Stale Candy, Punk Rock, Failure, Assimilation and Punisher: War Zone

Punisher War Zone chandelier

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 boring and Wonder Woman was 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.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 6.18.27 PMThe 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, nee 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’s recalls the best, 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.

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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*. 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’s opinion, 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.

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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 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 superheros 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–perhaps of any movie.  So Punisher: War Zone becomes a failure not because it doesn’t accomplish it 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.

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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.

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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 in the case of collectors–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.

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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.

This piece was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on July 17, 2013.

5 thoughts on “Stale Candy, Punk Rock, Failure, Assimilation and Punisher: War Zone

  1. Wow. As usual, you’ve sent my brain revving with all the stuff in here. Five hundred words into a response, complete with numbered points and long digressions, I read everything back and confirmed a sneaking suspicion: that I sound like an asshole…which is usually what happens when something’s fired me up. So I’ll just say, “This one hit close to my black, chitinous heart for a variety of personal reasons. Great job. And thank you.”

  2. You are welcome. I wouldn’t want to hit you directly in your black, chitinous heart, though, because it’s always good talking with you.

    1. 1. “if your signs of membership were already commodities, well, you’ve set yourself up good fora really complicated identity crisis.” Indeed. Commodities make bad identity signifiers and are, in most cases, only evaluated on their utility to the consumer. A hammer can look like – or actually be – Mjölnir, but if it doesn’t put nails in walls, most people (foolish repairmen, for example) will consider it useless. For extra credit, evaluators can take the commodity apart – reducing it down to its components, with all the elimination of context that implies – but so many people stop there, it’s no wonder audiences think we’re all snobs who hate everything, and so run to the sheltering arms of the familiar.

      Too few of us know how to “read” art, in any form, never mind one that asks so much passivity from us as film. We often forget art cannot be addressed like other commodities, no matter how large the industrial side of it grows, or how many crap remakes/sequels they churn out. A hammer’s just a tool. Art is the closest thing we have to telepathy. The artist(s) stamp(s) a thought out into some physical form and transmits that to an audience. Maybe it comes through clear, maybe not. Punisher: War Zone’s exactly what a great deal of people want in a superhero movie – they just don’t know it yet. They never received the transmission.

      It’s up to people like us to tell them, but not enough of us saw the movie when it came out, either. Even if we did, we didn’t write it up – we left that job to people like Good Mr. Tyler.

      2. *I* have problems with Tyler’s opinion, and no problem writing them down under my own name: it betrays a level of ignorance that would be stunning if it weren’t par for the course. Worse yet, he seems proud of it! I’d love to hear him name a “good” Punisher story, for example, but the best he can do is call “Kill Bill…probably as close as we’ll ever get to seeing something which hits the mark these Punisher movies are shooting for.” To quote the opening line of my second-favorite Zack Snyder film, “Wrong, as usual!” Why is no one bitching about “fake geek guys”? What is a “poseur” if not someone who can’t be asked to do the most basic level of research into a topic before spout off about it? We internet-based culture geeks seem infested with such people. I suspect we inherited the problem from academia, but I have nothing to back that up. Point is, we are not on Fury 161: we do not have to tolerate the intolerable.

      Tyler, for example, tells us exactly what he wanted:

      “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…”

      Frank Castle’s obviously never read his Nietzsche or he’d know somebody already choked God out a century before he was born (in either the physical, or meta-textual sense). But Tyler clearly wanted The Punisher to wrestle with the Theodicy problem, despite the long list of Marvel heroes much more suited to that role (Doctor Strange, a Steve Gerber-written Howard the Duck, Ghost Rider, Hulk and Thor all come to mind off the top of my head). Again: ignorance.

      I think this is the seat of your “ideas about what superhero film should be that [you] think a lot of geeks/nerds/fans share”. Those “ideas” are closer to marketing buzz words than actual ideas. In fact, they’re the same buzz words that drive the production side of movies at an executive level, regardless of subject matter. Much easier to regurgitate marketing-ese than come up with your own ideas. Thinking is hard, and thinking up ideas that might potentially justify your subjective opinions about a piece of art, doubly so. Gets even harder once you’re inundated with a weekly dose of mediocre crap, like so many pro critics, to the point that nothing much gets a rise out of you. In fact, it becomes easy to start hating the films that do shock you out of dull, complacent consumption. And hate’s as good as caffeine to help you stay up and meet a deadline. Small wonder critical language was so wide-open to assimilation by people who think is a primary resource and Rotten Tomatoes actual indicates something.

