There’s an old adage in comic books that The Punisher can only be successfully written in two different ways; as a hyper violent Loony Tunesesque take on anti-heroes, or as a soulless monster that’s much closer to a serial killer than a super hero. Humanizing him has always been out of the question. Netflix’s take on the character is the exception to that rule. Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle is a haunted man, struggling with grief and an insatiable urge to deal out his own admittedly brutal brand of justice. The first season of the show was largely successful. It functioned not only in telling the story of Frank’s quest for vengeance against the corrupt CIA agents that took his family from him, but also as an emotionally resonant look at the character and the effects of PTSD. It starts out slow, and is lacking in action, but it came into its own by the last few episodes. The same can’t be said for its second season, which seems to make improvements where the first season faltered, but do the opposite in every other aspect.
(Light spoilers follow)
Season 2 begins with Frank in a relatively good place. His family is avenged and he’s got a brand new identity courtesy of a grateful (and terrified) federal government. He catches a Shooter Jennings show at a Country-Western roadhouse (kind of out of place being in Michigan, but I digress), and even hooks up with a cute bartender before taking her and her son out for pancakes. Life is good, and a potential surrogate family is beginning to form around him. This picturesque new status Frank has built for himself comes to a screeching halt when his annoying new sidekick comes crashing into his life. Rachel, a teenage girl with a mysterious backstory and undeveloped roll of film is chased into the aforementioned by a well-armed group of henchmen. Frank being Frank, quickly puts himself between these scoundrels and the girl; leading to a glorious, bone-crunching and face stabbing bar fight that’s right up there with the famous hallway fight from the first season of Daredevil. From here the season starts off on a promising note, only losing steam in the later episodes of the season.
The seasons largely exists as two separate sub-plots. One is that of the Schultz family and John Pilgrim. The Schultz’ are shadowy, far-right billionaires after Rachel and her roll of film. To do this they send John Pilgrim, a poorly drawn assassin who’s a fundamentalist Christian zealot with the fashion sense of a Catholic Priest and a Pennsylvania Dutch accent. The other, and far more compelling subplot, is the return of the first season’s antagonist Billy Russo. After the vicious beating and disfiguring given to him by Frank, Billy is hospital bound and beleaguered with a nasty case of amnesia. As the season progresses, he eventually comes into his Jigsaw persona from the comics. Leading to Frank strapping back on his body armor with that iconic white skull painted on it. While Barnes could look a little uglier after what happened to his character last season, the Punisher vs. Jigsaw conflict is fantastic. Bernthal and Ben Barnes both excel in their respective roles. Barnes pulls off the gargantuan task of imbuing a cold blooded sociopath like Billy with sympathy and a sense of earnestness.
What holds truly holds the season back is its insistence on pushing the Jigsaw story to the wayside and spending far more time on the Pilgrim/Rachel storyline than is necessary. It’s vague and boring. And attempts to build sympathy for Pilgrim late in the season adds unnecessary bloat to a subplot that took up far too much time as it is. Rachel and Pilgrim, being the two major new additional characters of the season, just aren’t compelling. Rachel is marred with a mediocre actress and some of the most cringe-inducing dialogue I’ve seen in a very long time. Whereas Pilgrim comes off as a run of the mill creepy religious psychopath. The story takes an abrupt change of pace in the last few episodes. Any time that has been spent with Jigsaw is treated as an afterthought, with Pilgrim and his bland billionaire backers taking precedence. From here it limps into one of the weakest finales I’ve seen in years.
While the writing takes a turn for the worse, The Punisher hasn’t declined in all areas. The lack of action in the previous season is more than rectified here. The action sequences are without peer, as the camera and stunt work has drastically improved. It may seem like shallow praise, but seeing Frank absolutely cut loose with an arsenal of weapons and his own two fists is cathartic as hell.
While it certainly has its issues, namely a poor subplot and flat new characters, Season 2 isn’t a complete failure. It’s got fantastic action sequences, for one. And the acting remains solid as ever, with powerhouse Jon Bernthal in once again shining as the show’s title character and further cementing himself as one of the best actors in the entire MCU. But perhaps what it does best is wrapping up all loose ends. As many know, Marvel’s days on Netflix appear to coming to an end, with the cancellations of Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Daredevil hanging over this show like an ominous cloud. If Season 2 is the last we see of this iteration of Frank Castle, then viewers should be content knowing that his story has been concluded with a fitting and mostly satisfying end.