Michael France’s Superhero Scripts – Part 3: The Punisher

Released in 2004, Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Punisher was and is a divisive film. Die hard comic fans decried the changes made to the character, and critics derided it for being mindlessly and sadistically violent. Over the years, though, it developed a loyal cult following, and eventually landed an unofficial continuation in the form of a short film called Dirty Laundry. It was also the last Marvel Comics adaptation to be co-credited to Michael France, as well as his last produced writing credit. As usual, his drafts featured many differences from the final film.

The Background

The Punisher had been adapted to film once before, in a film starring Dolph Lundgren and released (direct to video in the US, theatrically in most other countries) in 1989. The film failed to make a big financial splash, and the character remained in the comics until 2000, when Marvel struck a deal with Artisan Entertainment that gave them the film rights to fifteen different characters, including the Punisher, Captain America, Thor, and Iron Fist1. In the Fall of the year, Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad contacted Michael France, who had recently completed his work on The Hulk (see last article), to discuss developing the characters that had been licensed to Marvel, and eventually settled on The Punisher. One thing that was decided early on between France, Marvel and Artisan was the need to alter the character’s backstory, to make the film stand out from Death Wish and similar stories2. With that in place, France got to work on writing his drafts.

The Plot

France’s first draft, dated April 8, 2001, opens with Frank Castle3, an undercover operative for the FBI, infiltrating the Vingello crime family in Miami. While taking part in a routine undercover gun deal, Frank gets caught up in a shootout with men working for the Vingellos’ rival, a young and ambitious gun runner named Bruno Costa. This incident gets Frank closer to the heads of the family, who, impressed with his gun fighting skills, craft a skull emblazoned suit of body armor for him, and nickname him the Punisher. Frank stays undercover for months, and the line begins to blur between Frank the family man, and Frank the mobster. This eventually becomes too much for him, and Frank quits the bureau, attempting to flee into hiding with his wife and children aboard a boat. However, someone within the bureau leaks his identity, and Bruno Costa sends a hit squad after Frank, sinking his boat and killing his family in the process. Frank survives, however, and determines to hunt down the men responsible, eventually allying with computer expert Microchip and Miami police detective Jean Neslar.

What It Gets Right

1) Atmosphere and Tone: France’s script is not written like a standard comic book story. Instead, it has the overall feel of a gritty crime drama, with some over the top action elements added in. The organized crime figures are far from glamorized, and are all ruthless, despicable individuals. Even the Florida setting works in favor of this feel. There’s a strong differentiation between the glitzy, glamorous side of Miami, and the dank and dirty criminal underworld. This contrast is demonstrated early on, in the shift from the more tourist friendly parts of the city to the poorer neighborhoods:

It’s a fairly hefty change from the comics, mostly (if not always) set in New York City, but it’s executed well. The overall crime drama tone, though, is right out of even the earliest Punisher ongoing, where he often more grounded threats like drug dealers and serial killers, as opposed to super villains. Also, it calls forward to the later comic series under the Marvel MAX imprint, where the Punisher was unambiguously ensconced in the real world.

2) Frank Castle: Although he differs from his comic book counterpart in several key ways, France’s take on the eponymous vigilante is very interesting, and true to the spirit of the character. Making him an undercover FBI agent is a huge departure from his background in the source material, where he was a Vietnam veteran with no ties to law enforcement. However, France taps into the idea that deep down, Frank enjoys the violence he enables and takes part in:

This, once again, prefigures the same ideas that would be used in the MAX run, in particular, a story called Born. Set during Frank’s Vietnam service, it shows how he developed a taste for killing and war, long before his family was killed, and the Punisher was just the way that part of him ultimately surfaced, his family’s death merely a catalyst for what was already inside him.

France takes this one step further, revealing that Frank’s father, Mario, was an infamous New York City hitman in the 1970s. Young Frank, disgusted at what his father was, determined to prove to himself that he was nothing like him, and joining the bureau to bring down organized crime was all part of that. All of his efforts are made futile, however, and Frank embraces that killer instinct, albeit channeling it against crime instead of in its favor. This adds a whiff of Greek tragedy to the character, and also prefigures the MAX run to some extent, where a one shot story called “The Tyger” traces the psychological roots of the Punisher to Frank’s childhood, albeit in a very different way.

