SILBER LININGS: Give PUNISHER: WAR ZONE the respect it deserves

Comic News
The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.

Silber Linings has been going about six months, and in that half-a-year I’ve made several attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of misunderstood or outright reviled genre films. In some cases, they’re deeply flawed efforts in which I find redeeming qualities anyway. In others, they’re films I like a great deal, but understand where the displeasure towards them comes from. I have a different relationship with 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, starring Ray Stevenson and directed by Lexi Alexander from a script by Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway. I sincerely don’t understand why this entertaining and well-crafted action romp received as much hate at the time of its release as it did.

I’ll get to the poor reviews in a moment, but first we have to acknowledge that, outside of critics, few people saw Punisher: War Zone in theaters in the first place. It was a veritable box office bomb, grossing just $10.1 million on a $35 million budget, and opening at just #8 – EIGHT! – at the box office. That’s a shockingly poor showing for a film bearing the Marvel brand, and it remains the lowest-grossing Marvel-produced film in history.

The blame for PWZ‘s commercial failure does not lay solely at the feet of critics. Mostly, I have to assume audiences just didn’t know what to make of it. Thomas Jane starred in 2004’s The Punisher just four years earlier in a film that was itself a reboot, as the first live-action take on the Marvel antihero was a 1989 film of the same name starring Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle.

Of course, The Punisher predates all these films, created in 1974 by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr., and Ross Andru within the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man. But feature films almost always enjoy more visibility in the eyes of the mainstream, and the fact remains that by the time Punisher: War Zone was released in 2008, Stevenson was the third Punisher actor in as many films, none of which are in the same continuity. And while Batman Begins successfully rebooted The Dark Knight’s film franchise in 2005, and the James Bond film Casino Royale solidified the concept of a franchise reboot as a viable Hollywood strategy the following year, it was still a rather novel idea by 2008. The four years that passed between 2004’s The Punisher and 2008’s Punisher: War Zone was a remarkably short time to restart the clock on the character’s cinematic continuity, even if the latter might work as a sequel to the former if you squint a little.

I have to imagine the piss-poor quality of that 2004 Punisher film hurt ticket sales as well. It’s not completely without redeeming values, namely a committed performance by Jane and a memorably intricate fistfight, but it’s a needlessly miserable, mean-spirited movie with little to say beyond “watching his whole family get gunned down sure would make a guy mad.” Director Jonathan Hensleigh crafted a display of pointless contempt for humanity, including its own audience. I understand it has its fans, and Jane even returned to the title role in 2012 for a short fan film called Dirty Laundry, but I have to imagine most audiences weren’t hungry for more four years after being as disgusted and insulted as I felt. I’m glad I saw War Zone first.

(I must also note that we got a fourth Punisher, albeit on television rather than film, with Jon Bernthal in 2016. True to the character’s roots as a Spider-Man villain, this version was first introduced in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil as an antagonist to ol’ Hornhead before getting his own spinoff the next year).

So at least on paper in terms of concept, Punisher: War Zone is a confusing, unappealing movie. That likely explains why so few tickets were sold. But that doesn’t explain the poor reception among those who finally got their proverbial asses in the proverbial seats.

I can accept that Punisher: War Zone isn’t for everyone, in the same way that no movie is going to satisfy the tastes of all audiences. Not everybody likes action movies. But if you like action movies, I struggle to understand why you wouldn’t like PWZ.

I’m not saying it’s is a flawless film. There are a few characters and subplots I wish had been fleshed out more, and the perceived barrier to entry I discussed above can be genuinely disorienting. But goddamn, is it entertaining, not to mention smarter than it gets credit for. More on that later.

This is an action movie, so let’s start by talking about the fantastic action scenes. One of the dirty little secrets of most other Marvel films, and most PG-13 action blockbusters in general for the past decade or so, is that the action tends to be pretty mediocre. They might have impressive special effects or fun set pieces, but the action itself – that is, filmmaking designed to viscerally excite viewers with a sense of impact and danger – doesn’t rate once you see a few good action films that aren’t driven by billion-dollar IPs, and realize what they’re capable of with smaller budgets and less recognizable actors.

Not so with Punisher War: Zone. Director Lexi Alexander is a former martial artist and stuntwoman, and her understanding of what makes fictionalized human violence exciting shines through the film’s tight fight choreography and deft balance of uncompromising ultraviolence with outright cartoonishness.

Punisher: War Zone isn’t “comic booky” in the sense that most people probably think of when they think of comics. It’s not particularly colorful (there’s some great lighting, though) and it’s certainly not for children. But it’s not afraid to have a sense of humor, in a way that condescends neither to the audience nor the material.

Take the opening scene, in which Frank crashes a Mafia hangout with his signature brand of punishment. Less than a minute into the killing spree he hangs upside-down on a chandelier, machine guns akimbo, and spins around as he showers the mobsters with bullets. It’s AWESOME. And hilarious.

And then there’s the best scene of the movie, a moment of such glorious, cackling tonal whiplash that it belongs in the Louvre: a group of bad guys practice their parkour, jumping from rooftops, when out of nowhere a rocket from The Punisher’s bazooka blows up a crook mid-flip. It needs to be seen to be believed.

And then there’s the giddy absurdity of the final line: “Oh God, now I’ve got brains spattered all over me!”

