Revisiting Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Posted on 12 January 2016
By Carlton Whitfield
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Title: Revisiting Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Publicity is just heating up for the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil, which will be released on Netflix in March. The first season was a massive success, rebooting Daredevil after the character’s film franchise (distributed by 20th Century Fox over a decade ago) failed, and establishing Netflix as a strong platform for future superhero content. The second season will arrive with massive expectations attached, and fans are particularly excited about the promised introduction of one of the most controversial and polarising characters in Marvel comics: Frank Castle, aka The Punisher.

In the second season of Daredevil, The Punisher will be played by Jon Bernthal, who’s been on a bit of a roll lately after appearing in popular 2015 films Sicario and Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. The Punisher will reportedly be a major focal point of the season, as his own vigilante tactics (the character traditionally spares no one) clash with Daredevil’s zero casualty policy. It all sounds promising, but while a lot of fans will be viewing this as The Punisher’s introduction into Marvel cinema and television, we actually saw him not that long ago in one of the less publicised superhero films of the past decade. A film called The Punisher was released in 2004, but more recently 2008 brought us the strange and dark follow-up, Punisher: War Zone.

The film was directed by Lexi Alexander (best known for Green Street Hooligans) and starred Ray Stevenson in the lead role. It was released to generally poor reviews and as an odd, fringe Marvel project. While Punisher: War Zone was distributed by Lionsgate, it was produced in part by the little known Marvel Knights studio, a branch of Marvel Studios meant for darker projects. The studio only produced this film and one other (Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance), but we can nevertheless consider Punisher: War Zone to have been a more genuine Marvel film than many might assume. This is to say it wasn’t merely produced by a separate studio that owned the character rights, but rather held at arm’s length by Marvel Studios.

That was because, as mentioned, Punisher: War Zone represented a darker side of Marvel cinema, with bloodier action and a hero who’s notoriously questionable from a moral standpoint. In the film, Stevenson’s Punisher is on a relentless quest for personal vengeance (as opposed to criminal justice), hunting down an entire criminal network responsible for the deaths of his family. Of course, he ends up facing off with a particular nemesis (Dominic West’s Jigsaw, one of the brighter spots in the film), but for the most part this film feels like a vigilante rampage.

As for any sort of legacy, Punisher: War Zone actually has a decent footprint where some other Marvel films have failed to make much of an impression. Specifically, the video games created to accompany the film have stood the test of time to the point that they’re still available and entertaining. The most direct adaptation came in the form of a Playtech-designed online slot machine described as a chance to fight injustice with one of Marvel’s finest additions. It’s one of a number of similar casino games made in the image of Marvel films and characters, but it’s interesting to see it still available online eight years after the relatively quiet film release. Perhaps more popular is the Zen Studios game The Punisher: No Mercy, a first-person shooter released for Playstation 3 in 2009. It’s since been removed from the PlayStation Network, but you can still find used copies. The game received mediocre reviews, but it wasn’t bad for those who like FPS gaming.

As for the film itself, it’s really not discussed very often in terms of legacy. However, there was a fascinating editorial written late in 2015 suggesting Punisher: War Zone is worthy of cult status, and citing bits and pieces of an interview featuring the director and Patton Oswalt. The argument was that the film stands alone as its own branch of Marvel cinema, admirably embracing a raw intensity that may simply have been shocking to a lot of fans and critics expecting just another superhero film.

That outlook bodes well for the introduction of The Punisher to the Daredevil series on Netflix, given that the Marvel/Netflix alliance has been widely praised for producing darker content. What legacy there is for Punisher: War Zone suggests that while the film wasn’t terrific, its content and signature character are interesting: the character has lingered in gaming, and the film is still inspiring discussion. At any rate, it’s worth re-watching before the character is rebooted on Netflix. It’ll be interesting to see if Bernthal’s take will be embraced given that this time we expect something dark and twisted.