Film

Why Was 'Punisher: War Zone' Pummeled by Fans?

Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle / The Punisher (IMDB)

Why did the only film based on a Marvel Comics property and directed by a woman fail so spectacularly?

The year 2008 was a high-point for comic book films. Iron Man (Favreau) perfected the classic superhero origin story and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Dark Knight (Nolan) elevated the entire genre to a previously unmatched sophistication and relevance. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Del Toro) was overflowing with creativity and whimsy. In addition to these high points, numerous other comic book films were released to either critical or commercial success.

It's a shame, therefore, that this banner year for comic book films ended with a pair of duds released in December. Both films were violent, over-the-top crime capers that were lambasted by critics and unseen by the majority of audiences. The (slightly) higher profile film was The Spirit, directed by Frank Miller in a style similar to Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Miller's Sin City (2005). That film was stylish, if hopelessly inept. The other late-2008 bomb was Punisher: War Zone (Alexander), Marvel's lowest-grossing film ever. A film that few people wanted, and fewer people liked.

After the release of The Punisher (Hensleigh) in April 2004, hopes were high for a sequel. The film was, at the time, Marvel's lowest-grossing film in theatres, but DVD revenues were pleasing enough for the studio, Lionsgate, to continue the series. Director Jonathan Hensleigh and star Thomas Jane were eager to return with a film that moved past the origin story, became darker, and featured the notable Punisher villain, Jigsaw. By late 2006, however, Hensleigh had dropped out. He was soon followed by Jane, who claimed that the numerous drafts of scripts were never satisfactory to anyone involved.

The tension seemed to be between those faithful to the Punisher comics, who wanted to tell a hard-edged, violent vigilante crime story set in New York City, and those who wanted to pull the film into more traditional comic book film territory. Kurt Sutter, a writer on the television series The Shield (2002-2008) and soon-to-be creator of Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014) penned the screenplay that finally made the project move forward. However, he took his name off of the film in early 2008, after it had been filmed, claiming that the final shooting script retained little of his gritty realism in favour of more elevated comic book elements.

The search for a director didn't go particularly smoothly. Several directors were approached, but they balked at the low budget or the script. Ultimately, Lionsgate hired Lexi Alexander. Alexander is a German-born former martial artist and stunt performer who had transitioned into directing. Her first short film, Johnny Flynton (2003), had been nominated for an Academy Award, and she had recently directed her first feature-length film, Green Street Hooligans (2005). At the time, Alexander was angling to direct another violent comic book film, Wanted (Bekmambetov, 2008), but chose Punisher: War Zone as an opportunity to create a throwback to the ultra-violent action films of the '80s. After the release of Punisher: War Zone, Alexander was possibly the only filmmaker involved who stood by the film, but even she later detailed the frequent creative conflicts and compromises behind the scenes, and admitted the final product was not her intended vision.

Despite all of the tinkering and various cooks in the kitchen, as well as lessons that should have been learned from the previous Punisher film, Punisher: War Zone is a mishmash of unoriginal ideas, giving it disparate tones, influences, messages and accents that never gel into anything worthwhile. Everyone involved was right to distance themselves from the film.

Marvel.com

Punisher: War Zone opens with new branding for the Marvel Films, Marvel Knights. This name is taken from a Marvel Comics brand that began in the late-'90s and signified more mature content. In the films, it was meant to signify the more extreme, violent, likely R-rated films, but it was only used twice, for Punisher: War Zone and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Neveldine/Taylor, 2012). The opening credits show flashes of the violence to come, while tracking Frank Castle/the Punisher (Ray Stevenson) watching news coverage of a high-profile mob boss (John Dunn Hill) who was acquitted after a witness was killed. Frank suits up to deliver his own brand of justice to the boss at the acquittal party that night.

Outside, we meet two police officers staking out the party in case Frank makes an appearance. The officers have differing views oF Frank, with Saffioti (Tony Calabretta) endorsing him for doing what police cannot, and the nebbish Soap (Dash Mihok) dedicating his career to taking Frank down. Inside, the party is teeming with mafia stereotypes. Some actors seem to be imitating their favourite mob movie personas, while others attempt various New York accents that rarely sound genuine or consistent with each other. The worst offender is Billy Russotti (Dominic West, apparently just back from having his mouth numbed at the dentist), who clashes with his boss and has designs on taking over the mob. He leaves, however, before the real party begins.