3) Bruno Costa: Loosely based on a character from the comics, France’s Bruno Costa is a ruthless, terrifying villain. He’s introduced as a public figure of sorts, well known for being a restaurant owner. Everybody knows that he makes his real money smuggling weapons, but nobody has any solid proof. This ultimately turns out to be the case because he has incriminating evidence against certain members of the CIA, who had used him to supply weapons to a brutal Eastern European dictator that they considered “stable.” He makes for a believably untouchable bad guy, someone that requires the Punisher as a counterbalance. He’s also smart, and usually a few steps ahead of his competition, and even uses the Punisher’s massacres as cover for going after rival organizations.

And to top it off, he’s also unflinchingly brutal, willing to sink to almost any depths. Late in the script, Costa kidnaps Neslar’s daughter, leverage which he uses to get her to betray Castle to him. He captures the Punisher, incapacitates him, and delivers this speech:

This is one of the most shocking, ice cold villain speeches ever written, and really demonstrates the sheer depravity of the man. It makes the audience hate him even more, and his inevitable death is made incredibly satisfying as a result.

4) Jean Neslar: Introducing original supporting characters in a comic book adaptation can be a dicey proposition. In fact, a common fan criticism of the Dolph Lundgren film is that it doesn’t use any characters apart from the Punisher. France makes it work pretty well with Neslar, though. She provides an important foil to Frank, giving the audience insight into how regular law enforcement views The Punisher. Her eventually alliance with him is pretty well written as well. Not only is it impossible to prove any of Costa’s crimes, but he also was responsible for her husband’s death. This provides her with a solid motivation in helping Castle, and makes her a more than interesting character in her own right.

5) Jigsaw: The script also adapts the Punisher’s arch-nemesis from the comics, the deformed mobster known as Jigsaw. He’s more of a comic relief henchman for Costa than a major villain, who gets his face blown off by Frank early on, and keeps getting blown up more and more as the script goes on, becoming progressively more patchwork and piecemeal as he goes along. However, he also has a sense of menace, as he brutally murders several people throughout the script.

6) The Action: Last but not least, France’s script is packed full of bog, expansive, and ultra violent action scenes. Less than ten pages in, there’s an explosive firefight set during a Day of the Dead parade:

And here’s a portion of his first night out as a vigilante, at a fish rendering plant run by the Vingellos:

There’s also a shootout across multiple levels of an underground night club, as well as the excellent, fairly large scale action climax set in a cemetery, which ends with an explosion so massive that it would make Michael Bay jealous. It’s all pretty epic, and even the smaller set pieces are at least memorable.

What It Gets Wrong

Honestly? Hardly anything.

1) Length: The first draft clocks in at 123 pages, or about two hours and three minutes of screen time. This normally wouldn’t be too long at all, except for the fact that the big climax at the cemetery happens about thirteen pages before the end, and half of that is taken up with a fairly superfluous scene where Frank chases down Jigsaw on a commuter train. Now, the setup for the scene is fine, since Frank still needs to rescue Neslar’s daughter, but it didn’t need to be quite as large in scale as it is. A simple shootout in the building where they’re holding the girl would have served the same purpose equally well. That being said, this is the only major problem with the script, and it’s really not a huge deal at all.

2) Nitpicks: Here’s a list of fairly minor nitpicks:

-Frank getting the skull costume from the mob while he’s undercover feels a bit off. Would he really want to wear the symbol that they gave him even after they killed his family? It’s not a big deal, but the question is worth asking.

-Frank never finds out who exactly in the bureau sold him out to Costa. This makes his revenge feel a tad incomplete, although it does a good job of demonstrating just how corrupt the system is, giving Frank a greater reason to work outside of it.

-The opening fake out where Frank and his family are picnicking in a park is a pretty cringe worthy and unnecessary reference to where they died in the comics. It’s just a little too cutesy of a shout out for the overall tone of the script.

The Rewrite

At roughly the same time as France was putting his first draft together, Marvel Comics concluded a story arc that would bring new life to the character of the Punisher. “Welcome Back, Frank”, written by Preacher creator Garth Ennis, was a major seller, and made the character a force to be reckoned with after years of stagnation and dead ends. It’s tone leaned heavily on black comedy, with Castle dispatching his enemies in increasingly violent and cartoonish fashion, including smothering an assassin with a fat man’s stomach, and punting a quadruple amputee mob boss into a burning building. Oh, and this happens:

Yep, that was a real scene.