      And smaller wonder we all ignored War Zone: it came out in the wrong year, and the studio aimed it at the wrong crowd. I think you hit upon this in another conversation with The Professor, and you struck true. Four years later (or six years earlier) and its successes would’ve been recognized on sight, and its failures either ignored or papered over as the grousing of “haters.”

      3. Even those usually categorized as haters, like Ebert, went soft on it, in their own way. “Disgusting but well-made” indeed! I can remember reading that review and having my usual, one-sided conversation with it: “Could it be that you’re disgusted BECAUSE it’s well-made? Would you rather feel nothing? Are you NOT entertained?” I miss that dirty old man more and more as time goes on. This current crop of his padawans and spiritual descendents are no fun.

      Ironically enough, your repairman sounds like exactly the type of person Avi Arad and the suits at Lionsgate hoped to cater to with War Zone…and, by extension, the entire Marvel Knights sub-imprint of films they were talking about making at the time, as an alternative to the various Phase One Marvel Studio productions. Lionsgate shot themselves in the foot, though, putting this out in early December, and pitching it to the “Hard-R” crowd that were busy “enjoying” Quarantine or Saw V at the time. The superhero crowd had Dark Knight, Iron Man and Hulk to keep them indoors, and no Serious Movie Fan would touch the Punisher with a ten-foot pole, except under duress (again, cf. Mr. Tyler). Even then, they make sure to wince, loudly and proudly, so everyone knows they’re slumming. A simplistic, pre-Monolith show of primate chest-thumping. One might even call it “a pose.”

      4. The entire “Camp vs. Realism” debate is ri-goddamn-diculous in its modern contexts. I thought the “absurdity” of speculative fiction was part of its appeal, but that was before I realized people are insane. Not enough of ’em actually read Sontag’s essay – they read about it, and take issue with the wisdom they’ve received instead of anything in the text itself…assuming they don’t dismiss it out of hand. So one winds up trying to argue semantics with people who hold the vulgar post-structuralist notion that words can mean whatever they think they mean. It’s like playing football in a collapsing stadium.

      Take the word “realistic” in reference to Nolan’s oh-so-“oppressive” Bat-films, for example. Whenever anyone involved with their production used that word, they were speaking in reference to special effects techniques. It was a broadcast to the anti-CGI snobs of the world: “We saved our pennies for real stunt guys, flipping over real semi-trucks in the real streets of real cities, which we really did shut down for a week of nights. Pat our heads and give us cash…or at least criticize us for something else.”

      They got their wish, and cries of “Chris Nolan’s a Closet Tory” will probably follow him to his grave, no matter how many of his antagonists straight-up quote Dick Cheney…but only my fellow Bat-fans are deluded enough to call the non-technical aspects of those films “realistic” because they are clinging to an identity made from other people’s media properties. They have no sympathy for Patton Oswald and would rather not see an identity crisis right now, thanks. Might harm productivity. Certainly doesn’t improve it, as I’m sure you’re well aware.

      Yet it’s right there, staring them in the face. The MacGuffins of those Bat-films are a microwave artillery gun (which would not look out of place in the JDSF’s anti-Godzilla arsenal) cell-phone-powered sonar mapping (because consumer-grade phones are notoriously good at sending out high-frequency sound, as anyone who’s been called by a friend in the middle of a concert will tell you) and the World’s Slowest Neutron Bomb, respectively. Are these any less “absurd” than parade balloons full of laughing gas, an infantry column of rocket-armed Emperor penguins, or 3D TV that sucks out your thoughts? Are they less “absurd” than anything in War Zone? One could argue, but I’ve found the argument deathly boring, with no conclusion or consensus is possible.

      5. I was kinda sad to see your “Batman can be like liberty spikes or throwing up a pitchfork, but liberty spikes and gang signs should not be like Batman.” line as the conclusion of the article, rather than up front, a primary focus. I would’ve liked to see you tease the “why not?” out of that statement because, staring at it, my brain can’t help but raise its hand and sheepishly ask: “What about V’s mask? Are its value and veracity not vindicated by the virtuous actions of the vigilant?” As every guerrilla army in history learns at some point, appropriation can be a two-way street.

