“It still makes me laugh thinking that Punisher: War Zone was unspooling in theatres while outside people were Christmas shopping,” says Patton Oswalt, Emmy Award-winning comedian, writer, actor, and author. “I don’t think they were doing any kind of courageous counter-programming - it felt like a studio dump.”
One of the film’s loudest champions and everyone’s imaginary internet bestie isn’t wrong.
The film landscape in late 2008/early 2009 was interesting. There was lots of Oscar bait in theatres, like Danny Boyle’s ultimately triumphant Slumdog Millionaire and Kate Winslet’s post-Nazi love story The Reader, but weirdly wedged between them, Punisher: War Zone. Yup, in the lead-up to the Academy Awards, you could catch a Harvey Milk biopic or watch Ray Stevenson shoot a henchman out of the air with a rocket launcher.
A decade has passed since Punisher: War Zone shocked audiences and caused critics to say director Lexi Alexander should be “put in prison” for depicting such gruesome scenes on screen, as violent vigilante Frank Castle continued his quest for vengeance by taking out the organised crime groups that murdered his family limb by limb…quite literally.
The movie’s bizarre awards season release date is just one of many now legendary facts that have helped build a cult fandom around the movie. Yet it’s a testament to how ballsy, brutal, and utterly bonkers the film was that in 2018, the audience for Marvel’s third attempt at the franchise is bigger than ever.
“There’s not a week where Punisher hasn’t come up for 10 years,” says Alexander, who was the first woman to direct a comic book movie for Marvel or DC. “On Twitter every day there will be someone saying ‘Thank you so much for making Punisher: War Zone, it’s the best comic book movie’. I see the residual checks and it’s very interesting when you actually see them grow, you see it finding an audience…I went to director’s jail after Punisher and I haven’t made a studio movie since then.
I can’t say it’s because no one has offered me one, it’s also me: I didn’t want to go up for one because this was such a horrific experience. Ten years of being reminded that you got fucked because you’re a woman? It’s hard. It has been a long 10 years, you know?”
Reflecting on the movie is “bittersweet” for Alexander, who was coming off an Oscar nomination for her short film Johnny Flynton and the cult success of Green Street Hooligans when she signed on in 2007. “I actually passed on it several times because I wasn’t a big comics person.
I mean, I’m a European comics person—Valerian, Asterix, that kind of thing—but I wasn’t as familiar with Punisher and some of the American characters.”
Raised by a German mother and Palestinian father, Alexander originally started off her career as a martial artist and had an unlikely path into the world of show business. She was a world kickboxing champion at 19 when Chuck Norris convinced her to move from Germany to the U.S. and work as a stuntwoman, even going as far to sponsor her green card. As she transitioned to working behind the camera instead of in front of it, she was still only in her 20s when she became one of the most sought-after action directors due to her practical experience and visual flair. It made her an ideal candidate for Punisher: War Zone. The movie aimed to go in a different direction than 2004’s The Punisher, which starred Thomas Jane, and was on an entirely different planet to 1989’s The Punisher, which featured Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle.
At the time of Punisher: War Zone’s release, legendary film critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the best-made bad movies I’ve seen.” It didn’t matter if reviewers thought the movie was “depraved” or an “inane bloodfest,” they could all put aside its “sadistic” nature and acknowledge that it was visually striking. So striking, in fact, the visuals have been duplicated, replicated, and regurgitated countless times over the preceding decade.
“The entire lookbook for the Netflix Marvel shows comes directly from Punisher: War Zone,” says Oswalt, who became one of the film’s biggest and loudest champions after he saw it with friends during the Christmas period of 2008 and wrote a gushing blog post about it. “Those shows would not exist without that film. It’s those saturated, Michael Powell blacks and reds, but in the service of grindhouse action…gorgeous.” To paraphrase Bob Ross, the movie’s look was a “happy accident.”
“I don’t know if anybody knows this, but when the person at Marvel was instructed to send me an entire box of Punisher comics I guess they printed it with only three colours,” Alexander says, speaking from her Los Angeles home. “What I got wasn’t actually the real interpretation of what the comic books looked like, I just got the fucking cheap copies. So when I looked at that I said to my DP, ‘We should go with this, stick to the three colour mode and make it look like the comic book’. It was only later I think someone in Kevin Feige’s office said, ‘Oh, we just printed them in the cheapest manner possible.’”
The look, captured by director of photography Steve Gainer, is one of the things Alexander says she is “most proud of” about Punisher: War Zone. It’s also something that stood out to fellow filmmaker Scott Derrickson, who recalls discussing the movie excitedly over dinner with a colleague in New York just after its release. “My favourite comment that anyone ever made about it was my writing partner, who said ‘You want to see that punch so powerful it collapses a guy’s face,’” he laughs. “And still to this day I think of that one particular punch, it’s pretty early in the movie. That’s the best hard, R-rated punch I’ve ever seen.”
