click to enlarge punisher_courtesy_netflix.jpg

Photo via Netflix

'The Punisher''s second season exemplifies the many problems with Netflix's Marvel shows – and the few strengths 

Cruel and usual punishment

Netflix's "Defenders" branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doomed. There's no getting around that. Disney's plan to launch its Disney+ streaming service later this year means that Netflix would be paying Disney money to create content that promotes the intellectual property of a direct competitor. Iron Fist, Luke Cage and Daredevil have already gotten the ax, and it's expected that the same will happen to The Punisher and Jessica Jones as soon as their seasons air this year, starting with The Punisher. No matter how good a season the show has, the writing's on the wall. Unfortunately, that makes the letdown of The Punisher's second season even more frustrating, since there won't ever be a chance to get the show back to the heights of the surprisingly strong first season.

Introduced on the small screen as an antagonist in the second season of Daredevil, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), aka the Punisher, provided a foil to Daredevil's everything-short-of-killing-them brand of vigilante justice. After seeing his family gunned down in front of him, ex-Marine Castle became a one-man war on crime, leaving dozens of dead bodies in his wake. The first season of his solo series, released by Netflix in 2017, delved further into his origins and explored the lines between hero and villain, soldier and murderer, and justice and vengeance with a surprisingly deft eye for subtlety and a strong focus on the real-life challenges that young military members face when reacclimating to civilian life. Hopefully you liked the themes from the first season, because the second season rehashes them over and over again, adding very little new perspective to those issues, and often handling them artlessly. And with a 13-episode arc, the usual problems with pacing make it so that the show takes forever to not say anything.

Bernthal, a fine actor who already proved himself capable of highlighting the comic book character's tragic humanity in his previous performances, is given so little to do other than glower, yell and shoot things that the character almost becomes self-parodying. Castle's ally in the Department of Homeland Security, SAC Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), returns, traumatized by the events of the first season. Once she ropes Castle into tracking down Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), Castle's former best friend and Madani's former lover, who betrayed them both, she exists mainly to justify her actions ad nauseam to whoever will listen to her. And Russo himself, based on a comic book villain named "Jigsaw," exhibits neither the mangled face nor the unhinged charisma of his four-color counterpart.

Joining the cast are Giorgia Whigham (13 Reasons Why) as Amy, a teenage petty criminal who gets in over her head only to be rescued by Frank, and Josh Stewart (Third Watch) as John Pilgrim, the devout Christian assassin in pursuit of them both. A lot of hay has been made about Pilgrim being an "alt-right" character, resulting in some apoplectic online screeds about The Punisher and Netflix's liberal leanings, which is pretty off-base. The character is a former neo-Nazi, yes, but both he and the show seem to have no overt political agenda. The show had an opportunity to explore the reasons why fundamentalist religion would be seen as welcoming to someone with a penchant for violence and tribalism, but that seems to have required more thought and nuance than anyone working on the all-but-canceled show was willing to contribute.

The one thing you would expect even a sub-par Punisher to come through on are the action sequences, but even those aren't particularly clever or memorable. There are some convincing makeup effects when baddies get beaten in the face by any number of fists, gunbutts or workout equipment, but the fights themselves are unconvincingly choreographed, held together with cut-on-impact editing. And whoever decided that a show that's supposed to heavily feature thrilling gun-fu should have a significant battle basically consist of two characters literally shooting at a wall probably deserves to be fired. Pun(-ishment) intended.

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