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SYNOPSIS: Former marine-turned-vigilante Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) has been living a quiet life on the road until he suddenly becomes embroiled in the attempted murder of a young girl (Giorgia Whigham). As he is drawn into the mystery surrounding her and those in pursuit of the information she holds, Castle attracts a new target on his back as new and old enemies force him to confront whether he should accept his destiny and embrace a life as The Punisher.

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REVIEW: It should come as no surprise that Netflix is releasing the second season of The Punisher so quickly on the heels of Daredevil’s third and final season. With every Marvel series on the streaming service being cancelled, it is only a matter of time before Jon Bernthal’s acclaimed portrayal of Frank Castle to follow in the footsteps of Matt Murdock, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand. So, this second season is both heavily anticipated by fans of the character as well as bittersweet as it likely marks the last iteration of this Punisher unless Disney and Marvel decide to resurrect it on their own service in the future. Netflix made the entire second season available for advance review which usually means they have unwaivering faith in the finished product or they know that it doesn’t matter what the critics say since the show has an end date that will not change. In the case of this series, it is a little of both.

Picking up shortly after the conclusion of the first season, Frank Castle is hiding out using the name Pete and traveling from small town to small town. Always paying cash and drinking one beer at a time, he is trying to stay out of trouble. Of course, knowing Frank, trouble is bound to find him. It arrives in the form of Amy (Giorgia Whigham), a woman with incriminiating photos that have gotten those around her killed. Hunted by preacher turned assassin John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), Amy crosses paths with Frank who feels obligated to help the young woman when she comes under fire from trained mercenaries. Eventually, the two hit the road together to take down those trying to kill Amy for what she has in her possession. This includes Anderson and Eliza Schultz (Corbin Bernsen and Annette O’Toole) whose motivations become clear as the season progresses. It is also worth noting that the showrunners have set these villains, including the drastically different Pilgrim (based on the comics character Mennonite) into Alt-Right religious fundamentalists. While this is clearly aimed at giving The Punisher a contemporary feel, it falls flat. Frank Castle has always been a character who does not choose political sides and remains devoted to his own code of honor.

The second season also spends a great deal of time with Ben Barnes’ Billy Russo. In the first season, Russo was a suave businessman whose responsibility for the death of Frank Castle’s family becomes clear. Frank left Billy disfigured and on the brink of death but this season finds him alive and well on his way to becoming his comic book namesake. While he never adopts the formal moniker of Jigsaw, we get a ton of time with the character as he tries to reassemble the shatter parts of his mind. Barnes is a talented actor and this provides him an opportunity to play a very different character than he did in the first season. This is definitely an intriguing take on Jigsaw but it feels very incongruous to what came before. In fact, it feels like the second season is a partial reboot with several returining characters like Curtis Hoyle and Agent Madani taking significant parts in the new narrative direction.

The problem, like with the first season, is that this still doesn’t feel the way that The Punisher should. Similarly to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Frank Castle has been a man of few words who lets his actions do the talking. Jon Bernthal brings a presence to the role that is animalistic and visceral but he just talks too damn much. This season has the same issue with the first half of the season populated with some pretty good action sequences. By the end of the first episode, you will be confused as to where the story is going and you will continue to feel that way for the next six chapters. There is a story here but the arc is all over the place and the pacing is incredibly slow. I never thought I would have an issue with pacing on a show with this much of a body count, but the violence punctuates large periods of dialogue heavy scenes.

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The Punisher is a series that I really want to like but it just never allows you to invest in the characters the way that you need to. While all of The Defenders managed to get into the psyche of each superhero, The Punisher doesn’t need to. Yes, Frank Castle doles out punishment and he is clearly haunted by the loss of his family, but this season had the perfect opportunity to show that Frank needs violence and justice in his life like a drug to keep him from feeling any emotions. There is a glimmer of that in the first episode but by season’s end it remains unfulfilled. In it’s place we get Frank playing father figure to Amy and struggling to fit into normal society. But, The Punisher was never written to fit into normal society and is supposed to be the dark vigilante that no righteous superhero can be. The Punisher does what every other Marvel character cannot. This season succeeds in making him not all that different from everyone else and that is a damn shame.

Because I don’t like spoiling anything, I won’t reveal any of the twists and turns this season takes, but there are a handful that come in the back end of the season as the show hurtles towards the conclusion of this story. The theme to this season really is whether Frank Castle will embrace the mantle of The Punisher and in that regard, the season succeeds in setting this story up for more seasons, which we may never get. There was clearly no one building this story with knowledge that Netflix would be cancelling all of their Marvel shows and that is a shame because the third season could have fnally been worthy of the name of the show. As it stands, The Punisher shares a lot in common with Iron Fist in that both shows took two years to finally deliver the character audiences had been waiting to see. Now, it looks like we may have to start all over again.

The second season of Marvel’s The Punisher premieres January 18th on Netflix..

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