‘The Punisher’ Comes to TV as… a Cop Moonlighting as a Vigilante?!
This week, Fox announced that they’ve made an agreement to air a pilot for a TV series based on The Punisher, but with a few changes made to make Marvel’s most murderous vigilante more palatable to viewing audiences. As envisioned by Criminal Minds showrunner Ed Bernero, Frank Castle will no longer be a veteran driven to a life solely devoted to ruthlessly exterminating criminals when his family was murdered in a mob hit gone wrong. Instead, he’ll be “a rising star detective with the New York Police Department who moonlights as the vigilante Punisher, seeking justice for those the system has failed.“
As much as I try not to judge things that haven’t been produced yet — let alone actually aired — this is a premise that seems to miss the point of the character pretty hard.Admittedly, I am a guy with some pretty strong opinions about the Punisher. As I’ve mentioned before here at CA, I’ve read every single Punisher comic since the character was introduced, and he’s one of my favorite characters. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes him work and — again, I’m judging by that one-sentence summary — the angle Benero’s going with doesn’t seem like it fits.
More than anything else, it reminds me of Fox’s last comic-based series, Human Target. For that show, the producers took a comic book series that had been defined by questions of lies, deception, and what it means to lose your identity, with the ready made high concept of a man who can be anyone except himself, and stripped all of that away in favor of a far more generic action series about a bodyguard.
Benero’s version of the Punisher could end up being a great television show — there are plenty of extremely loose adaptations that are miles away from their source material that end up being fantastic pieces of entertainment in their own right — but when you remove the context the Punisher has been built on and the universe in which he exists from the equation, he also becomes a far more generic character. It gets to the point where you’re really just trading on a name that, as three not-so-successful movies have shown, doesn’t really have a lot going for it in the mass media anyway.
I’ve said before that one of the best things about the Punisher is that he can be reduced to a cipher, that you can drop him into any mid-80s action movie plot. In fact, that’s exactly what Mike Baron did with the series in the ’80s with nods to movies like Class of 1984 and Stone Cold, and what Garth Ennis did in the 2000s by paring him down to a brutally stoic, relentless force of nature that existed only to kill wrongdoers. But the reason those takes worked, and the reason any Punisher story works (even the one where he becomes a Frankenstein), is because of the groundwork that’s been laid to make Frank Castle a distinct character.
Frank Castle is a defined, rich character in who’s unique in comics — especially super-hero comics — but in larger pop culture, you’re already facing an uphill battle trying to distinguish him from characters like Paul Kersey from Death Wish or Mack Bolan from Don Pendleton’s Executioner novels, both of which were a huge influence on the Punisher’s creation and development. It’s a problem that’s inherent in bringing the Punisher to a wider audience, and it’s not one that you’re going to solve by stripping away what’s unique about him.
Like I said, I’m a Punisher fan. I think the Tom Jane movie is a hoot, and the video game that went along with it was an underrated classic. I want to see the Punisher brought to other media as much as anyone else. But slapping his name on what sure looks like an attempt to cash in on the success of Dexter, the Showtime series about a police scientist who moonlights as a vigilante…
…doesn’t exactly get me excited about it.