Derrickson went on to have a global smash with his own Marvel comic book movie in 2016, Doctor Strange, and says “the look” of Punisher: War Zone has influenced much of the genre. “It struck a tone that was really perfect for the character and the style of it was unexpectedly artful and specific. When I saw Daredevil I thought, ‘Wow, that looks a lot like Lexi’s movie.’ People made such a big deal about Logan when it came out and the rating…Punisher: War Zone wasn’t just a hard, R-rated, ultra-violent movie but it was in service of a hard, R-rated, ultra-violent comic.”
Alexander spent months in online forums researching what fans didn’t like about the 2004 Punisher film with Jane, hoping not to make those same mistakes. “I was never going to make it look like Batman & Robin,” she notes, the director having coincidentally worked on the Joel Schumacher film as a stuntwoman. “I knew we couldn’t go neon, I knew we couldn’t make it look cheap, but there was something aesthetically pleasing about only using a certain amount of colours and making it look like a comic book. The fact I didn’t have all the information is a whole other story.” As visual effects supervisor Robert Short told Animation World Network in 2008, every frame—from the blood-soaked gore to the city skyline—was designed to pay homage to the source material. “Lexi put together a ‘lookbook’ for us to reference and it was made up of one of the Punisher Max graphic novels,” he says. “This was our bible...half the fun of the project was always trying to capture the feel of the literary Punisher, because the 2004 film had strayed so far from it.”
The character of Frank Castle dates back to the ‘70s, and there’s something stereotypically American about a war veteran-turned-vigilante who uses all manner of brutal methods at his disposal to avenge unjust deaths; think Jack Reacher, 24’s Jack Bauer, Gran Torino, The Equaliser, Walking Tall, Bad-Arse, Taken, and countless other pop culture touchstones. These methods include guns, bombs, booby traps and—when all else fails—his fists. Perhaps that’s why the casting of Irish-born, British actor Ray Stevenson in the role was such an inspired choice, with filmmaker and noted comic book fan Kevin Smith calling him “a pretty note-perfect Frank Castle.”
“I don’t regret casting who I cast, which was not my idea,” says Alexander. “That was Kevin Feige’s idea. He said, ‘Have you ever seen Rome? You should check out this guy, have you heard of Ray Stevenson?’ I watched it that night, came back the next day, and was like, ‘That guy is fucking perfect.’ It was a unique situation because you don’t always agree with the person who makes all the decisions.” Stevenson was just the tip of the iceberg, with fellow Brit Dominic West giving an unhinged turn as villain Jigsaw.
His casting wasn’t as drama free as the leading man’s, however, with The Wire star originally reluctant to do the movie as the production schedule in Montreal interfered with family commitments. “To hear that Dominic West doesn’t want to do it because the shoot might fall on his daughter’s birthday? That’s a nice thing to hear, like dude, yeah—I get it,” says Alexander. “On the substitute list there wasn’t really a great name I thought would work for Jigsaw, so I tried to push for Paddy Considine. No one thought he was right for the character and I said, ‘You have to watch Dead Man’s Shoes then tell me that again.’ But I didn’t trust they were actually going to watch the movie, so I took my DVD and drove two hours all the way to fucking Santa Monica in rush hour to drop it off at the executive’s office. I’m not joking, that’s how obsessed I was.”
In the meantime, unbeknownst to her, negotiations had continued with West and the shoot was figured out around his schedule. Considine learned he lost out on the part and took to his personal blog to express his frustrations “It all means jack anyway,” he wrote back in September of 2007. “The only blessing was that I didn’t waste an hour of my life reading the script…And for the record, I thought Green Street was a gigantic mess. Lucky escape.”
Alexander was in shock, having spent the past several days “really pushing for another Brit actor that Lionsgate didn’t think could do it.”
“I’ll never forget this moment in my life,” she laughs. “I’m looking at my screen and reading all this shit he has written about me and I’m starting to bawl, I’m crying because I don’t know how I got into this position. It was an actor I loved, I thought he was genius, but this is how it is in Hollywood: Nothing is ever the truth. I haven’t been able to watch anything with him since that.”
It was just one of many incidents that make the movie difficult for Alexander to discuss a decade later as “it comes with a lot of passive aggressive abuse that was aimed at me,” she says. “There were days when I went to work with a 102 degree fever because they told me I couldn’t take a day sick. And you know what? I showed up and I did it, I researched, I did the work. Then to be left alone in terms of the marketing, the distribution…they basically didn’t care.”
At first Punisher: War Zone was due for its theatrical debut in September 2008, but the scheduled release date of another high-octane Lionsgate movie — Transporter 3 - led the studio to inform Punisher’s team that it was being pushed back to December.
