'The Punisher' Season 2 Review: Frank Castle Goes Out With a Bang
If The Punisher Season 2 is the last ride for Frank Castle, then what a ride it was. The new and likely final season of Marvel’s Daredevil spin-off succeeds yet again as a thrilling action-drama both because of, and in spite of, its morally reprehensible central protagonist.
Streaming January 18 on Netflix, Season 2 of The Punisher takes place a year and change after Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) cut up Billy Russo’s (Ben Barnes) face in Central Park. Now, Frank is a thousand miles away, and he’s taking it easy. He’s living as Pete Castiglione, an American nomad soaking up the vibes of every country bar he passes by as he flirts with cute bartenders. This is a rare chapter in the life of Frank Castle. Life is good.
But Frank Castle is, what many soldiers call a “shit magnet.” Trouble follows him wherever he goes (though don’t expect any Infinity War catastrophes). After a brawl in a Michigan roadhouse turns deadly, Frank is back to his old ways to help a runaway girl, Amy (Giorgia Whigham) escape from a radical Christian fundamentalist, John Pilgrim, played by Josh Stewart. Meanwhile, Billy resurfaces in New York with a pack of restless veterans in tow.
While The Punisher behaves an awful lot like previous Marvel/Netflix shows — strong beginning, ho-hum middle, solid to excellent climax, plus an inexplicable Friends problem in that average salaries can afford really nice New York apartments — the series is anchored by two powerful central performers who will be the sole reason you click “Play Next Episode.” Bernthal, proving again he was born to play Frank Castle, turns in yet another hypnotizing performance, perfectly teetering between Laid Back Marine and Guy Who’s Seen Some Shit.
But it’s his time with Whigham, also an exciting actor playing a smart but unseasoned grifter, that I’ll remember the most. It’s painfully obvious Frank sees Amy as the daughter he lost; there’s a moment in Episode 6 when the two stake out a fancy boarding school where Bernthal’s eyes say more than any line of dialogue. These two actors are just so good together that I wanted to spend every moment with them. Their scenes are more engrossing than the intrigue and the violence, the very hook for a show titled The Punisher.
Season 2 is a fine new entry in the old man/young sidekick drama, a prestige genre exhibited by works like Lone Wolf & Cub, Road to Perdition, Logan, and The Last of Us. The Punisher is Marvel’s Léon: The Professional: Whigham is a Gen-Z Natalie Portman and Bernthal an ooh-rah reboot of Jean Reno’s killer sophisticate. It’s just great.
The supporting cast are good, too, with few but glaring faults; Barnes does the most with Billy Russo, whose main scar isn’t explicitly clear (Is it his face? Missing memories? Both?), while Stewart’s John Pilgrim is only functionally creepy. He’s much too vague as an archetype where specificity would have given him teeth. He’s basically the same exact bad guy in Far Cry 5, and it’s disappointing, because a Punisher series framing a gun-toting Christian as a villain would have felt dangerous just a few years ago.
Still, Season 2 is now the second-best version of the Punisher character (see Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone if you want your mind truly blown). Originally debuting as a 1970s Spider-Man villain before achieving popularity, the Punisher is an uncomfortable “superhero” to cheer for in 2019. At his best, Frank Castle is a tool and a warning for other Marvel characters heading down a similar path.
At his worst, he is the mythic good guy with a gun fetishized by Fox News. His popularity among police, the military, and the alt-right is especially tough to swallow. And when a show like The Punisher stages some of the most visceral, violent action seen on TV (though arguably not to the level of Daredevil’s trilogy of oners), it’s hard to put any stock into the show’s other side, one that honestly tries to explore mental health and the failings of masculinity but winds up with mixed results. (But hey, at least the action is good.)
Yet for all of its narrative flaws, showrunner Steven Lightfoot miraculously reinvented the character, with Season 2 expanding upon the new interpretation. The difference between Punishers of yesteryear versus Jon Bernthal’s is that the text acknowledges that we, the audience, know he’s disturbing. Even Frank knows he’s disturbing, but Frank is trying really, really hard to not be that guy anymore. Frank doesn’t want to be miserable. Frank wants to have fun, kick back, and have a nice cold brew. Frank’s only problem is that he doesn’t like assholes. Unfortunately, the world is full of them.
Marvel’s The Punisher Season 2 will premiere on January 18 on Netflix.