Scene Dissections Punishes!

I know people have their complaints about the superhero film genre and as a fan of that genre, I get it. It really has dominated the market for the last 15 years or so, when before 2002 we may have only gotten a half dozen releases spread out over a decade. That might not be an exact estimate, but that’s how it feels, especially with my fuzzy memory. All I know, it was a big deal when the first Spider-Man and X-Men films premiered in the early years of the 2000s. Those were arguably the biggest and most well-known comic book characters throughout the 1990s with two popular animated series and a multitude of arcade and console games to their names. These were the films that resuscitated the genre after the crash-and-burn disasters of most recent Batman films and the ongoing saga to resurrect Superman.

They not only saved superhero films, but also Marvel, which had seen itself go through some rough years after the comics boom of the 90s. I’m not well-versed in that lore, but what I know is that Marvel was licensed to hell with its properties and saturated a market that could not keep up with the demand nor the time to invest in all of these characters, no matter how many pockets and zippers they had.

Not to mention variant covers, the NFTs of the 90s.

I couldn’t find an adequate image of variant covers, so enjoy this image of pogs, which were also the NFT of the 90s. Maybe everything is just pogs.

It was the shot in the arm, the pump of adrenaline, that Marvel needed to prove that it could hang with DC, who were (up to then) the more successful comics company to transition to film. They already had a combined 8 films between Superman and Batman, not to mention two animated series for each as well, both lauded with praise in their own way, with one often as highly (if not more) revered as the films. When Marvel was chasing DC, they did manage to get Blade to theaters, but as much as I like that film, I know in my heart of hearts that for plenty of reasons, that movie was not going to do much to pave the way for Marvel to go toe-to-toe with DC in Hollywood. These motherfuckers were truly ice-skating uphill.

But patience makes the difference, as the tortoise knows. Eventually the hare will grow cocky and get high off their own supply, feeling untouchable and that they can just pause for a minute to beat off over the prospect of Superman battling a giant fucking spider.

There’s a good chance I don’t really recall how that fable goes, but the point is solid: DC’s hubris was too great for them to overcome and Marvel was finally in a position to take the lead. And it happened. First in 2000 with X-Men and then just two years later with Spider-Man. If you think about when those two films were released, you can figure out where I’m going to go next.

We know 9/11 upheaved pop culture, reshaping entertainment for the next decade. I won’t get too much into the weeds on that (link to Pop Optics 9/11 article), but I just want to make sure you keep 9/11 in mind. X-Men was released prior to while Spider-Man was released the year after. Those films are indicative of a pre-9/11 world, one of optimism and cheer (though, both films depict duplicitous governments and the Military-Industrial Complex at work). Well, in as much as they were made at a time when we never would have thought about escalating wars in the Middle East or the notion of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Honestly, the biggest fear probably was that George W Bush was just going to flop about like some nervous clown, a national embarrassment on a global scale. Oh, how naive we all were.

My point here is that 9/11 definitely influenced writers and studio heads to double-down on the optimism, ramp up the jingoism, and dig deep into the hurt caused and mine that for gold. Dark and gritty gold.

The darkest, grimmest, grittiest, dark, grim, grimdark, dark&gritty, gritty grit grit dark they possibly could.

And that’s (probably) how we get 2004’s The Punisher.

The Punisher is an interesting case study for this series. I want to point out that the idea for another Punisher film had been floating around for years but didn’t get official until about 2002.Granted, it definitely took the success of X-Men and Spider-Man to prove that investing in Marvel properties was the way to go. I don’t know what other properties would have made most sense to adapt for the silver screen at that time, but in my head, it makes sense that they greenlit The Punisher.

Again, 9/11. Popular entertainment reflects the milieu of the times, so going with a character who’s entire thing is brutalizing criminals escaping, well, punishment definitely taps into the vigilante fantasies of the public. Because, you know, if any one of us had been on that plane, bro, we would have stopped 9/11.

What’s also interesting to me is that this film was greenlit and in production around a year or so ahead of another film about a vigilante who seeks to bring criminals to justice. Marvel effectively beat DC to the proverbial punch in the grimdark department, and I stand by that claim. Marvel saw DC’s death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and they raised with the mass murder of Frank Castle’s entire family.

