For Your Reconsideration: Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Written by Matt Bowes

Editor’s Note: Since this article went to press, Marvel made the announcement that the next Thor will be a woman. While this does much to challenge the notions of gender in superhero fiction, there’s still a lot of work to be done in creating an equal playing field—in comic books and on-screen. There’s a great article on the announcement in Time Magazine, which you can read here.

While the lack of female characters on the screen is egregious, it doesn’t even begin to touch the lack of female creators in the director’s chair.

There’s been a necessary conversation lately in online film and comic circles about the lack of female representation in superhero movies. The argument goes that seeing as how studios are banking on cape films as a big part of their bottom line for the immediate future, and women make up half of the potential viewing audience, it stands to reason that there should be more female-led superhero films, right? There’s a wealth of great characters and stories to choose from, and the success of franchises like The Hunger Games and Twilight show that women-led fantasy films can rake in the dough hand over fist if given a chance. It’s ridiculous, frankly, that a Wonder Woman movie is taking so long to put together, or that the execrable Supergirl, Elektra and Catwoman are some of the only examples of superheroines headlining their own films. The upcoming Sharon Carter and Jessica Jones series on the small screen are a good start, sure, but where’s a Enter the Dragon-esque Daughters of the Dragon film, a Birds of Prey outing in the style of Charlie’s Angels, a pre-Avengers adventure from the Black Widow’s KGB days, a Catherine Hardwicke-style interpretation of Runaways, or a space-faring Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel? Those are just off the top of my head! Still, looking back on the last few decades of comic book adaptations to film, there’s an even bigger gap, I think: while the lack of female characters on the screen is egregious, it doesn’t even begin to touch the lack of female creators in the director’s chair.

When I was working with my partner, fellow pulp contributor Erin Fraser, on our comic book adaptation film series, Graphic Content, at the Metro Cinema, one of the first things we did was make a list of pretty much every film that would fit within our purview. We could only find four comic book movies directed by a woman, and two of those were actually adaptations of the artist’s own indie comix work, Marjane Satrapi’s excellent Persepolis (2007) and Chicken with Plums (2011). Apart from Rachel Talalay’s adaptation of Tank Girl, which we showed in our series’ final year, there’s only one other superhero-style flick helmed by a woman. Luckily, it kicks serious ass: Punisher: War Zone, directed by Lexi Alexander. War Zone demolishes any sexist claim that women can’t direct action and over-the-top violence as well as any man.

War Zone demolishes any sexist claim that women can’t direct action and over-the-top violence as well as any man.

For my money, not only is War Zone flat-out better than a lot of higher-profile comic book adaptations, it understands the character of the Punisher far better than either of his previous incarnations onscreen. It’s funny as hell, features a great cast, and has a visual flair that makes it unique among the often bland colour schemes and uninspired direction of superhero movies. All in all, the film does a great job of reflecting, but not slavishly imitating, its source material: writer Garth Ennis’ legendary run on Marvel’s Punisher MAX from the mid-2000s.

The narrative is simple and satisfying. The Punisher (Ray Stevenson), true to his M.O., attacks a gathering of mobsters at the local don’s mansion, including among them a capo on the rise named Billy “The Beaut” Russo (Dominic West). Billy escapes to his base down at the docks, where the Punisher proceeds to throw him in an extremely dangerous glass-smashing machine, which messes up his previously handsome face and turns him into the even more deranged Jigsaw. When an undercover FBI agent gets killed in the midst of these events, the Punisher finds himself on the wrong side of the law and the Mob, with the action culminating in a gigantic firefight at the Brad Street Hotel.

Among the features I love best about the film is its lack of set up. Frank Castle, the Punisher, is an easy guy to explain: the Mob killed his family, he kills the Mob. Unlike many superhero films which spend the entire first movie on background, War Zone spends maybe two minutes total explaining its hero’s origin, preferring instead to show him in action. And the action totally lives up to any expectations the previous films might have led audiences to expect. Heads are exploded, limbs severed from bodies, and thousands of shell casings litter the floor by the film’s end. Two of my favourite kills are played entirely for laughs, which I think is really Punisher: War Zone’s secret weapon. In the first, one thug, (who incidentally actually has kind of a nice relationship with his father, as they’re Jigsaw’s co-lieutenants…but whatever) enjoys snorting cocaine, at least until the Punisher punches him right through his undoubtedly deviated septum, that is. The other scene, perhaps the best known in the film, features some parkour jerks that Jigsaw hires for odd jobs. Remember that in 2008 Punisher: War Zone was being made as the parkour craze was arriving in high-profile movies like Casino Royale (2006) and video games like Assassin’s Creed (2007), so it was ripe for satire. One of these parkour thugs, who call themselves an “urban flow” gang because even they’re ashamed of the technical term, is in the middle of an undoubtedly difficult flip between the roofs of two buildings when the Punisher hits him with a heat-seeking missile. Laughter ensues.

 To me, this tension between macabre jokes and over-the-top carnage, between gun fetishism and the fact that the Punisher lives in the sewer and his only real furniture is a chair for brooding in—this is what nails the character.

The humour of the film serves to undercut the super-seriousness of the Punisher character, which is necessary to keep the story moving and engaging and not overly depressing, like the Thomas Jane outing often was. Not even the Punisher is immune to the slightly jaunting feeling at some points: Stevenson’s tightly-controlled and endearing approach to the character hints at a life perpetually fuelled by gallows humour and MREs. On the other hand, Dominic West’s Jigsaw dominates every scene he’s in with comic set pieces and over-the-top speeches that recall Jack Nicholson as the Joker. It’s all a nice counterpoint to the straightforward grim and gritty world of the Christopher Nolan Batman films and Man of Steel, a kind of cartoon version of the street-level Marvel Universe.

Alexander finds a happy medium between the dull, “realistic” visual aesthetic of Christopher Nolan and the slavish ink-on-paper devotion of Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City. Her scenes are lit with a nauseating palette of yellows, pinks and greens, reminding me of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy in their visual pizzazz but also suggesting sickness and decay. The action is shot close-up, and only occasionally uses the frenetic editing style of the Bourne films, which now seems like the Hollywood standard. The final gunfight at the Brad Street Hotel (named for iconic Punisher cover artist Tim Bradstreet), where the Punisher takes on three gangs recruited by Jigsaw in another funny scene moments earlier, is well-paced and again includes funny moments in between violent ones. To me, this tension between macabre jokes and over-the-top carnage, between gun fetishism and the fact that the Punisher lives in the sewer and his only real furniture is a chair for brooding in—this is what nails the character. While he might have started off as a knock-off of Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish, he also exists in the Marvel Universe, a ridiculous place which has found him brought back from the dead first as an angel and then as a Frankenstein. Punisher: War Zone understands all that a “comic” film can imply and never gets too bogged down in anything approaching reality.

Lexi Alexander made an appearance on the popular bad movie podcast How Did This Get Made back in 2011, and in a change from the regular format of the show she talked about the making of Punisher: War Zone, a film which the hosts and guests all really enjoyed. The episode is definitely worth a listen, but the gist of it is that the failure of the film at the box office essentially shuttered her career, which is a damn shame. Comic book movies need more Lexi Alexanders, more directors who are able to give us a different approach to superhero films. While Punisher: War Zone does not do any great favours for the cause of seeing superheroines onscreen, it definitely proves that there’s female talent offscreen that deserves to be recognized.

CC photo credit: Lionsgate Pictures and Marvel.

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