The Punisher season 2 review: “A blood strewn action thriller that fires on all fronts”

GamesRadar+ Verdict

It’s rough around the edges, but The Punisher season 2 will win you over from episode 1, in no part thanks to the continuing charm of its perfectly cast lead.

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Technically speaking, Netflix’s The Punisher is a Disney property, but you wouldn’t know it watching The Punisher season 2. This is a show where Jon Bernthal casually pulls bullets out of his arse, beats men to a bloody pulp with bathroom sinks, and clicks a dislocated shoulder back into place by ramming into the side of a burning ambulance. Of course, those who have already seen 2017’s The Punisher season 1 will be more than attuned to Frank Castle’s universe of excessive violence, and his return very much continues in that tradition. In almost every regard, in fact, save some hard to miss dud notes, The Punisher season 2 is a worthy follow up to its predecessor as a blood strewn action thriller that fires on all fronts. 

The Punisher season 2 opens some time after the events of the first, with smarmy antagonist Billy Russo still recovering from his near fatal injuries at the hands of Castle. Frank himself, meanwhile, is out on the road, seemingly enjoying a peaceful, nomadic life across the American midwest. It’s not long before trouble comes calling, of course, in the form of new character Amy (Giorgia Whigham), a teenage grifter on the run from another mysterious antagonist by the name of John Pilgrim. After bumping into her, and hearing that Billy has escaped his medical incarceration, Castle is drawn back to New York to don the Punisher mantle once again.

Billy and Amy’s separate storylines are the twin drivers of The Punisher season 2’s narrative, but writer and showrunner Steven Lightfoot juggles between them clumsily, with each awkwardly competing for screen time rather than intertwining in any meaningful capacity. Characters will literally decide on screen whether they should deal with Russo or Pilgrim first before, a few episodes later, deciding that it’s time to switch antagonists again. It’s a strange balance, especially as neither storyline particularly serves or illuminates the themes of the other, and you’re left wondering whether season 2 would have been better off with a shorter runtime (13 episodes is still too long, Marvel) and a single focus. 

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Thankfully, Bernthal is as charismatic a character actor as he’s always been playing Frank Castle, and season 2 gives him even greater opportunity to demonstrate his range as Marvel’s iconic antihero. Far from the curmudgeonly, all American edgelord who first showed up in Daredevil season 2, we get to see a more paternal and jocular side to Frank now that he’s (mostly) free of his internal demons, and season 2’s script excels at drawing out the black comedy and emotional pathos amidst the constant bloodbaths. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of Bernthal running around grunting, shouting, and looking angry as hell, but this is rightly complimented by humanising scenes of Castle enjoying life amongst friends old and new, with even a love interest entering the picture in episode 1 (before, weirdly, being completely discarded to never be seen again).

As before, The Punisher season 2’s action scenes are frequent, frenzied, and caked with buckets of blood. Unlike the slick punch ups of Daredevil, Frank’s fights are ugly and distressing, leaving everyone involved looking in dire need of an ice pack or five. Even when the shootouts escalate, though, Bernthal always make it look believable, taking and throwing punches or firing out rounds like they were second nature, his primordial physical charisma keeping your eyes glued to the screen even when the goriest moments have you wincing in agony. 

Sadly, as a returning villain (albeit one with a new lease on life), Ben Barnes’ Billy Russo outstays his welcome. Inspired by his Jigsaw persona from the comics, Billy is a scarred, near deranged version of his former self, beset by memory loss and recurring nightmares of his forgotten past. This makes him more unpredictable, but it also means you can never quite pin down his transient motives. One minute he’s hunting down his former abusers, the next he’s robbing a store for thrills. It’s hard to get a sense of who this iteration of Jigsaw is supposed to be, and that makes it difficult to either hate him or find sympathy with his tortured soul.

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It doesn’t help that everyone treats Billy’s facial scarring like it’s a horror show, either, as they’re hardly a blight on Barnes’ classical handsomeness. No one’s asking for a Freddy Krueger look-alike, but the scars’ importance to Billy's character evolution demands something a little more significant than a few cuts to the cheekbones. The Punisher season 2 devotes a lot of its screen time to Russo’s rebirth, and his evolving relationship with psychotherapist Krista (Floriana Lima), but I can’t help feeling as though secondary antagonist John Pilgrim would have been a better fit as this season’s big villain. 

Played chillingly by Josh Stewart, Pilgrim is the man leading the hunt against Amy, and the more we learn about his background, the more terrifying he becomes. Unlike the megalomaniacal, endlessly monologuing villains of most Marvel shows, Pilgrim is stoic, silent, and generally looks like he doesn’t enjoy doing what he does. But as the season progresses, the man with the reverend's collar begins to unravel, and it’s fascinating to watch. Through him, The Punisher season 2 makes light references to topics like the Alt-Right, white nationalism, and religion, but none of these issues are given any room to breath or develop thematic weight, leaving Pilgrim and his story underused as a lurking background threat behind Billy Russo’s more theatrical, but far less compelling villainous antics. 

The rest of Bernthal’s supporting cast, however, fare much better. Amber Rose Revah returns as Homeland agent Dinah Madani, now infected with some of Frank’s righteous anger following her complicated season 1 tussle with Russo, while Jason R. Moore continues to be the moral anchor in the chaos as Castle’s wingman, Curtis. As expected, there’s also some level of crossover between Netflix’s dwindling superhero-verse, as both Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll and Royce Johnson make returns to The Punisher as Karen Page and Brett Mahoney respectively. 

Frank’s winsome relationship with Karen was a highlight of season 1, but Miss Page disappointingly makes only a brief appearance here, leaving it up to Amy to bring out the vigilante’s humanity as his surrogate teenage daughter. Meanwhile, there’s not so much as a whispering reference to the wider MCU, so Marvel fans needn’t scour every episode for clues to support their latest Avengers 4 theories.

Almost all of Marvel’s Netflix shows have struggled to strike lucky twice with their sophomore seasons, and The Punisher season 2 is no exception. With misjudged storytelling and a weak central villain, the show has its disappointments. But, just like Frank himself, you can’t help appreciate what's there in spite of its faults. Bernthal’s awards-worthy performance, alongside the well written dialogue and ambitious action choreography, make The Punisher season 2 a worthwhile watch that just about satisfies expectations, with a bold final shot that’s sure to make comic book fans giddy. If this is to be the last we see of Bernthal’s Punisher, as Netflix’s ongoing cancellation of its Marvel shows suggests, then he’s gone out with a fittingly thunderous bang.  

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Alex Avard

I'm GamesRadar's Features Writer, which makes me responsible for gracing the internet with as many of my words as possible, including reviews, previews, interviews, and more. Lucky internet!