For the last decade solid, the superhero franchise has dominated box office receipts as a medium, to the point where hardly anything else has room to breathe. This pop culture takeover largely started with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series & the MCU kickstarter Iron Man in the late aughts, which combined to redefine the comic book adaptation as being not just kids’ stuff anymore. “Thanks” to The Dark Knight & Iron Man, nerd culture is popular culture now, where superhero comics media is expected to be taken seriously as Art for Adults, leaving the days of more over-the-top properties with Saturday Morning Cartoon energy like Sam Raimi’s Darkman or Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 far behind in the cultural dustbin. I often miss the go-for-broke zaniness of those earlier works as the MCU and the *shudder* DCEU have become such well-oiled machines that you more or less know what to expect from their individual franchise entries a year before the pictures even reach the screen. It’s tempting to look back to the early stirrings of comic book adaptations’ sea change in the late aughts, then, and imagine what might have been if culture had shifted in a different direction. What kind of gloriously fucked up world would we be living in if Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone had won the culture war instead of The Dark Knight?
As an aesthetic object, Punisher: War Zone is clearly of the same cloth as the dark, “gritty” genre filmmaking that commands The Dark Knight Trilogy & its legion of grimly macho descendants. An emotionally troubled, gruff anti-hero violently tears down webs of organized crime while bathed in dark, sickly green lighting & harsh music video edits. Questions of whether vigilante justice has gone too far plague the titular “hero’s” tirade against powerful mobsters & crooked cops, echoing the anguished ethical philosophy at the core of the Dark Knight series. And yet, Punisher: War Zone could not be further in tone from Nolan’s self-serious philosophical sobriety. Even the more jocular, brightly lit counterbalance of the MCU is no match for the places Alexander takes the superhero medium here. To put it plainly, Punisher: War Zone is goofy as fuck. For all of its gruff macho exterior & onscreen depictions of vicious hyperviolence, it reaches levels of silly delirium unseen in a comic book adaptation of its stature since the cartoon energy of Dick Tracy in the 90s. This is a superhero narrative where cops have no interest in catching the murderous anti-hero, despite having rooms full of evidence on the bodies he’s left behind, because they respect his alpha male ability to get the job done while the judicial system leaves their own hands tied. That sounds like it would be poisoned with an insufferable level of superhero machismo, but somehow it comes across onscreen as so deliciously silly that it’s almost wholesome. Almost.
Considering its hard-R exaggeration of its comic book ultraviolence, Punisher: War Zone is decidedly not for children. No opportunities for bloodshed are wasted here. Bullets rip open skulls in glorious practical effects gore. Mobsters’ faces are dragged across seas of broken glass bottles, carved to shreds. Heads cave like melons when punched. If you find yourself asking, “Why is the stem on that wine glass so long?,” it’s because it’s soon to be plunged through a victim’s throat. However grotesque, this cartoonish fascination with the violent breakdown of the human body is decidedly juvenile. Punisher: War Zone wastes no time pretending that its violent antihero tirade represents some philosophical, allegorical dilemma about right & wrong in a world without a moral center. The closest it gets to meaningful dialogue is in the hilarity of awkward one-liners like, “Let me put you out of my misery,” and, when The Punisher oversteps the bounds of justice, “Who punishes you?” Why waste time pretending any of this action spectacle actually means something when you could just as easily set up a lengthy gag where parkour-obsessed goons are swiftly destroyed with a bazooka just before they get to show off their skills? Punisher: War Zone earns its R-rating in nearly every frame, but it does so while staying true to the childish sense of humor inherent to comic books media. It’s essentially the same juvenile slapstick violence that commands Shoot Em Up, except played straight – which is to say it’s 1000x better than Shoot Em Up.
Practically speaking, it’s no use wondering what might have been if Punisher: War Zone was a smash hit instead of The Dark Knight. The film made only a third of the superhero box office numbers earned by notorious flop Howard the Duck two decades earlier – no adjustment for inflation. It’s a cult object at best. Even if it had been a hit, Hollywood studios have a tendency to learn the wrong lessons from box office successes and its formula could have inspired some truly hideous art in other directors’ hands – both visually & morally. Still, there’s a certain live action cartoon energy to Punisher: War Zone that was largely AWOL in superhero media in the past decade as comic book franchises sought a grittier, more tonally sober path. You can detect that sensibility’s gradual return in recent late-franchise entries like Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Aquaman, but even those films feel overly restrained & concerned with respectability in a way that never crosses War Zone‘s delirious mind. This is an aggressively juvenile, brutally violent splatter fest that stays true to both ends of the comic book medium – the grimly macho & the unapologetically silly – in a tonal juggling act more films could benefit to emulate. If you’re going to be constantly bombarded with superhero media, there should be plenty of room for more outliers to be this wildly unpredictable & deliriously silly.