Punisher: War Zone (2008)

(spoilers ahead)

Punisher: War Zone. I mean, the title alone asks for trouble. Let me just say that as much as I’m a comics fan, even a superhero comics fan, The Punisher is a character I really loathe. Frank Castle’s family was killed by gangsters, so he kills gangsters now as the Punisher. He is the ultimate vigilante, showing that our laws don’t work, because they always let the bad ones go. Most of the time it’s an excuse for lots of violence and shooting and torturing, etc. I haven’t read a lot of his comics, but most of them are like that, even if there are exceptions (Mark Millar of all people seemed to have understood that Frank Castle is insane when he wrote him in Civil War). The first (or second if you remember Dolph Lundgren) movie was as you could have expected, telling the basic story and having lots of cruel violence. It wasn’t great. But now this one wants to take it many steps further. I respect director Lexi Alexander because she is very outspoken about women in the movie business and says things most people don’t even think about. But this movie is awful. This might be due to some difficulties with the studio, so I don’t want to put all the blame on her, but it is what it is.

Let’s talk about violence. I don’t mind violence in movies. I was socialized by horror movies in my early teens and the main discussion point among my friends was, how violent was it? But I’ve grown older and less interested in violence. And I never liked this kind of action movie violence, where ‘real’ people commit violence in so many cruel ways. Well, not really real of course. The characters in the movie are not from this world and probably not meant to be. But it’s a strange mix. Most of the time the movie feels like a comic book (but not a good one), but it’s still people we see, not monsters or aliens. So the violence has a different feel to it. Frank Castle enjoys violence and since he’s the protagonist we’re kind of supposed to enjoy it, too. The moral problems of his actions are broached, but never taken seriously, especially towards the end of the movie. In the end, his agenda remains clear and unquestioned by the movie: bad guys deserve to die. Terribly. What those kinds of movies often sell is something demeaning to their violence, that human life is worth nothing and that it’s enjoyable to watch people suffer. I disagree. Or at least not in the way it is done here. There has to be some moral compass in the movie that counterbalances the violence. Not just the definition of gratuitous violence.

To make Frank ‘The Punisher’ Castle easier to identify the villains are as grotesquely evil as possible, so that in comparison, Castle seems like a nice guy. Jigsaw (Dominic West, acting in a way I had to suppress every memory of The Wire) looks disgusting and kills people all the time and his brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson) is a hobby cannibal. They have no morality whatsoever. Fine. But Frank Castle doesn’t have any morality himself. No matter how often we see him mope about his dead family or feeling some regret about having accidentally killed a cop, in the end we watch him reveling in killing people. He’s creative, sure, and there are scenes of violence I have never seen before. Every bullet leads to an explosion of blood and bones, chairs are as lethal as Frank Castle’s fist (I wasn’t aware that he is part-Hulk) and heads have never been severed easier.

Punisher - Party

The moral implications are ignored in a spectacular way. In one scene, two gangster hold a little girl hostage. Castle comes in, punches one guy through his face and makes another one’s face explode with his gun, while the girl is on his arm. Then we see him carry her out (or well, extremely obviously it’s a doll – that made me laugh at least) and later she thanks him for everything, because you know, he’s such a cute guy. She’s the daughter of the cop he accidentally killed and his wife (Julie Benz, having seen better days in the past), in the end also forgives him for killing her husband because “he said you were one of the good guys.” But he is not! He’s a psycho killer! And the implication clearly is (as seen in another scene), that all the cops really wish they also could kill whoever they want, but those damn laws keep them from it.

Punisher - Doll
Punisher - Forgiveness

Alright, alright, it’s a comic book movie and surely you can see the attempts of going over the top intentionally, but I don’t think it works. It’s often unintentionally (I guess) funny, the editing is awful and the stereotypes don’t help. I mean, just because many comic books do ridiculous things doesn’t mean that a movie adaptation has to go the same way, especially if it doesn’t translate so well to the screen (the parkour bad guys are really stupid, even if one of them is hit by a rocket in mid-air). The last scene showcases this well. Martin Soap (Dash Mihok) is a cop who is also a nerdy fan of the Punisher (not as funny as it might sound) and in the last scene, he is walking alone through the streets and a guy comes up with a gun to mug him. He then says ‘Fraaaank? Fraaaank?’ until the Punisher comes back out of the dark to kill the guy, while in the background a neon sign saying ‘Jesus Saves’ goes black until we only see ‘Saves’ and the Punisher’s skull logo. Ha ha, Frank kills another guy because he wanted to rob someone? That's so funny! I’m not sure how much of that movie is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but it doesn’t really matter because I don’t think it works. Especially if it’s more fist-through-head than tongue-in-cheek. And even if all of this was just an attempt to recreate ridiculous comic book violence and should not be taken seriously, I still have to ask, why? Why do we need 90 minutes of comic book violence without any message or purpose? Why should this entertain us?

Punisher - Savior