Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): The Punisher
This weekend, Netflix will debut their latest Marvel-based series. This one is a solo effort featuring Jon Bernthal as the Punisher. Prior to landing on television, Frank Castle has starred in three movies. None of them were successful which makes pinning down the exact start and end of the Punisher series a bit tricky. Since each of the three theatrical films was essentially its own separate entity, I am going to treat them as three failed attempts to launch a franchise. Which one are we looking at today? All three of them!
Before we get into the movies, let’s talk a bit about the character’s origins. The Punisher was created by writer Gerry Conway and artist John Romita Sr. His first appearance in 1974 was in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man where he appeared as an antagonist. At the time, comic book heroes had strict codes against killing so a character like Frank Castle was portrayed as a villain. Over time, as comic books became more “grim and gritty” the Punisher went from sympathetic bad guy to full-on anti-hero. By the late 80’s, he was starring in four monthly titles of his own.
Part of the Punisher’s rise in popularity had to do with the action movies of the 80’s. Comic books have always absorbed the pop culture of their times. Eighties action movies were filled with muscular, mono-syllabic Vietnam vets who were strapped down with as much artillery as they could carry. If Marvel didn’t already have the Punisher, they sure would have invented him after the success of movies like Rambo and its many copycats. Instead, Frank Castle became the Sylvester Stallone/Chuck Norris of the Marvel universe.
Given the character’s popularity, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to make a Punisher movie. That posed an interesting dilemma. It might seem like a character who was already heavily influenced by the movies of the day would be a natural fit for a big screen adaptation. However, when every other action movie features a brooding, gun-toting anti-hero with a military backstory, how do you differentiate your movie from all the others? What makes the Punisher stand out from John Rambo and James Braddock?
The answer was deceptively simple. The Punisher had a visual cue that set him apart. Unlike all the movie action heroes (who often went shirtless), Frank Castle’s signature was a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones on it. That may sound like a minor detail, but it was the difference between making a Punisher movie and just another 80’s action movie. So of course the makers of the 1989 movie, The Punisher, decided that silly T-shirt had to go. It was too comic booky.
As was typical of Marvel movies at the time, The Punisher was licensed by a small studio looking to make a name for itself. The movie was shot in Sydney, Australia with Dolph Lundgren as the Punisher and Louis Gossett, Jr. in a supporting role. Originally, New World intended to release the movie worldwide. But the studio ended up being bought out by Live Entertainment which was not interested in theatrical releases. Ultimately, The Punisher went straight-to-video in the US, but it did get to theaters internationally.
As it turns out, the video store is where the 89 Punisher belonged. It’s exactly what you would expect an Australian action movie starring Dolph Ludgren to be. Fans of the character were disappointed to see Frank Castle stripped of all of his comic book trappings and turned into just another Rambo-wannabe. Given that the movie skipped theaters in the US, does it qualify as a movie that was supposed to launch a franchise but didn’t? Probably not. I imagine when the projected started, sequels were part of the plan. But the change in ownership killed that possibility before audiences had a chance to reject Lundgren’s plan-shirted Punisher.
Fifteen years later, Frank Castle wasn’t as popular as he used to be. All of his books had been cancelled by Marvel in the mid-nineties. Attempts to revive the Punisher in the later half of the decade included desperate moves like having him join the mob, replacing him with a “bad girl” version, killing him off and making him a supernatural angel of vengeance. Yeah, anything goes in comic books, folks. Finally, at the start of the 21st century, writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon took the Punisher back to his roots with an R-rated series under Marvel’s mature imprint.
Meanwhile, Marvel movies were finally starting to get some respect. After a couple of decades of movies like, well, The Punisher, Marvel characters broke through in hits like Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man. Following the success of the latter, there was a mad rush to make Marvel movies like Daredevil and The Hulk. Those movies proved that while there was a growing appetite for superhero movies, success was not guaranteed.
