Last summer, the repairman who came to patch my kitchen ceiling, discovered I read comics and then kept asking me about different blockbuster superhero movies and shows. And I’d keep saying I wasn’t very interested. He stood on the ladder, shaking his head in a reverie, saying the superhero movies were like candy to him and “I can’t get enough.” Then he explained that Superman was inherently boring and Wonder Woman was just a bad character.
He has so much candy he can’t even taste it anymore.
I’ve been thinking about this as my tastes become more out of sync with the fandom mainstream. With comics, I’ve always enjoyed marginal characters. It doesn’t surprise me with my movie taste in general, but it’s strange to feel disinterest in the whole summer blockbuster thing, despite a long-standing love of explosions, fights and scrappy underdogs doing the right thing. In fact, I’ve been enjoying those more in movies like Machete Kills or Fast & Furious 6 than in superhero movies lately. But I’m not entirely surprised that Punisher: War Zone (2008) is the film that pulled me out of my superhero movie malaise.
A month or so ago, I read Lexi Alexander’s essay on piracy, diversity and Hollywood, “Will The Real Pirates Please Stand Up.” Then a friend suggested I listen to the episode of How Did That Get Made dedicated to Alexander’s movie, Punisher: War Zone. (Incidentally, I can’t recommend listening to this episode enough if you are at all interested in how studio movies do get made). And after listening, I wanted to see Punisher: War Zone, even though the Punisher has not been my thing.
The Punisher is a vigilante antihero who kills criminals the cops can’t touch. Sometimes he just kills criminals anyway. In the comic, Frank Castle’s wife and child are killed during a family picnic and this loss leads Frank to become the Punisher. None of Frank’s personal background is in Alexander’s film and that’s fine with me. I don’t think an origin story helps Frank much. At best, it shows a person he just isn’t anymore. There isn’t much of Frank’s inner life in the movie either, and I think that’s also wise. A man whose M.O. is execution should be hard to relate to.
The film opens with Frank (Ray Stevenson) deciding to take down the Busotti crime family at dinner. The first five minutes of the film show exactly what you are getting and what you are getting is insane, gory, over-the-top violence that we would have called “ultraviolent” or “splatterpunk” in the olden days. At one point, Frank hangs upside down from a chandelier firing an automatic weapon in each hand. At another, he rams a chair leg through a man’s head. Jimmy Bussotti (Dominic West) escapes dinner only for Frank to catch up with him later at the Bussotti family recycling center, where Jimmy is making a deal with another gang. Frank shoots an undercover FBI agent and Jimmy falls into a grinder filled with glass bottles. The Punisher being the Punisher turns the machine on.
After undergoing plastic surgery to repair his face using “steel alloy and strategically placed horse hide,” Jigsaw, née Jimmy, breaks his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison), out of an institution and gathers forces to “punish the Punisher.” Before a waving American flag, he gives a stirring speech to Irish-American, African-American and Chinese-American gangs. Meanwhile, a guilty Frank plans to quit Punishing, but ultimately teams up with the slain FBI Agents’ partner Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) to save the agent’s widow Angela (Julie Benz), daughter Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas) and his own sidekick, Microchip (Wayne Knight) and defeat (and by “defeat,” I mean, “kill”) Jigsaw, Loony Bin Jim and their assembled forces.
The film’s well-made, nicely composed, well-paced, darkly funny, and has some good hand-to-hand fights. (I was particularly pleased to see a female police officer get a few hits in before going down). The Christ imagery is blatant. The violence is graphically absurd. People explode. Baby dolls are ruthlessly gunned down. It recalls the best, most enthusiastic WTF moments of the straight-to-video era. And it’s a gorily joyous embrace of comics not only as a source for stories, but as a medium.
Unfortunately, Lionsgate and Marvel really wanted it to be their Dark Knight, even stripping Alexander’s original score and adding one that was more Hans Zimmer*. But Punisher: War Zone isn’t that movie. There are people who like it, including Patton Oswalt and the Gutter’s Fellow M.O.S.S. Agent Paul Chapman. Roger Ebert considered it “disgusting” but “well-made.”
