THE PUNISHER S2 Review: “Jon Bernthal Is The Living Embodiment of Frank Castle In An Enjoyable Second Run”

THE PUNISHER S2 Review: “Jon Bernthal Is The Living Embodiment of Frank Castle In An Enjoyable Second Run”

Frank Castle returns for his long-awaited encore next Friday on Netflix, but was it worth the wait? Come get my full thoughts on the highly-anticipated second season of Marvel's The Punisher!

Three years ago, Jon Bernthal made his debut as Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher, and quickly won over audiences worldwide with his nearly spot-on interpretation of the classic comic book antihero, and now, Marvel’s most unforgiving hero to date has returned for the hotly awaited second - and potentially final - season of his own spinoff series. But, does it live up to the hype?

*The following review contains mild spoilers from the entire second season of The Punisher.*

The first season of The Punisher was a breath of fresh air when it debuted in late 2017 as it explored Frank Castle’s tragic origin story and entered a previously unexplored, considerably more violent, corner of the Marvel universe where the fine line between good and bad was a lot murkier than what fans had become accustomed to in the other Marvel/Netflix series as well as with the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. The freshman outing was unsurprisingly a roaring success, not only solidifying Bernthal as one of the best castings in the entire Marvel universe, but also introducing a number of likeable supporting players while unraveling one of the universe’s darkest conspiracies.

Thankfully, the first season didn’t leave any loose ends, so when Season 2 picks up, Frank Castle is in a relatively good place, having put the events of last year behind him, and is now traveling through the American midwest, as Pete Castiglione, and doing his best to stay out of trouble. He even meets a nice lady friend in the opener. But, as fate would have it, the self-proclaimed “asshole who couldn’t stay out of trouble” finds himself sucked into another twisted situation before the end of the first hour when he goes out of his way to protect a teenage girl, Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham), who finds herself being hunted by a large group of mercenaries as well as a formidable new villain, the alt-right Christian leader John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), a character very loosely based on the Mennonite.

While Frank and Amy are dealing with their own isolated situation in Ohio, Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) has settled into her new role as Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security quite well, but, she’s also experiencing PTSD symptoms after narrowly surviving being shot in the head by Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) at the end of last season. Her former lover continues to haunt her dreams and as a precaution, she frequently visits him at the hospital, patiently waiting for him to slip up again. However, unfortunately for her, Russo is suffering from amnesia after being wrecked by Frank and doesn’t remember her nor does he remember anything that happened last season or for a few years prior, which is not only frustrating for Dinah, but is also kind of frustrating for us as viewers.

Russo opens the season in the hospital, still in police custody, and is only getting visits from the slightly unhinged Dinah, who wants him dead, and his hospital-assigned therapist Dr. Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima), a fellow wayward spirit that has a tragic past of her own and sees in him an opportunity to fix a prior oversight. After giving us one of the Marvel/Netflix’s more memorable lead antagonists in season one, the amnesiac Billy regresses this year into a madman that’s haunted by a very familiar skull he can’t quite place. His amnesia actually hurts his arc more than it helps as he spends the first half of the season trying to solve a mystery that’s already been solved: Who [frick]ed up his face? It’s a fair question, but considering that every other main character knows the answer and he doesn’t, it just feels like an unnecessary plot point as we wait for the inevitable to happen. Obviously, he does eventually escape captivity, but once he’s loose, he never really reaches the same villainous heights he did in his debut season.

As for his scars, which have been a major point of contention, they're mostly internal. On the surface, they don't look that bad when compared to the comic book Jigsaw, but in his mind, Billy sees himself as a jigsaw puzzle-looking freak, which further fractures his already delicate mind. It works in context even if Barnes is probably still the best looking dude on the cast. I mean Bernthal looks way worse with blood and bruises on his face than Barnes looks with however many scars you want to put on him.

These two primary storylines - the A-plot with Frank and Amy and the B-plot with Dinah and Billy - run concurrently throughout the season and surprisingly enough, rarely intersect, which is actually refreshing since there’s no convenient last-minute twist that brings every party to the same location for one final showdown. Frank, of course, has a major role to play in both arcs, but at this juncture in his journey, he does seem a lot more vital to Amy than he does to Dinah. He’s already moved on from Billy Russo whereas Madani hasn’t, so when Dinah brings him back into the fire to track down Billy yet again, he agrees to do so more as a favor to her rather than for any unfinished business.

The season does suffer from a lack of focus, especially in the first half, as it seesaws between the A- and B-plots with the attention shifting based on what Frank is doing or is about to do, which is fine since he’s the star, but the scenes he’s not in do feel a bit tedious at times and are occasionally momentum-killers. Neither storyline is also quite as tight as the first season, so a lot of time does feel like the writers are just treading water until the next big action sequence.

Speaking of the action, it’s as brutal as ever and about on par with the violence from season one, so if that’s what initially drew you in, then you should be more than satisfied with season two. There isn’t exactly a signature sequence, but a few of the standouts include a bar fight, a last stand, a hunt, a gym fight, a heist, car chases, an ambush, shootouts, fiery explosions, car chases, 1v1 brawls, and a rampage. 

