The New Season of 'The Punisher' Is Still Super-Violent, but Has More Humorous Moments
With Netflix shedding its superhero shows (flagship series Daredevil, along with Luke Cage and Iron Fist, have been canceled), no doubt because of Disney's looming streaming service coming sometime this year, we're down to two holdouts: Jessica Jones, whose third season is said to be arriving in 2019, and The Punisher, whose second season debuted January 18. It's likely that both of these shows will also be "canceled" after their 2019 seasons have had some breathing room, with the possibility of revival on the Disney service. For now, we still have them, which is good news -- because Jessica Jones and, especially, The Punisher, are far and away Netflix's best Marvel shows.
Premiering almost exactly a year after the 2016 election and in the midst of distressingly increasing gun violence, the onus was on the first season to make a case for itself. How can we stomach a show about a vigilante with an arsenal of assault weapons who has the power and capability to brutalize anyone he considers an enemy, when that very thing has already happened too many times to count within the last five years? Season 1 made the bold and wise choice of couching the plot in a very tender and sympathetic depiction of the way military veterans can feel displaced, useless, and powerless back at "home," where the talents they spent the last few years of their lives honing (i.e. killing people) are no longer necessary. The violence -- and the show is very violent -- was never fetishized, and a clear emphasis was put on the tragedy of who Frank Castle is: A good man whose only talent is causing people pain.
In essence, The Punisher's second season has one of the most radical tonal shifts ever seen in a TV show. Season 2 focuses less on the quiet crisis this country has in giving former members of the military a home again, and tiptoes closer to more traditional superhero comic melodrama. Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) has no superpowers, so it would make sense that his show would skew closer to reality than one about a super-strong woman or a blind man whose other senses are heightened in the extreme. Castle is merely an ex-Marine whose only skill -- or rather, the only skill he'll allow himself to believe he has -- is being really good with a lot of different types of guns. But, now that the show has gotten past his origin story, The Punisher is allowed to have a little fun.
Part of that fun is thanks to Castle's new sidekick, Amy Bendix (Giorgia Wigham), a smart-mouthed young twentysomething who's gotten herself mixed up with a mysterious, scary mob on the hunt for a few rolls of film. It takes a while for her to warm up to Castle, and the two never really stop bickering and insulting each other, but their growing respect for one another as the season progresses provides the one anchor that keeps Castle from becoming a bullet machine. Meanwhile, on the other side of things, his old sneering pal Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) has lost all memory of his and Castle's epic showdown that capped off Season 1, and is now tromping around the city threatening people into telling him who scarred up his face, and cajoling his fellow displaced Marines into doing some casual crime. You know, like a villain would do.
There are certain moments of levity mixed in with the grimdark overarching plot that feel more Shane Black than Avengers: Castle flipping through channels and landing on a nature documentary about bugling elks, a shopping spree set to Amy Winehouse's "Fuck Me Pumps," one thug telling another that he can't wear a rubber mask during a robbery because of his latex allergy. Not that that humor gets in the way of any of the violence. People still get stabbed in the hands, neck, and other body parts, bullets cause cascades of blood more at home in a Jackson Pollock painting (seriously, what is the squib budget for this show?), and Castle's blood-spattered skull vest makes its requisite reappearance.
The second season unfortunately has a looser storyline than the preceding installment, mostly because Marvel keeps giving all of these shows at least two villains at a time. They need to, in order to keep making a case that these shows -- which have at most a couple movies' worth of plot -- need to be 13 one-hour episodes long. Please, Netflix. We're all begging you. Ten episodes is fine. Eight, even! More than a few scenes devolve into extreme talkiness that spirals away from the point and back again, and the Marvel curse of characters saying lines that don't actually make any sense in the conversation rears its head again more than once. One character actually blurts out, "There is no happy ending!"
But, still, Marvel and Netflix's ability to hold steady a show revolving around a character that most Americans would consider a nightmare is impressive, and requires a very strict rulebook. The handsomely choreographed fight scenes are never glorified as anything other than situations where characters get very, very hurt; Castle is never lionized as an aspirational figure. "Fuck them," Bernthal even said in a recent lengthy Esquire interview, in response to the alt-right conservatives who consider themselves fans of the character.
Back in 2017, a day before the first season dropped on Netflix, Vulture published a very informative piece by Abraham Reisman about why the Punisher is so popular with soldiers and cops. The character has developed a huge following over the years from people who see something in him they can identify with: An ex-soldier looking to make sense of a dangerous world that feels nothing like home, a man who can take the law in his own hands with little to no consequence, a hero who gets the bad guys for good, a trauma survivor atoning for the sins of his past. Frank Castle doesn't subscribe to the same no-killing code of ethics as more PG-rated superheroes do, because his world is one of blood and brutality. Closer to the real world, some might even say -- morbid humor and all.