And so it looks like I am here to finish my reviews of Marvel’s foray onto Netflix. Oh sure, Jessica Jones hasn’t been cancelled, and neither has Punisher, really, but it’s only a matter of time and not a lot of time either the way these things are dropping. So while we wait for the last of the bad news, while Disney pulls in the dragnet, calling the last of its properties back to the mines, we have another series of Punisher to watch.
Last Man Standing
Jon Bernthal returns for another round of punishment, his third appearance as Frank Castle, the role that he has defined for a generation, exceeding every other actor to take up the mantle before him, although through no fault of their own. We find him trying his best to carve out a new life, far from trouble, getting on with a few of the simple pleasures in life, even starting to carve out a new life for himself in a nice little dive-bar where the people are cardboard cutouts, the bar-tenders are decent but under-utilised actors, and occasionally high-stakes action just passes through.
Once again we have a Punisher who howls and roars with an ape-like primality that makes every act of violence seem all the more potent. It could be easily taken as gimmicky, unnecessary or plain dumb, but coming from a bloodied, beaten and not-quite broken monster like Castle it instead becomes something elemental, raw, and desperate. It may be artless, but there’s no finesse or control compared to the likes of Daredevil.
Our story this time sees Frank trying to reclaim some humanity, even though he’s the first to admit he’s lost almost all of it, and he needs the violence to feel connected to anything. It’s a moral quandary we see him wrestle with throughout the series, as well as having to confront the ramifications of his actions… briefly, but we’ll come to that shortly.
Let me sum up Billy Russo in this series briefly: “Why are you shooting at me Frank?” ~murders people~ “I’m so confused, I thought we were friends!”
I wanted to like Russo, I actually enjoyed him last series, as a villain he was pure agony to watch, as he gently washed the blood of Sam Stein from Madani shortly after he’d butchered him, it was grotesque, and I loved it! This time around the amnesiac hidden behind a cheap mask and inadequately scarred up for a man who’d been scraped down broken glass is on a mission to find out why he’s dreaming of skulls and to get back into a life of crime.
He’s fallen in with a psychiatrist who empathises with him deeply, falls in love with him and encourages his unhinged criminal activities, and even starts advising him. This is not a spoiler, it’s obvious from her first moments on screen, and her first argument with Madani where they laid out their opinions about Russo.
Briefly the psychiatrist (whose name has completely left me, left a real impression that one) helps Russo gain an upper hand on Castle, by setting up a scene that forces him to doubt everything he stands for. After so much groundwork had been put down to establish Frank questioning himself, introspecting and questioning whether or not he could face a normal human life… I was looking forward to this, I was looking forward to a Punisher No More arc, some real ramifications. And… all done within an episode, and we’re back to kicking ass and shooting names. And it’s so anti-climactic that I felt almost immediately robbed.
So… pulling focus from the whole thing with Russo, we have a secondary story involving a con-artist kid who is being targeted by someone with the money to hire a devoted band of mercenaries, all under the command of a priest with a dark past, sinister appearance, and a rather warped outlook on life and religion. This, most seem to think, is a riff on a Punisher character, the Mennonite, a different religion, different name, but both are religious murderers who go on downward spirals when Frank Castle enters their lives. He pinnacles early in the series as the head of a siege on a small-town sheriff’s office, but he remains a moderately interesting character in the midst of a fairly dull subplot.
The kid, the con-artist, she may be my biggest issue in this series. Last series we had Micro, David Lieberman, funny, heartbreaking, a loving father torn apart by distance and the lie he is forced to maintain. The kid – I think the name we settled on was Amy? – is none of the above, she’s a young criminal, a serial liar, smarmy, sarcastic, broadly useless, a few short steps away from being a full-blown damsel-in-distress, and all because she got her hands on some photos being used for blackmail purposes. I was not tremendously impressed. There was a character arc, I’ll give her credit for that, one in which she learned to shoot people and face the people who want her dead.
In short, there’s a lot of problems with this series, a few excellent tentpole scenes, a few well considered characters cobbled together into an adequate story. There’s a truly brutal fight scene with a bunch of Russian mobsters set up by our old friend Turk Barrett – still as funny as ever – which seems to offer a nod to the infamous Punisher nemesis, The Russian, an indomitable brute capable of giving Frank Castle an almost even fight.
Aside from Frank himself, about the only other character who I enjoyed was Curtis, the amputee you may recall from last season. There’s a warmth between the two, it’s far from the burgeoning friendship between Castle and Lieberman last season, it’s an old friendship strung out by the difficulty of the situation, and Curtis does things that Frank doesn’t like, like involving Madani, or trying to talk him out of some suicidal action. In the absence of Micro, Curtis made for an interesting stand-in for and sounding-off point, man in the chair, or “sidekick” if you will.
Madani herself I still thoroughly enjoyed up to a point. She’s off the rails, being shot in the head has made her something of a loose cannon with a burning hatred of Billy Russo, unwilling to believe that he might sincerely have forgotten all of the monstrous things he has done. And she’s grown to appreciate Frank Castle to the point of defending him to the hilt, and might be at risk of going full renegade herself, squaring off against “good cop” Brett Mahoney (another character with us since the beginning of the Netflix saga, he’s been interesting) who has hounded her constantly about her attitude, breaching, flouting, and practically burning protocols behind her.
My question is how the hell she ended up in the CIA, rather than ending up as a vigilante. I know the CIA operate “off the books”, at least the television version of the CIA do, but Madani uses Castle like a personal hitman!
All in all, if you’re out for a few bloody and brutal fights and you don’t care much about a good story then Punisher season 2 is pretty damn good… but I think it’s safe to say the next thing we hear about it will be that it’s been cancelled.