Punisher: War Zone is a movie that knows what it is: an action movie for people who like action movies. Browsing the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, where it has a “rotten” score of 29% (the same as the 2004 predecessor, incidentally), I’m surprised by the vitriol. Nigel Floyd of Time Out called it “sadistic.” Andrew Pulver of The Guardian described it as “humourless” (excuse me?) and “disgusting.” Ty Burr of the Boston Globe even went so far as to call it “morally indefensible.”

I can understand how opinions like that could be formed, even if I wholeheartedly disagree. But is Punisher: War Zone any more sadistic or disgusting than the average R-rated action flick? I don’t think so, but apparently I’m in the minority.

I do want to acknowledge that The Punisher has always been a character I struggle with on ethical grounds, even if Punisher: War Zone is hardly the first time I’ve enjoyed a Punisher story. Being an antihero who used personal tragedy as an excuse to appoint himself one-man judge, jury, and executioner, stories in which Castle is the protagonist have a difficult balance to strike. It’s undeniably cathartic fun to watch Punisher mow down fictional characters who have it coming, but it’s also undeniable that a vigilante like The Punisher is a monster. He has a code, sure, but if a guy like the Punisher existed in real life, he wouldn’t be someone you’d want to root for. That’s why I often prefer Punisher in stories that present him as an outright villain, at least if they’re going to take him seriously.

And then there’s the pink elephant in the room: the Punisher, as a symbol, has been co-opted by white supremacists and other assorted brutes, including many police officers and “blue lives matter” enthusiasts in a time when more and more people are rightly demanding sweeping, long-overdue changes to law enforcement. This is well-trod ground by other critics and journalists so I won’t retread it here, but I encourage you to read the great work others have done covering this topic. Even Conway has weighed in.

Certainly, if you can’t enjoy War Zone, or any iteration of The Punisher, because the fascists and assholes have ruined him for you, I can’t blame you. But I can confidently say that PWZ is not at all a fascist film. Low bar, sure. But it’s also a heck of a lot smarter than you’ve probably been led to believe.

Art by Steve Dillon

As I watched Punisher: War Zone with The Beat‘s Avery Kaplan and her spouse Rebecca Kaplan, Rebecca observed that it’s filmed like a war movie. In the comics, Frank’s characterization is deeply rooted in his traumatic experiences as a Vietnam War veteran. While Ray Stevenson looks like he walked right out of a Steve Dillon drawing, this is a more contemporary Punisher, so his war was in the Middle East. Perhaps informed by Lexi Alexander’s Palestinian heritage, PWZ makes a few subtle, but effective nods to the “War On Terror” that add crucial thematic context for viewers paying attention.

There are a few blunt references to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an anti-Arab slur is deployed more than once. There seems to be an implication that in post-9/11 New York City, the specter of overseas terrorism was used as such a boogeyman by people in power that the lily-white threats on our own turf were ignored: including The Punisher himself, whom Alexander and company never quite let off the hook for losing sight of his own humanity in favor of his quixotic path of vengeance.

But that’s not to say Punisher: War Zone isn’t sympathetic to Frank where it counts. Between the literal war he fought as an American soldier and his mental anguish following the murder of his family, Frank is portrayed as a man cursed to remain in a physical and emotional war zone until the day he dies. There are darkly comedic moments of Frank struggling to show any kind of joy or affection, and neither Stevenson nor Alexander ever let us forget how tragic that is.

It helps too that Frank’s world feels so lived-in. We don’t learn many concrete details about Punisher’s sidekick Micro (Wayne Knight, best known as Seinfeld‘s Newman) in this film, such as how he met Frank or why he decided to join him on such a perilous life mission. But when Micro sacrifices himself in the film’s climax, the weight of his loss is immediately felt. These are two men who deeply respected each other and were committed to have each other’s backs until the bitter end.

One of the reasons the Kaplans wanted to watch this with me is because, in the wake of Black Widow‘s release, director Cate Shortland has been erroneously applauded by some as the first woman to direct a Marvel film (which isn’t even technically true if you’re talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe alone, because 2019’s Captain Marvel was co-directed by Anna Boden with Ryan Fleck). No disrespect to Shortland, but it’s a real shame that others are erasing Alexander’s contributions when she already broke that proverbial glass ceiling a decade and a half ago. I wonder how much that has to do with the kind of films women are expected to direct.

After all, the Punisher himself is a man, and there are scant few female characters throughout the film. Punisher: War Zone is the furthest thing dudebros would imagine from a “chick flick,” even if there’s a sense in which that’s quite literally what it is. There is some compelling commentary on masculinity if you’re looking for it though: consider, for example, the contrast between Frank’s inability to express himself emotionally with the affectionate relationship supervillain Jigsaw (Dominic West) enjoys with his psychopathic brother, “Looney Bin Jim” (Doug Hutchison).

I could go on, but I’m realizing this has gone on way longer than I planned. Look, you might have a hard time believing me, but Punisher: War Zone is a straight up good movie. Whether you’re viewing it from an anti-war perspective, a feminist lens, or you just want a boisterous, brutal action romp, there’s a lot to appreciate. It’s streaming now on HBO Max. Watch it and thank me later. (You can subscribe to HBO Max at this link. Note this is an affiliate link and The Beat may receive a small commission if you subscribe).

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