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There is a character who dominates our screens despite barely existing in real life. Outwardly gruff, he hides a big heart under his all-American work wear, with a particular soft spot for imperilled women and children. His masculinity is undeniable, but toxic only to bad guys and himself because his tragic backstory has made him relatable. From Wolverine to The Equaliser to TV’s Supernatural, he’s all over the place. Marvel/Netflix’s The Punisher offers a particularly empathetic example of the type, and does it well, but forgets in this second season to offer a real challenge to his world view.
Our (anti)hero is former Marine Frank ‘The Punisher’ Castle (Jon Bernthal), who took up arms against a sea of troublemakers after his wife and children were killed. Last season saw him fight former brother-in-arms Billy Russo (Ben Barnes). Now, having been freed by Homeland Security’s Agent Madani (Amber Rose Revah), he’s exploring the Midwest and flirting with bartender Beth (Alexa Davalos). He spots a teenage hustler Amy (Giorgia Whigham) in trouble and steps in to save her. Soon Castle’s embroiled in her pursuit by Josh Stewart’s ruthless, God-bothering assassin John Pilgrim.
The best reason to watch the show is the consistently brutal action.
Showrunner Steve Lightfoot thus pairs his taciturn hard man with a fast-talking teen (in a thankfully non-romantic way), a favourite Wolverine gambit, and it works just as well here. Amy’s a tricksy character, however, and cagey about the reason people are after her. In fact, it’s the best part of the series’ 13 episodes before we find out who’s out to get her and why, making it frustratingly difficult to truly invest in her plight.
The best reason to watch the show, aside from Bernthal’s charisma and tendency to grunt like a gorilla when he’s amped up, is the consistently brutal action. In one gym-based fight Castle shows such flagrant disregard for the niceties of combat that the Marquess of Queensberry would swoon dead away. Unusually, a bar brawl sees him square off against two ferocious female opponents, proving he’s a pleasingly equal-opportunities fighter. Anything is fair game as a weapon, from an iron bar to a box of herbal tea, and most skirmishes end with Castle crawling or limping away.
Like almost every Marvel Netflix show, 13 episodes is too long, with endless slow burn followed by a final episode that struggles to cram everything in. There’s some beautifully hard-boiled dialogue along the way — “I’m not the one that dies, kid. I’m the one that does the killing” — but while Frank Castle is a more bloodthirsty killer than most, this season doesn’t do enough to distinguish him from the rest of the plaid-clad herd.