Initially, that was sold as a positive step, with executives telling various members of the production there would be “an extra marketing spend” to release trailers and build a campaign to position the film as alternative programming throughout the competitive Academy Awards season.
Oswalt, a lifelong comic book fan and pop culture aficionado, was shocked to learn the movie had been released in cinemas without him knowing about it. “I remember walking out with my three friends who went with me — and the other two people in the theatre — feeling like we’d seen this forbidden, pungent corner of the comic book universe that would bring a for real grim ’n’ gritty aspect to comics’ darker characters, instead of the calculated shades of a lot of the big-budget films. Alas, we were — and remain — in the minority.”
In a year when Marvel Studios had a hit with Iron Man and a flop with The Incredible Hulk, Punisher: War Zone barely lasted three weeks in theatres, struggling to scrape in over $11 million domestically and bringing its global haul to just a little past $14 million — well shy of its $48 million budget. In short, nobody really saw it...and the critics who did? Their response was visceral.
“They had these two critics’ screenings and I was given a list of who was attending in New York and Los Angeles,” says Alexander. “I sent an email asking if on the seat of every screening we could put a few pages of the comic book to show them it’s a very, very faithful adaptation.
The marketing team literally emailed back saying, ‘This is one of the most ridiculous suggestions we have ever heard.’ There was a critic who wrote ‘Lexi Alexander has fantasies that should put her in prison.’ To be honest, I took that as a compliment.”
Time can be a strange thing in the pop culture landscape, however, causing some things to fade and others to sharpen as the years go by. Who could have predicted that Punisher: War Zone would be better remembered than The Incredible Hulk? Although few want to speak about the Ed Norton vehicle, countless “why we failed this movie” articles have been written about Punisher: War Zone.
It has found an audience via word-of-mouth and the raucous support of people like Oswalt, who called it a “memorable piece of high-shelf exploitation,” and Smith, who said “Punisher: War Zone doesn’t get enough credit.”
“It was ahead of its time and in my opinion, no one had successfully made a movie like that until Punisher: War Zone,” says Derrickson, who later went on to work with Alexander on a pilot at Blumhouse Productions. “I don’t think anyone had gotten that character right. Not to disparage the previous movies, but I was just surprised by how well it delivered on what a Punisher movie should be.”
The popular podcast How Did This Get Made did a whole episode dedicated to Punisher: War Zone, featuring both Alexander and Oswalt, and pop culture commentator Marc Bernardin did a 45 minute deep dive on the movie during the Fatman On Batman podcast (now known as Fatman Beyond). “I found out much later who loved it, “ says Alexander. “It wasn’t a bad film, but nobody goes [to the theatre] and you question yourself.
The history of that movie has been constantly turning…I get requests—I got one just this year — from Lionsgate asking if I would come in and do something for the 4K release. And I said no, because frankly? I’m not able to do any more free labour for that movie. I don’t step into the director’s chair like I do when I step into the ring with my arms up, wondering where you’re going to get punched from next. Now I know more and I understand that you have to question everything.”
Strangely, given how hyper-masculine the story of The Punisher is, a large part of War Zone’s legacy has to do with women—specifically, women directors. “She was the person who made me realise how bad it was for women directors in Hollywood,” says Derrickson, who struck up a friendship with Alexander over Twitter after following her for a few years. “I didn’t know at that point only seven per cent of available directing jobs went to women. Reading her feed, that was the thing that impacted me the most: how tough it is for female directors out there.”
After Punisher, Alexander didn’t leave superheroes behind exactly—she has gone on to direct episodes of Arrow and Supergirl — but her experience on the movie led the ACLU to seek her out for their investigation about widespread and systematic discrimination against female filmmakers within Hollywood.
Having carved a path for himself as a writer, director, and producer in Hollywood with a penchant for genre tales like Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil, Derrickson adds that perhaps one of Punisher: War Zone’s biggest underrated strengths is the marriage of source material and filmmaker.
“In Lexi’s situation—the vengefulness of that character—she has that quality to her,” he says, pointing to her “online activism” as an example. “You know, that angry, defensive, justice-wielding power as a person. She understands violence and has spent her life surrounded by it and training for it…that all comes though, that makes a difference.”
“This isn’t about me,” says Alexander, who has been vocal about the bias she has experienced in the business and her fight to improve the reality for other female filmmakers. “This is about every woman that follows in my footsteps.
Can any movie be directed by a woman? Yes, I’ve never thought we lack the ability. There was a time when I thought being the only woman hired to direct action was a great thing. Now in the last few years, I’ve understood how far and deep discrimination goes to the point I correct people when they say to me, ‘Oh Lexi, you know why we love you? Because you’re a woman and you can do action.’ There’s this idea that if you’re male you have to do action; it just comes apparently with having a penis. But if you’re a woman, you have to be a world kickboxing champion and a former stuntwoman before they’ll believe you know a little bit about action.”