‘The Punisher’ continues 30-year trail of screen carnage
“The Punisher” returns on Netflix this week, marking a full 30 years of on-screen carnage for the Marvel Comics vigilante — leaving a trail littered with bodies, and questions about why filmmakers keep returning to an antihero whose brand of justice is so clearly rooted in the past.
In the comics, the Punisher was introduced in 1974 as a foe for Spider-Man. The idea of a gun-toting vigilante seemed in tune with the movies of the time, which included “Dirty Harry” (along with its sequels) and “Death Wish.”
Eventually, the Punisher/Frank Castle — a former FBI agent who takes the law into his own hands, having lost his family to criminals — got his shot at the big screen, with a relatively low-budget 1989 movie starring Dolph Lundgren, released the same year as another high-profile comic-book adaptation, director Tim Burton’s “Batman” with Michael Keaton.
Thomas Jane took a stab (literally, at times) at the title role in 2004, in a movie that featured an abundance of gore as well as a wildly over-the-top performance by John Travolta as the bad guy.
The role changed hands again in 2008, with “Punisher: War Zone,” before Marvel opted to migrate the concept to Netflix — first within its “Daredevil” series, and then as its own stand-alone title, with Jon Bernthal (“The Walking Dead”) inheriting the trademark skull insignia.
Reality, however, intervened prior to the 2017 debut. Specifically, Marvel and Netflix canceled a planned premiere at New York Comic-Con after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The decision indicated recognition that the optics were bad, but as Graeme McMillan noted in Wired, in a nation grappling with gun violence, being forced to consider whether it’s a “suitable time” to release “The Punisher” isn’t likely to be a one-time problem.
Marvel’s decision to revive “The Punisher” for TV (or streaming) in stark, R-rated form underscores the current boom times for comic-book fare, and a willingness — in contrast to the bad old days of such adaptations — to treat the source material seriously. That includes movies like “Logan” and “Deadpool” that don’t pull any punches and clearly aren’t intended for kids.
Still, as comic-book writer Gerry Conway noted in an interview with Syfy.com, the Punisher was conceived as a villain, not an antihero, during “a simpler time.” Promoting him to leading-man status has always been problematic for that reason, asking the audience to root for (or at least sympathize with) somebody who operates outside the law, whatever the code of ethics that guides him.
In a Hollywood Reporter interview when the series originally premiered, executive producer Steve Lightfoot somewhat sidestepped the issue of violence, saying, “It’s not the show’s place to preach, but we can offer up questions, and people can decide for themselves.”
It’s a debate, however, that can’t be avoided. As Collider summed it up in its review of a second season that’s every bit as bloodthirsty as the first, if not more so, “Every time the character is reborn, in comics or on screen, the conversation turns to the value, and limits, of violence in entertainment.”
It’s too facile to simply blame or scold Hollywood, since a core group of fans have repeatedly exhibited an appetite for “The Punisher’s” coldly dispensed brand of justice. Yet while that’s the reality, the character’s endurance doesn’t reflect particularly well on either part of that bloody equation.