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Musing on The Punisher’s Uncertain Fate & Arrowverse’s Unending Future

Consider this my spoiler-lite review of The Punisher: Season 2

To watch the new season of The Punisher is to invite misery into your life. I’m not talking about the extreme violence, endless cycle of self-destruction and “What if this just all I am?” soul-searching occuring on screen. No, I mean the thing everyone’s been joking/complaining about well before the season even premiered: Netflix is probably going to cancel it. After all, if Daredevil can get the axe than all bets are off for these Marvel shows.

To watch or not to watch

For that reason, I hesitated to, but eventually did add The Punisher back into my binge schedule. Showrunner Steven Lightfoot and his team wrapped production on the episodes last August, well before Netflix choice to perform its own snappening of its Marvel shows for…um…well, they have their reasons. Let’s just call it “corporate drama.” As a result, this new season of The Punisher isn’t designed to be the last. In fact, as Lightfoot told THR it’s supposed to finally be the end of the Frank Castle’s origin story first started on Daredevil all those years ago and true beginning of The Punisher:

“If he started season one as the Punisher, fully matured, there’s nowhere to go,” Lightfoot explained. “In season three, that is where we would now find him, but as an audience we’ve been party to the journey.”

Next season, there will be no old scores to settle nor any moral handwringing. Nope, next season Frank Castle will finally and without remorse be The Punisher fans know from the comics, untethered from any group and answerable only to his own rigid moral code. Next time around, you better not fuck with this dude.

Except there probably won’t be a next time.

Season 3?

We don’t know that for sure, of course, and despite all signs to the contrary Netflix maintains its recent purge of Marvel shows is simply performance-related, not in reaction to contract or Disney+ concerns. Even if true – which is a big if – things aren’t looking great.

Business Insider (via Screen Rant) reports this season’s viewership is off by around 40% compared to last season. On the plus side, that’s at least smaller than the recent drops experienced by the now-cancelled Marvel shows, and the reviews generally seem to agree The Punisher remains “Marvel’s Best Drama.” On the down side, a 40% drop is still a 40% drop, especially for a show which isn’t exactly inexpensive and is made by a production company which insists on sticking to 13-episode seasons even though they’ve repeatedly proven themselves to be really bad at that.

How this plays out, not even Steven Lightfoot knows: “My hope is that the show does well enough that they want to pick it up. The hope is that they give us the thumbs up and we jump straight back into season three. I’m sure there are a whole bunch of conversations that are happening or have happened between Marvel and Netflix that I know nothing about. No-one has said to me we’re cancelled, and so I live in hope, and we’ll see what happens.”

Arrow for the win

Meanwhile, thanks to The CW’s early renewals this week, we know all of the Arrowverse shows are coming back for another season and Ruby Rose’s Batwoman show, though not officially picked up yet, will likely be joining them on the schedule before too long. Speculation has it that Arrow, which will be entering its 8th (!) season, might finally call its quits after this. In fact, Oliver Queen might just die in the next big crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, somehow sacrificing himself to save The Flash and, ya know, the universe.

Either way, the following is now guaranteed: Arrow will end up having almost more seasons on its own than the entirety of the Netflix Marvel Universe combined. In my former life as an Arrow recapper, I would have at least mixed feelings about that. As someone, however, who just finished The Punisher’s second season and has moved on from any Arrowverse show not named Legends of Tomorrow that feels like a crime against comic book TV.

The interesting parallel here is the Arrowverse roster – Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and not-officially-but-let’s-lump-it-in-any-way Black Lightning – thrive on routine. As Greg Berlanti shows and network television dramas with between 18 and 23 episodes a year to shoot, they operate on formula (so many people standing around command hubs explaining the plot), drawn out mysteries, and delight the hardcore with comic book easter eggs galore and an ever-expanding as well as inclusive universe. Legends of Tomorrow, notably, is the only one of the shows to actually try more experimental storytelling and has been rewarded with rave reviews, though not exactly huge viewership figures.

If you’ve seen one Arrowverse show, you’ve kind of seem them all. They’ve found a basic, occasionally tweaked formula that works and will keep going for as long as they want thanks in large part to the insanely lucrative deal The CW signed with Netflix for off-network streaming rights.

A formula grown stale

Yet while the Arrowverse has been well-served – at least in terms of longevity, if not necessarily creatively – by formula, it feels a bit like the Marvel Netflix Universe has been undone by it. As I argued last year:

Marvel Netflix Universe doesn’t move the pop culture needle as much as it used to. Its narrative tricks – gritty PG-15 material, epic hallway fight scenes – aren’t as fresh anymore. The storytelling formulas have become obvious and repetitive. Various showrunners have come and gone. And the ongoing lack of any real, meaningful connection the MCU films has effectively labeled the various Defenders as skippable, second-class citizens, even as their hardcore fans continue to advocate for more recognition.

