Thomas J. McLean

Writer, Editor, Author


‘Punisher’ flops hard but comic frenzy continues with ‘Fables’

Wow. “Punisher: War Zone,” which I thought was a good pic for its genre, grossed a pitiful $4 million at the weekend box office. According to Box Office Mojo, that’s the worst opening ever for a Marvel pic and about a quarter of what the 2004 Thomas Jane version did its opening weekend.

Most reviews were dreadful, though I also think timing is an issue. It’s December, and most moviegoers are looking for family fare, Oscar bait or highbrow blockbusters — and this is none of those. October would have been a better month — much as it would have worked so much better for the also-maligned “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” — but who knows? The audience for this kind of movie has been dwindling into nichedom for years and we’re a long way from the 1980s heyday of Stallone, Schwarzenneger, Willis and Chuck Norris.

None of which means the film won’t make money — its primary market was always international box office and DVD. It just has a bit farther to go to get into the black. Whether Marvel will try yet again — sure. It’s just a matter of how long they want to wait and how they’ll try to reinvent the franchise yet again. I’d bet we have to wait about five years.

On the pleasantly hopeful side of things is ABC picking up a pilot based on Bill Willingham’s DC/Vertigo comic series “Fables.” Stu Zicherman and Raven Metzner will run the show — they most recently were on “Six Degree” — and the series is being produced by (big surprise!) Warner Bros. TV. David Semel will direct the pilot.

I can’t help but think the success of HBO’s “True Blood” influenced the pickup, as I can easily see a similar approach working with the “Fables” concept — though without all the nudity, sex and violence.

Frantic Friday: ComiXology on iPhone, ‘Dark Knight,’ Eisner submissions open

A couple of small interesting things for a frantic Friday morning:

* I don’t have an iPhone, but if I did, I’d definitely take the new ComiX0logy iPhone app for a whirl. The regular site has a very good new comics pull list system that I imagine would be extra helpful if I could pull it up on my phone when I’m at the comics shop because I always forget something. The app also gives you access to some digital comics and, if you buy it the first week, it’s a dollar off.

* In “The Dark Knight” news, the Joker has taken over the mosts recent issue of Mad Magazine. Check out a preview here. Meanwhile, the film is due to be rereleased to theaters on Jan. 23, which give me another chance to check it out in IMAX. And the AP moved a story yesterday about how the film’s Oscar chances have risen as the rollout of awards contenders nears its end.

* Speaking of awards, all you comics creators should be aware that submissions are now being taken for the Eisner Awards. Details here.

‘Punisher: War Zone’ review

“Punisher: War Zone” is far and away the best Punisher pic of the three that have been made to date. That was the least I expected from the pic. What’s encouraging is it’s also a decent action pic that adds enough flair and style to its violent proceedings to finally strike a tone that suits the character and the genre.

(If you’re new to the Punisher, check out this photogallery I wrote on his history for Metromix. If you want to know more about the making of the film, I have a story on the filmmakers and one on the actors over at Newsarama.)

The first thing this movie does right is cast Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle. Not only does Stevenson look and sound the part, but in the action sequences he moves with the confidence, poise and apparent skill that an ex-Marine like Castle would have. And that makes a big difference, compared to the goofy and limited fights of the previous Punisher movies. He also has the right touch in the story scenes. Castle’s never been much of a talker, but Stevenson for the first time on screen really evokes the character’s smoldering rage and seeming genius for dealing out death.

So be warned: there’s a reason this movie is rated R. This movie starts out with Castle in full Punisher mode, massacring criminals with just the right mix of deadly seriousness and action-movie inventiveness. There’s plenty of head splitting, blood splattering, severed limbs and brutal, bone-crunching deaths.

All of this is executed with likeable style by director Lexi Alexander. The movie looks better than you think it will, with lighting that evokes the mix of bright and muted coloring of more recent Punisher comics. The action sequences are well-staged and, unusually in an age of hyper-quick editing, easy to follow. The film also cuts away from its most cartoony violence quickly, keeping the “did that just happen?” effect without staying on screen long enough to look fake.

The film also sticks closely to the Punisher milieu and resists diverging into action movie cliché. There’s not a single car chase. Nor is there a forced relationship between the Punisher and Julie Benz’s widow of an FBI agent.