Artisan which used to be Live Entertainment back when the first Punisher movie was relegated to the video store, decided the time was right to roll the dice on Frank Castle. Jonathan Hensleigh wrote the script based on the Ennis/Dillon series along with Dan Abnett’s revamped origin story, Punisher: Year One. Given the time periods involved, the 21st century version of the character was no longer a Vietnam vet.
The good news for Hensleigh was that he was given the opportunity to make his directorial debut. The bad news was that Artisan probably gave him the job as a way to save money. The budget for The Punisher, while larger than the ’89 version, was still about half of what Hensleigh’s original script called for. Along with that came a tight shooting schedule. Hensleigh’s script needed to be rewritten to accommodate these limitations. Cowriter Michael France convinced Artisan to move the story to Florida where they could shoot on the cheap.
Thomas Jane was cast as Frank Castle. At the time, Jane wasn’t a movie star, but he seemed like he was one hit away from becoming one. To make up for that, John Travolta was hired to play the villain. Travolta’s star power was in rapid decline, but he was still holding on to his A-list status at the time. Fans were promised a more faithful adaptation of the comic book vigilante. That promise was partially fulfilled in that Jane wore the skull and crossbones, but The Punisher still felt like a cheesy action movie. Only by this time, the 80’s action genre that had helped shaped the comic book character was out of favor.
Critics couldn’t decide if the movie was too grim or too silly. Attempts to mix in some of Gath Ennis’ unique humor largely fell flat which upset fans who wanted a serious Punisher movie. On the other side of the equation, critics like Roger Ebert complained that The Punisher was joyless. Unable to please much of anyone, the movie opened in second place at the box office and quickly fell out of the top ten. While not a disaster, The Punisher was a box office disappointment.
Ironically, Artisan (which had bought out New World when the first movie was made) ended up being bought up by Lionsgate just before the new Punisher was released. Lionsgate announced plans for a sequel prior to the movie’s release, but when The Punisher under-performed they got cold feet. Eventually, based on strong home video sales, Lionsgate decided to give the character one more try.
Originally, the idea was to make a direct sequel with Thomas Jane returning to the role. Hensleigh worked on a script for Punisher 2, but after the studio dragged their feet for several years, both Hensleigh and Jane left the project. According to Jane, Lionsgate was looking to make a sequel even cheaper than the first movie. He had campaigned to get legendary action director Walter Hill hired, but the studio refused. After reading a new script, Jane decided he had enough.
After Hensleigh left, John Dahl was approached to direct the sequel. He turned the project down citing budgetary concerns. Then Lexi Alexander was offered the chance to direct. Initially, she turned the movie down based on the script. But after reading some of the mature-label Punisher comic books, she changed her mind under the condition that she could make the movie darker than the previous one. Alexander wanted to make a throwback to an 80’s action movie. “I said can we do it like this, and they all said that’s exactly what we want to do.”
That’s where the agreement between the director and the studio ended. Rumors swirled that Alexander had been fired and that Lionsgate was re-editing Punisher: War Zone for a PG-13 rating. The movie’s release date got pushed back from September to December while the direction was being figured out. Eventually, the movie was released with an R-rating and Alexander credited as the director. She later claimed the rumors of conflict were greatly exaggerated. “My name was never off, nor would I want it taken off, nor did I ever get a pink slip. The truth is that we had probably the same discussions that any other film has.”
Unfortunately, Punisher: War Zone under-performed the previous effort. The reviews were about the same with Roger Ebert calling it “one of the best-made bad movies I’ve seen”. But audiences stayed away in droves. Punisher: War Zone opened in 8th place at the box office and ended up earning less than a third of its low budget. Despite the continued success of most Marvel movies, no one would touch The Punisher with a ten foot pole after War Zone. eventually, the rights were allowed to revert back to Marvel who incorporated the character into their street-level TV shows on Netflix.
One could argue that War Zone is actually more of a Franchise Killer than a movie that was supposed to start a franchise, but didn’t. But with Ray Stevenson taking over the lead role from Thomas Jane, none of the creative team carrying over from one movie to the next and no narrative links between the two installments, I am going to classify it as strike three in the effort to launch a Punisher franchise.