. But, The Punisher’s set to come back for more anti-heroics, this time on your television screen. FOX announced last Fall it has a pilot commitment for former Criminal Minds showrunner Ed Bernero.

The Punisher could be one of most well-known characters in the Marvel roster and certainly is one of the easiest characters to base in “reality” without requiring a Galactus-sized suspension of disbelief. As is well known, Castle is a highly trained, angry Vietnam vet that’s driven by his family’s murder to punish all criminals via excessive force and lethal violence. Logically, the idea of a man whose only activity in the average day is murdering gangsters and thugs could seem too dark and one-dimensional to the FOX execs. After all, The Punisher is known for having no qualms about killing, unlike almost any other major character that’s had his/her own title. No doubt that’d be a hard sell for viewers that would be encouraged to "stay tuned for The Punisher" after American Idol or Glee.

However, there’s a twist the size of the Punisher’s weapon collection in this upcoming series. According to the news releases, in this adaptation, instead of being solely focused on his one-man-war on crime, Frank Castle is an active New York City police detective, who moonlights part-time as the vigilante The Punisher, seeking justice for those the system has failed. Can you believe that? Sounds more like Matt Murdock with a badge and a practical costume and less like the character that helped define gritty in mainstream comics in the 1980s.

Faithful followers of the vigilante are no doubt are ready to boycott. The beauty of The Punisher has always been the lack of a duel identity or complex motivation. Frank Castle’s ideology has characteristically been analogous to the color scheme of his clothing, black and white. That’s how he sees things and how he carries out his brand of justice. What you see is what you get with the character. Until this pilot, apparently. Now viewers will see him as a cop who occasionally steps outside the law to continue his war on crime when, and only when, the justice system fails.

Is this creative blasphemy? Are they idiotically snubbing over 30 years of captivating source material? Would you rather see “the Hoff” as Nick Fury again on FOX than watch this significantly-modified adaptation? It sure is different from The Punisher you’re familiar with, whether you’re a big fan or not. It's certainly not the same anti-hero in a skull-imprinted shirt that we know and love, but it would easily make the series’ episodes a little bit more procedural in nature and make the character a little more identifiable and likable.

Certainly, they’d have to reduce the R-rated graphic violence for a broadcast television of this series. A show based on a comic book hero that’s filled with nothing but the anti-hero’s trademark threats, murder, and torture won’t please a wide audience. Besides, the day job at the NYPD will give Frank Castle something to do and talk about and it’ll give him a chance to try to develop meaningful relationships again. The dark heart and psychopath psychology of Frank Castle has never been fully explored and this could be a boundless opportunity for that, for better or for worse.

Don’t forget, if The Punisher hadn’t changed from his original incarnation, he wouldn’t have become iconic. He started off as a goon of sorts, a Spider-Man villain in 1974, before graduating to his own title and standing as the epitome of a Marvel anti-hero.

Or think of the modified storyline of “The Punisher” as a Marvel “What If” storyline if you have to, but know that things could be worse.

At least the two most recent film adaptations of the storyline were not leaps and bounds away from the integrity of the character’s exploits in comic panels. And we all saw how those turned out. Remember that Smallville was the longest-running comic book-based series and longest-running American science fiction series in television history and at best it very loosely followed the Superman continuity. Then again, ill-fated shows like Birds of Prey and Blade: The Series were reinterpretations of comics pages too.

Frank Castle will be just strong anyway. He’s tough. And fans might find they're equally tough, if they have the right perspective. If only comic readers could have the attitude of fiction author Clive Barker, who saw his works turn into a plethora of adaptions, many of them forgettable and rotten. Barker has said, “It isn't as if the original book no longer exists. It's right there on the shelf, waiting for you.” The issues of PunisherMAX and Punisher War Journal are still there waiting to be read, regardless of what happens on screen to Frank Castle. And no TV series or movie can destroy the hard-nosed vigilante.

As a TV series, The Punisher could be a great payoff or it could be a great failure. But as fans we’ve already been punished enough with those earlier adaptions. So, maybe the deeper message here is the re-popularization of the character. If The Punisher can finally succeed for a mass audience (and it will only succeed by embracing TV conventions rather than rebuffing them), perhaps those classic books might find even more fans.

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