Some found what little was done with the Punisher connecting with Benz’s daughter annoying, but given the circumstances that turned Castle into the Punisher, it makes sense. Also appearing are a few cop characters, played by Colin Salmon and Dash Mihok, who get a little personality despite their limited roles. And then there’s Microchip, long an element of the comic book series, played by “Seinfeld” alumnus Wayne Knight. Knight plays Micro as a serious supporter of the Punisher’s campaign, while bringing just enough comic relief to the movie.

It’s not all good, though.

The villain of the piece is Jigsaw — who first appeared as the Punisher’s nemesis way back in Amazing Spider-Man #162. Played here by Dominic West, who appeared in “300” and starred in the excellent HBO series “The Wire,” we see his character traumatized and transformed into Jigsaw in a scene that successfully makes your skin crawl. But West’s portrayal of the character borrows a lot from Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker — one scene in the film directly evokes that performance — and it so far has been a litmus test for the audience, with some loving it and others thinking it too over the top and cartoonish. I leaned toward the latter camp, but not so much that it took much away from the movie.

Helping Jigsaw out is Doug Hutchison as “Looney Bin” Jim, Jigsaw’s insane brother. Hutchison is great at creepy and crazy — he played the liver-eating, stretching Tooms in a pair of the best episodes ever of “The X-Files” — and he in some strange way balances out Jigsaw despite being no less cartoonish and weird. So your mileage on LBJ, as he’s called, may vary.

Additionally, the plot has some major holes in it that, despite being glossed over fairly quickly, are enough to make your head hurt if you apply too much brain power to them. The most egregious for me being a plot point that involves Jigsaw seeking immunity for his crimes that, while set up early on in the script, just is too hard to swallow when it eventually pays off.

The result is a film that in some ways succeeds by exceeding the admittedly low expectations set by previous films and in other ways fails as a mainstream movie experience. But it’s important to remember that it’s not intended to be a mainstream movie experience. This is a niche picture, rated-R and intentionally limited by its concept to appeal to mostly young men who like to watch thugs and things blow up real good. Marvel seems to understand this completely, marketing this as the first Marvel Knights picture complete with its own version of the flipping pages logo at the start of the film. They also kept the budget at $35 million, an amount that seems to ensure they studio won’t lose much money even if it’s a massive flop — which it won’t be given its niche appeal.

Bottom line: If you love the Punisher of the MAX series of comics, or are a general fan of this sort of action movie, you’ll likely love this movie. If you’re a more general Punisher or Marvel fan, you probably won’t get as much out of it, and if you prefer the Punisher as a quasi-villain guest star in the all-ages Spider-Man tales of the 1970s, your money and time will be better spent elsewhere.

Miller back-and-forth unfortunate reminder that ‘Justice League’ pic is still stalled

The strange case of the “Justice League” movie gets even stranger.

Dark Horizons posted recently that director George Miller, of “Mad Max” and “Happy Feet” fame, had told a Sydney TV show that he was off the “Justice League” movie. But when I went looking for the original item on that site, nothing came up. Now, it’s come out that some of Miller’s reps have contacted Coming and said Miller never appeared on the show and there’s no truth to his being off the movie.

Even with Miller still on the project, things don’t look good for this project with constant delays, and casting controversies galore making it less likely every day that it will see the light of day unless something big happens to push it forward.

And without some kind of progress or encouraging plans, it’s only going to get worse. Now, not having read a script or having any idea how this movie is envisioned, it’s impossible to say whether it’s any good or not. It may be absolutely terrific. But the public perception remains that DC/WB don’t know how to make a good superhero movie that isn’t a Batman flick.

The same problem doesn’t afflict Marvel Studios, where their string of successes (and even the less than successful pics they’ve made) and ability to turn characters like Blade and Iron Man into hits gives folks confidence that we’ll see their schedule roll out on time with “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Captain America” all leading up to “Avengers” in 2011.

That’s also a strategy that works for fans, because it’s how the comics were done — with each character being established in his or her own title before the big team up. Right now, confidence is low that WB can make characters like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern or Flash work on the big screen, making fans even less likely to think a Justice League movie with all of them will do justice to the characters.

On the other hand, putting “Justice League” on hold may not be the best idea if WB can’t find a way to get these characters to the screen any other way. If fans have to wait too much longer for more DC movies, there’s always a danger that the interest in superhero movies could cool and they may never get their shot. And in that case, nobody wins.

‘Wolverine’ pic: Overstuffed or lean and mean?