To that point, the new season of The Punisher offers yet another variation on a familiar theme for the Marvel Netflix Universe: the vigilante coping with the morality of their actions.

The Punisher: Season 2

Season one provocatively ended with Frank achieving vicious, righteous revenge, but feeling empty afterward, heartbreakingly realizing he has no idea what to do with himself without a war to fight. So, the new season starts with him briefly pursuing a normal, if nomadic life with a potential new girlfriend and surrogate son before he sniffs out a new fight and pursues it with his characteristic vigor.

Translation: He doesn’t start it, but he definitely ends a bar fight so epic even Road House would be proud.

Before you know it, Frank’s on the run with new cast member Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham), a 16-year-old who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and is now hunted down by a conservative Christian fundamentalist group’s fixer, John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart). At the same time, Billy Russo, last season’s secret Big Bad, is back and scarred in more ways the one, with his stitched-together new face reflecting just how fractured his mind has become. He doesn’t even remember betraying Frank or that Frank is the one to run his face through glass.

The season becomes a story about Frank, John, and Billy battling their inner natures, each one confronting whether to wear the mask society wants them to or simply feed their inner beasts. Frank eventually gets his own little team, with season 1 partner Micro absent and now replaced by surrogate daughter Amy, returning friend Curtis, and frenemy Madani, all of whom take their turns trying to redirect Frank’s energies to something more positive. Perhaps inevitably, it’s remarkably similar to Daredevil. As if to punctuate the point, Karen Page shows up for a one-episode cameo in the back half of the season and has the type of “you can be better than this” conversation she’s had with both Matt Murdock and Frank multiple times now.

While familiar, it’s still a necessary conversation to have, especially considering how often the first season was delayed due to yet another mass shooting event and the decades-long debate over The Punisher’s problematic celebration of extreme vigilantism. Here, it’s certainly a good excuse for Jon Bernthal to insert as many pained pauses as possible into several new heartbreaking monologues. From his “Penny and Dime” moment on Daredevil to every second of Punisher: Season 2, Bernthal is clearly the best Frank Castle the screen has ever seen.(Sorry Dolph.)

It certainly helps that he’s such a convincing action star. Thanks to him, too many stunt professionals to count, and fantastic direction, The Punisher remains the gold standard for comic book TV action scenes. There’s one episode this season which is basically a TV show version of Assault on Precinct 13 and it’s just as good as most action movies I saw in theaters last year.

The daughter who calls him on his shit

My favorite moments in the season, however, involve Frank and Amy, who clearly serves as his second chance to be a father. The results are dramatic, overall, but often quite funny, like when he just can’t figure out her Three-card monte hustle.

I’m a sucker for this kind of character pairing (see also: Logan), but so is Lightfoot:

I’m a huge fan of Léon: The Professional, the Luc Besson movie, and also Westerns like The Searchers. Westerns have always been a big influence on the show, that idea of: this is a guy you need to save the day, but in saving society there’s no place for him in it, because of his very nature. Giving Frank this girl to look after gave him something positive to fight for, and also we could play into fatherhood as a theme, because obviously she’s a surrogate for his own lost daughter. It also just gave us a lot of fun; this season is a little funnier than season one and I really liked putting him in this awkward situation. If Frank got really annoyed with Micro last season, he could punch the guy, but he’s not gonna punch a sixteen-year-old girl.

BOTTOM LINE

Should this be it for Frank, I will miss him and this show. Unlike Daredevil, a show whose cancellation I did not mourn, I don’t feel like The Punisher is overly guilty of repeating itself (nor do I think it suffers nearly as much from Netflix bloat). However, I can’t deny noticing a twinge of familiarity with this latest exploration of a vigilante’s fight with his inner demons. Maybe it’s just a natural side effect of there being so many comic book shows these days.

Oliver Queen’s been doing it damn near 8 years now. Most likely, Frank Castle will only end up getting two, three if you count his initial season on Daredevil as well. Rather than mourn that reality, let’s celebrate the following: after so many false-starts, Hollywood finally got The Punisher right.

Are you sitting out the season since Netflix is just going to cancel it anyway? Or did you binge it that first weekend? If so, what was your favorite or least favorite aspect of the season? Personally, I never totally got on board with the storyline involving Billy and his therapist. Let me know you think in the comments.

11 comments

  1. The Netflix shows have been fun while they lasted, but I feel like my excitement for them has finally drained knowing that it’s all just going to be over after Jessica Jones 3. Guess I’m glad they at least didn’t end Punisher on a big partial cliffhanger shake up like they did with Luke Cage and Iron Fist though.

  2. First of all: Agents of shield for the win! Five seasons so far, soon to be seven, and still going strong by regularly shaking things up. Looks like we go spacy next season. Can’t wait.

