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Artisan, Marvel pump hero ‘Punisher’

Hensleigh to corral comicbook vigilante

Artisan Entertainment and Marvel Enterprises have set Jonathan Hensleigh to script and make his directorial debut on “The Punisher,” a drama that will vie to become the latest Marvel-spawned franchise.

“The Punisher” will be made under the joint venture agreement made two years ago between Artisan Entertainment CEO Amir Malin and Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad in which they pacted to turn 15 Marvel franchises into features or TV series. Gale Anne Hurd is aboard to produce “The Punisher.”

Hensleigh’s many credits include “Jumanji,” “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” and “The Saint,” and he’s exec produced “Gone in Sixty Seconds,” “Armageddon” and “Con Air.” He is repped by ICM and attorney Steve Warren.

Protag of “The Punisher” doesn’t possess superpowers, but his obsession for avenging the murder of his family after they witness a gangland killing leads him on a vigilante course. Ex-soldier Frank Castle becomes a one-man assault team against the crime syndicate that killed his family. The property was made into a low-budget Australian offering starring Dolph Lundgren in 1990, but that production will have no bearing on the film that Artisan and Marvel are gearing up to make.

“The Punisher is one of the biggest and most important characters in the Marvel universe,” Arad said. “When Amir and I signed the deal between Marvel and Artisan, the Punisher was one of the marquee properties that we both felt needed to be given a strong theatrical presence. Bringing Jonathan on board is a major step in bringing our vision to fruition.”

Artisan, whose production division has been bolstered by the presence of Artisan Pictures CEO Robert Cooper and incoming production prexy Richard Saperstein, has a wealth of Marvel characters at its disposal, including such old favorites as Captain America and Thor. All the projects, including an adaptation of “Iron Fist” that will topline Ray Park, are being steered by Artisan exec VP Patrick Gunn.

” ‘Punisher’ is an ideal Artisan/Marvel collaboration,” Saperstein said. “It’s based on a strong character and is not dependent on a huge special-effects budget to work. The character is also very relevant in today’s world. People want to see a wronged individual carry out his own justice.”

In the black

After emerging from Chapter 11, Marvel Enterprises had its first quarter in the black to close out 2001, fueled by the strong performance of Marvel-licensed movies.

Company was plagued by bad deals made by a former regime, but under Arad has become a gross player with creative controls and a participant in the lucrative licensing and DVD/video revenue streams.

Marvel’s sure to get a boost from the Sony release of “Spider-Man” on May 3. And the big-ticket films keep coming after that. Fox’s sequel to “X-Men” will be a summer 2003 event film, as will “The Hulk.” A successful sequel to “Blade” already has New Line at work on a third entry of the Wesley Snipes starrer, with David Goyer once again scripting, and Fox and New Regency have Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner (“Alias”) and Michael Clarke Duncan starring in “Daredevil,” being directed by Mark Steven Johnson for January release.

Also building momentum is an adaptation of “Ghost Rider,” which still looms as a vehicle for Nicolas Cage once Marvel Studios sets it up again after getting rights back from Dimension.

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