Jon Bernthal is the living, breathing embodiment of the Punisher. He’s always been phenomenal as Frank Castle and he’s even better this season as he single-handedly carries the season from start-to-finish by breathing new life into a character that is finally looking for something more in his journey rather than just the endless bloodshed. He even gets dangerously close to being happy for a slight moment before reality kicks back in and he finds himself leaping back into the thick of the action. Regardless of whether the material is good or bad, Bernthal owns every scene he’s in and elevates his co-stars with a heartfelt performance that makes his Frank Castle feel considerably more authentic than many of his Marvel contemporaries. Shining in action sequences is one thing, but it’s the quieter moments that bring out the best in Bernthal as he gives so much heart to a character that’s not exactly easy to like. A lesser actor couldn’t have done what he’s done for this show.

While the action often does take precedent to story, the writers do absolutely nail a vast majority of the characters and the surrogate father/daughter relationship between Frank Castle and Amy Bendix, the latter of whom is played by newcomer Giorgia Whigham in a star-making turn, is among the best things they’ve ever done. Castle and Bendix are thrust into one another’s lives and Castle takes it upon himself to protect her from what’s coming and honestly, it works. They have terrific chemistry and watching Castle do his best to be the father he wished he could’ve been to his own daughter, who would’ve been around the same age as Amy, was a welcome development.

Amber Rose Revah turns in another strong performances as the deuteragonist, but it would’ve been nice if she had some better material to work with early on. Dinah is suffering from trauma and Revah plays it well, making us feel for her character's loss of self as she struggles to come to terms with being both shot in the head and being duped by someone she cared for deeply. Luckily, her arc really starts to pick up after Billy escapes and she gets an opportunity to deliver a terrific monologue during one of Curtis' meetings. Her interactions with Frank are also always great as she’s one of the few he actually considers a friend. Jason R. Moore continues to be the heart of the series playing Frank’s most-trusted ally, Curtis Hoyle, and he also gets his fair share of action out into the field this time, which is plenty exciting, especially when he picks up a sniper rifle. One of the more enjoyable parts of the season was just watching the Punisher family of Frank, Dinah, Amy, and Curtis form a genuine kinship with one another, built on mutual trust.

Detective Sergeant Brett Mahoney (Royce Johnson), from Daredevil, also makes an appearance and has a fairly large role to play throughout the season. He’s undoubtedly a good cop and a good man, but his role mostly serves as a pain in the ass to both Castle and Madani. Deborah Ann Woll also reprises her role as Karen Page for one episode, but her cameo is sort of a momentum killer and could’ve likely been done without. Former Supergirl actress Floriana Lima plays Russo’s therapist, Krista Dumont, and while I don’t want to spoil anything about her arc, it has to be said that Dumont is easily one of the worst doctors ever depicted on television.

Villain-wise, Ben Barnes is a really great actor and gets some fantastic scenes to showcase his range, but Billy Russo, an an antagonist to Frank Castle, is just not as effective as he was in season one. His motivations are now murky at best and he doesn’t really have an endgame, save for complete anarchy. He understandably wants revenge on Frank Castle, but Castle has other priorities now, so when their paths do ultimately cross again, Billy comes across as more of an appetizer rather than the main course he’s been advertised as. However, while he may no longer be a problem for Frank, he does still prove to be an effective antagonist for Madani. Their cat and mouse game proves to be far more interesting than him seeking revenge on Frank and by the end of the season, a throwdown between Madani and Russo seems more earned over a Castle/Russo rematch.

The über-mysterious and sufficiently creepy hitman John Pilgrim, played by Josh Stewart, proves to be a more formidable foe, both mentally and physically, for Castle this season and it’s kind of fun to see his descent over the course of the season as he gets into some serious debauchery. Unfortunately, his mysterious benefactors, Anderson (Corbin Bernsen) and Eliza Schultz (Annette O’Toole), who have enlisted Pilgrim to track down Amy, are not remotely interesting. They’re evil, sure, but for Frank Castle, they don’t ever feel like particularly worthwhile adversaries. Their motivations are also equal parts predictable and disappointing in comparison to the compelling conspiracy from season one.

The Punisher has always been a series about overcoming personal demons and season two builds on that theme as Frank and company work to let go of their unsettling and often violent histories to build their lives into something more meaningful. By season's end, some have succeeded in their quests while others have failed, but that's life. Season 2 lacks some of the relentless momentum of its predecessor, but what it lacks in story, it more than makes up for with character and action, which still makes it a more than worthwhile watch. Jon Bernthal carries this season on his shoulders and it's honestly worth watching for him alone, because he's just that damn good.

If this is really the last time we ever see Bernthal wear the skull, then it'll be an absolute shame, but if this is how he goes out, then well, it's been an enjoyable run and fans surely got their money's worth. Plus, Marvel does, at least, have one surprise in store for diehard fans that I won't spoil, but let's just say the final frame of the season is pure perfection and should leave everyone smiling from ear-to-ear. 

After exacting revenge on those responsible for the death of his wife and children, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) uncovers a conspiracy that runs far deeper than New York’s criminal underworld. Now known throughout the city as The Punisher, he must discover the truth about injustices that affect more than his family alone.

The Punisher features:
Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/Punisher
Ben Barnes as Billy Russo/Jigsaw
Amber Rose Revah as Dinah Madani
Jason R. Moore as Curtis Hoyle
Giorgia Whigham as Amy Bendix
Josh Stewart as John Pilgrim
Floriana Lima as Krista Dumont
Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page
Rob Morgan as Turk Barrett
Corbin Bernsen as Anderson Schultz
Annette O'Toole as Eliza Schultz

The Punisher returns January 21
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