Tuesday, March 10, 2009

One of Life's Great Mysteries: Why the Punisher Has Had THREE Movies

As comprehensively reviled as their third installments were, the Spider-Man and X-Men film franchises clearly earned enough money to justify a third chapter for each one. After the release of the first movie of each series it became clear that these properties had not only a comic-book reading fanbase but a movie-going one as well which made ponying up resources for a third go a bit of a no-brainer for the studios handling them. For these two Marvel properties, three makes sense.

The same thing, however, cannot be said for the only other Marvel property, to the exclusion even of such illustrious names as the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, to have had three feature-length, big screen movies made adapting it: The Punisher.

The Punisher, a.k.a. Frank Castle, has been the subject of three films, one in 1989 starring Dolph Lundgren which may or may not have made it to theaters, one in 2004 starring Thomas Jane as the title character and John Travolta as the bad guy, and finally (I hope) one that came out last year in the U.S. and is coming to theaters next week starring some Irishman named Ray Stevenson.

All films have been critical and commercial failures, save for the film starring Lundgren, which may or may not have even made it into theaters at all (though for the record it came out here in Philippine movie theaters), which really prompts the question: WHY has this character gotten so many second chances? Note, each of the latter two movies "rebooted" what came before it, so in other words Frank Castle has been introduced to movie audiences a total of THREE times.

Now, there is admittedly a certain logic in wanting to go to the Punisher well as often as possible. He doesn't have superpowers or gadgets and therefore movies starring him are relatively cheap to produce (with this last one being made for a frugal $22 million). Also, the Punisher does have a bit of a cult following since his rise to prominence in the Marvel Universe during the "grim and gritty" era of the 1980s. Thing is, all of the films bombed and money down the toilet is still money down the toilet, so I hope the idiots over at Lionsgate Films as well as the occasionally self-delusional Avi Arad (who claimed Elektra failed because it was poorly marketed) have finally been awakened by the sound of their product crashing and burning.

Off the top of my head I can think of at least one Marvel hero who deserves the reboot treatment a hell of a lot more: Daredevil. To be fair, the lamentable 2003 film Daredevil was the first Marvel film to ever spawn a spin-off in the failed Elektra, but despite two weeks as America's #1 movie and a domestic gross north of $100 million, a perfectly respectable feat for a then somewhat obscure Marvel character, neither Marvel nor the studio that has the rights to the character, 20th Century Fox, seems to have any plans on what to do next. This is a profound shame because if the property were rebooted with a good cast and crew and filmed based on a storyline as electrifying as Frank Miller's Born Again, Marvel (and whoever studio they go with) could have a real winner on their hands. I would even venture to say that if Born Again were adapted properly, with its haunting, gut-wrenching look at how a superhero unravels, it would give The Dark Knight a run for its money as the greatest comic-book movie of all time. Hell, even the director of the 2003 turkey, Mark Steven Johnson, got a second bite of the Marvel apple with the truly disastrous Ghost Rider, so it's beyond me why Tom Rothman is still sitting on a property that, done right, could banish Fox's reputation for creatively sodomizing its comic-book properties.

Even in terms of mythology, Matt Murdock, Daredevil's alter ego wins hands down over the Punisher, who really isn't much more than a quintessential Charles Bronson-esque urban vigilante type. The very concept of a lawyer running around at night beating people up as a superhero makes for some truly rich irony; Murdock is actually a bit of a hypocrite for doing what he does, and that makes him all the more interesting. Throw in the bit about him being blind and him having lost his father, an aging boxer who refused to throw a fight, and his truly dysfunctional upbringing and there's the potential for so much nuanced storytelling that plumbs the depths of the human psyche. It speaks volumes of the character that his fans were so disappointed with his movie, in the same way that some reviews speak volumes about the Punisher in saying that the latest movie, Punisher War Zone, has been the most faithful to the comic book so far with its senseless violence. The Punisher is basically an ultra-right-wing gun lover's fantasy: a guy who solves his problems by blowing people away. Daredevil is much, much more than that.

I understand one of Avi Arad's wet dreams right now is to get the film rights to the Daredevil character back from Fox so that Marvel Studios can make the movie with a studio like Paramount or Universal simply handling distribution and marketing. Well, though he's dropped the ball on in the past (Helloooo Spider-Man 3!) I truly wish him luck with this endeavor, so long as Mark Steven Johnson isn't allowed within a kilometer of the script or actual production. I would also have mentioned Fantastic Four as a franchise that needs to be done over (even though I enjoyed the second one), but apparently Fox and/or Marvel already have that in mind. Personally I'd like to see Marvel buy that one back, too.

With Iron Man winning back a great deal of credibility for Marvel Properties after it was squandered by the likes of X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3, maybe Marvel should look at the direction a lot of its franchises, particularly the ones handled by other studios rather than their outfit, have taken, and do some serious re-tooling.

Earlier I read about their single most intelligent decision since signing Jon Favreau and Robert Downey for Iron Man: they've pushed back their movie slate, consisting of Avengers, Thor, and Captain America back a year. Sony Pictures, whether on their urging or otherwise, has likewise pushed back Spider-Man 4. They finally recognize what everyone's been screaming: that, as shown by films like Iron Man, you can't rush good movies.

It is my hope against hope that with the utter and comprehensive failure of Punisher: War Zone, we fans have seen the last of Marvel's cookie-cutter movies, whoever the studio.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A World Run by Bad Guys

2008 marked the year I said "enough" to Marvel Comics and their events. My attention was squarely focused on other things, whether it was my family, new job, or diecast car collecting. Sure, I bought a few issues here and there and am currently finishing Kurt Busiek's sequel to Marvels, with art by Jay Anacleto, but otherwise I can pretty much categorically say that my large scale collecting of single issues is over. If I ever go back now it's to trade paperbacks; I'm all but done with the whole "comics as collectibles" concept (especially since I now have to pay to post stuff on eBay) and now choose to view them as stories to read and enjoy, even though there are almost no stories out there right now that I enjoy that much.

That said, I like the idea of the Marvel Universe's status quo.

The idea of villains being in charge is not quite original; indeed DC, through writer Jeph Loeb had Lex Luthor elected President of the United States in its universe a few years back, a status quo that persisted for quite a few years until being undone in 2003.

What I like, though is how this idea was gestated, and how it doesn't just involve one bad guy but some of the most notorious villains in the Marvel Universe, none of whom has really changed his or her stripes but all of whom nonetheless now have the public on their side for the time being.

The story feels organic because it wasn't as though everyone woke up one morning to find Norman Osborn in charge; the seeds for this were planted as early as Civil War and were germinated in Thunderbolts (and even issues of Amazing Spider-Man) before the turning point came at the end of Secret Invasion, where Osborn put a gun to the head of Skrull Queen Veranke and basically blew her away. By this time the credibility of superheroes is so tattered after a full-on superhero-vs-superhero war, an invasion by the Hulk, and an alien infiltration, that people feel they have no one else to turn to but the bad guys. I haven't followed the execution, but as a concept it sounds pretty darned cool.

Of course, the conceit of bad guys being in charge can't last forever (even the Republicans lost the last election, after all ;D) so this gimmick will soon be over, but one's got to give Marvel credit. And apparently they can sustain a gimmick for awhile; Steve Rogers, after all, has officially been dead for two years and yet the comic book Captain America has enjoyed pretty brisk sales notwithstanding. 

So though I havent' been conned into buying comics regularly again, I will say I am interested to see where Quesada and crew will go with this particular direction.