The first season of The Punisher followed Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), a former US Marine who lost his family and set out for revenge against those that had them killed. So far, so generic, but the show set itself apart by becoming a thesis on the trauma soldiers go through abroad, and the difficulties they face acclimatising to the world. It was a bold move and an intriguing twist on a character who in the comics is often portrayed as a psychopathic nutjob with an alarming penchant for guns. It was also quite dull. The emotional core of the story got lost in a complicated espionage plot involving black ops squads and damaged former CIA agents, whilst the series moved at a ploddingly slow pace at times.
Season 2 picks up a few months after the first season. Having taken revenge on the people responsible for his family’s murder, Frank is drifting across America, spending his nights watching dubious country bands in various dive bars, until he steps in to rescue Amy (Giorgia Whigham) from a mysterious gang of mercenaries. Meanwhile, back in New York, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) is recovering from amnesia, having been on the receiving end of one of Frank’s more brutal beat downs in the first season, setting him on a collision course with our anti-hero.
If that all sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. The Punisher gives itself the difficult task of following up on all the primary leads from season 1 whilst also introducing a brand new storyline, leading to a very uneven series. The sheer number of characters means that some are inevitably going to be wasted. Whilst Josh Stewart makes for a fun villain, hellbent on hunting down Amy, the character of federal agent Dinah Madani (a hangover from the first season) tangibly slows down the pace every time she appears on the screen.
Perhaps the show would be stronger if it had focused much more on furthering its newer storylines, which veer closer to the stylised madness of the comics. Giorgia Whigham makes for a fun sidekick to the traditionally grim Punisher, whilst the Western undertones (not even New York is big enough for Castle and Russo) helps keep the tension high. The second season also improves on the fight scenes, with a couple of brilliantly choreographed, inventive yet brutal brawls in settings like bars and gyms. Indeed, it’s the promise of more like this that kept me coming back for more.
As ever, the series’ ace up its sleeve is Bernthal, whose frankly much better than the material he’s given. He manages to make a character as seemingly heartless as the Punisher feel human, imbuing him with a sense of the American everyman that can’t quite hide the animal underneath.
The Punisher could use a less-is-more approach, but its fantastic lead performance and bravura fights ultimately keep it afloat.
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