Years ago, I was home and on some sort of strong medication. I don’t recall which one or why. I decided to watch Punisher: War Zone and was fundamentally unable to comprehend the movie unfolding before my hepped up goofball eyes. After the initial release and financial failure of the movie, many people championed the film and its director as solid entries into the Marvel movie universe. Eventually I decided to revisit the film with a clear head and realized I had been a fool to dismiss such an expertly directed, fun, violent, comic flick.
At the point of my re-watch, I also knew about director Lexi Alexander’s fights with Lionsgate to present some sort of Punisher primer to critics screening the flick to assist them in understanding the violence (I believe the kills in the film are all pulled directly from comic panels in The Punisher). I also knew that she took, and still takes, her role as a female role model in a male-dominated industry very seriously. I knew she put all of her talent into creating a Punisher movie that would make fans react with unbridled glee. All of these things, combined with the simple genius of the movie, helped to make me see how great Punisher: War Zone really is and how perfect the vehicle is for such a questionable Marvel “hero”. So when the chance came to choose a film for 52 Films By Women, this was a natural for me.
Alexander is a German-born writer, director, actress, producer, and former World Karate and Kickboxing Champion. After her Oscar-nominated short Johnny Flynton and full-length film Green Street Hooligans gained her critical acclaim and attention, Alexander was approached to direct a second try at a Marvel Punisher movie.
If you’ve listened to her appearance on “How Did This Get Made” with Patton Oswalt singing her praises, you already know Alexander was not originally on board. There were many contributing factors as to why Alexander felt that way, but not helping things was the Virginia Tech shooting happening right before her first meeting with Lionsgate. The shooter had a Punisher poster on his wall and media loves to run with things like that. After other directors passed or were too expensive, Alexander was told that her directing a Marvel movie would inspire young, female aspiring directors and show that women can direct more than “Lifetime movies”.
Alexander was swayed and began her preparation by going online and interacting with Punisher comic fans, asking what was done wrong in the Thomas Jane The Punisher, and finding out what they wanted to see on screen. The result is a very hard R Punisher movie that was criticized for all of the reasons it perfectly captured the Marvel anti-hero: violence, a twisted ethical compass, a singular obsession with obliterating organized crime, and more violence.
From the moment we meet Ray Stevenson’s Punisher, (saturated in green and black while watching television in a dark basement filled with firepower and anger) we have an idea about what movie we are going to be watching. After the comic panel credits flashing deaths, backstory, and violence begin, we’re all sure of what’s coming. At a little more than 7 minutes into the movie, Alexander skillfully brings the pain to a dinner party.
The soundtrack, which was a studio change that replaced Alexander’s original composer’s score with something similar to, quote, The Dark Knight instead, is jarringly out of place. The Punisher is a simple guy at heart and the studio should have stuck with Alexander’s instinct toward minimalism in the score. The fantastic swells and horns are the wrong companion to the Punisher’s particular style of vengeance: fast, violent, and low tech.
As I said, that is nothing to lay at Alexander’s feet. Instead, I hold her responsible for the gorgeously dark and grimy look of the film, pulled from the hidden recesses of Frank Castle’s tortured existence. Her fight scenes are beautifully insane and perfectly clear in their comic inspiration, giving us guns blazing while hanging from a chandelier and heads rolling across floors. Alexander manages to keep her title character’s speech to a minimum, relying instead on capturing actions and displays of barely concealed emotion to show us the man behind the skull emblazoned Kevlar vest.
Critics unfamiliar with the concept of a hard R-rating for a hard R Marvel character may have eviscerated the film upon its release. Audiences may have been unable to deal with getting what they want from a movie version of a character that is largely ignored and disdained by his blockbuster superhero cousins, causing the $35 million movie to see financial failure at the box office. Alexander then carried the weight of the failure on her shoulders and suffered for it unjustly, leaving her to direct only one other movie after this one.
Luckily, thanks to Patton Oswalt championing Alexander wherever anyone would listen and a new audience enjoying and applauding Punisher: War Zone for its successes, she’s directing more comic characters. Alexander has directed one episode each of DC’s Arrow and Supergirl television series. Alexander was praised by the casts of both shows for her talent and directing style. If Hollywood realizes their mistake in essentially blacklisting Alexander, I hope to see her allowed the freedom and creativity of a film that can showcase her skill and make her a household name.