Daredevil season 2 has been a huge success. With a respectable 75% rating on Rotten Tomatoes the Netflix exclusive has been praised by fans and critics alike. Now if there is a breakout star of this season it’s Jon Bernthal as The Punisher. There’s demand for a solo Punisher series and for good reason. With his grizzled visage Bernthal not only shows the rage of The Punisher but also the pained pathos that are behind the Frank Castle character. Some are even going so far as to say that this is the first person to do The Punisher right outside of the comics. Those people are wrong.
By 2008 comic book movies were in full swing. Spider-Man taught was the most American thing ever, X-men 2 taught us about prejudice and Hulk had taught us that it took more than a critically acclaimed director to pull off a good comic movie. 2008 itself was pretty monumental for the sub-genre with the releases of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and most influential, The Dark Knight. In the waning days of 2008 came a Punisher: War Zone and despite its status as a box office bomb it basically foreshadowed where comic franchises would be in 2016.
Taking cues from the Marvel MAX series it follows Frank Castle several years into his time as a vigilante. Hunting down Gaitano Cesare’s crime family he mutilates mobster Billy “The Beaut” Rusotti. Now calling himself Jigsaw he and his brother launch a campaign to finally kill The Punisher. A bit basic? Sure but I can’t say it’s any worse than Daredevil’s first season. More impressive is how well it balanced everything its tone. Past Punisher movies had a problem taking themselves too seriously. The Thomas Jane adaption in particular seemed to relish in how joyless it was. Punisher: War Zone changes things up by bringing a bit more humor into it. Unlike Deadpool it doesn’t accomplish this with as script crammed with jokes and fourth wall breaking. Instead they channel 2001’s Garth Ennis run by infusing everything with black humor. The Punisher doesn’t just punch criminals, he punches a hole in their face. There aren’t just criminals that infuse their fighting with parkour, The Punisher blows them up with a rocket launcher. It’s not just cartoony violence though. Mixed in is some of the best gore effects in recent memory. Things like the fate of Micro’s mother and Jigsaw’s disfigurement are absolutely brutal. When even horror movies can feel overly sanitized at times this is actually quite refreshing. Honestly the fact that it can have over-the-top action while also delivering this kind of gore is quite the feat.
I attribute a lot of this to director Lexi Alexander. Coming off the action-drama Green Street I remember her having a bit of buzz at the time. While not the biggest name signing her helped the film quite a bit. She has said in interviews that she wanted to make it feel like a throwback 80’s actioner and it shows. Like Death Wish (The Punisher’s most obvious inspiration) or Exterminator 2 everything has the gritty, grimey New York look unique to that time period. Lighting coming and greens and blues coming from neon street signs in a brightness rarely seen outside of Street Trash. It has the look of a pre-Giuliani New York rarely seen in current movies let alone superhero movies.
The other thing that makes this work is the casting. Ray Stevenson is the perfect as The Punisher. Like the actors before him he does the Man with No Name routine and it works. He rarely speaks and when he does it feels important. If there is a problem it’s that Dominic West’s Jigsaw tends to steal the show. With some some crazy make up and an exaggerated New York accent he chews the scenery in the best way possible. I know it isn’t for everybody but I love it. It all fits perfectly in this surreal, comic booky universe Punisher: War Zone lives in.
I’m looking forward to the inevitable Punisher Netflix series. Really, I am. As I said Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of Frank Castle is great and the darker Netflix stuff is some of the best written stuff Marvel Studios has done. But will it have a guy blown up with a rocket launcher because parkour sucks? Will it feel like a living comic book? Will it be a good adaption of the Garth Ennis comics? Most importantly will it be pure, unadulterated fun? I am honestly not sure. What I am certain of is that we already do have a perfect adaption of The Punisher and its called Punisher: War Zone.