April 20th, 2014

tropes, WARNING: TV Tropes

The Hoard Potato: The Punisher Effect.

Time Warner has owned DC outright for years, and, of course, Disney owns Marvel. The House of Mouse is doing their best to bring the sum total of the House That Jack Built into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sony and Fox are clinging to their respective Marvel licenses, because it's clear that Disney Wants Them Back.

So what do you do if you're a studio that wants to cash in on the booming market for comic book movies?

You aim for the indies, of course.

Evidently, a couple of indie movie studios have optioned Jim Starlin's vintage '80s space epic, Dreadstar.

Let us, for a moment, set aside the differences between "a superhero movie" (based on a particular genre) and "a comic book movie" (based on a particular medium). There have been some excellent and successful "comic book movies" that have nothing to do with superheroes, but it is evident that the Motley Fool isn't thinking of works like From Hell or A History of Violence. He's looking at Dreadstar, with its fancifully-named hero with extraordinary powers, and putting it in the same category as Iron Man or Thor ... or, possibly, with Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a more apt comparison.

Now, I love Starlin's work (so long as he keeps his hands off of Kirby's Fourth World). I loved the Metamorphosis Odyssey in high school, in which Vanth Dreadstar first appeared1. It was a sweeping, beautifully-illustrated epic (whose initial chapters appeared, appropriately enough, in Epic Illustrated, Marvel's stab at a high-end outlet for creator-owned works aimed at an older demographic), and it was unlike anything else in comics at the time.

And there's the rub: it was unlike anything else in comics, thirty years ago.

It's a star-spanning epic about a ragtag bunch of misfits who fight to liberate a galaxy an evil empire with vaguely-defined preternatural forces on each side.

There weren't many comic books like that at the time -- though that same basic structure pops up in the original 1969 Guardians of the Galaxy, the Bill Mantlo-scripted Micronauts, and much of Starlin's own work at Marvel. Once you sweep your gaze across other media, though, it looks, shall we say, increasingly familiar -- all the more when you include the works of the following three decades.

There are a lot of distinctive elements to Starlin's magnum opus, but, aside from the lush, painted visuals of the opening chapters, I doubt they'll translate successfully to the big screen. It's a thoughtful, philosophical work that happens to have the surface gloss of an action-packed space opera, but the movie industry, by and large, is terrible at making those distinctions.

Marvel Studios has tapped into an exceptional range of industry professionals who have an affinity for comic book superheroes, and have a gift for looking at half a century or more of comics and seeing just which elements will make a movie that is both entertaining and successful.

Not everyone in the industry has that Marvel Studios knack. That's why there have been so many mediocre superhero movies, and so many missteps.

In this particular case, there's a tendency to look at a property that was a successful, well-regarded comic book and assume that it's because of something distinctive and interesting about the character.

Sometimes, the only distinctive, interesting element about the character is that he was in a comic book. Once you move him out of that medium ... it's hard to distinguish him from other, similar characters.

I call this The Punisher Effect.

Frank "the Punisher" Castle is a Spider-Man villain from the 1970s who is a direct and shameless ripoff of Mack "the Executioner" Bolan, the protagonist of a long-running series of cheesy "men's novels" from that decade, published by the same company that publishes the infamous Harlequin Romances. Their origins are identical: Viet Nam veterans who carry on a vendetta against organized crime after their families are caught in the crossfire of a mob hit.

The Punisher became enormously popular in the Iron Age of Comics, the late '80s through the '90s and into the current century. He's been brought to the screen three times, in 1989, 2004, and 2008; all three movies bombed, and none of them snagged the brass ring of a sequel, much less a long-running franchise to match his comic book counterpart or paperback "inspiration".

Why hasn't this character ever really clicked on the big screen, even with his devoted following?

Well, why is he successful in the comics? Because in the Marvel universe, he's the only guy "fighting the mob with the weapons of war." He's different. He's unusual. He's interesting.

On the big screen, he's routine. Frank Castle is a blandly generic action movie protagonist, indistinguishable from any number of other characters played by Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, or Jean Claude Van Damme.

The only interesting thing about the Punisher is that he is a comic book character. Take that big fish out of his small pond, and he gasps for oxygen. Throw him in a bigger pond ... and he's just another fish.

As much as I would like to think that there's more substance to Vanth Dreadstar, Syzygy Darklock and their companions ... I am honestly not convinced.

When Marvel Studios says, "Hey, everyone! Here's a raccoon with a machine gun! Just roll with it!" ... we're going to roll with it, in no small part because they've earned that trust with almost a dozen excellent movies based on unlikely and historically-difficult source material. They can throw yet another ragtag bunch of misfits in space into the market, and we are intrigued and amused by the audacity, and eager to see how it ties into the larger saga.

If they weren't tied into that bigger story, though ... and Vanth and company are not ... well, that's a really big pond.

1Technically, the whole span of Vanth Dreadstar stories, including the comic to bear his name, are just chapters in The Metamorphosis Odyssey.
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