    Second: I had my issues with how the Punisher handled the villains in its second season, to me it wasted two characters which worked perfectly fine with too much psychological BS, and it has the “the first four episodes are better than anything which comes after” problem Netflix shows tend to have. But, to its credit, it didn’t feel as stale as Daredevil does at this point. Still, overall I am kind of glad if the Netflix shows peter out now. Better end as long as the shows are still watchable. If they go on as they have, they will just become a shadow of what they used to be…or they will keep redoing the same storylines the was the Arrowverse does. Whenever I hear of the fans who still watch it, I don’t get the impression that they still enjoy it.

    Thus said, I am not opposed to Disney doing a soft reboot with the Defenders on their own streaming service down the line. With a fresh take.

    1. Well, of course Agents of Shield for the win LOL

      I’d like to say I left it out on purpose just to goad you into commenting, but in truth I simply left it out because the Marvel Universe vs. the Arrowverse makes for a neater narrative. Plus, Daredevil and The Punisher are such nearly R-Rated versions of the vigilante style of Arrow that it’s an obvious comp. Agents of Shield, really and for the better, is its own thing, left at this point to just keep moving forward.

      “”“the first four episodes are better than anything which comes after” problem Netflix shows tend to have”

      I’d say that’s a fair complaint. This new season does start off away from the show’s normal formula and is kind of like a western, really. I was actually a little disappointed when they so quickly left the Midwest and hopped back over to New York.

      “they will keep redoing the same storylines the was the Arrowverse does. Whenever I hear of the fans who still watch it, I don’t get the impression that they still enjoy it.”

      Same here on Arrowverse. I dropped back to watch their big crossover event this year, Elseworlds and was a tad surprised to see how little had really changed. The only one of the shows I still watch is Legends of Tomorrow, which barely resembles its old self and increasingly feels completely separate from the Arrowverse. It’s undeniably silly and pretty much a pure comedy instead of a superhero action show, but the freedom of having nobody really paying attention to them is they are freer to do whatever they want, which means lots of formal experimentation and surprisingly solid integration of John Constantine into the show.

  3. The last scene was a great ending to the show wether they do a 3rd or not. I think you said previoisly you think netflix are deliberately faiking their marvel shows ahesd of disney streaming etc. The punisher ending was fitting but not necessarily final. Having said that the season itself was mediocre. Some great performances but lukewarm story with some standout action scenes and violence. Especially dissalointed eith whst they dkd woth jigsaw. If they just wanted tl explore the dilemma when an ex bad guy gets memory loss and maybe can be changed is fine but dont make that character a notable villain like jigsaw. Jon bethenal is excellent cast.

    1. I was actually pretty excited about the memory loss because I felt that it might be particularly creepy if Jigsaw is totally unhinged but still sees Frank as his close friend – at least until he remembers what Frank did. But the whole “he had such a hard childhood thing” felt so done (we already had this with pretty much every other Netflix villain) and felt out of sync with the first season, in which he actually had a family connection in Frank’s family and threw it away out of pure greed.

    2. It is a super grim ending, but, as you say, it IS an ending. So, unlike the others Marvel dead shows Punisher can function as a complete story if this is to be it.

      Jigsaw – It was a tad funny to me how much they made out of his disfigured face being so atrocious when it really wasn’t so bad, especially based on what he looked like last time we saw him in season 1. Not as bad as that CW show The Beast where a modern day Beauty and the Beast story involved a beast who was basically an Abercrombie & Fith model with a mild scar down a cheek or Olivia Cooke having the barely-there birthmark she’s so subconscious about in Ready Player One, but closer to those examples than it should have been.

      1. Its true. Even with the scars he could still pull at a bar better than me. He wasnt as excentric as id hoped. Was expecting more like punisher warzone’s dominic west version. Unhindged and ugly. This guy was just troubled and occasionally violent. Like you say at the end of the season he was propper smashed. Btw i am watching The Cure on netflix. Irish film but might as well be calles 28 months later. Story surrounds what happens once they find a cure for a zombie or rage virus and people go back to normal. Would u want them after what they did or trust them? You should check it out.

      2. Thanks for the heads up. I feel like I’ve maybe heard someone mention The Cure on a podcast or something recently, but I had no idea what it was about. Sounds fascinating. Will definitely check it out.

  4. Great Post! Maybe I will just give The Punisher a go; but it is so true – I don’t know if I’m ready for that pain. Regarding Arrow on the other hand; surprisingly the show has been able to re-invent itself, and if the next is to be the last then I think we should all wipe seasons 3 & 4 from our memory and Arrow can be considered great again.

    1. And, of course, since I wrote this article Arrow debuts its actually, for a change, experimental 150th episode imagining an in-universe documentary about Oliver Queen’s life to this point in the storyline. Good on them for getting creative.

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