Marvel and Artisan took note of the comic’s explosive popularity, resulting in them requesting France to add more humor to the proceedings4. He complied, and his Revised Second Draft, dated June 21, 2001, has a vastly different tone, and many changes. There’s more over the top, ridiculous violence, and a few of the funnier characters from “Welcome Back, Frank” make appearances, such as Frank’s neighbors in his apartment building, and the assassin known only as The Russian. Their fight, by the way, features moments like this:

The actions scenes are almost all written with some form of black humor, including an adaptation of the zoo scene pictured above, as well as a car chase with hand grenades bouncing down the road like they were made of rubber. The first draft contained elements of dark humor, but they were fairly restrained and the overall tone was more serious.

This draft is pretty good, but unfortunately, it doesn’t quite measure up in quality to the first draft. Because of the change in tone, all of the most interesting parts of the earlier script have been largely removed. Frank’s history with his father is only just barely mentioned, and his struggle with his killer instinct is toned down considerably. Microhip is not present at all, and while Neslar is still present, she isn’t as central or interesting as before. This is probably because France had to make room for the aforementioned comic book characters. Also, Bruno Costa is nowhere near as threatening here. He even dies in a less than dramatic fashion, basically becoming one liner fodder:

Once again, the revised second draft is not bad at all, and France mostly pulls off the tone shift, but the insistence on adding the dark comedy neutered the serious and tragic elements that made first one such a great story.

What Happened?

The answer is actually rather simple here. France finished his work on the project in 2001. In 2002, Jonathan Hensleigh, also involved in the long development of Hulk, signed on to direct the film for Artisan. Using France’s drafts as a jumping off point2, he reshaped the project into what ultimately made it on screen in 2004.

What Made It to the Final Film?

In this case, a number of France’s broader ideas were retained in the produced version. These include the Florida setting (shifted to Tampa from Miami in the film), Frank starting off as an undercover FBI agent, and the main villain being a well known pubic figure who owns a restaurant/club. The film also uses Frank’s neighbors and The Russian from the revised second draft. That being said, however, given how interested Artisan was in “Welcome Back, Frank”, they probably would have been featured in the film, regardless of whether France’s drafts were consulted or not.

Final Thoughts

Michael France’s first draft of The Punisher is a dark, tragic tale that really taps into the spirit of the character, even anticipating directions the character would be take in by future comic runs. His revised second draft, while still a good read and very well executed, is a definite step down, with too much focus devoted to dark humor, and the most interesting parts of the first draft are no longer present, or significantly toned down.

Grade: First Draft– (A+), Revised Second Draft– (B-)

Coda

In April 2013, Michael France passed away after a lengthy struggle with diabetes5 at the age of 51. He left behind a screenwriting legacy that is still largely unsung, particularly his influence on the Marvel movie boom of the early 2000s. Without him, the genre might never have been the same. Many will never be aware of what France accomplished, but for those who know where to look, his work will never die.

Part 1: The Fantastic Four

Part 2: The Hulk

Footnotes

1. Fleming, Michael “Artisan, Marvel pump hero ‘Punisher’” Variety.com 22 April 2002
2. Seeton, Reg, and Dayna Van Buskirk “Screenwriting Punishment with Michael France” ugo.com 2004.
3. The first draft uses the surname “Castiglione”, which has its roots in the comics, but I opted to use “Castle” throughout for simplicity’s sake.
4. Richards, Dave “Behind the scenes with “Punisher” writer Michael France” CBR.com 23 March 2004.
5. Persall, Steve “Michael France, screenwriter and Beach Theatre owner, dies” Tampa Bay Times 13 April 2013

2 replies
  1. les
    les says:

    Hi Kiramidhead. It’s a real shame that Michael France’s original scripts never saw the light of the silver screen. I’d have liked to have seen HIS versions of films that were mediocre, at best for characters that deserved better. This has been a really interesting series you put together to show a little bit how Hollywood works, and doesn’t work well when it does what it does, my friend. Peace.

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