New pics from “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” show up seemingly every week, presumably because a trailer is imminent with the release of Fox’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” on Dec. 12. The film, which isn’t out until May 1, will be the first big test of how well Fox can handle the X-Men franchise in the wake of “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

The first major concern is that this film is trying to bite off too much. The photos and cast list on IMDB indicate that we’ll be seeing Logan fighting as far back as World War II, his relationship with Sabretooth (unhinted at in “X-Men”), a whole bunch of mutants making their first film appearances and possibly elements of the still-controversial “Origin” series from 2001. All of which just makes this thing look way too crowded, what with Deadpool, Beak, Silver Fox, William Stryker, Agent Zero, Gambit, The Blob, John Wraith and, apparently, Scott “Cyclops” Summers all set to show up. You have to wonder if there’s room left in such a film for Wolverine, especially with Fox actively talking about a spinoff for Deadpool. Alternately, charges of not giving each character their due are sure to come up, as is a question of coherence and clarity for folks who don’t know all these folks’ backstories. That kind of storytelling is the sort of thing that could turn the general audiences away from superhero pics, much the way they frustrate the casual comics fan.

On the plus side, the pictures look interesting. Jackman’s really bulked up his physique and looks as good as ever in the role. The much-leaked Comic-Con footage shows a lot of action, which could go a long way toward overcoming story weaknesses. And Fox and Jackman have a lot on the line with this, so you can be sure they will do everything they can to avoid disaster. I also like the idea of having an actor like Liev Shreiber play Sabretooth — he’s the sort who can give it the kind of depth it needs. Not being too much of a Deadpool fan, I still think Ryan Reynolds is good at that sort of wise-cracking hero thing and another good choice. Gavin Hood remains an unknown quantity — “Tsotsi” was acclaimed, but rumors of troubles on the set last year and the dispatching of Richard Donner to smooth things out is less than encouraging.

Updated: Comic Foundry and Write Now! pull the plug

Tim Leong has made the sad announcement that he’s pulling the plug on his magazine Comic Foundry because his burgeoning career at Complex Magazine just leaves insufficient time to continue to put it out. Which is a shame, because Comic Foundry was the best and most interesting mag about comics to come along in ages, crossing the seemingly vast divide between all-out geekdom and comics as pop culture. As much as I enjoy trolling the net for news, the nostalgia of the TwoMorrows mags and the in-depthness of the Comics Journal, I miss having something that fills the pop, “comics are cool” role that Wizard played once upon a time. Like spinner racks in the local candy store, the time has apparently passed for such magazines.

UPDATE: Write Now!, the mag about writing for comics, animation, TV, etc., also is ending its run. Edited by author and former Spider-Man editor Danny Fingeroth, the TwoMorrows mag was felled by low circulation and February’s issue #20 will be the last.

Will ‘War Zone’ make Punisher a movie hit?

That’s a good question I’ll be better able to answer after seeing the film tonight.

The good news for “Punisher: War Zone” is that it won’t be hard to improve on the two previous Punisher pics. I recently rewatched both films on DVD while preparing this piece on the character’s history for Metromix. (If you like the Punisher piece, check out a similar one I did over the summer on the Joker.)

My fondest memory of the first “Punisher” movie was reading about the making of the movie in the pages of Marvel Age, way back around 1987. I don’t think I saw the movie for another four or five years when I found a copy for rent at a video store in Flagstaff. The film was saddled with a very low budget, but if there’s any Marvel character that would work for, it’s the Punisher. But this budget was beyond low and the movie looks flat and lifeless. Dolph Lundgren with black dyed hair seemed like a great choice for the role at the time, but it pointed up one of the real problems in bringing this character to the screen. In the comics, most writers use first-person narration to get inside the Punisher’s head and it works great — you get easy access to the character’s thoughts and therefore a sense of what’s going on in his head. That makes it easier to show how brilliantly demented the character is, but doesn’t translate to screen at all. There was no way Lundgren could convey the character the same way with the few lines that making this film in a somewhat realistic fashion demands. It’s also amazing to me that they dropped the huge skull logo on his chest. I understand it was considered too comic-booky at the time, but it’s easy enough to just paint the logo on a T-shirt or the leather jacket Lundgren wore throughout the movie and retain the great effect it has. I also don’t understand why other changes were made — making Castle a cop isn’t the same as making him a soldier, and having him ride through the sewers on a motorcycle is in retrospect pretty silly.

