FROM PANELS TO FPS: The Punisher (2004)

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Ok, stop right there. I already know what you’re thinking, so I’ll ask it for you:

“Danno, what was your “Gateway” comic into the Marvel Universe, you big fat piece of nerd crap?”

Well, first off, I know I’ve only been writing this column for a short time, and while your assessment of my physical condition may not be too far off-base, I still think it’s too early in our relationship to be jokingly referring to each other in such a  way. …You were joking, right?

To actually answer the less insulting part of your question, we need to go back in time. Waaaay back. To the beginning. I grew up loving superheroes. While most people think the superhero renaissance of the last decade or so that has raised the next generation on superhero movies, cartoons, video games, and toys is a new thing, something similar happened in the late 70s/early 80s. And I was a prime mark for what was offered—Superman movies, Super Friends cartoons, Hulk and Spider-Man TV shows and action figures. Along with Star Wars, superheroes were my bread and butter.

But, while I loved superheroes, I actually didn’t read comic books. Comic STRIPS in the paper, and their collected works, sure. But the actual comics my beloved superheroes were based on? No sir. It didn’t help the first comic I remember reading was purchased for me at an airport newsstand at the age of 9.See, in the fall of 1985 my family vacationed in Florida, and to help kill 3 or more hours on the plane Mom told me to pick a comic out. (Oh, back when comics were sold at newsstands…ahhhh….such a glorious age. But I digress.) What I purchased I must have wanted because the cover featured all the SUPER FRIENDS I loved and knew. But when I dug into the comic, I was lost without a map. While it’s long since lost, I’ve since determined that comic was one of the CRISIS OF INFINITE EARTHS mini-series issues.

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What? You don’t know what that is because you’re not a big fat piece of nerd crap like me? Fair enough. Well, to put it in terms movie lovers can understand: reading that CRISIS OF INFINITE EARTHS comic would be like walking in on the last 25 minutes of INCEPTION having never seen it before. Good luck figuring that out….cause you’re nine.

No, it wouldn’t be until summer of 1986 when another love of mine from the medium of cartoon-propelled toy marketing, G.I.JOE, got me to read comics. The first issue I picked up was #50, the double-sized “BATTLE FOR SPRINGFIELD” issue. After that, I was hooked on JOE. I even got my first comic mail subscription so I didn’t miss a single issue! Yooo, JOE!!! (Ahhh….mail delivered comic subscriptions…such a glorious age… But I digress.)

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G.I.JOE was published by MARVEL then, so while this IS the first regular Marvel comic I read, I wouldn’t call it my gateway into the Marvel Universe proper. No, despite being barraged by ads for titles and covers of all kinds for other Marvel titles, I would not succumb to their spell for two years until one day in 1988 a cover to a comic…PURCHASED AT THE NEWSSTAND!!!!…caught my eye and I fell in love with this handsome fellow:

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Little did I know, but The PUNISHER-aka Frank Castle-was a rising star for Marvel, and soon enough indeed I started noticing Frank everywhere. And with the purchase of MARVEL TALES #215 (reprinting the classic Amazing Spider-Man # 162 “ Let The Punisher Fit The Crime!” by written by Len Wein ,penciled by Ross Andru, and inked Mike Esposito with a  new cover for the reprint by the great MIKE ZECK! (Whose cover work I fell in love with on the G.I.JOE covers, and later the original collected PUNISHER mini-series.)

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I was hooked! The book had everything! The Punisher! Spider-Man! A badass villain named JIGSAW! Nightcrawler of the X-Men, who I knew and loved from that X-Men episode of SPIDER-MAN & HIS AMAZING FRIENDS!!! And to top it all off, I was introduced to what I still hold to be my favorite Marvel properties of ALL TIMES:

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Ahh, PETER PORKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-HAM… How that series, much like the THE FLAMING CARROT and THE TICK, has shaped the comedic genre mentality of the kinds of comics I continue to draw to this day. If there were one comic I would not only love to do for Marvel Comics but probably excel at it would be SPIDER-HAM. I have some ideas already. Are you listening Marvel?!?! …I’m sure they’ll email me any second now…

Well while I wait I guess I’ll keep typing. So there’s the answer to your question @Trevor69: THE PUNISHER!!! He was my Marvel Universe gateway. Because after Frank Castle entered my life I bought everything. All the Spidey titles, X-Men books, Captain America, and many others. I was a MERRY MARVEL TRUE BELIEVER HI HEROES EXCELSIOR junky.

