Punisher Is Next Comic Hero Headed For Big Screen

Fans hoping new version will be truer to gritty series than 1989 adaptation starring Dolph Lundgren.

“The Punisher” looks to be the next funny book to be green lighted for the big screen, following the success of “X-Men,” “Blade” and “Blade 2.”

The Punisher is a one-man, super-powerless killing machine who’s out to avenge the mafia murder of his wife and children by murdering every criminal he can. Frank Castle may not be as well known a secret identity in popular culture as Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne, but the character was once popular enough to sustain three monthly titles — “The Punisher,” “The Punisher: War Journal” and “The Punisher: War Zone.”

As the hype machine heats up for the impending arrival of the gargantuan “Spider-Man,” Marvel Comics continues to actively pursue the farming of their superhero properties into movies. According to Variety, Marvel — together with Artisan Entertainment — has hired screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh for the Punisher project. Hensleigh’s other credits include “The Saint,” “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” and “Jumanji.”

The vigilante anti-hero has enjoyed a bit of a comic book resurgence lately, thanks to a stripped-down revamp headed by edgy blood-and-guts comic author Garth Ennis, whose gritty take on the killer of killers recalls the work on DC’s “Preacher” that earned him his reputation. Ennis’ revamp robbed Castle of many of his supporting characters, purged him of an ill-advised supernatural development that once had him acting as an “avenging angel,” and brought him back to basics. The Punisher, it seems, works best as a double-barreled, costumed Jason Voorhees, slicing and dicing his way through wise guys, street punks and murderers alike with steady calm and deliberate ease.

This isn’t the first time the Punisher has been the basis of a movie. In 1989 there was a low-budget Australian production that starred Dolph Lundgren (“Rocky IV”) in the title role, alongside Louis Gossett Jr. (“Diggstown”). Comic book fans decried the movie, which lasted about a day in theaters before its inevitable home video release. In the film, the naturally blond Lundgren wears a black greasepaint “five o’ clock shadow,” lives in the sewers and is never seen wearing the signature Punisher skull costume — all inexplicable divergences from the central Punisher mythos, tantamount to heresy for diehard fans.

The new Punisher film, in today’s increasingly superhero-friendly climate, will presumably be more faithful to the source material. It also marks the directorial debut of Hensleigh, who in addition to his screenwriting credits has served as executive producer on the action films “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “Con Air” and “Armageddon.”

This latest stab at the Punisher character arises from a deal struck two years ago between Marvel and independent film studio Artisan that looks to develop 15 comic characters into either movies or television shows.

Sony Pictures is behind the Sam Raimi-directed “Spider-Man,” which swings into theaters May 3. As for other Marvel icons leaping onto the big screen, Ben Affleck (“Pearl Harbor”) is currently filming “Daredevil” alongside Michael Clarke Duncan (“The Scorpion King”) as his main adversary, the Kingpin; Jon Favreau (“Swingers”) as his best buddy, Foggy Nelson; and star Jennifer Garner (“Alias”) as Elektra, a hot comic property in her own right.

Sequels to “Blade 2″ and “X-Men” are also moving forward, with the latter set to center around X-villains the Sentinels and the introduction of at least two new mutants, including fan favorite Gambit. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” director Ang Lee is currently shooting “The Hulk” on location in San Francisco. Eric Bana (“Black Hawk Down”) stars as Bruce Banner, with Nick Nolte (“Lorenzo’s Oil”) in the role of his father and Jennifer Connelly (“Requiem for a Dream”) as love interest Betty Ross. The Hulk himself is reported to be completely computer generated.

Incidentally, Hensleigh was supposed to direct a “Hulk” film that his wife was producing in a deal that fell through in 1998. “The Hulk” and “X2″ are tentatively set for summer 2003 releases, with “Daredevil” preceding them in January. There is no word on when fans can expect to see “The Punisher.”