Of all the iterations of the Punisher that have come and gone, be they film or TV, live-action or animated, Punisher: War Zone stands out. It’s a superhero film that’s ahead of its time — the kind of film that feels like a reaction to the past decade of Marvel and DC films, rather than a precursor. It’s also more fun — a feat in and of itself.
In broad strokes, the Punisher’s origin story is a familiar one: After his family is murdered by mobsters, Frank Castle embarks on a quest for vengeance. His firearm-heavy particulars (as well as all the extralegal murder and torture) make the character inherently difficult to tackle, more so as the national conversation around gun control grows more relevant.
The two Punisher films leading up to War Zone — released in 1989 and 2004, starring Dolph Lundgren and Thomas Jane, respectively — speak a little to the reason that Frank Castle continues to have cultural capital. Both are perfect distillations of action movie tropes of their respective decades, and reflections of how violence has been portrayed in the media. Jon Bernthal’s spin on things in Netflix’s recent Marvel series fits into much the same kind of category, subscribing to the hyper-seriousness that tends to denote “prestige” TV. The result is a show that’s grim in a way that, while not necessarily antithetical to the Punisher’s ethos, feels half-baked and ill-suited as a series about an unstoppable vigilante with a seemingly unending supply of guns in the current climate.
War Zone, dropped in an odd December 2008 release window, comes off as a fish out of water in that regard. The movie revels in cartoon bloodshed, placing it apart from contemporaries such as Iron Man and The Dark Knight, which preceded War Zone by only a few months, as well as the more realist bent of the recent Netflix Punisher series.
Directed by Lexi Alexander, who lifts some of the film’s sequences directly from the comic books, War Zone buzzes with neon lights and outlandish action sequences (and the accordingly splatter-y kills). Super powers may be nonexistent in the world of the Punisher, but the way the film is shot — and how exaggerated the characters become — comes close to rendering that power cap irrelevant.
The first big action set-piece — in which Castle (Ray Stevenson) crashes a mob boss’ dinner party with all the melodramatics of Batman, immediately decapitates a man, then hangs upside down from a chandelier while firing guns with both hands — makes clear that War Zone is an out-and-out comic book movie while wielding a bombastic sense of violence. It’s closer to Tim Burton’s Batman films than the other comic book movies of the time, which were striving for a measure of verisimilitude.
It’s big, it’s bold, it’s colorful and it’s ecstatic when fully unleashed. Alexander’s exaggerated approach is the opposite of the kind of fetishistic embrace that’s made Castle an uneasy staple (his signature skull cropped up all over during the Iraq War). Though the Punisher is the character the audience is meant to be rooting for, his status as a “hero” is only distinguished by the fact that his enemies are worse.
Dominic West and Doug Hutchison, as the villainous brothers Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim, are even more outrageous. West (best known for his work on The Wire and The Affair) is terrific as a narcissistic gangster whose face ends up torn to shreds — hence the moniker — that heralds character actor roles he’s taken in works like Colette, The Square and The Hour. He’s delivering a huge, swing-for-the-fences kind of performance (with a nothing if not stereotypical Italian accent to boot) that makes him interesting rather than completely expendable (and uninteresting) in the way that the majority of, say, the recent Marvel film slate’s baddie stable has been.
Jigsaw’s cartoonishness is emblematic of how War Zone manages to avoid glorifying the violence that’s so rampant in it. Castle’s antics are so far out of the realm of possibility (and delivered with bon mots like “let me put you out of my misery”) that it neatly divorces itself from anything emulable. But more than that, Jigsaw’s overarching plan to kill the Punisher also exposes some of the franchise’s inherent flaws.
In one of the film’s best sequences, Jigsaw goes about shoring up security by recruiting men from the gangs that Castle has been terrorizing since turning vigilante. As Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim march about town as if in a ceremony drill to make their case, they’re set against a backdrop of an American flag and scored to “America the Beautiful.”
Parodying military recruitment ads, Jigsaw’s spiel insists that the gathered men “be all [they] can be.” The speech is also a swipe at who exactly the Punisher is hurting or helping as he supposedly cleans up the streets (the gangs that the brothers appeal to consist of African Americans, Asian Americans and Irish Americans). As Jigsaw notes, because of the gangsters’ outsider status, the body count the Punisher is racking up has failed to draw the concern of the police. The dichotomy between that kind of cogency and the absurdity of the rest of the film is what makes War Zone a compelling watch a decade later.
Of course, Stevenson makes a terrific Punisher. As seen in his other Marvel role as Thor’s buddy Volstagg, the actor is fully capable of carrying off comedy. While being the Punisher doesn’t offer the same free rein to flex those particular muscles, Stevenson knows just how far to push the character’s dourness to make it as ridiculous as the rest of the film rather than being simply oppressive.
(It helps that the Punisher’s sidekick, Micro, is played by Wayne Knight, better known as Newman on Seinfeld and Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park. Though he turns in a remarkably tender performance, the associations he brings to mind automatically alter the figurative temperature.)
That balance between seriousness and playfulness — which characterizes the entire film, as it’s clearly devoted to its source material but still willing to have fun with it — is something Stevenson nails, defying Lundgren’s, Jane’s and Bernthal’s diminishing returns (as well as the present Marvel and DC industrial complexes). The closest thing that Stevenson’s Punisher has to a contemporary corollary isn’t an MCU crusader or one of DC’s grimdark heroes — it’s John Wick. The gun-fu franchise’s neon lights, hyper-violence and deliberately exaggerated world-building are all in alignment. The big difference, it seems, is that John Wick had its timing right — War Zone bombed at the box office — or, at the least, was an original creation, rather than drawing from a property that audiences already had expectations for.
As the character grows out of his roots as a Spider-Man villain, it’s more and more necessary to assess and address the nature of his appeal. The casual violence built into the Punisher’s DNA worked for a villain, but doesn’t quite jibe with a character who is increasingly presented as a sympathetic antihero. There needs to be some reckoning with the violence and relative impunity he’s known for, and War Zone manages that — while remaining squarely in the comic book movie genre — making it the only live-action version of the character that has stood the test of time with any measure of grace.
As comic book movies lean into self-awareness and embrace the R rating, and as we’re coming off a decade of Marvel’s and DC’s empire-building, it feels as though the landscape has become prime War Zone territory. With Deadpool a household name and relative outliers like the Guardians of the Galaxy making billions worldwide, would War Zone be the same under the new comic book context? It’s hard to imagine Alexander’s vision for the Punisher not clicking in 2018, but it’s also hard to blame Lionsgate for being so flummoxed by the movie that it dumped it during the holiday season.
Maybe a world exists in which War Zone might not have been ahead of its time, but as it is, it remains a singular superhero movie at a moment of complete saturation.