It’s rather bonkers that Marvel looks at the trajectory of their rising film empire and says “Okay, you know what we need? A man’s entire family wiped out. And not just immediate family. We should kill cousins, aunts, nephews, distant relatives, and Rusty Steve, who was adopted but then married into the family. We don’t talk about Rusty Steve.”

Don’t worry, I’m not going to make that scene the crux of this write-up. I mention it because it is at the core of Castle’s character arc. His whole thing is that his family was gunned down; an assination ordered by a mafioso he wronged. It’s sadly prescient for the times we live in now, with gun violence increasing death by volume.

With his family gone, his sense of humanity is also stripped away. He’s no longer Frank Castle. Castle is now The Punisher. So, what The Punisher also sets out to do is tell the story of a man who has lost his entire family, was declared dead, but then shows up out of the blue, very much alive and very much pissed off, dealing out his own brand of justice on the ones who took everything from him. And also he finds a surrogate family in his neighbors.

The Frank Castle Show

My opinion is that as much as they may have intended this to be a love-letter to revenge thrillers of the 70s and 80s, there’s a subtle quality that makes it feel more like a situational comedy. It’s a situational action film. A sitac, if you will.

Or a “sac”.

In one scene, Castle infiltrates one of Saint’s likely many buildings. He finds the room with all the mob accountants and one of them is holding a fat stack of cash in one hand and with the other, he’s stirring a pot of soup on a hot plate. I don’t know in what mob world this is allowed but it is played for laughs anyway, so I shouldn’t analyze that one to death.

“I wonder what a stack of money tastes like.”

Flimsy execution (whoops) is what makes much of the film inadvertently laughable. Yes, there are comedic breaks sprinkled throughout, but it shoots for the moon only to veer slightly and collide with a satellite and says “eh, good enough.”

He does this while playing the part of the surly neighbor who keeps to himself and likes to drink alone. And he tends to drink a lot, to the point that it might be all that’s keeping him alive.

Alcoholism is shorthand for dealing with trauma in popular media. I’m starting to wonder if Otis from The Andy Griffith Show was living with demons of his own at this point. This is such a common trope that feels more like a joke than it should be. I know it isn’t played for laughs, but you watch a scene like this and the absurdity of the serious tone it’s meant to play doesn’t quite register right. It’s melodramatic, verging on camp (now, a camp version of Punisher would be a sight).

Elsewhere in Castle’s universe, there’s a whacky cast of characters that take residence in the same apartment building he’s holed-up. The goals of this film’s other characters are to show him that life is worth living for and humanity is not something to be afraid of. I would argue that they don’t do an effective job and the messaging plays out like a grade school production.

I don’t know how a landlord makes money off three tenants, but by the looks of the building they’re in, I suspect it’s either on the verge of being condemned or these people are imaginary. I know they’re not imaginary because of a scene that happens in the third act, but it would have added to Castle’s damaged psyche if it was revealed that these neighbors were figments of his imagination; fabrications conjured by a part of him that still clings to his humanity and that craves connection with others. Would have made for a much more fascinating film.

Ben Foster’s Dave is a loner gamer who would definitely have an anime body pillow if he could afford one (I imagine he blew his savings on that gaming chair). Bumpo is your stereotypical large man who enjoys food, but if you’re familiar at all with John Pinette’s stand-up, then this isn’t unsurprising. Then there’s Joan, as played by Rebecca Romijn, a woman who has had just bad luck in the relationship department. She’s meant to serve as the possible love-interest for Frank and show him that the Power of Love heals all things. Her vulnerability is her only agency, as well as working in a diner that appears to only have Dave and Bumpo as its sole customers. Romijn is double-dipping here in the Marvel pool as she just had a turn as Mystique in X-Men and X2 prior to this release. These characters are exceptionally one-note but I will give credit to the cast for making them feel as close to human as possible. They’re elevated to “slightly animated.” It is in how these people interact with each other and how the actors interpret the direction they’re given that really helps to back up my argument that this film could have a laugh track added and it wouldn’t change a thing.

