We’re in a golden age of comic book movies right now, but back in 2004, geek culture hadn’t completely taken over yet. Comic book movies were still seen by some as a “fad,” and even though by that point we’d had some excellent ones (Spider-Man, X-Men 2, etc., not to mention Burton’s Batman, Donner’s Superman: The Movie, and all of the non-superhero films), there had been a few clunkers, too. Daredevil, anyone? Exactly ten years ago, on April 16th, 2004, The Punisher arrived in theaters, and while it’s always been widely considered either mediocre or worse by the comic book movie loving community, I must admit: I have a soft spot for this movie.
I thought Thomas Jane was perfectly cast as Frank Castle, and I even found some enjoyment in John Travolta’s over-the-top villain. I was a teenager at the time, so you’ll have to forgive me for actually being impressed with the way director Jonathan Hensleigh handled Castle’s family’s murder on the beach. I remember thinking how, because of how vicious those deaths were, I could see how Castle would undergo such a big change in character. I haven’t gone back and watched the whole movie since then, but even at that age I recognized that there were a bunch of problems with the film. The side characters don’t work nearly as well as they should as Castle’s new surrogate family (and that symbolism is far from subtle), but the film is bolstered by some solid work from Ben Foster (who would go on to appear in another comic book film, playing Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand). The stretches in the apartment are excruciatingly boring, and Rebecca Romijn (who, come to think of it, is yet another X-Men actress crossing over to a different Marvel movie here) doesn’t get much to do at all except to shoot Frank an occasional glance here and there.
But there’s one scene in The Punisher that, to this day, stands out to me as one of the most ridiculous scenes in any comic book movie of the past twenty years. No, it’s not the part at the end in which Castle detonates cars in the parking lot and the camera reveals that the design the flames make is the Punisher logo – although that sequence is undoubtedly ridiculous. My favorite scene in the whole film is set in a diner. Frank and his surrogate family are sitting in silence eating some food, when a man struts in with a guitar case, sits down, opens it up, performs a song, tells Frank he wrote the song for him and that he’s going to play it as his funeral, gets up, and walks out.
Harry Heck tries to kill Castle soon afterwards (spoiler alert: that doesn’t go well for him), but this scene with the guitar has always stuck with me because of how ludicrous it is. How terrible of an assassin is this guy? Why would you compose a song specifically for your target, track him down, perform it for him, and then leave, only to come back and try to kill him later? I realize comic book movie logic is kind of nuts – just look at Bullseye in the Daredevil universe – but this struck me as a particularly egregious example of character insanity.
Is The Punisher a good movie? I don’t even have to watch it again to say that I’m pretty confident the answer is “no,” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any value. That’s maybe something we should think about when we’re railing on the next subpar comic book film: it may not be great, but let’s try to find some enjoyment in them somewhere. I never got around to seeing Punisher: War Zone (it’s supposedly crazy violent and pretty enjoyable), and though Jane wasn’t able to reprise his role as Frank Castle in that movie, he did end up playing the part one more time in a fan film called Dirty Laundry that hit the internet a couple of years ago. Check that out below if you’ve never seen it:
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