Frank arrives and makes his presence known when the power goes off in the house, and he lights a red flare at the head of the table to begin taking out the assembled mafiosos. I have very few quibbles with Frank Castle's depiction in this film. Stevenson, fresh off of HBO's Rome (2005-2007), makes a strong impression as the tall, imposing vigilante. In early scenes, the filmmakers treat him like the killer in a slasher film, and he doesn't utter a word until the 26-minute mark. This is a smart way to handle Frank, as a violent apparition, seen from the criminals' perspective, haunting and killing them. It would have been a bold, smart move to continue with this approach, but the film leaves it behind fairly quickly.

Frank's attack at the party is a pure, bloody cartoon of over-the-top gore and violence. Frank uses acrobatics to mow down all comers without ever taking a hit or having to reload as the film speeds up and slows down like every uninventive action film since The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999), attempting to manufacture some energy. People are decapitated and impaled through the eyes while digitized red "fluids" spurt all over the place. The scene reportedly left a bad taste with a lot of filmgoers and, in retrospect, for very little reason. Often a scene such as this, so early in the film, is used to signal to audiences the level of violence that's to come. If this sequence is too much for you, maybe there's still time to get a ticket refund. But after the film finished, I realized that nothing that followed this scene ever matched the energy or gore. Even the climactic action sequence feels mundane next to this dinner party massacre, which means Alexander opened the film with promises on which she failed to deliver, turning off much of the audience in the process.

Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle / The Punisher (© Lions Gate Home Entertainment / IMDB)

Frank then follows a tip from Saffioti that brings him to Russotti's headquarters. He attacks, and Russoti is thrown into a glass-shredding machine, destroying his face. In the fight, Frank also kills one of Russotti's men, Donatelli, only to discover that he was an undercover FBI agent. This pivotal sequence splits the film into three narratives: Frank agonizes over killing a non-criminal, Russotti seeks revenge, and the FBI goes after Frank. These narratives only converge twice over the remainder of the film. They seem to be kept apart for no other reason than to stretch the story to feature length.

The Frank story is fairly well-done, somber and serious. Frank questions his mission after killing one of the good guys. He watches Donatelli's funeral, and the agent's wife Angela (Julie Benz) and daughter Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas) remind him of his murdered family. He first tries to offer them money, then the opportunity to kill him, but Angela refuses. Frank is ready to quit until his friend, Microchip (Wayne Knight), convinces him to protect them from Russotti's inevitable revenge. And that is Frank's story for the film, saving this family to make up for both killing their patriarch in error and, symbolically, for failing to save his own family.

It's not a bad direction to take the character, as it ties into his back story and instills some appropriate doubt into his single-minded mission. As I said, I have very few issues with the character as depicted in this film. The worst criticism I could level is that these story beats feel like derivative, well-worn territory for this kind of action film. There's nothing particularly exciting or fresh. The larger problem is that Frank's story is told alongside the other two narratives, which are truly awful, dragging the whole film down with them.

Donatelli's colleague at the FBI, Budiansky (Colin Salmon), confronts the NYPD about their handling of the Punisher case. They pair him with Soap, who has been investigating Frank since he began his crusade, but has never come close to catching him. The best Punisher stories depict Frank as the logical outgrowth of a broken legal system, too paralyzed by corruption or bureaucracy to get things done. Traditionally, pragmatic cops privately approve of Frank's methods, while idealistic cops condemn him and corrupt cops fear him.

In Punisher: War Zone, the authorities are depicted as either actively helping Frank, undermining their effectiveness, or as too inept to do their jobs properly, making them seem like buffoons. Neither depiction is flattering to law enforcement, and the film completely misses the point of the Punisher character. Frank only seems effective in the film because all the other crime-fighters are incompetent. Soap straddles the line between both, since he is mostly ineffectual but Budiansky later implies that he has secretly been working with Frank. Budiansky, on the other hand, is the character who condemns Frank until he develops a grudging respect for him. Pretty standard action-film stuff. Also, Salmon is British and barely hides it, adding another poorly played accent to the film.

And then there's Jigsaw, whose characterization is a complete mess. In a sequence taken beat-for-beat from a classic Joker scene in Batman (Burton, 1989), Russotti has his bandages removed by his plastic surgeon to reveal that his face is a mess of stitches, scars and mismatched skin. He immediately dubs himself Jigsaw (as any reasonable person would), and begins to act completely sadistic and insane. The first problem with the character is that he was not established well enough before his accident for viewers to track whether his personality has actually changed. He was certainly violent and immoral before, but was he as cartoonishly over-the-top as he later becomes? It's impossible to say, as the film never really makes his personality clear. Jigsaw then breaks his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), out of a mental institution. Hutchison speaks in another terrible accent that I cannot even begin to place. His character begins by killing one of his guards and eating his kidneys off-screen, an act to which Jigsaw barely reacts. Again, was he this crazy before or only after the accident?

