When Jon Bernthal returns to Netflix later this month in The Punisher, he'll be walking down a well-worn path. The superhero movie industry likes to paint itself as risk-averse, but somehow the Marvel antihero has been given room to fail on the big-screen three times before his well-received supporting role in Daredevil. Now that he's the headliner again, it's worth looking back on one of those failed attempts, one of Marvel Studios' best and most underappreciated films: 2008's Punisher: War Zone.
Coming out the same year as the inaugural Avengers titles Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, War Zone was part of the first batch of Marvel films made in-house (unlike those two, however, the Punisher character rights belonged to Lionsgate, who financed the movie in partnership with Marvel).
Who owns what in Marvel's stable of characters is an ongoing source of convoluted relationships between films; rather than being part of Marvel's "Phase One," War Zone was produced as part of an aborted side project called Marvel Knights. Like the whole Marvel Knights imprint, War Zone was quietly written out of canon after terrible reviews and subpar box-office earnings. Its fate was all but cemented when Marvel recast titular actor Ray Stevenson in the Thor films before the Punisher's official reboot in Daredevil.
Looking back, War Zone has all the hallmarks of the kind of movie superhero fans are always asking for. It's still the only Marvel film helmed by a woman, Lexi Alexander, making its casual dismissal all the more annoying.
What's more, War Zone has the hard R-rating of Deadpool and Logan, with the pitch-black humour of the former. These are important points of comparison. Marvel's in-house productions are overseen by Disney, and their kid-friendly lightheartedness doesn't hide their provenance.
Fox got a lot of attention with its edgier, adult-oriented X-Men spinoffs. The two films are already fan favourites in the superhero genre, and that little capital R on the posters is at least partially to than—Deadpool was especially successfully, briefly holding the record for biggest single-day opening of an R-rated film. Marvel has been cagey about the prospect of R-rated Avengers titles, but this success can't have gone unnoticed. Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, has recently become publicly more open to the idea, marking a change from earlier Disney statements.
War Zone's nostalgia and playful sense of (dark) humour similarly taps into some of what makes more recent Marvel titles feel fresh and exciting, in that peculiarly contemporary recycled way. It's a throwback to 80s action movies—maybe more violent than Guardians of the Galaxy, but playing in the same ballpark of nostalgic references. That's a strategy that seems to be working, with their most recent film Thor: Ragnarok getting praise for its Flash Gordon-y sense of classic sci-fi adventure (and 80s comic-book colour palette).
But War Zone's tongue-in-cheek outdatedness and gallows humour seem to have been missed by critics who called it a "monstrosity" and an "inane bloodfest." It's a film that shouldn't be read straight, but instead with an openness to lines like "Fuck you, Castle, you fucking fuck!"
Admittedly, Frank punching through a guy's face or driving a chair leg into someone's eye aren't the most whimsical of images, but you have to admire the absurdity of it all. It's the kind of ultraviolence that goes so far as to be funny. Even the coke-sniffing Italian mobsters standing in Frank's way are a trope so outdated as to feel like some kind of anarchic statement. Again, the parallels to Deadpool are important. Had War Zone been marketed with an emphasis on its comedy, like Deadpool, it may have paved the way for a more receptive audience.
In all fairness, there are plenty of valid reasons why people wouldn't love Marvel's bastard child, not least of which is that the character is always hard to root for. In short, Frank Castle is a simple character. His family was murdered, leaving him broken but with a mission to use his military training to take out criminals as the Punisher whenever he sees the justice system fail. Unlike other heroes, though, Frank is fine with just killing his marks (and those around them), removing a lot of the nuances and moral complexities of the superhero job.
That simplicity makes it hard to get Frank right, too, as was illustrated by the painfully awful Punisher films that preceded War Zone. 1989's The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren in the title role, feels like an action B-movie cashing in on the successes of bigger stars of the time, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Thomas Jane (and his kitchen-sink dye job) is OK in 2004's The Punisher, but none of the supporting actors seem like they're acting in the same movie, making the whole thing feel tonally incoherent.
Of course fleshing out Frank's personality and motivations is a big risk. Frank's a monster who is sort of sometimes barely a good guy. The murder of his family is all the character development he ever needed, so thought bubbles and drawn-out monologues feel forced and function as hugely problematic justifications of his brutal vigilantism—they tend to spoil otherwise interesting comic book iterations of the character and don't work any better when adapted to the screen.
Punisher: War Zone, more than any other superhero movie, seems to get that this is the problem with the Punisher, if not every other superhero too. It doesn't waste any time giving us a glimpse into his mind, because what's the point? Frank is like the shark from Jaws. We need him to keep the tension up and the story moving forward, but it's how the characters around him react to him that really determines if a Punisher movie works or not.
That's what War Zone understands. It's not the most memorable film, and it's ridiculous on so many levels, but it doesn't stray from its raison d'être, namely having a one-man army take on New York's criminal underworld. Between shootouts, we see bumbling cops and cartoonishly evil mobsters try to figure out how to deal with Frank.
The moralizing that we usually find on the surface of other superhero movies is only implied here, and it's so much more compelling than elsewhere. There's little doubt that Frank is going about this the wrong way, so we're forced to question why he doesn't seem like more of a villain. And how different is he from the cops who more or less accept his MO? How broken is our system that when Frank scoffs at the idea of rehabilitation, he sounds just like a politician or police chief, albeit more direct about his scorn for the slow process of justice?
There's something almost refreshing about Frank's honesty, in a fucked up way. He's a hopeless shell of a man who has given in to despair and is now defined by his compulsive need to lash out. He should be easy to dismiss as a villain, but the fact that both cops and the general public are on the fence about him is oddly believable. No other Punisher film, comic, or series that I've come across has managed to distill Frank as perfectly as War Zone has in this regard, and it does so while still being a fun shoot 'em up.
The closest we come to Frank growing as a person is when he accidentally kills an undercover cop. This could have led to a hokey redemption arc, but it doesn't. Seeing the effect on the man's family leaves Frank questioning his mission, not because what he does is wrong but because he has become what he hates. It's a revealing bit of self-reflection that calls into question everything about the Punisher. His motive is absurd and selfish, and his reason for almost quitting is just as stupid. The simplicity of this broken man is suddenly laid bare.
Bernthal's take on Frank, to its credit, did work similarly well in Daredevil. Unlike Matt Murdock's horned hero, Frank isn't tormented by guilt or questions of right and wrong. Pitting the two of them against each other and pairing them as unlikely allies cranks up the drama without forcing the Punisher to get introspective or grow as a person.
Now that he's going solo, things might get muddy again. Trailers give the impression that the Punisher series will focus on surveillance state overreaches and a conspiracy to silence Frank, who saw and participated in war crimes. These are interesting issues, but is the Punisher the right character for unpacking them? If he's morally torn when breaking the rules of war, how will he justify killing strangers without due process? And can any of us trust Marvel to know how to approach this?
(The release of The Punisher was wisely pushed back after a heavily armed gunman opened fire on a crowd in Las Vegas last month. But the underlying philosophical problem with Frank Castle doesn't get any less complex after a few weeks' delay.)
The Punisher should be a difficult character. In a broken system, he solves problems efficiently, but certainly not justly, nor without innocent casualties. He's a good guy only insofar as his heart is in the right-ish place. It doesn't excuse him. As soon as we get too close, things start to get ugly. Let's hope he's kept at a safe distance now that he's the star again.
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