What that scene undercuts is that Castle’s not just a deeply traumatized and scarred person but that he’s allergic to other humans. 

Castle has wanted nothing to do with anyone else since his family was massacred. Ever since he’s donned a waterlogged shirt and proclaimed himself to be soggy phantom vengeance, revenge is so narrow a focus for him that the existence, the mere sight, of other people is alien to him. There are no other people but those in Howard Saint’s employ. So when he’s being pulled into a situation that forces him to confront those emotions that he’s been drowning in whiskey since his resurrection, it causes him to tense up. His indifference to others also reflects an indifference towards himself. He’s not openly self-destructive but you know he has already designated a time for his life to terminate.

Again, if you’re familiar with revenge films from 40 to 50 years ago, then some of the tropes on display in this film make sense. However, they’re undercut by the lack of cohesion between the characters at times. Dave and Bumpo are supposed to be either afraid or intimidated by Castle’s presence, but they’re too bumbling to be either. They act like two children who not only found out Santa Clause exists, but he lives next door and he’s a deeply disturbed individual. Thomas Jane sometimes plays Castle too stiffly that you’d be forgiven if you confused him for a statue raised in his memory. There are scenes post-resurrection where he’s loose and cool, like when he’s confronting some old colleagues on the courthouse steps, or when he’s slapping Joan’s abusive paramour but when he’s sharing scenes with Saint’s associates, he aims for tough but lands on constipation. Perhaps all Frank Castle needed was a stool softener and he could finally move on.

Final Verdict

I don’t hate this film. It’s goofy for the wrong reasons but in my mind, it didn’t fail. Just because you didn’t finish first doesn’t mean you instantly lost. It definitely comes in at just above .500. I think if this film had managed to get into production back when it was first proposed, it would not have been the same film and would likely have set Marvel back a couple of years. The success of Spider-Man and X-Men films definitely goosed things, but it also needed a couple of years of distance from one of the most horrific events in American history. It also managed to get released at a time when mass shootings were not as common and be spared the conversations of “Can The Punisher exist in these times?”

It’s a fine way to kill two hours when you need to.

It still suffers from a flaw that haunts the current crop of Marvel films: resistance to deeply explore the pathos of its characters. I know we shouldn’t really expect superhero or comic films to be introspective or meditative, but anyone who has read comics seriously knows that it is damn possible. Some have come pretty close to doing just that, even if they snap back on the sting to keep things in line. Iron Man 2 substituted Tony Stark’s alcoholism with palladium poisoning and ego. Here, Castle’s alcoholism is on full display, however, it isn’t resolved. They make its cause clear, but even while he’s learned to open himself to others by the end of the film, he’s not whole. And that’s fine. No one is easily fixed of such things, and for someone whose business is killing criminals, there’s more to their burdens than just the loss of their family. His addiction might be fuelled by something else or he instead focuses all of that anger and pain into something “productive,” which in this case is vengeance.

This film does not have a perfect depiction of alcoholism. It also presents it in a way that is a feature not a bug of Castle’s persona. Since he’s lost everyone in his life that matters, nothing else matters, so now is the time to embrace the bottle. He may get chided about his drinking, but his desire to protect others only sobers him up enough to resume his plans of murdering everyone his enemy cares about. It doesn’t “cure” him of anything – those problems will still linger once the credits roll and Castle begins his long lonely walk to the next town.

I know that The Punisher has been reinvented in the last decade with an emphasis on PTSD brought on from service in the armed forces. It makes for a more compelling character study, that what motivates them is something psychological, as opposed to a law and order obsessed vigilante. I’m of two minds on this. One, it’s great to shed more light on psychological struggles and we need to do all we can on that front to portray them in a way that makes more people stop and think “that sounds like me – I should seek help.” However, fictionalizations of such issues are rarely positive or accurate. If anything, it can further the stigma or misinformation about the issue.

Would I prefer a modern take on the classic Punisher? Given that everyone that sports The Punisher logo tends to fall into the Far Right, it might be worth examining that aspect of the character in how they’re not a hero and maybe not even an anti-hero but instead a villain who falsely believes themselves to be a hero. If there’s already a take on this in existence, I’d love to know. For now, I’ll watch my 2004 film with a smirk and let out a deep belly-laugh whenever The Punisher can’t quite topple The Russian.