Dominic West as Billy / Jigsaw (© Lions Gate Home Entertainment / IMDB)

The question is relevant because the film offers no reason that Jigsaw should be any match for Frank. He's not particularly strong or capable with weaponry, and neither is his brother. Their only advantage, as it were, seems to be that they are insane and violent. But really, so is Frank, and Frank has combat training. The only way a character like Jigsaw would stand a chance against Frank would be by having a large gang at his disposal, to wear Frank down with sheer numbers. But for the majority of the film, Jigsaw has three men: his right-hand man, his son, and his brother. Frank could easily kill them all, except the film contrives to keep them apart most of the time. And Frank has no particular grudge against Jigsaw, or a reason to pursue him. He's just another criminal. It's difficult to get excited about a finalé when the villain is not particularly imposing or meaningful to the hero. Jigsaw and his gang of three feel like they are on borrowed time until Frank finally kills them.

Frank first encounters them when they attack Angela and Grace, looking for money that Donatelli possibly hid from them. Frank arrives to protect them and, because it's not time for the film to end quite yet, he leaves before killing Jigsaw and Jim. The bad guys are arrested, but quickly cut a deal for immunity in exchange for information on a biological McGuffin being smuggled into the city. This plot development is handled so quickly and nonsensically that it only serves to underline the police ineptitude before moving on.

Jigsaw then captures Angela, Grace and Microchip, and holds them on the top floor of an abandoned hotel as bait for Frank. Rather than attack immediately, however, Frank waits over a day for no clear reason. This allows Jigsaw time to recruit local gangs to populate each floor of the hotel. Considering that Jigsaw's immunity deal took all of two minutes to play out, it's ludicrous that the film stretches out the build up to the final confrontation. Or maybe, at this point, I just wanted Punisher: War Zone be over. The recruitment, apparently inspired by military recruiters depicted in Fahrenheit 9/11 (Moore, 2004), is really silly, but the idea of a hotel filled with criminals for the hero to fight his way through is a good one. In fact, it's the entire basis for The Raid (Evans, 2011), which is a modern action-film masterpiece. The idea was then copied for another great action film, Dredd (Travis, 2011). Punisher: War Zone got a hump on them both.

But unfortunately, the film wastes the opportunity by moving through the hotel action too quickly. The sequence has none of the excitement of the earlier dinner party massacre, and comes off pretty rote. The pacing is all over the map, with vital sequences, like the hotel battle or Jigsaw's plea deal, feeling rushed and unnecessary then, in scenes like the recruitment, they drag on for too long. The hotel sequence culminates in a well-staged conundrum, though. Jigsaw gives Frank a single shot, as he points a gun at Microchip's head and Jim points a gun at Angela and Grace. Frank must sacrifice one of the people he cares about to stop the bad guys. He shoots Jim, knowing that Jigsaw will kill Microchip. But this gives Frank enough time to protect Grace and Angela, and kill Jigsaw (easily, as expected). As he begins to fight Jigsaw he tells Angela and Grace to run outside. This means they must run through a hotel that, best-case, is full of dead bodies, and worst-case, is full of violent criminals that Frank missed. I found that idea unintentionally funny, because my mind was wandering.

The film ends with Frank and Budiansky as uneasy allies, and Soap telling Frank he should quit. But, because the film needs to really make it clear how inept the police are, Soap has to be saved by Frank from a mugger.

The biggest problem at the root of Punisher: War Zone is a complete lack of originality. Mob characters are stereotypes. Character dynamics and story beats are pulled directly from the action film playbook of the preceding 30 years. Sequences are pulled directly out of films as diverse as Batman and Fahrenheit 9/11. The film even uses parkour, practiced by three thugs in the employ of Russotti early in the film. Parkour had been used in films such as Casino Royale (Campbell, 2006) and Live Free or Die Hard (Wiseman, 2007), and had reached the point of oversaturation in the culture. Alexander reportedly requested there be no parkour in the film and, after being overruled by the producers, decided to have Frank kill one of the parkour thugs with a rocket launcher. This is how Punisher: War Zone operates: use completely unoriginal ideas, but "subvert" them with an explosion or something. The parkour leader, Maginty (T.J. Storm), has my favourite bad accent in the film, however, since it seems to almost be mocking the rest of the accents. Maginty dresses like a rastafarian but incongruously speaks with an Irish brogue.

