What is the problem with the Marvel Netflix shows? Not one has managed to maintain a consistency in quality from its debut season to its follow-up. Despite roundly appealing freshman outings (Iron Fist excepted), each one has taken a creative tumble when it returned for its second season. Daredevil came closest to equaling its premiere, but even that was plagued with a bevy of poor storytelling choices. (The only one that undeniably improved on season one was Iron Fist, and that merely by dint of having such an low bar to clear.) It’s not like each one is getting a new showrunner, or having a major creative shakeup—so is it a structural issue? A problem at the management level? Because it’s now clear that even The Punisher, the series with a hero so unrelentingly straightforward that it would seem to offer a clear path to narrative stability, can’t shoot its way free of the now-established “historically troubled second season” curse.
There’s no single cause of weakness in season two, but rather a steady proliferation of clunky storytelling maneuvers wedded to an unwieldy structure. Melodramatic, moralizing character arcs render even supposedly unstable villains relatively toothless. The Punisher’s appeal has always lain with his nihilistic antihero tendencies—Dirty Harry taken to his bleakest logical endpoint. Season one interrogated the ethics of Frank Castle’s one-man war with relative success, so to see the show return to the same well with much-diminished returns is a letdown. And thinking that what we all wanted was for Castle to learn how to love again with the help of a headstrong teenage girl serving as a substitute daughter for the one he lost? It’s enough to make you wonder if the show has fundamentally misunderstood the strengths of its tormented protagonist.
None of this, it should be emphasized, is the fault of Jon Bernthal. The actor once again brings an intense aura of hair-trigger unpredictability to Frank Castle, someone compelling to watch even when the show is saddling him with hokey moments of guileless emotion that threaten to neuter his haunted war vet’s charisma. Bernthal was born to play this role, whether delivering cynical one-liners in casual settings or tearing through hordes of musclebound villains—though really, his best moments are just before or after the explosions of violence, when the interplay of stoic masculine reserve and urge-to-fight adrenaline do battle in his expressions, and we see that internal struggle slowly explode or recede as Castle reacts to his situation.
If only those situations were less predictable and repetitive. For the first few episodes, season two of The Punisher is a deeply, almost weirdly, conventional action-hero story. Having left New York (and traveling under the nom de drifter “Pete”), Frank finds himself in a Midwestern roadhouse bar, where an unexpected tryst with the bartender leads him to make the impulsive decision to defend a brash teenage girl (Giorgia Whigham) when a gang descends upon the bar, intent on taking her out. This wrong-place-wrong-time narrative then plays out in wholly typical fashion, with Frank kidnapping the teen to keep her safe as they’re pursued by enemies and he tries to get to the bottom of her predicament. It’s basically a Jack Reacher novel, not a Punisher story, but it at least makes for a bold change of pace from season one. (And it’s not without its own daffy pleasures—the third episode is an hour-long riff on Assault On Precinct 13, tailored to Frank’s particular set of skills.)
But once Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) re-enters Castle’s life to inform him that his old friend-turned-nemesis Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) has awoken from his coma and escaped custody, Frank takes his new ward and returns to NYC, intent on putting down once and for all the man who got his family killed. And that’s where the season really gets bogged down re-hashing the past. Despite a promising new antagonist in the form of Josh Stewart’s mysterious religious zealot (and his handlers, a pair of wealthy alt-right Bible thumpers who operate like a fusion of the Koch brothers and Franklin Graham), the new plot is continually overshadowed by Russo and his demons. It’s not just that the whole thing feels as aimless and unfocused as Russo’s memories (it’s well into the back half of the season before the character puts together anything resembling a plan); each successive beat simply delivers a warmed-over version of what’s come before. It’s easy to lose count of how many episodes include some variant on Madani telling Castle she can’t let him hurt anyone else, only to begrudgingly relent and let him hurt someone else, because she’s on a show called The Punisher, and that’s how it works. Does the therapist who offers the fugitive Russo protection slowly develop that relationship into something more? Does Frank go a little nuts at one point and require a dark-night-of-the-soul visit to his wife’s grave? Does Frank deliver almost the same monologue in multiple episode about how he’s not like other people? If you know the tropes of generic action stories, you know the answers.
Thankfully, all the rote dialogue and paint-by-numbers plot points can’t devalue the action scenes. And when they come, they’re often worth the wait. The show is second only to Daredevil in its audacious, hard-edged brutality, and a number of sequences in season two are among the best yet. A confrontation with Russian gangsters in a gym offers grimly satisfying gore, while the showdown with Russo’s gang is a lengthy opportunity for the series to showcase Bernthal’s animalistic choreography skills—his raw physicality makes these fight scenes rattle with bone-jarring authenticity. If only the show wasn’t so stingy with its opportunities to let the Punisher actually punish. At one point, there’s a short but satisfying encounter with some criminals outside a bar, and it serves as a reminder to the viewer just how infrequent these more entertaining scenes really are.
By the final episodes, even the hoary retreads detailing the psychological toll of violence have gone off the rails, as a series of rank implausibilities hampers an otherwise satisfying end to the new arc, if not the Billy Russo one. Again, some of this is just bad storytelling: It made sense in season one for Castle and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s David Lieberman to poke and prod one another’s psyches, locked as they were in a secure facility and forced to confront their insecurities and egos; it makes far less logical sense to have a scared teenager delivering nuanced psychological assessments of Castle an hour after she’s met him, just for the sake of hammering home the themes of the show. If The Punisher follows suit with the rest of the Marvel Netflix series (only Jessica Jones has yet to be canceled), this will be the last we see of him on the streaming service. It’s a shame such a wild and impulsive character is likely going out on such an underwhelming note.