But it’s just not what a lot of people want in a superhero movie. I don’t really hold with Rotten Tomatoes, but given how many fans try to work Rotten Tomatoes ratings, it says something that it has a 27% fresh rating. Mostly, people just say it’s bad. At Cinemablend, Josh Tyler captures a lot of what people didn’t like.
In nearly every other conceivable facet director Lexi Alexander’s movie is a failure. The problems start with the movie’s script, which doesn’t really have a particularly interesting Punisher story for us to ride shotgun on. It’s a small, small story. This seems like it might be a Tuesday in the life of The Punisher, not some special event worthy of telling in a movie. Maybe they were shooting for something intimate and deeply personal but this movie doesn’t have the kind of emotional depth necessary to connect on that level. Brief moments in which Alexander seems to be grasping for more, as in a scene in which Castle convincingly growls ‘sometimes I’d like to get my hands on God,’ hint at the tantalizing possibility of something deeper here, but the film always quickly snaps back to the world of the absurd. Absurdity, though clouded by dim lighting and deadly serious line delivery, is absolutely the order of the day.
I’d like to be clear that I have no problems with Tyler holding the opinion that he does. I’m using it as a jumping off point to think about what underlies a lot of geek/nerd/fan evaluation of superhero movies in particular. There are some ideas about what a superhero film should be that I think a lot of geeks/nerds/fans share: the events and threat faced should be epic; the film and/or protagonist should have emotional depth that the viewer can connect to; and the tone should be serious or at least not absurd. Going further, I think many fans hope to see and experience what it would look like and feel like if superheroes were real. They’d like to be seamlessly immersed into a situation presented exactly as it would be in the real world, while capturing and recreating some feeling they got from the comic.
But Punisher: War Zone is a failure only if it attempts immersive realism, emotional depth and seriousness and fails, not if it embraces absurdity and succeeds. And Punisher: War Zone succeeds at embracing absurdity. For instance, “I’d like like to get my hands on God” isn’t necessarily a deep sentiment. It’s also an absurd one. In comics, we suspend our disbelief about the absurdity of lines like that; we accept them as normal. But Punisher: War Zone goes with the absurdity. And the deadly seriousness of Stevenson’s delivery sets off my camp-dar. I understand camp can pain fans who very much want superheroes to be serious business, but absurdity’s part of comics, too. The visual elements of comics celebrated in this film—colors, lighting, framing, panels—might even intrude for an audience looking for a different film and a different experience.
Here’s a fun fact about me: I read a lot of classical Sanskrit aesthetic theory in college. And thinking about the feelings fans look for in superhero films gives me flashbacks. Long before fans started searching for that comic book feeling in comic book movies, Sanskrit-speaking theorists were carefully delineating the emotions art evoked in audiences. Critics deconstructed plays searching for what made them cause what the internet calls “feels” and Sanskrit aesthetes called “rasas” or highly refined emotional states. This theory was adapted theologically, with devotees of Krishna striving to identify so thoroughly with Krishna’s stories that one is transported (mentally and ultimately spiritually) into his world. Sound familiar? Yes, fan fiction and squee can be used for enlightenment.
Getting back to superhero movies, I think the ones that fans widely consider successful transport them into another realistic world effortlessly. And behind this is the assumption that that transport, that emotional response, is the purpose of the movie–possibly the purpose of any movie. So Punisher: War Zone becomes a failure not because it doesn’t accomplish its goals—the goals of the filmmakers—but because it doesn’t accomplish a particular audience’s goals–realism, immersion, a particular experience and feeling. It’s not an interesting adaptation or a celebration of some other aspect of comics—or even disgusting and possibly morally reprehensible, both arguable with this film—it’s a failure.