IDEA: CONTEST ALERT!!! A SPIDER-HAM sketch to the first FROM PANELS TO FPS reader out there who can correctly guess in the comments section what hero was my DC Universe Gateway character!!! CONTEST ALERT OVER!!!

Like I said, THE PUNISHER was going thru a huge wave of success at this time, so much so I distinctly remember sitting in my grandma’s living room one evening when my jaw literally hit the floor as America’s favorite Swedish action hero—the DOLPH LUNGREN!!!—announced one night exclusively on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT that his next project was to be a PUNISHER FREAKING FILM!!! Dolph then proceeded to hold up the cover to The Punisher #11–the book that hooked me on Frank Castle’s Punishing ways forever in the first place!!!—next to his head and ET zoomed in for a close up and he said something to the effect of “Now just imagine me with black hair. Aren’t I going to be a cutey?” I literally plotzed. The film, eventually, came out in 1989 …as a direct-to-video stinker.

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THE PUNISHER ’89 (where the Punisher didn’t even wear his trademarked SKULL LOGO!!!) would prove to be just one of three early black strikes on an early attempt by Marvel to catch some of that Burton BATMAN Box-Office Blowback Dolla-Dolla Bills! (“Hubba hubba hubba! Money money money! Who ya gunna trust?!”). But all THE PUNISHER, the also direct-to-video CAPTAIN AMERICA 1990, and THE (unreleased 1994) FANTASTIC FOUR did was blow up in their faces and set Marvel back 15 years until a young upstart named BRYAN SINGER and an old, magical craftsman name SAM RAIMI showed Marvel and Hollywood a thing or two about making superhero films sing.

IDEA: NON-CONTEST ALERT!!! I have seen all three of the above mentioned Marvel failures—once—but if any generous FPTFPS readers happen to have copies of PUNISHER, CAP, and the FF they could send me, I’d love to review them and would be forever grateful. And I’ll send you a SPIDER-HAM drawing or something!!! NON-CONTEST ALERT OVER!!!

Time passed. Wounds were licked.  Marvel went bankrupt and was sold 3 or 4 times. Superhero films became a profitable, big THING in Hollywood in the Aughts, and before you knew it a decade and a half had passed and it was time to give old Franky a chance at claiming some big screen glory. Thusly, THE PUNISHER (2004) was born into an unready world.

Or it was an unready script. Or something. Either way things stank of Fishmongers from the time revered and internationally-acclaimed writer of such gems as ARMAGEDDON, THE SAINT, and DIE HARD WITH A VENGENCE and now first-time director JONATHON HENSLEIGH yelled “Action!” on day one.

See, the story of Frank Castle the comic book character is simple. He was an ex Vietnam Vet with Special Forces and a “specific set of skills”, if you will. Anyway, Frank starts his life over in the states. Has a wife and family and leads a happy life. UNTIL ONE DAY, while picnicking in Central Park, his family is gunned down in the crossfire of a Mob shoot-out. Frank adopts the visage of The Punisher and goes about killing those who killed his family. After that he continues his one-man war on crime by killing anyone he deems needing of a punishment for their crimes.

See: Simple. The 2004 PUNISHER however decided to go the completely opposite overly complicated route. In the film THOMAS JANE’s Frank Castle is a highly decorated Deep Cover Special Agent for the FBI on his “Last Mission Before Retirement.” Obviously things go horrible awry and all the baddies are accidentally killed, including the son of evil Mob boss EVIL JOHN TRAVOLTA.

