The Punisher’s second season begins with Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) grabbing a beer at a dive bar in some nondescript Michigan town. He was holed up in the neighboring motel but, by his own admission, felt compelled to check out the bar because he overheard some good live music. (I don’t mean to nitpick, but this small town somehow booked country singer Shooter Jennings for several nights, and no one seems to care.) Frank—who’s going by Pete—flirts with the bartender; his rugged charisma eventually wins her over, and he spends the night at her place.
Considering where we left off last season—Frank found out his military bestie Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) was involved in his family’s murder, prompting him to rack up a staggering body count in revenge—this is the closest the show could get to a happy ending (I swear, no pun intended). Of course, because this is The Punisher, the tranquility is short-lived. Returning to the bar for a second night, Frank sees a shifty teenage girl being stalked and then ambushed by a handful of strangers. Frank intervenes before she’s killed; among the well-choreographed carnage, this happens:
Hell yes, I shouted to no one in particular, resisting the urge to drape myself in a giant American flag or shotgun a protein shake.
Frank hasn’t lost his instinct to protect people or his willingness to leave anonymous goons in a pool of their own blood. He’s still the Punisher—and now he’s taken it upon himself to protect this girl, Amy, who holds something so valuable that people are willing to kill for it.
If this sounds familiar, well, you’ve probably watched Logan or You Were Never Really Here—or played The Last of Us. The Punisher’s second season doesn’t get any points for creativity, but this is a formula—violent antihero vows to protect girl at all costs, goes through the wringer to ensure that happens—that has satisfying returns. In the first three episodes of its second season, The Punisher delivers some of the best television the soon-to-be-discontinued Marvel-Netflix enterprise has made in years. Frank and Amy (played by Giorgia Whigham, who—fun fact—is the daughter of renowned That Guy Shea Whigham) hit the road to fight off more henchmen in motels and deal with an Assault on Precinct 13–esque standoff at a local sheriff’s station. It is fast-paced and brutal, and even though it riffs on familiar action movie tropes, it feels like a breath of fresh air for this stale television universe.
It’s depressingly on-brand, then, that The Punisher quickly reverts to everything that’s made the Marvel-Netflix shows so infuriating in the first place. Frank, with Amy in tow, returns to New York City. Once again, Billy Russo is up to no good—and now he has some scars that allow him to fully lean into the comics’ Jigsaw persona. Once again, characters spend a lot of time in the same four rooms talking about what motivates Frank and Billy and why they feel motivation to fight or protect them. (Characters in this world just love to talk about motivations in weirdly plain terms.) Once again, there are perhaps eight hours worth of story drowning in 13 increasingly derivative hours of television.
The Punisher Season 2 may be the penultimate Marvel season we get from Netflix. Iron Fist, Daredevil, and Luke Cage have already been canceled; the chance of another season of The Defenders is slim, making Jessica Jones’s third chapter, expected later this year, the only holdover. It’s a microcosm of why it seemed like these shows never lived up to their full potential. The Punisher isn’t the most glaring example, but as a cog in an enterprise interested in portraying “grittier,” more grounded Marvel characters who fight crime in New York, it seems particularly strange that the show wasn’t willing to shake up the formula for more than a handful of episodes across middle America. If The Punisher is going to be canceled regardless—or if anyone involved wants to leave an impression that’s different from every Marvel entity that preceded it on Netflix—why keep hitting the same narrative threads?
When the Netflix-Marvel TV universe was in its infancy in 2015, with the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, those kinds of missteps were to be expected. And even still, despite losing some momentum over its first 13 episodes, Jessica Jones won a Peabody. But four years and 11 seasons of TV have passed, and the flaws that were there in the beginning are still present. Season 2 of The Punisher isn’t a game changer: It’s a relic of a Netflix-Marvel institution that hasn’t ever been able to get out of its own way.
For whatever reason, Marvel characters haven’t been able to make an impressionable transition to the small screen, despite myriad attempts. ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be five seasons in, but it’s an unspectacular procedural; Iron Fist never recovered from an abysmal freshman season and a controversial casting choice; and the less said about the failed Inhumans experiment, the better. (Even the surrealist charm of FX’s Legion took a step back in the second season, and, if we’re going to nitpick, X-Men characters aren’t technically part of the MCU, anyway.) As much as Marvel dominates the cultural conversation around blockbusters—with other franchises attempting to establish their own cinematic universes—it’s been largely inconsequential in the era of Peak TV.
Granted, the Punisher was always going to be a tricky character to adapt to the screen: The show’s first season was delayed in 2017 after the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 people. That kind of violence is an intrinsic part of the character’s DNA; in lieu of superpowers, Frank Castle is defined by the things he kills people with, and his arsenal comprises mostly assault weapons. The excesses of gore and violence are part of the package; Frank rarely, if ever, spares people he considers amoral. Even so, The Punisher deserves credit for its initial conceit: The violence was there, but it was expressed through the lens of Frank, Billy, and other characters’ service in the military and the displacement they all felt returning home without any resources to start their postwar lives. (There’s a reason the character has strongly resonated with veterans and law enforcement since his comic book inception.) They are—perhaps irreversibly—broken men, and even Frank’s persistence as a gruff antihero is conveyed as tragic more than anything else.
It’s possible that whatever has ailed Marvel’s efforts on television will be fixed once more heroes are adapted for Disney’s upcoming streaming service, Disney+. It’s already been reported that the company will be making its own slate of stand-alone six-to-eight-episode miniseries featuring characters from the current MCU, such as Loki and Scarlet Witch, and a Falcon–Winter Soldier team-up, with blockbuster-type budgets to match those ambitions. All told, a miniseries starring characters from the MCU will probably resemble something closer to Game of Thrones in its scale than that of Daredevil, Luke Cage, or The Punisher.
So while The Punisher offered some good through two seasons—namely, impressive fight scenes, an empathetic approach to veterans, and a nuanced lead performance by Bernthal—its presumed cancellation on Netflix isn’t just strategic cost-cutting by a company that knows it can’t compete with Disney’s impending Marvel roster. The Punisher was a fun but undeniably flawed series, representative of the Netflix-Marvel universe as a model of frustrating inconsistency.
It’s only apt that the second season ends with Frank Castle imitating most viewers of the series and letting out one final primordial scream into the night.