I’m not arguing for a kind of absolute relativism here, in which if I like or enjoyed Punisher: War Zone it’s good. I’m not arguing that for a lot of reasons, the most important being that the converse is sketchy as hell: dislike = bad. That’s a corrosive line of thinking. At the most basic level, I know that “dislike” ≠ “bad” because there is art I dislike even while knowing it’s good. But I can appreciate and even learn from it. The greater geek/nerd/fan community tends to smooth over differences by saying that we respect each other’s likes, that if you like something there must be something good about it, while at the same time organizing around liking the same things, creating canons and having a lot of received wisdom about what is good or bad–like my repairmans’s assertion, “Wonder Woman is a bad character.”
But people can like the same thing, superheroes in general or the Punisher in particular, for instance, without liking it the same way, in the same form or the same thing about it. A huge chunk of the whole fake geek girl thing is as much about “You’re liking it wrong” or “You like the wrong thing about it” as it is just plain sexism**. And when your tacit understanding about what makes something good or bad generally comes down to labeling things good and bad, it’s hard to notice when you are tacitly arguing against diversity–like my repairman, who has felt so deprived for so long that he doesn’t recognize he’s not losing something by not getting everything. There can be grim and dark movies like Nolan’s Batman, shiny colorful movies like The Avengers and crazy-ass odes to campy, comic book violence like Punisher: War Zone–even scruffy action like Machete Kills, The Raid and the Fast & Furious movies.
Geeks, especially white male geeks, have won Hollywood***. When you’ve won, you can be the bully you always hated—without even knowing it—if you don’t recognize you’ve won. As an old punk, I still wince when I see “Punk Rock” as a fashion category on Project Runway—people adopting signs and signifiers of identity and membership without recognizing the meaning. So I sympathize with Patton Oswalt’s rant about how a nerdy t-shirt or Monty Python lines used to mean something, even while I think the geek/nerd/fan community set itself up from the start. The goal they’ve been working toward, their idea of success, was commodification by the mainstream. And if your signs of membership were already commodities, well, you’ve set yourself up good for a really complicated identity crisis. When becoming mainstream has been your subculture’s goal forever, how do you talk about the downsides of assimilation? The closest the geek/nerd/fan community gets to “poser” or “sell out” is “fake geek girl.” And when community identity is built around being an audience–or even consumers–relating to each other around art that is outside the community’s control, all the old signs of membership and prestige become murky and hard to read. How do you deal with difference when you thought you knew what every Punisher and Batman t-shirt meant? There’s no way to police why or how people wear them. It might feel like appropriation, though it’s not. See, Batman can be like liberty spikes or throwing up a pitchfork, but liberty spikes and gang signs should not be like Batman. Anyone can buy a Batman shirt and wear it for a million different reasons.
And I think some of this tension comes out in talking about good and bad movies, and in some nervous memories about days when fans didn’t get what they wanted and fears about that time coming again. I know a lot of people liked Punisher: War Zone. I hear it called, “The definitive Punisher movie.” And that’s fine—it successfully recreated the Punisher comic for them. But what I like about Punisher: War Zone is that it’s different. I could use more movies that are a little different. I enjoy the visual elements of comics, all the silliness and absurdity of them. And I find the blockbuster superhero films’ desaturated sensibility increasingly oppressive as more and more city blocks are destroyed to squeeze the same amount of sentiment out of me. I’m at a point where I need some more ridiculous, absurd small-scale feelings. The same old candy is getting stale. And the old punk in me thinks Punisher: War Zone is kinda punk rock.
*From the Punisher: War Zone episode of How Did This Get Made.
**Sexism and liking the wrong things or liking things in the wrong way are of course linked, since almost everything identified with girls or women is less valuable than things identified with boys or men or widely perceived as being for boys or men.
***My friends John and Todd would like to remind you that Hollywood doesn’t exist.
Carol Borden promises you that you will never, ever have to look at your reflection again, as long as you’re with her. She also wonders if Punisher: War Zone would’ve been better received if it came out after The Raid and Dredd.