It’s been a happy homecoming of sorts for Marvel Studios and the characters of the Marvel Universe. While Sony holds on to Spider-Man and Ghost Rider and Fox stays in the Marvel biz with X-Men films and Fantastic Four reboots, Lionsgate has already let Punisher’s film rights revert back to Marvel, and it’s almost a sure thing that Daredevil is coming home as well. Fox had to get a Daredevil movie off the ground before October 2012, and the current timetable won’t allow them to get cameras rolling on it (though they tried with David Slade and Joe Carnahan). Marvel Studios will get to use Daredevil and all of his elements, including Elektra, Bullseye and Kingpin, as they see fit.
From a box office standpoint, Daredevil’s 2003 film opened very well for a character without the name-brand recognition of Spider-Man, and it would’ve honestly done better if the film had been better. Audiences and critics were tepid to Daredevil’s sloppy story and forgettable action, and whatever the film ended up grossing was based on Ben Affleck’s star power at the time and a general hunger for more Marvel heroes after the massive success of 2002’s Spider-Man.
It’s been a good year for DD. The monthly comic book, under writer Mark Waid, picked up some big awards this year (Eisners for Best Single Issue, Best Continuing Series and Best Writer; Harveys for Best Series, Best New Series, Best Inker and Best Writer), and the Frank Miller Daredevil collections continue to be evergreen sellers. Marvel knows Daredevil can work, but with “Phase Two” already underway (a series of linking films that include Iron Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy and eventually Avengers 2), there’s no telling when they’ll get around to using him after they get him back.
The Punisher got three stabs at the big screen, all of them met with a shrug and a yawn by the general public. The Punisher from 1989 starred Dolph Lundgren and got a blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical release before getting dumped onto home video. It tried hard to visually distance itself from the comics, a creative mistake in the wake of Batman when audiences were primed for a comic book film. It falls into line with what we’d expect from a Lundgren-led action film from that time period -- a dunderheaded shoot ‘em up with comically bad performances and implausible action.
Thomas Jane fared slightly better in 2004 with Lionsgate’s The Punisher, an R-rated attempt that lifted scenes and characters straight out of the Garth Ennis run of the comics (Castle’s annoying neighbors, the underrated fight scene with Kevin Nash as “The Russian”), while tinkering with Punisher’s origin in a way that went directly against his character. In the film, Castle works hard behind the scenes to pit a crime family against each other, instead of just blowing them away one by one. Fans were not impressed. Since then, Jane has lobbied for a second chance with the unofficial Punisher short film Dirty Laundry.
Punisher War Zone (2008) is arguably the best Punisher movie, again cribbing elements from Ennis’ comics (the bumbling detective Soap, comedic gore), but failing to find an audience at all. The $35 million film grossed only $8 million during a year in which Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk seemed to have made Marvel characters red hot. The movie now has a dedicated cult, but its uneven tone (it careens wildly between cartoonish and serious) and its general ugliness (some highlights: a man falls into a swirling pit of broken glass, a man disembowels another man with his bare hands, Punisher puts his entire fist through someone’s skull) were just not what people wanted for Christmas that year. Star Ray Stevenson does make an impressive Frank Castle (as long as he’s not required to deliver any dialogue).
Now, Marvel is considering a Punisher TV series for Fox, one that would mess with Castle’s simple origin again by giving the vigilante a day job as an NYPD cop (very similar to Marvel’s comic series Punisher 2099). His monthly comic is wrapping up (with a rumored relaunch right around the corner), and the character’s sales popularity has waned over the past decade, but Marvel obviously still sees potential here. Some of that, I’m sure, is because Punisher’s distinct skull icon merch still sells very well.
So, with Daredevil in cinematic limbo and Punisher getting prepped for a TV series that no one is really clamoring for, I suggest this: create a Daredevil TV show with Punisher as a recurring antagonist. Comic fans know that these two have a long, adversarial history, with Matt Murdock sympathizing but fundamentally disagreeing with Frank Castle, and Castle having a begrudging respect for the work Murdock does as Daredevil. Both men share a mutual hatred for Kingpin and a protective concern for the worst corners of New York City, but when their paths cross, the fists fly.
Punisher may be better in small doses anyway, where he can remain true to his darkest nature, and Daredevil is definitely better suited for episodic television. Daredevil’s comic book is more small-scale, with conflicts that are more personal, often rooted in DD”s day job as an attorney and the problems that arise when he moonlights as a superhero. Serial television is a better way to show audiences just what makes the character special, over a one-and-done movie. Besides, legal procedurals are popular and Marvel superheroes are popular. Combine the two, and it’s a no-brainer.
John Gholson is a life-long comic book fanboy who has previously covered all manner of superhero news at AOL. After dabbling with comic book self-publishing in the '90s, John moved on to study sequential art at the Savannah College of Art & Design, and currently produces a regular Web comic, ‘Appetite for Destruction,’ for Tapsauce.com. You can read his Marvel Studios Countdown here at Movies.com every other week.
Follow him on Twitter at @gholson.