      But, obviously, you covered a lot of ground already, and the last thing I want is for your articles to take even longer to write. There’s more, but I think I should put it into my own review of Punisher: War Zone. A too-little-too-late mea culpa, to make up for not doing that back in ’08. And again, I thank you for the inspiration.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I might have more later, but I have two things now:

    1. ‘staring at it, my brain can’t help but raise its hand and sheepishly ask: “What about V’s mask? Are its value and veracity not vindicated by the virtuous actions of the vigilant?” As every guerrilla army in history learns at some point, appropriation can be a two-way street.’

    Anonymous using V’s mask is how something like V’s mask can be liberty spikes or a gang sign. And I don’t see that as appropriation because I’d rather DC didn’t appropriate the term, “appropriation.” They already have “copyright infringement” and we can have civil disobedience with a side of copyright infringement.

    Though, I will say that I think that activists might’ve been better off using something that was not already a commodity and making something new that was their own. But that’s the old punk talking again and the old punk will always make me a bad geek and is why I wouldn’t identify as a geek in the same way that I would never say that I was from Utah.

    2. “A too-little-too-late mea culpa, to make up for not doing that back in ’08. And again, I thank you for the inspiration.”

    Mr. DeMoss, we live in the time of everything at once. The only reason not to write about something from not really that long ago in art history is if you were a part of its marketing machine and have something new to promote. You have something to say about Punisher: War Zone and you should say it. It’s not like it’s disappeared.

  4. A few more responses after some more thought.

    “What is a ‘poseur’ if not someone who can’t be asked to do the most basic level of research into a topic before spout off about it? ”

    I have to tell you that in my experience “poser” was mostly used to label people from a different punk scene who we didn’t know–because obviously we know all the real punks. I often think about this because it amuses me now and I think it is very revealing about how people in subcultures operate around inclusion and exclusion. I am not advocating fans/geeks/nerds adopt “poseur” to use as another weapon against each other in their endless determination of who sits where in the fan/geek/nerd hierarchy by means of interrogating each other about their knowledge, let alone in their purges. I think it’s toxic, damaging and tedious and have no interest in fueling it. But I am, at best, a bad geek and have never had any interest in that. I like art and I’m interested in talking about it and thinking about it.

    ‘I think this is the seat of your “ideas about what superhero film should be that [you] think a lot of geeks/nerds/fans share”. Those “ideas” are closer to marketing buzz words than actual ideas.’

    The ideas I’m talking about are rarely articulated. It’s why I used Josh Tyler’s opinion, because he *does* clearly articulate what he wants. So yes, some of those ideas and preferences might come from marketing and experience. But they also come from several hundred years of trajectory in storytelling and fiction and just over a hundred in film history. Realism just didn’t happen to become the only aesthetic theory and school that many people even know about. I think these preferences are almost visceral assumptions about what stories are, what they should be and even that they have a function and what that should be. At best, these assumptions can be justified or channeled with buzzwords and marketing. And I am using “idea” more in the sense of “ideation” than in the sense of an articulable rational argument. I think that geeks/nerds/fans value rationality, logic and arguments a great deal, but their loves, like all loves, and their preferences, like all preferences, are not rational.

    “I was kinda sad to see your “Batman can be like liberty spikes or throwing up a pitchfork, but liberty spikes and gang signs should not be like Batman.” line as the conclusion of the article, rather than up front, a primary focus.”

    The thing is, like I said, I am most interested in the art. If I made this the central piece, or if I went through the ways I disagreed with Josh Tyler, I would not be focusing on the art and it would be easy to get bogged down in Tyler and Ebert’s takes and I would be focusing on specific people when I am thinking about art and about people’s response to art and what they are looking for in it and how it is complicated. When fans/geeks/nerds use other people’s art to express things about themselves, about their ideas of the world, of how they feel, it’s complicated because they have at best little control over other people’s art. And I do think this focus on other people’s art results in many fun and neat things in fandom. At the same time, it means fans/nerds/geeks feel sad or get angry when the story that means so much to them in a deep and ineffable way doesn’t get told the way they think it should be or a way that feels right when they are relying on others to tell they stories they want the way they want. Anyway, I have disappointed you, and I am sorry about that. Unfortunately or fortunately, I am always going to be the writer I am going to be. Happily, you are always going to be the writer/podcaster you are going to be.

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