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John Travolta. What happened to that guy? Sure, his hair piece is immaculate as always, but his rollercoaster career of highest highs and lowest lows is almost maddening to the loving cinephile. Anyway, the only baddie not killed is this WEASELY GUY who also works for Evil John Travolta in a minimum capacity, but is mostly just the dead sons pot dealer who got Evil Travolta’s son wrapped up in an arms deal with Undercover Castle. Just to cover all their bases the FBI even “kills” Castle, but of course it’s all a part of the act. “I hate this job,” Frank grumbles as he is let out of his body bag, and then off to shower and get a going away ice cream cake or whatever.

Evil Travolta, Evil Travolta Wife, Older Evil Travolta son, and Evil (and GAY!) Travola Consigliere (played by the always welcome, and both underused and underrated WILL PATTON) discover Castle’s true identity and that he’s not only alive but on a family vacation in Puerto Rico, and they all vow revenge—sending a team of elite killers headed by Patton and Evil Travolta Son #2. (Oh yeah, there is also this weird subplot that is brushed over that Dead Evil Travolta Son was some kinda coddled moron or something. In fact Evil Travolta kills the guy who “Is never supposed to let (the son) out of his sight!” instead of the Weasely Guy, who Evil Travolta rather brings in closer to his fold. Cause Evil Travolta is an idiot, evidently.)

Now Castle isn’t just on just any family vacation in Puerto Rico, he is attending the grandest rich people family reunion of all time where Frank, his wife, his 8-ish son, every aunt, uncle, brother, and kinda disliked in-law on BOTH Frank AND his wives side have gotten together. There’s like 20 or 30 people in all. But heading the table, and bringing a smile to my face just to see as always is ROY SCHEIDER (in one of his final on-screen roles) as Frank’s Dad and Pater-de-Facto for the week-long festivities of family fun and murder. (Wait! No! They don’t know that is coming!) There’s also some throw-away line about a guy who lives at the end of the dune who is a Voodoo witch doctor.

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As it turns out, Pappa Scheider is also some sort of weapons expert ex-something probably, and he show’s Sonny Boy Frank his hand-made gun collection. While the men bond, the rest of the family is suddenly and maliciously mowed down by Evil Travolta’s men. All of them die terribly but wife and kid who are hiding (and pretty well hidden, actually), and Frank and Pops who bust out the shot guns and go to town from the Vacation House, assuring their damage deposit will never be returned.

Not to digress again, but I were I on set I would have slapped HENSLEIGH right there and then! You have ROY FLIPPING SCHEIDER at your disposal—one of the most charismatic screen presences of the 70s and 80s—and you have him and  Tommy Jane share the screen for about 45 seconds, then the shooting begins and you kill Scheider off about another 45 seconds later. WTF?!?! As far as I’m concerned, yes, Scheider’s fate was sealed in order to make the Punisher’s origin work, but COME ON! You could have at least had him survive to help Sonny Boy attempt to save the wife and kid who for some reason run from their A+ hiding spot to a truck that has a boat winched to it. The baddies take chase against the wife and kid in their Evil Travolta Black Jeeps they borrowed from Carey Elwes TWISTER character, and Frank takes chase on a motor cycle. Were there more people in Evil Trucks chasing Frank? I don’t remember. I was just too pissed it wasn’t Father and Son racing in one of the several other non-boating tethered trucks they had parked out front, with both men frantically driving, sticking their heads out of the windows and yelling and shooting Pop’s awesome new guys, perhaps even switching places mid-chase so Frank can leap onto the other vehicle, which would then tragically lead to Scheiders death in a manner befitting a once upon a time beloved action hero.  But no, that would just be entertaining and this film couldn’t have that.

Anyhoo…Frank catches up to the wife and kid who are trapped by Evil Travolta’s men at the end of a pier. And then, just as every family wishes to be, they are all killed together. Satisfied with another job well done in the USA’s unofficial 51st state, Evil Travolta’s men head home to Tampa, Florida, the USA’s unofficial 52nd state. But…WHAT IS THIS?!?!—Frank isn’t dead?!?! Luckily the briefly aforementioned Voodoo guy finds him and…uhh…gets the bullets out and cleans his wounds and helps him recuperate for five months. Voodoo not included. So…can you see how far we’ve strayed from a simple day in the park into this mess?

