As the world mourns the great Ray Stevenson, it’s worth paying tribute to his time as Frank Castle in the underrated Marvel movie Punisher: War Zone.
Multiple fandoms were shocked at the sudden passing of actor Ray Stevenson, a staple of genre films and television. His (second) foray into the Star Wars universe comes in Ahsoka, set to debut in August on Disney+. He also appeared in the Marvel multiverse a few times, including as the best adaptation of Frank Castle in the underrated Punisher: War Zone.
A classically-trained British actor, Ray Stevenson worked steadily in the United Kingdom starting in 1990. However, his big break to American audiences came in the short-lived but well-loved Rome. Before Ahsoka, he provided his voice to The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels as the villainous Mandalorian Gar Saxon. He played Marcus, leader of the Abnegation, in the Divergent movies. Perhaps most notably, Stevenson brought Volstagg to life in the first three Thor movies before being unceremoniously killed by Cate Blanchett’s Hela. Still, Stevenson’s first foray into Marvel came as Frank Castle in the third attempt at a Punisher movie after the first two failed to find success. Ironically, Punisher was created as a kind of answer to the murder-heavy action movies of the 1970s, but none of the films ever got the character right. Director Lexi Alexander got the closest with Punisher: War Zone, mostly because Stevenson understood that Castle isn’t the character everyone thinks he is.
Punisher: War Zone Perfectly Blends Action Movie and Comic Book Tropes
The Punisher’s lack of success on the big screen is baffling because Castle’s story is the plot of countless action franchises. A good man who is talented at killing people loses his family in an act of violence, so he does what he does best. Because Punisher is a collection of action movie tropes sandwiched into a superhero universe, adapting the character is tricky. The Marvel Netflix series The Punisher, with Jon Bernthal in the role, did a decent job but diverted significantly from the comics. Part of the reason Stevenson is a “better” Punisher is because he’s not a character. In the first ten minutes of War Zone, at least two dozen people die in disturbing ways. Castle doesn’t say a word until a little less than a half-hour into the film.
Stevenson threaded a perfect needle in his Punisher performance. He wasn’t devoid of any human qualities, nor was he so human that his mass murder felt incongruous. He was a force of nature, driven by an almost religious zeal to punish the wicked. From the generic mid-oughts rock soundtrack to the digitally enhanced blood and viscera effects, War Zone almost works as a satire of both action shoot-em-ups and movies of that era. But from the second Stevenson’s Punisher hooks his legs into a chandelier to fire two automatic weapons while spinning, fans know they’re watching a comic book film.
Ray Stevenson’s Frank Castle Isn’t a Character – He’s a Mystery
Bernthal took a lot of what worked for his character from The Walking Dead and molded that around Castle. Specifically, there are moments where Bernthal just roars his performance when Castle goes manic and murderous. Stevenson doesn’t do that. Instead, his range is a series of grimaces and frowns. But the performance is meticulous. During the opening action sequence, Castle gets his nose broken. And through just breathing and moments of hesitation, Stevenson tells the audience everything they need to know about Frank. Stevenson wore his face like Batman’s cowl, and, of the people who played the character, he looked most like a comics panel come to life.
War Zone also doesn’t waste too much time with characterization. Everyone fits into an easy-to-understand archetype. The family of the slain hero. The hero with a slain family. The goofy cop who’s been right all along. The determined, driven detective who’s seeking justice. Hilariously, Wayne Knight, known as Newman on Seinfeld or Nedry in Jurassic Park, plays the only real character in the story, Micro. And the movie gives the audience this character only so they feel something when he’s killed in the final act. Stevenson imbues Punisher with subtle humanity, enough for audiences to root for him. But it’s not enough to understand him, as doing so would ruin the magic of the film.