In Season 2, The Punisher has finally become a great television show and, more importantly, paved a way forward to remain one for years to come. Now we just need it to, you know, actually stay on the air.
With Marvel shows dropping left and right at Netflix, it seems not even a street-level superhero team has the juice to score a renewal these days. That said, Frank Castle is no regular, street-level hero. The Punisher's origin story is almost Shakespearean, with a grieved man tearing the world apart to get revenge on the nefarious powers that killed his family.
We've seen his story play out more than a few times. The 2004 film starring Thomas Jane told the story of Castle's quest for vengeance over his family and the first season of Netflix's adaptation understandably hit most of the same notes. It's worth noting the 1989 Punisher film, starring Dolph Lundgren, did forego the origin story and jumped into the Punisher's career as an established anti-hero, but that movie also took some wild liberties with the canon and is remembered largely as a messy B-movie. The 2008 semi-reboot Punisher: War Zone (with Ray Stevenson in the titular role) also just started in on the action, but that box office bomb was essentially an R-rated, bullet-riddled bloodbath without much of a story in the first place. Put simply, those were all pretty awful, so let's get back to Netflix's take.
After introducing the character with a supporting role in Daredevil Season 2, Marvel and Netflix commissioned a full-fledged Punisher spinoff season after getting a look at Jon Bernthal's breakout performance. Like most of the Netflix shows on Marvel (excluding Iron Fist, of course), the first season of The Punisher was excellent. It picked up the threads planted in Daredevil and continued telling the Punisher's origin story, with him finally facing off with friend-turned-foe Billy Russo, who knew about the impending assassination of Castle's family but did nothing to stop it.
With every jagged scrape of Russo's face across the broken glass of that carousel, Castle closed the book on that chapter of his story and finally felt like he had held those responsible for his family's murder accountable. It made for a natural endpoint, but thankfully, that wasn't the end. With Netflix and Marvel still keen to work together at the time (before the streaming service decided to clean house and ax Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Daredevil), a second season of The Punisher was commissioned (there's been no word on a third season, and judging by the mass-cancellations, odds aren't great for a renewal).
Bernthal's bloody-knuckled take on Castle is admittedly the key to making it work, but with Season 2, the pressure was on to show this character could last outside of the (admittedly compelling) "Punisher Kills People Who Killed His Family" story.
So how'd they do it? They gave the deadliest man in the Marvel Universe a teenage sidekick. Admittedly, on paper, it sounds like a terrible idea. But much like what director Shane Black did on Iron Man Three, they let the kid serve as a way to humanize arguably the least-human protagonist in the MCU — and they did it in a way that still stays very clearly within the Punisher vibe. Frank decides to protect this kid, sure, but for him, that means tying her to a bed to keep her from escaping and forcing her to pull bullet shards out of his ass.
Instead of framing the main confrontation around Frank's life, he instead stumbles backward into a kill squad that has no clue the Punisher is even in the zip code — much less in the same bar. After losing his own daughter, Frank feels a kinship with Giorgia Whigham's Amy when he sees her on the business end of a team of trained assassins.
The spine of this franchise has always been the fight scenes — a sort of John Wick-meets-Daredevil — and Season 2 has it in spades. But teaming Frank up with Amy forces The Punisher to find a lighter side we (understandably) never really got to see in Season 1; he's cracking jokes and teaching Amy how to use a gun and execute a takedown. It's the Punisher with an actual heart, albeit a gray one that will still gun down baddies with reckless abandon.
That sense of moving forward, and beyond the show and character's origins, are channeled through the Punisher's final face-off with Billy Russo, the holdover baddie from Season 1. Russo is doing some soul-searching while bleeding out in his final meeting with Frank. But, instead of letting him finish his dying words, Frank puts two bullets in center mass and simply walks away. That chapter of his life, of this story, is over.
The Punisher is set to finally become the roving anti-hero comic fans have wanted to see, a black-suited cowboy who sports a machine gun instead of a six-shooter, but the TV version of the character has just enough heart that you can pull for him. The closing shot showed him turning down a job offer from Medani because he's already found his calling — as the camera fades back while the Punisher drops in on a pair of rival gangs and opens fire.
If this is the end for The Punisher as a series, it's at least left Castle as a slightly more adjusted person set to start a new chapter in his life. But, if this really is the final season, it's a shame. Season 2 served as a template for how the Punisher can stumble into, or insert himself into, just about any wild situation and actually make it work. It even gives him the freedom to escape the confines of Marvel's New York and take on evil and corruption across the heartland. Castle is arguably more at home in a Midwestern dive bar than he is in Manhattan, anyway, drinking a cheap beer and tapping his toe to some Shooter Jennings.
With its buckets of blood and crates of bullets, The Punisher admittedly isn't for everyone — but for fans of its particular brand of damaged heroes and kinetic action, it's proven to be among the best at what it does. Put simply, The Punisher is killing it. So here's hoping Netflix will, ahem, pull the trigger on a third season.