What is the difference between anti-hero vigilantism and bad intentions?
Is Frank Castle a good man willing to do the bad deeds for the greater good-or is he a bad man masquerading as an avenging justice dispenser?
This is one of the many reasons why Castle’s Punisher is one of the more fascinating comic book characters. He doesn’t have a superpower, expensive gadgets, or a slew of teammates to help him out of a jam. Castle is a man torn apart by the injustices that have overruled his life. How many times does someone get pushed before they move to the other side or at least exist in the middle gray area?
If Steve Lightfoot’s Netflix series, The Punisher, gets one thing completely right, it’s putting the comic book version of Castle onto the screen without hampering his character, mixing him with a commercially friendly personality, or just weakening his abilities. Lightfoot gives us the classic Castle: a mad man dealing with his rage by taking out bad guys. As Castle famously told Matt Murdock’s Daredevil, “when you hit them, they go down. When I hit them, they stay down!”
Instead of sitting in his friend Curtis’ military survivor circle of trust, Castle hashes out his demons on the streets. The dark alleys, unsafe sidewalks, and warehouses full of armed souls are his therapy session and medicine.
It helps to have a go-for-broke talent embodying the soul. Jon Bernthal, widely known as Shane on The Walking Dead or “that one guy” in several other gems, was born to play Castle. He has the look, frame, and justifies the character with every raging scream as he unloads a couple semi-automatic handguns into people that may or may not be worse than him. Bernthal goes deep with Castle, unlocking all the psychological warfare inside the man’s soul.
Unlike previous actors who took their shot at the role-the likes of Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane, Ray Stevenson-Bernthal doesn’t just settle for the gun-toting craziness of the character, but instead gets lost in the personal trauma that has led him astray. Every time you look into Bernthal’s eyes here, you see pain. It’s never forced, arbitrary, or insignificant. The man is possessed due to the actor leaning into the role.
Season 2 isn’t without its faults. I didn’t care for Ben Barnes’ Billy Russo/Jigsaw as much I did in Season 1. The second round saw his supposed malevolent bad guy spend too much time rummaging through his own internal trauma and battles. A lot of therapy time, sitting around and whining, and battling instead of taking to the transformation of Russo into a boiler plate stuck on medium. I get it. Russo is the mirror image of Castle, trying to pull the guy to his side of evil and accept who he is. That could have been a great thing, but I feel like it got bogged down in countless scenes circling the same idea. Barnes did his best, but I liked his work better in Season 1.
The subplots stuffed the series full, with some working and others not so much. Amber Rose Revah’s Agent Madani, who worked above the law herself for much of the second season, seemed to be a plot device instead of a true character. Castle sidekick, played by Giorgia Whigham, had good moments and other times where I wanted her to leave the area of the scene.
The main problem with The Punisher is similar to issues I have with other Marvel Netflix series, and that’s the episode count. I don’t think a single series, Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, needs 13 hours to tell a story. It all feels overly drawn out, redundant, and stuffed with episodes mainly there to twist the characters into circles. A simplistic tale like Castle’s didn’t require a 13-episode dive. You are bound to feel tired by the end of episode 6, or hope the series kicks it up a notch.
The season starts out with a beautifully-rendered hour of entertainment. Castle, fresh from his battle with Russo, is on the road and stops in Michigan. At a bar, he runs into Whigham’s runaway, but also meets a lovely bartender named Beth. He spends the night with her, bonds with her son over hockey and pancakes, and seems to be finding a new way of life. Anyone who has watched a movie in the past 20 years knows it can’t last.
Before the leaf can be completely turned over, though, Castle steps into Whigham’s troubles, getting involved in a deadly conspiracy that requires lots of punches thrown and taken, bullets fired, and several packages of gauze pads. If Bernthal spends ten minutes without a fresh cut, it’s a weird outing for Castle. The man is a vigilante version of Rocky, taking a licking and keeping on ticking.
The first hour showed the poignant pull inside Castle’s story. A man at war with himself so often, it spills into his life and ruins the hope to be found. Perhaps if they had stuck with Beth and her son for a couple more episodes, there would have been justification for the 13 hours. While the season never gets back to that high point, the finale does show the true colors of Castle.
In the end, Lightfoot and Bernthal paid homage to Frank Castle, delivering a version of him that didn’t feel forced, manipulated, or coerced. They did good by the comic version, and delivered some highly entertaining action, including a bar fight in the first episode that ranks among the best Netflix and Marvel have to offer.
While imperfect and overzealous in certain areas, Season 2 of The Punisher delivered the Frank Castle audiences probably didn’t deserve yet needed in the end. A true daredevil of the streets.
Will there be a third season? I’d tip the scale in the negative direction there, but you never know. Ratings are down, Disney is taking over, and things are changing. Like Bernthal stated in an interview last week, I am at peace with this being the last we see of his Punisher. The final image of Castle in Season 2 is a fitting one, and if that’s the end, the series did its job well. Sometimes, less is more.
If they do come back, please make it 8 episodes, and bring on Lightfoot’s old friend from Hannibal, Mads Mikkelson, to play the bad guy. Trim it down. Keep it lean and mean, like Castle.
I’ll say this. Thank you, Steve Lightfoot and Jon Bernthal, for not giving us a diet version of Frank Castle’s The Punisher.