Untouchables or: Other Things I Would Need to Dedicate a Multi-Part Series to Discuss

I realize I’m leaving a lot of things out but I encourage you to discuss in the comments. So, here’s a brief rundown of those topics.

  • Will Patton plays a loyal but cruel man in Quentin Glass, Howard Saint’s Number 1 Guy. Glass is also closeted. This tidbit comes into play while Castle engages in subterfuge to sow distrust within Saint’s inner circle. I never felt like Glass’ sexuality was depicted callously. It may not have been the most sophisticated but I think Patton gives Glass conviction as a gay henchman. As far as we know, the only other person who knows his truth is Saint’s wife. His role within the organization necessitate he act with toughness we associate with a masculinity that is utterly and irreparably hetero – in effort to deflect any suspicion, he manufactures a persona that is ruthless in dispensing pain. It could be a release, too. He’s letting out his frustration of having to hide who he is and making his victims feel that almost tenfold. But he could also be getting off on it. When he’s about to pluck out Dave’s piercings one by one with a pair of pliers, he flashes a devious grin (not to mention the compromising photos Castle snaps also show that Glass has a bit of a dom in him). However you come at this character, you first assume him to be a psychopath but given time you’ll realize there’s more beneath the surface that’s driving his actions.
  • John Travolta hams it the fuck up as Howard Saint, however, the character is so ineffectual as a mob boss. He may see himself as The Godfather, but he’s surrounded by Fredo after Fredo after Fredo (Glass would be Sonny in this analogy). Nearly all of his illegal business deals are going south, he’s in debt to other more coordinated mob operations, and his tee time is interrupted by spontaneously sprouting tombstones. Kingpin he ain’t. If anything, he’s Donald Trump with better hair. Honestly, in retrospect, that feels like a major influence on the character. He’s a major figure and well known throughout Tampa and just happens to have a lot of money to throw around but where did it all come from? Trump’s influence on the depiction of fictional villains in pop media requires its own article – Howard Saint just happens to have similar traits to the former president, though sadly, no scenes of him throwing a plate of ketchup at the wall. Saint’s ineffectuality as a crime boss doesn’t undermine the character – it underlines everything that leads to his downfall. He does not have the aptitude to lead a major crime organization. There might be smarter people within but they appear to be all out to lunch while the Saint empire crumbles.
  • Something I recall from when the film was released was the bemoaning that Castle’s hub of operations was moved from New York to Tampa Bay and that he was an agent of the FBI. My familiarity with the character was mostly through his brief appearance on the nineties’ Spider-Man cartoon, but I knew enough to understand why people criticized these decisions. Tampa isn’t New York, and Castle being an operative of the law belies any notion he’d circumvent it. Two thoughts on that.
    • America has more than two major cities (New York and Los Angeles), so changing up the locale can increase the potential for a more interesting story to tell. Sure, the move to Tampa really didn’t make much of a difference overall, but hey, crimes can still happen in other cities. True, New York itself is at the core of The Punisher’s identity in the sense that he lived there but the true core of his identity is killing criminals, and that can be anywhere. As long as we don’t lose sight of him needing to be a vigilante because the system fails to serve justice, then it doesn’t matter where he’s doing the killing.
    • This Punisher is not a vigilante. His moral code has more in common with the MCU Steve Rogers. He’s a well-trained government agent who becomes disillusioned by the system and its inability to uphold the law, and when the laws are weak, he admonishes others for their failure in strengthening them, closing the loopholes that allow detestable criminals to walk free. He’s not a reflection of the broken-windows fallacy nor a certain tug-drunk mayor’s affinity for penalizing the most punitive of crimes to send a message. He is directly opposed to Howard Saint because he is the head of a criminal organization and routinely breaks the law yet goes unpunished. That Saint (well, his wife) was behind Castle’s family being wiped out just juices his motivation to bring justice to him.
  • Harry Heck. That’s it.

Prevues of Coming Attractions