In Not Guilty, we look at movies and TV shows that the general consensus tells us we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should give a second look — "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time around, we turn our attention to one of the most underrated comic book movies ever made, Punisher: War Zone.
Punisher: War Zone was the first film produced by the now seemingly ubiquitous Marvel Studios, as well as the first Marvel property brought to us by a female director, Lexi Alexander. A Christmas Day release, an unstable budget for both filming and promotion, as well as critics seemingly unprepared for a morose bloodbath, the film was panned, leading to a box office failure. As such, War Zone fell much by the wayside, and it might have been almost forgotten if not for conversations around Alexander’s career and her advocacy for gender equality in the film industry.
In the decade since its release, however, War Zone has been reviewed and reappraised by some critics and audiences who had missed it the first time around due in no small part Alexander's continued defense of her work on it, and the view of the film has become increasingly more positive as time has passed. This is good, because Punisher: War Zone is absolutely the best Punisher movie, and it’s one of the best action films to be released by Hollywood not only that year but perhaps ever. What we’re saying is, this movie isn’t just a not guilty pleasure — it’s fantastic.
The Influence of Prior Punisher Films
The Punisher has proven to be one of Marvel’s most notoriously difficult-to-translate properties although there have been many attempts. One of the primary difficulties of adapting the Punisher to the screen is that the story is unique to comic books but it’s far from original in the world of action films. A man losing his family to the criminal element of his city then embarking upon a crusade of bullets and vengeance isn’t exactly unheard of as far as plots for Hollywood blockbusters go.
Punisher was introduced to the comics in Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1974. In Marvel, there was no other character like him, and the introduction of a hyper-violent vigilante into the relatively upbeat world of Spider-Man made for some interesting story potential. Castle was an immediate fan favorite, but in the years since his inception, grim gun-toting tough guys have utterly saturated the market to the point of self-parody.
The first Punisher movies are generally considered standard action movies, not particularly inventive and packed full of the corny moments that mark the genre. War Zone is significantly darker in tone and might have been off-putting for that reason alone. For audiences who had seen the previous films, they might have been expecting more camp, while audiences that had not seen the first two takes on the Punisher were introduced to the character via War Zone, which is surprisingly violent, even in a genre marked by its violence.
The Story Behind War Zone
War Zone doesn’t deviate significantly from standard Punisher plot lines. Castle lost his family to violence and therefore rains destruction upon the criminal element of the city. He accidentally leads to the death of an agent and is devastated to see that he has cost a young girl her father. Attempting to make amends with them, he is met with nothing but hostility from the widow of the deceased agent. The young girl sees him as a sympathetic figure, however, and bonds with him after her father’s funeral.
The crime boss Jigsaw swears vengeance on Castle for causing him to become horribly disfigured and enlists his unstable brother and several more criminals in the fight against Castle. Intending to make him suffer, he also kidnaps the widow and her daughter, holding them captive. Naturally, this is the exact recipe for a bloody vengeance to be taken upon them, and Castle methodically kills dozens in his quest to save innocent lives from the deranged villain.
Why Alexander's Direction Matters
Alexander had worn a lot of hats before being chosen as director for Punisher, appearing as an actor in some television at a young age and going on to be a pro fighter and a stunt person before ultimately pursuing a career directing. Alexander had made a few short films before her feature debut Green Street Hooligans in 2005. Her knowledge of martial arts helped secure the gig with Marvel for War Zone, although that turned out to be less fortuitous than it might have been. Punisher: War Zone was deemed a box office failure, which led to a serious lull in Alexander’s career for a time. Fortunately, since then, she has directed individual episodes of genre favorites like Arrow and Supergirl but has often reflected on the impact War Zone had on her ability to procure work in Hollywood.
Alexander’s Frank Castle is not a cool antihero. The death he has seen has worn bags under his eyes and put him on autopilot. His interactions with others seem to lightly break him, and there is never a moment of the film where viewers are led to forget or ignore his heartache. He seems hopelessly set apart by his PTSD and his trauma, which makes him seem awkward in comparison to the more well-adjusted characters he finds himself aligned with. While this might not have made room for much of the dark humor of the comic to find its way to the final product, it did an excellent job emphasizing the sheer shellshock and devastation that would be realistic for a man like Frank Castle to feel.
Besides the incredible fight scenes, the look of the film is fantastic. The lighting alone is a selling point, utilizing harsh yellows and soothing blues alongside red and green flourishes to set various emotional tones. The city is perpetually wet without it ever raining, and the locations are both gritty and beautiful. The cinematography is on point, and the overall desolation of the city is communicated perfectly without ever going overboard and becoming heavy-handed. Even if it had no other saving graces, this is one beautiful film. Looking back, the inventive lighting and cinematography was a precursor to a lot of the look of action films presently in theaters.
What the Film Says about Frank Castle
Castle is more sympathetic than usual, but paradoxically his fight scenes are even more brutal than those that fans have come to expect. Alexander’s history as a fighter takes the scenes from basic action movie fare to a place of poetic motion. The opening scene alone shows Castle methodically kill every single person sitting at a very long table in a fascinating dance of death. The villain of the movie is created when Castle callously shoves him into glass recycling and causes him to very nearly bleed to death. The villains are particularly gruesome, but they can’t begin to hold a candle to the violence of Castle himself, who works his way through a building of henchmen raining death and terror upon them.
Its release year, 2008, also gave audiences The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man, both of which were significantly different in theme. Iron Man was an action comedy, and while The Incredible Hulk was a more somber affair, it was still a far cry from the melee of Punisher. War Zone wasn’t only significantly more violent than those movies, it was more violent than most of, if not all, other movies released that year, or certainly major Hollywood productions. It was the third Punisher film, and the first two weren’t exactly instant classics. Allowing a great deal of the irreverent comedy of more successful takes on the Punisher mythos to fall by the wayside, Alexander embraced the sheer brutality and tragedy of the story.
Not only did the accidental death lessen Castle’s desire for revenge, it clearly made him reflective over what he had lost all those years before. Ray Stevenson’s portrayal is flat, efficient, and believable. His slight, awkward attempts to humanize himself and connect with the child of the agent that died are heartbreaking in their futility. In the end, he saves the wife of the fallen agent and her child, but loses the closest thing he seems to have to a friend, and seems completely incapable of saving himself. When a preacher he once knew warns him that he’ll go to the same hell as those he’s killed, Castle grimly agrees to accept that fate. This weary acknowledgment of damnation provided one of the most humanizing moments of the film. In many ways, the heart of War Zone isn't Castle's character evolution, it's the acknowledgment of his inability to evolve. In that, it fully understood his tragedy in ways that many Punisher stories do not.
As his fans know, Frank Castle is a troubled wreck of a man, and War Zone finally brought a version to film that didn’t pretend to be anything other than that. While speculation for why and how it failed has been rife in commentary on the film, seldom is it discussed how it succeeded. Not only was it a great Punisher film, not only was it a great action film, but it was also just a great film, period. Nice hustle out there, Punisher: War Zone, and may you find your audience ever in the cult section of streaming services where we shall forever appreciate hidden gems like you.