Despite all that, I think the 2004 “Punisher” is even more disappointing. Again, the film was hampered by a minuscule budget, but the bigger problem was one of tone. This movie just didn’t know what it wanted to be, and veering from the goofiness of the Punisher’s pals Joan, Bumpo and Spacker Dave to the very violent deaths of the Castle family just confuses the audience. Maybe that’s why the individual clips of this movie I saw at a con somewhere looked so much better than the final movie, which evoked plenty of laughter in the advance press screening I caught a week or so before it was released. And it’s a shame, because Thomas Jane really looked the part and could, with a more consistent script, really knock it out of the ballpark. Same goes for the rest of the cast, which included John Travolta, Ben Foster and Rebecca Romijn. There was a good movie in there somewhere, it just never made it to the surface. (I don’t know if it’s true, but I recall someone telling me at the time this movie came out that Marvel and Lionsgate made back their money on this picture before it even opened due to strong foreign sales.)

Which brings us back to “Punisher: War Zone.” This looks very stylish and again has actors and a director that could make a very good Punisher movie. But there also were rumors of trouble and this is, yet again, a film that looks like it was made on a tight budget. What I think the movie needs to succeed is a good story like the ones done for years now in Punisher comics. It shouldn’t be that tough to take some of the better ones (the Steven Grant-Mike Zeck stuff would be ideal) and adapt it in a straighforward and serious manner. But nothing about making movies is easy, so here’s hoping that “War Zone” is a good movie in its own right and not just in comparison to the previous two.

“Mutant Cinema” gets UK coverage

David Bentley, blogger for the Coventry Telegraph in the U.K., writes about my book, “Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen” — in particular some of the details about where “X-Men 3” might have gone had Bryan Singer not left the franchise to tackle “Superman Returns.” Check out his award-winning blog for the parts he finds the most interesting …

The version of the article that showed up in my feedreeder notes that Bentley apparently had some problems finding the book, so here’s the most up to date info:

  • The book is available right now through and
  • The publisher, Sequart, also has copies available.
  • The book will be coming to comic shops in the spring. I believe the latest news was that the book will appear for ordering in the January edition of Previews and will come out along with a bunch of other X-themed merchandise tying in to the release of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Tell your local comic shop to watch for it and to order lots of copies.

And for those who don’t know, the cover for the book is by Kevin Colden, who since drawing this has gone on to significant acclaim for his graphic novel “Fishtown.”

I’ll be writing more about the book as the PR effort for the Previews debut nears, so watch here for some excerpts and maybe even a few giveaways …

Welcome to the All-New, All-Different Bags and Boards

If you read the previous incarnation of this blog over at, I’m glad you found the new site.

For those who don’t know me, I’m Tom McLean and I work as a freelance writer covering the entertainment industry. I’m a lifelong comics fan and have written numerous articles about comics and events like Comic-Con for the likes of Variety, Animation Magazine,, and Publisher’s Weekly Comics Week, among others.

I was on staff at Variety for six years, during which I helped pioneer the coverage of Comic-Con. I covered the show in the early 2000s and then edited their first Comic-Con specials and a tribute to Stan Lee. The previous version of this blog began on in 2003 — at a time when you had to explain to most people what a blog was. I’ve also been lucky enough to have been a judge for the Will Eisner Comic Book Industry Awards and the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival. I also have appeared on and/or moderated panels at San Diego Comic-Con, New York Comic-Con and Book Expo America.

In addition to articles, I wrote a book called “Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen” for Books that is available NOW at and and will be coming to comics shops through Diamond in the spring. I hope you’ll all check it out.

While a lot looks the same here, this version of Bags and Boards will take a slightly different tack. Aside from small differences, like no longer having to adhere to Variety style on “comicbook” and the lack of a paycheck, this blog now is a vehicle for my perspective on comics rather than a blog that was first and foremost Variety’s take on things. Gone is the need to post links to relevent news develoments, freeing the blog to reflect more of my interests and perspectives on comics and comic book movies old and new. There may also be some diversions away from comics, but I’m thinking of starting a companion blog for that. We’ll see what happens there. And I also will use this blog to highlight the sale on eBay or giveaway of comics — I have accumulated lots of review copies over the years that need to find good homes and make space for new stuff.

As things gear up, feel free to check out the archive of the previous blog, which Variety graciously is keeping online, as well as the stories I’ve written for the publication.

Please feel to contact me at I’d love to hear your comments on the new blog.

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