From here, the story takes The Punishers original first hit being on those who killed his family and combines it with the acclaimed 12 issue Punisher series entitled “WELCOME BACK, FRANK” done by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, the much anticipated follow-up to their amazing PREACHER series.

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The elements taken from “WELCOME BACK, FRANK” involve Castle moving into a fourplex he shares with Joan the Mouse (in the film just Joan, and played as much more composed a loser by Rebecca Romijn (nee) Stamos), Mr. Bumpo (played by the always unpleasant to look at John Pinette), and Spacker Dave (a multi-pierced punker weirdo played by Ben Foster) as he builds his weapons of war to take down Evil John Travolta and company.

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Also, there is a hitman known as the THE RUSSIAN they incorporate as well. He is a ridiculously, LXG Mr Hyde sized strong man who uses Frank as a rag doll as he knocks him through every wall of the apartments—literally connecting this ragtag “family” once and for all as Frank somehow manages to kill The Russian. I don’t remember how. I was just bowled over by the silliness of the scene. Sure, it was probably awesome as Steve Dillon’s art, but translated to film…

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A couple of really weird things this film has The Punisher do that makes no sense in the context of the character or Screenwriting 101:

Plot Point #1: When Frank returns to Tampa, he announces—LIVE ON TELEVISION—his is alive and out to get Evil John Travolta.  Uhmm…what? Guess why mutant hitmen can find where you live Frank, you TOLD THEM YOU WERE ALIVE AND IN TOWN AND PROBABLY REGISTERED A CHANGE OF ADDRESS FORM WITH THE POST OFFICE!!! Oh! And it’s established ALL of the dead extended Castle/wife family’s bullet-riddled corpses have been shipped back to the US and buried in Tampa. WHO PAID FOR THAT FUNERAL?! Uh, digression again. Back to my point:

The Punisher coming back to exact revenge and revealing he’s alive and his murderous intentions would be like if Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham in BATMAN BEGINS in fulls Bats regalia and just went by “Bruce Wayne” instead of Batman. It, like plot point #2, makes absolutely no sense.

Plot point #2: God damned HENSLEIGH decided to take the name THE PUNISHER too literally, so instead of trimming a solid and needed 30 to 40 minutes off this 123 minute stinker and just having Frank raid Evil Travolta’s mansion, he has Frank “Punish” Evil Travolta by making him kill his own Evil Wife, Will Patton, and Other Evil Travolta Son. And it’s all based on Frank stealing the wife’s car when she “goes to see a movies every Thursday”, getting her a parking ticket in front of a hotel where Frank slyly blackmails Will Patton with homophobic threats, stealing Evil Travolta wife’s new earrings and planting one in a room of said hotel for Evil Travolta to find cause—OH YEAH!!!—Evil Travolta is being fed all this information by the Weasely Guy!!! (who Evil Travolta now literally trusts more than his own family, but who also happens to be working for the Punisher after being “tortured”.)

And that’s pretty much it. Evil Travolta kills everyone he loves, Frank points this fact out before killing Evil Travolta and…Punishment metered out in an unnecessarily detailed and elaborate and INCREDIBLY STUPID TO THE POINT OF RECOCKULOUSNESS instead of just shooting and blowing up way. Cause that what’s the Punisher does. He kills people. That is his punishment. Not the tickle-torture logic this film was pretexted on.

I had never seen this film prior to this review and was genuinely shocked at how awful it was. That is highest praise I can give it. My beloved Gateway had been trampled by an elephant. BUT! Merhaps hope is around the corner, for next week I take my first look at the follow-up/reboot PUNISHER: WAR ZONE! Until then, Excelsior True Believing Dicksplashes who insulted me at the start of this review.

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*DANNO KLONOWSKI is a cartoonist, co-host of the WAYNE GALE VARIETY HOUR podcast, and host of the LUTEFISK SUSHI PODCAST.  All of which you can see/find links to at his site*

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