Overlooked Film of the Week- #40
Superhero movies have been coming out of the woodwork as early as the 1970's. However, Marvel really made it popular in 2000 when the released the first X-Men film. The success of "X-Men" was followed by "Spider-man." After "Spider-man" in 2002, basically everything under the sun from the Marvel universe began to get greenlit. Marvel hasn't slowed down at all since, some movies have been great, others not so great. Throughout over a decade long of various examples, its hard to remember everything Marvel-related that has been released over the years. Especially if it didn't get the best buzz.
I won't say I have loved every single Marvel movie ever made. I am not too fond of "Ghost Rider," "Daredevil," "Hulk," (Not the Edward Norton one) "Elektra," "Fantastic Four," or "Spider-man 3." But I have been pretty impressed with their films overall, and I am not afraid to highlight films that I felt are underrated. I definitely feel the first "Punisher" film was a underrated movie. Is it the best Marvel movie ever made? Not even close. Is it the best interpretation of The Punisher as a character? I don't think we have seen the best interpretation of the character onscreen. But the movie is mythic, intense, cool and actually pretty good. I don't know if the movie is astounding or on the road to becoming a classic. But compared to other Marvel films, its definitely overlooked, which is why I mention it on this column.
At face value, "The Punisher" might sound like an average revenge story, but there is a little more to it than that. Frank Castle is a man whose had quite the career, he's been in the military, he was a black operative, he was also a good undercover cop for the FBI. Now he's retiring from being a badass so that he can focus on his family. His last job at the bureau involved the son of a powerful money launderer to be killed, which fueled the father with absolute anger, so he orders not only Castle to be killed, but his whole family. The killers find Castle at a family reunion in Puerto Rico, and they kill everybody. The wife, the son, mom, dad, uncles, aunts, cousins, everybody that connected Castle to the real world gets mowed down. Castle survives the ordeal and he's ripe with revenge, and he's got years of experience under his belt to jump right in and get going. Castle isn't like Bruce Wayne, who travels the world for years, learning different fighting styles and detective techniques in order to become Batman. Castle is lethal and dangerous from the start, which makes him ever more intimidating. When his mission is complete, he contemplates suicide, but then he realizes that there is plenty of evil left in the world, so why stop? He's got the skills, he's got the resources, why should more innocent people suffer when he can do something about it? This is what separates The Punisher from other revenge-driven characters, Punisher's one-man war with crime is a full-time career, and he's not sending criminals to prison, he's sending them to the morgue.
This may sound dark for yet another superhero story, but you'd be misinformed. "The Punisher" may have a symbol and a costume, but he's no superhero. He has no superpowers, he's not really at the human peak of his training, he's a regular guy whose spent many years in war and he's learned a lot during that time. The Punisher is one of the few comic book characters who is a vigilante in every sense of the word. I hear a complaint that superhero movies are too dark nowadays, but I feel they are dark if they fit the character. Batman movies, if they are living up to the character's potential, should be dark. Batman is a guy who saw his parents murdered in front of him at a very young age, that's a psychologically crippling experience. With The Punisher, its a similar story, he witnessed his family killed, the cops did nothing about it, so The Punisher puts matters into his own hands. Some comic characters work better in darker territory, and some don't, The Punisher is a character who needs a dark movie so that we can relate to him.
One asset that makes "The Punisher" rise above most Marvel films is its performances. Thomas Jane was a near-perfect Frank Castle. We felt his pain as we watched his family die, we felt his need to get revenge, we felt pieces of satisfaction every time he killed a criminal linked to the massacre. We were able to feel these emotions because Jane allowed us too. John Travolta played Howard Saint, the criminal who lost his son and deemed revenge on Castle, Travolta is very "Travolta" in the film, but it works overall in the grand scheme of things. Rebecca Romijn, Will Patton, Ben Foster and Laura Harring fill out the rest of the supporting cast and they are well utilized.
What makes "The Punisher" a somewhat strange experience comes from some of the creative choices made. It seems weird that all the bad guys wear black trench-coats when the film takes place in Tampa, Florida. Some of the script is a little silly, making some of Travolta's dialogue sound cheesy. Castle comes up with a plot to turn Howard Saint against his wife, and its so loony that its hard to describe. There is a stretch of the film where Castle makes an apartment room his base of operations, and the other tenants are a family-of-sorts and each of them have weird, quirky ticks. Its kind of funny at times, but it doesn't really fit in a Punisher movie. A revenge movie should either be a dark comedy or play serious, not jump from one genre to the other all the while it creates a confusing tone. Despite the film's flaws, its still a good watch. There are so many good performances, good emotions, and plenty of good killings. We feel a lot from this movie so we identify with it.
All in all, "The Punisher" is a great example of a movie that got most of it right, and was still good despite a few flaws. In a culture that forces people to love stuff or hate it, I find myself liking to revisit movies that I found to be a mixed bag, movies that are ultimately uneven but still deliver the goods. "The Punisher" is not as well-polished as "The Avengers" or "Spiderman 2" but it gets pretty close, and that alone is worth a look.