Another stunning bit of unoriginality is the score. I found it familiar while watching the film, particularly a gruff accented pulsing beat that is used here and there. It eventually dawned on me that it was very similar to Hans Zimmer and James Newton-Howard's score to Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) and The Dark Knight. I later learned that Alexander's choice for composer and score were rejected by Lionsgate, which instead hired Michael Wandmacher. The studio then gave Wandmacher specific instructions to imitate the score of The Dark Knight, which had recently become a sensation and the highest-grossing comic book film of all-time. That film has a completely different tone from Punisher: War Zone, however, and the music doesn't fit at all.

Lastly, I want to touch on the treatment of female characters in Punisher: War Zone. First of all, there aren't many. When he is introduced, Russotti grabs his arm candy by the throat for touching his hair. A middle-aged woman pulls a gun on Frank at the dinner party shortly before she is brutally killed. Microchip's elderly mother is introduced only to later have half of her head blown off. And then, finally, Angela and Grace exist only to grieve Donatelli and be saved by Frank. Was it possible to treat these female characters better? Absolutely. Was it possible to include more female characters? Well, Budiansky was a character in Punisher comics, but Soap was originally introduced when he was paired with a no-nonsense female officer named Molly von Richtofen. So a closer comic book adaptation would have featured this character, a woman, in Budiansky's role.

Punisher: War Zone is not unique in its treatment of female characters, but it is unique for having a female director. Female directors are not common in Hollywood, and even less common in the action and superhero genres. I'm sorry to report that Punisher: War Zone is the only Marvel film to-date directed by a woman. That is staggering. One out of 49 films. The upcoming Captain Marvel (2019), featuring a high-profile female superhero, is directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. So that film is half-directed by a woman. To the point, Lexi Alexander's direction is surprising because she didn't seem to make an effort to improve the depiction of female characters. She made the film exactly like any dime-a-dozen male director. I'm not one for proscribing what an existing film could or should have done, I prefer to take the film as it is, but I found this to be worth noting.

Also noteworthy is the impact this film had on Alexander's career, which was devastating. In the decade since the film's release, she has not directed another theatrical film. She directed one straight-to-DVD film and some episodes for various television shows. Punisher: War Zone is completely unoriginal, but it's not poorly made, and Alexander didn't deserve to be shut out of Hollywood so completely after its failure. It's well-documented that white male directors can have a failure, but are typically given other chances. Non-white male directors often do not recover from a failure, and Alexander fell victim to this unfair trend.

But Punisher: War Zone was a failure. It grossed $8 million in North America, with an additional $2 million internationally, on its $35 million budget. By this point, the DVD market was already plummeting, so that revenue stream would not save the series for a second time. Punisher: War Zone is the lowest-grossing Marvel film of all time, and it will likely retain that title. Nowadays, the Marvel brand carries so much weight in theaters that I can't imagine a Marvel Film making so little on its opening day, let alone overall. The lowest-grossing Marvel Film since Punisher: War Zone is Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Neveldine/Taylor, 2012), which still sold six times more tickets in North America.

There have been R-rated comic book films since War Zone, such as Watchmen (Snyder, 2009), Kick-Ass (Vaughn, 2010), and Dredd, but not another R-rated Marvel film until Deadpool (Miller, 2016). War Zone has been described as a "cult film" in some circles since its release, and people such as comedian Patton Oswalt are vocal supporters. Oswalt arranged for Alexander to guest on an excellent episode of the hilarious How Did This Get Made? Podcast to discuss the film in 2011. But really, every film has fans. Cult films are either great films that were underseen upon their release or terrible films that are loved ironically. Punisher: War Zone is a bad film, but even its over-the-top villains don't drag it into "so bad it's good" territory. This is not a cult film, it's just a bad film that, rightfully, few people care about.

After three failed attempts, Hollywood gave up on producing a Punisher film. The rights soon reverted to Marvel Studios, and the character was reintroduced in the second season of Daredevil on Netflix in 2016. The depiction was popular, and the character was spun-off into its own, surprisingly solid Netflix series in 2017. This series immediately did away with Frank's crime-fighting roots in favour of a story about a military conspiracy and treatment of veterans. This all begs the question: Why was it so hard to make a decent Punisher film? The character was created in the early '70s, spinning out of the same social unrest that inspired Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971), Death Wish (Winner, 1974) and Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976). The character has a good backstory, clear mission, and seems ripe for a simple, straightforward action film. But different filmmakers messed it up three times. With the success of the Netflix series, it's unlikely there will be another Punisher film for quite a while, if ever. I think we're all better off for it.

***

Stan Lee Cameo Corner

No Stan Lee in this film. That is 11 cameos in 19 films

First Appearances

Ray Stevenson later appeared as Volstagg in the Thor films

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