People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, November 21, 2008
  The Punisher vs. The Spirit
2008 was a banner year for comic book movies. The two biggest films of the year were Iron Man and The Dark Knight, and while The Incredible Hulk rather ironically ended up making almost exactly the same amount of money at the box office as Ang Lee’s 2003 movie (which Incredible was supposed to erase from all of our memories), it was successful enough to put Iron Man’s popularity in the wider context of a Marvel cinematic universe, which, as a comic geek who grew up reading mostly Marvel books, I couldn’t be more excited about. And Hellboy II: The Golden Army was just released on DVD; if you haven’t seen it, I personally put it up there with The Dark Knight and Iron Man in terms of quality.

But there are two more comic book movies left this year, both smaller-scale films and characters than this summer’s blockbusters: Punisher: War Zone (out Dec. 5) and The Spirit (Dec. 25). These two films don’t have that much in common, though they share a similarly dark tone, and both feature urban vigilantes rather than brightly-coloured superheroes, but that’s about it. But for no other reason that I thought I might enjoy it (and I could use a bit of a break from the DVD reviews), today I’ll be handicapping the two with an arbitrary new system I just devised. Enjoy!

The Punisher: War Zone

The Punisher: War Zone is actually the third trip to the screen for the Marvel Comics vigilante, following 1989’s The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren (of Rocky IV fame), and 2004’s The Punisher, starring Tom Jane. Both the previous films suck for very different reasons – the first was just really low-budget and cheap, the second seemed to be made by people who all totally misunderstood the concept of the character on its most
basic levels – but this one looks like they might have finally got it right. I’m not sure how much the character’s origin has been changed for the new movie, but in the comics Frank Castle was a military vet whose family was killed in the crossfire of a mob shootout. He basically goes nuts and starts using his military training to kill criminals, often rather brutally. The Punisher was actually one of the first comics I collected when I was a kid (I bought my first issue because there was a ninja on the cover), and there’s something deliciously simple about the premise: he’s like a no-frills version of Batman who uses automatic weapons instead of clever gadgets, and his appeal to teenage boys is pretty obvious. War Zone, like The Incredible Hulk, is a reboot, and doesn’t follow any of the other movies. I’m not even sure what the plot is, but the trailer looks violent as hell, which is an encouraging sign.

Well as I said, the trailer makes the film look incredibly brutal, which isn’t normally a barometer of quality for me, but in the case of a Punisher movie, it becomes one. (One of my big problems with the Tom Jane movie was the character was tricked and manipulated his targets into killing each other, which may be a cool gimmick for another action/revenge movie, but not The Punisher. He just kills people. That’s it.) And given the character’s over-the-top testosterone appeal, hiring a woman to direct, Lexi Alexander, is an interesting choice (I hear good things about her previous film, the soccer-hooligan flick Green Street Hooligans). Add to that a solid cast – Ray Stevenson from HBO’s Rome is in the title role, and Dominic West, the hero from the incredible HBO cop show The Wire, plays the villain, Jigsaw – and Punisher: War Zone might – MIGHT – prove that the third time’s the charm for Frank Castle’s cinematic career.

I try not to pay too much attention to this sort of thing, but for months (mostly this past summer) there were behind-the-scenes rumours about the studio, Lionsgate, not being happy with Alexander’s work and that she’d been fired (later refuted by all, and Alexander still seems to be promoting the movie), and as much as some or all of the talk is probably bull, it’s not usually a great sign when those sorts of stories start making the rounds. And as much as, on paper, the Punisher is one of the easiest characters in mainstream comics to adapt for a movie – his “costume” is basically just black clothes with a white skull on his chest, and nobody has any powers that require viewers to suspend disbelief – there have been two unspeakably bad Punisher adaptations previous to this one, so it’s hard not to be at least a little pessimistic about the movie’s quality. We shall see.

