After seeing the titular hero brutally avenge the death of his family in both Daredevil season two and The Punisher season one in what felt like two back-to-back origin stories, Frank Castle is back in The Punisher season two. However, this time, with the people responsible for the murder of his wife and children dead (or worse), fans are treated to an exploration of what happens when Frank has to find his own war.
I was not the biggest fan of The Punisher season one. It wasted a completely competent origin story gifted to it by Daredevil that ended with Frank Castle suiting up in all his trench coat and skull-vest glory, just to essentially repilot in episode one and have him literally throw it all away in a trash can fire before the opening credits. I bring all this up to give you the full scope of what I mean when I say that The Punisher season two is a massive improvement on its predecessor and even stands head-and-shoulders above some of the other shows in the Marvel/Netlix pantheon.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the titular villain taunts Captain America by telling him he’s fooling himself if he thinks he could ever live without a war. The Punisher season two is basically the heavy-metal version of that character conflict. The end result is a symphonic cacophony of violence, character growth, and dark humour that feels a lot more like what I was expecting from a standalone Punisher series.
Seeing Frank’s journey from soldier and family man to vengeance-fuelled anti-hero was fun and necessary, but between his half season on Daredevil and the first full season of his own show, it felt like there was too much we had seen before. Fortunately, this season learned from every mistake and delivers the story of how Frank Castle becomes a working vigilante with murderous intent, rather than a highly capable killer on a singular mission of revenge. The entire season delves into the fact that there is no reality where Castle is anything but The Punisher, and embracing that fact in all its blood-soaked majesty. It answers why he would continue to put his unique talents to use against bonkers villains in a world that doesn’t seem to appreciate his brand of justice.
Speaking of high-concept baddies, The Punisher season two makes up for the first season’s complete lack of a real comic-book level villain by pitting Frank against two big bads. On one side, is John Pilgrim, played by Josh Stewart. A devout Christian who seems to be taking his marching orders from an evangelical clergy that takes ‘going biblical’ to new heights, John may come off like a small-town bumpkin at first, but as time goes on you learn that he’s every bit a match for Castle, with his own dog in this fight.
In the other corner, you have the return (it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the trailer) of Billy Russo. After showing his hand in the death of Frank’s beloved family, The Punisher finally suited up and messed his face up somethin’ awful at the end of season one. He returns in season two to further antagonise Frank. Thanks to an expert performance by Ben Barnes, Russo remains a threat, but he may not be the man that Frank remembers. As a result, it puts the anti-hero off-kilter as Russo’s psychosis blurs the line between the man Castle once called a brother, and the man who deserved to get his face smashed through a mirror… twice. Unfortunately, the two villains’ stories never really fit together like missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle (nailed it). However, forcing a guy like Frank to fight separate wars on two fronts ends up being a pretty good recipe for escalation for a character that’s now appeared in three of these shows.
Missing from the action is Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Micro, which is a shame because he had real chemistry with Jon Bernthal in the first season. However, this season doesn’t suffer for his loss as much as it could thanks to the introduction of Giorgia Whigham as Amy Bendix, a street-smart grifter who is in far over her head with some really bad people. When she bumps into Frank, she plays a large part in helping him find another war to fight. However, her real appeal is filling the chemistry void left by Micro. Being roughly the age Frank’s daughter would be had it not been for the whole carousel thing, she helps shepherd along The Punisher’s journey from being a pure mission of vengeance to that of a repeat crime-fighter by accepting him for the killer that he is. In doing so, she makes the decision to constantly fight feel less like a betrayal of the life he once had, and more of an extension of who Castle was all along. Pepper in the return of Jason R. Moore as Curtis Hoyle and you’ve got a fun, albeit twisted, little crew to follow.
The Punisher season two can be considered a triumph for its action sequences alone. While the first season seemed to avoid showing the over-the-top, Garth Ennis-style violence many fans were hoping for, this season goes all in with impressive gun battles and bloody fist fights that serve to entertain while still allowing the character to feel grounded in reality. However, despite its improvements on tone, action and characters, it’s hardly a perfect season of television. Like most of these shows, there’s a handful of bad – and I’m going to start with the pettiest gripe I have.
For those who watched the teaser trailer and/or have any idea where Russo’s character is going as Jigsaw, it’s worth noting that comic book fans were expecting his injuries to be gnarly and grotesque. The facial scarring should be the kind of thing that would drive a man who just lost his chosen-family, successful business and reputation to feel a bit like a monster and be twisted by it. A case can be made that the Russo’s character’s vanity was such that even a minor scar could help him achieve the insanity needed to be a big bad to Castle. However, the show fails to illustrate that vanity and narcissism. Instead, Russo’s injuries are dealt with from a perspective of chronic pain rather than any kind outward-facing deformity that causes a shift in his personality. You shouldn’t need a horror movie deformity to explain why a character is this angry with our hero, but in Russo’s case, it felt like not enough in either direction.
The next piece of bad, and this will be a tough one for those that were excited to dive right into the season, is that the first half of the first episode is straight-up bad TV. It’s impossibly slow and laughably wholesome given the context. I’ll say that the episode more than makes up for it in the second half, if you can get there, and sets a more appropriate tone for what the rest of the season looks like. But, first impressions matter and The Punisher season two does not make a good one.
As far as pacing goes, as with most of the Netflix and Marvel shows, The season suffers from having to pad out its story in order to stretch it across 13 episodes. While I am and always will be of the opinion that these seasons should be shorter, The Punisher gets some credit for the fact that its padding often includes some hefty action sequences and even a bit of levity. It’s like it remembered that an action series needs to entertain its viewer rather spend 20 minutes per episode with decidedly unsubtle treatment of certain issues.
There’s no denying that The Punisher wants to resonate heavily with people in the military. That makes sense given many soldiers’ embrace of the character over the years. While that still plays a part here, it’s not as heavy-handed or predictable. This time around, the characters’ respective military backgrounds aren’t just played for drama and lazy character development, they actually infer their moral and ethical decisions in ways that are unique to them. For Frank, that means knowing when to pull the trigger. For Curtis, it means knowing what that trigger pull means. For Russo, it means making sure the gun isn’t pointed at him.
In total, The Punisher season two delivers what I want out of all of these Marvel shows – a familiar character dealing with new and exciting threats in a serialized story. That may sound basic, but it’s a feat that many shows on TV, Marvel and Netflix series included, aren’t able to accomplish. Given everything that’s going on with the partnership between Netflix and Marvel, it’s likely that this will be Frank Castle’s last ride in the MCU. If this is the last time we’ll see Bernthal’s Punisher, it’s a hell of a good look to leave on.
The Punisher season 2 arrives on Netflix on Friday the 18th of January.