[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ONE SPOILER.] So the fantastic John Bernthal is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Punisher,” debuting (however briefly) in the first episode of Netflix’ “Daredevil” Season 2. I just know that there is a great “Walking Dead” joke hiding around here somewhere; but I can’t seem to put my finger on it … (Something about … Blind Grimes? Disabled Rick? Daredevil can’t see “stuff?” Or “thangs?”) You people work that out for me.
Bernthal’s arrival is dream casting, every bit as perfect as bagging the inimitable Robert Downey, Jr. as the MCU’s Iron Man. Even though the actor speaks only a single word, it’s goddam beautiful.
That’s one of the better things about Season 2’s first outing, which, for me, fell into the category of “good, but not great.” (I’d still give it an 8 out of 10, and I feel certain the season will get better.) What we see in S2E1 is mostly setup. The episode clearly tried to introduce tension by grooming the Punisher as a frightening antagonist, with limited success. Even casual Marvel fans know that Frank Castle is a good guy, and nothing close to a Big Bad. Yes, he’s an anti-hero who fatally shoots villains, and will be a foil for Matt Murdock’s Boy Scout restraint (as he was in the comics, back in the day).
But I doubt that the Punisher can be made scary or truly tension-inducing. (Are we afraid of Wolverine?) We know that his shoot-em-up tactics won’t leave Daredevil dead. (This isn’t “Game of Thrones” or TWD.) And I’d guess that most viewers, like me, aren’t too emotionally invested in this show’s minor characters. (The only exception would be the quite interesting and three-dimensional Karen Page, still wonderfully portrayed by Deborah Ann Woll.) Hell, I think the show would be better if the painfully annoying Foggy Nelson were made an early casualty. Finally, if the show stays true to the original comics, then the Punisher has that most sympathetic of “origin stories” — a murdered nuclear family.
Both the Punisher and Bernthal have such devoted fanbases that a lot of viewers will probably root for him against Matt. (Our very own Blog Correspondent Len Ornstein, for example, was known for firmly being on “Team Shane” for TWD.) Looking back at my fervent comic-collecting days in the 1990’s, I seem to recall the Punisher having a far bigger fan following. He was a mercenary and Vietnam veteran who simply shot up whatever corner of the Marvel Comics universe to which his quarry had tried in vain to escape. Fans compared him to DC Comics’ iconic cash cow, Batman. Matt Murdock, on the other hand, had niche appeal. He was a liberal superhero if there ever was one — a Columbia-educated defense attorney who employed nonfatal force, and who fought for the “everyday man on the street.” He was like a grownup, thoughtful, socially conscious Spider-Man. If ever there was a comic book hero who would join the American Civil Liberties Union, it was Daredevil.
Moving forward, I think that Netflix will need an altogether different adversary than Castle to raise the stakes emotionally, and bring suspense to its second season. Maybe the show will accomplish that with Elektra, who we know will also appear. (And fans of the comics know that this integral character has far greater implications for our hero.)
The new season’s inaugural episode might have been slightly better if it had been tweaked elsewhere, as well. Much ominous language is devoted to characterizing the Punisher as a killer with military proficiency. We kinda don’t see that. The largest action set piece shows no precision or professionalism, just a room full of gangsters being hosed down by gunfire from an offscreen shooter. And while the sequence itself was dramatic, it seemed like something that could have been perpetrated by a (very well armed) street gang in a drive-by shooting.
We also see some of the dialogue problems that were so evident in the first season — as superb as the screenwriters are, they don’t do casual conversation among friends very well. There’s the same forced banter and an embarrassing lack of chemistry among the three lead protagonists, this time on display during an awkwardly staged after-work barroom pool game. (It’s particularly puzzling because Woll and Charlie Cox are both very good actors.) This show scripts its villains, petty crooks and adversaries with such flair — why does it seem to fail so often with friendly conversation? And why bother with these strange attempts at Scooby-Gang camaraderie in the first place? I think it’s a weird creative choice. These are serious characters leading serious lives. It seems implausible to me that they should be so frequently upbeat anyway.
Hey — if I’m nitpicking a lot here, it’s only because I love the show, and consequently hold it to a very high standard. It really is the best superhero adaptation on television. My review of last season was absolutely glowing, and I honestly think that Season 2 will be just as good. If you haven’t checked out “Daredevil” yet, you ought to.