REVIEWED: SEASON 2 (ALL EPISODES) | WHERE TO WATCH: NETFLIX
After the disappointing three-way flop that was Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders, the debut season of The Punisher was a breath of fresh air for Marvel Netflix. While its military conspiracy storyline and subplots meandered, and the season inevitably felt several episodes too long, it was a solid return to form for the streaming giant’s Marvel division, and proof that the Punisher could carry a series on his own (very broad) shoulders.
Season 2 finds Castle semi-retired again, mellowed out and living out of a series of small-town motel rooms. In a classic Punisher setup, it’s the bad guys who stumble into his path, while chasing down a teenager who knows a lot more than she should about people she shouldn’t. Frank being the man that he is, he’s soon caught in the middle, facing down wave after wave of armed goons – and a very religious but still mightily formidable Josh Stewart as one of the series’ main antagonists. Well, somebody had to step up to the plate, with the newly-emerged Jigsaw spending most of the season either catatonic or confused.
‘Jigsaw’ is a stretch for this version of the character though; with but a handful of scars etched across his still-beautiful face, Ben Barnes is still the hunk he was in Season 1. But then, nobody is quite what they should be here. Comic book purists will baulk at this version of a Frank Castle who goes on breakfast dates, drinks beer, eats cereal and, most jarringly, spares the life of a paedophile.
Season 2 comes out of the gates strong, firing on all cylinders for its first four episodes – a bathroom knife fight and motel shootout are up there with the best of anything Marvel Netflix have (had) produced so far, culminating in a Punisher-centric Assault on Precinct 13. But it can’t maintain that speed or steam for long, and once The Punisher returns to New York, the series hits the brakes and becomes an exhausting grind. Giorgia Wigham does great work as the traumatized teen around whom the season revolves, but few comic book fans will have tuned in to watch the Punisher eating pizza and drinking coffee with a teenage girl.
As with every (Marvel) Netflix series before it, it’s bogged down with uninteresting side characters and their boring subplots (the relentlessly dour Agent Madani returns, as does Frank’s dull military buddy), and is so embarrassed by its source material that Castle isn’t even allowed to wear his iconic chestpiece until episode 7. At times, the show seems ashamed of the very concept of the Punisher, with part of the main storyline serving as a direct rebuttal to those extreme right-wing types and, uh, sociopaths who would hail him as their idol.
That’s fine and even necessary (and in the case of Frank’s line about not working with Russians, pretty on-the-nose) but unfortunately, this dilutes the character as fans know him. Although Bernthal gives a ferocious, multifaceted performance, his Punisher still feels declawed – a far cry from his cold, deliberate, unstoppable comic book counterpart. One can’t fault the show for giving the Punisher some depth and feeling, but the story simply isn’t compelling enough to warrant it.
Which is shame, because when The Punisher is good, it’s up there with Jessica Jones Season 1 and Daredevil as the best Marvel TV has ever gotten. It’s certainly got the gnarliest action: a fight between Frank and a gang of Russian bodybuilders gets shockingly gory, and the inevitable showdown between the Punisher and his enemies is like something straight-out of the Punisher MAX page. More than any which preceded it, this is a realistic, thoughtful take on the character, with more similarities to The Wire than any of the comics it’s based on. In refusing to glamorize the Punisher or what he does, the show loses any sense of fun, but gains a performance-for-the-ages in Bernthal’s Frank Castle.
“Just let me be me,” Castle asks, and one wishes the show had listened to its titular character: The Punisher is at its best when it just lets the Punisher be the Punisher.