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Ray Stevenson's Punisher: War Zone Was An Underappreciated Gem That Future Adaptations Shouldn't Ignore

Jon Bernthal will return as Frank Castle in "Daredevil: Born Again," which is good news for fans of Marvel's sociopathic vigilante. The actor is passionate about the character, and he's already proven that he can play him with nuance and fierceness. That's great — no doubts about it. However, as we look toward the future, we also shouldn't forget the past, and all future adaptations of this gritty comic character also need to learn a thing or two from Lexi Alexander's "Punisher: War Zone," an underrated cult classic that deserves more respect.

"Punisher: War Zone" was released in 2008, the same year that "Iron Man" gave birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film follows a darker version of Frank Castle, played to perfection by the late Ray Stevenson, as he rampages through New York City's criminal underworld, sparing no mercy as he leaves a pile of bodies in his wake. It's nothing like "Iron Man," or any other comic book adaptation for that matter. These days, it's a forgotten gem in the grand scheme of things. 

Alexander's take on Frank Castle's story is easily the most unhinged and chaotic of all of the "Punisher" live-action adaptations to date. However, on could also argue that it's the most entertaining of the bunch, precisely because the film isn't afraid to lean into the inherent absurdity of the source material that inspired it.

Punisher: War Zone is the most entertaining Punisher adaptation to date

Every "Punisher" adaptation so far has been vastly different from one another, and they're all good in their own way. The 1989 version is a solid action movie, despite the fact it's a "Punisher" flick in name only. The Thomas Jane-led reboot from 2004, meanwhile, sees the actor deliver an emotional performance that tugs at the heartstrings ... but, truth be told, it's quite dull at times. The MCU TV series, starring Jon Bernthal, gives Castle the most depth out of any adaptation thus far, but its unrelenting darkness makes for grim viewing.

"Punisher: War Zone" is great because it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's a lean, mean, action-packed machine, that channels the spirit of Garth Ennis' "Punisher MAX" run — which, to this day, is one of the most beloved series about Marvel's vigilante out there. And most importantly, while Alexander's film is over-the-top in the best kind of way, it's anchored by a deliciously gritty performance from Ray Stevenson. As Castle, Stevenson exudes all of the pain and menace that's synonymous with the skull-shirted antihero, adding just the right amount of seriousness to what is otherwise a live-action cartoon. 

Overall, though, "Punisher: War Zone" is all about spilling blood and guts, and that's where it really shines.

Punisher: War Zone is a splatter movie masterpiece

The opening scenes of "Punisher: War Zone" set the tone perfectly. Ray Stevenson's titular harbinger of justice interrupts a mob dinner party, immediately decapitates someone, and proceeds to feed the bad guys with a buffet of bullets — while spinning around on a chandelier and firing guns with both hands. After that, he jumps down from the ceiling and shoves a chair through some poor goon's eye. The chaos doesn't stop after that.

Granted, "Punisher: War Zone" isn't for the easily squeamish, but fans of bombastic action and splatter will have a blast with it. There are also some moments that wouldn't seem out of place in a horror movie, especially when it comes to Jigsaw (Dominic West). Castle leaves the villain looking like a Mafia version of Frankenstein's Monster after throwing him into a glass crusher, making him a truly nightmare-inducing villain.

Of course, every "Punisher" adaptation is going to pack a punch when it comes to bloody violence. However, "Punisher: War Zone" also boasts another quality that future adaptations should adopt in order to stand out from contemporary comic book movies and TV shows.

Punisher works best when separated from other Marvel characters

"Punisher: War Zone" felt like an anomaly when it was released in 2008, and that's certainly even more true in the current climate of comic book adaptations. These days, interconnected universes are all of the rage, and "Punisher" has become part of this trend, too. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but "Punisher: War Zone" rules because it marches to the beat of its own drum.

Future "Punisher" adaptations should consider distancing the character from some of his Marvel peers. While it's fun to watch characters interact as part of a grander narrative, interconnected universes require creators to be beholden to an overarching vision. The downside is that it can limit creative freedom and dilute the power of each character's individual story, which is a criticism that some fans had about Netflix's "Punisher" series.

Now that Marvel Studios and Disney are in charge of Castle again, he's going to be part of a bigger puzzle. That means we won't get to see anything as singular and deranged as "Punisher: War Zone" for quite some time, and that's a shame. That said, the House of Mouse should at least embrace the fun elements of "Punisher: War Zone" and cater to fans who crave over-the-top, debaucherous absurdity.