The Spirit

I’ve been a huge fan of Frank Miller’s since The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City blew my mind when I was in high school. He’s one of the true geniuses of modern comics (his landmark work on Batman includes his amazing collaboration with artist David Mazzucchelli, Batman: Year One, one of my favourite of Miller’s works, and Batman Begins borrows heavily from it). But his insanely over-the-top,
hard-boiled dialogue works better in comics than it does in movies – a lot of people I know groaned at many lines in the Sin City film, which were largely lifted verbatim from the books – so his first work as a solo filmmaker after co-directing Sin City with Robert Rodriguez is a tricky proposition. It stars an unknown (Gabriel Macht) in the title role of an adaptation of a character who’s somewhat obscure even among comic book geeks.

The Spirit was one of the early creations of
Will Eisner, hands-down one of the most important figures in the history of comics. Eisner, for whom the comic industry’s most prestigious awards are named, died in 2005, and occupies a similar place in the comics industry as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock do in film. He and Miller were good friends, and Miller considers Eisner his mentor. So Miller obviously has a lot invested in The Spirit, which, though I’ve never read any of the original Eisner material, I’m familiar enough with both creators’ work to know that the film of The Spirit has far more in common with Miller’s aesthetic than it does Eisner’s.

The Spirit follows a cop named Denny Colt, who was killed and then returns from the dead, apparently now immortal (at least he seems to be in the film; I’m not sure how faithful this is to the comic). He dons a simple domino mask to fight crime. The Spirit began as a newspaper strip, and has more in common with old pulp characters like The Shadow than with more traditional superheroes like Superman and Spider-Man.

The first images and trailer for The Spirit I saw just looked bad. It looked like everything that made me cringe about Sin City was magnified, with none of the parts that made the movie awesome. As excited as I was about one of my favourite comic creators getting to direct his own movie, I was underwhelmed by what I saw. But the full theatrical trailer, which included more plot points and hinted at the more supernatural aspects of the film (and showcased more action), looked far more interesting. It’s really a matter of tone – I’m sure the movie will at least look kind of cool, which goes pretty far with me – and I have no idea if Miller the filmmaker will be able to nail it. One of the things I enjoy about his comics – and that a lot of readers seem to miss – is the tongue-in-cheek, almost satirical edge in a lot of his work, particularly his superhero stuff. The latest trailer has hints of that, and if Miller has crafted a visually stylish, fun action flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously, The Spirit could be very cool. And Lionsgate moved the release date earlier this year to Christmas, which is typically a sign that they’ve got faith in it.

The bottom line is I really want The Spirit to be good, partly because I want it to be successful enough that more comic creators might get a chance to adapt their own work to film (something that happens somewhat regularly in other parts of the world where comics have more cultural clout, like Europe and Japan). I want Frank Miller to succeed as a director because I have a dream that in a few years, when Warner Bros. decides to move on beyond Christopher Nolan’s current Batman films, they might tap Miller to adapt The Dark Knight Returns himself (anyone else doing it would screw it up; Miller very well might too, but at least he would be the one screwing up his own adaptation). Failing that, Marvel Studios would do well to consider Miller for directing a revamped Daredevil (the character on whom Miller cut his teeth as a writer and artist). Ah well. A geek can dream.

As I mentioned, the initial stuff I saw from The Spirit was not encouraging. In order for the film to work it will have to walk a pretty tough tightrope, and as Miller’s solo debut behind the camera, it’s a tall order. It appears that Samuel L. Jackson, as the villainous Octopus (who is never actually seen in any of the Eisner comics, which allowed Miller to create his look himself), appears to wear a different outlandish costume in every scene, and it’s a concept that seems like it would work in a comic, but in a movie it could be a remarkably distracting – and silly – detail. And Miller, an unabashed fan of the female figure, has cast some incredibly gorgeous women as his femme fatales, but unfortunately as great as Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes are to look at, they’re also two of the worst actresses around today, and coupled with Miller’s tin ear for dialogue, I expect to be cringing through many of their scenes. The Spirit looks to be a toss-up between being a refreshingly unique comic book movie or an absolute mess (though I’d put my money on the latter), but one way or another I can’t wait to see it.

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