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'The Punisher' proves it's still among the best Marvel live-action tales

| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, 1:36 a.m.

The pending and probably permanent separation of Netflix and Marvel in no way dampens the second season of “The Punisher.”

Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle is the last man standing: His lead role in “The Punisher” and Krysten Ritter’s “Jessica Jones” are the only Marvel street-level heroes remaining in Netflix’s once-vast interconnected playground. “Iron Fist.” “Luke Cage.” Even “Daredevil,” after a stellar third season. All canceled.

Disney, which owns Marvel, is preparing to load up its own streaming service with Marvel goodies later in 2019. Netflix has a bevy of other comic-book-inspired options, including the soon-to-be-streaming “Umbrella Academy,” based on the Dark Horse Comics series from Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, and the creator-owned and probably very expensive library of all-star comic book scribe Mark Millar.

So, if you’re someone who always liked the idea of Marvel having a streaming, live-action space where its brand could be darker, edgier and sexier, you could be feeling like Thanos just snapped a little mini-universe from you.

But don’t let that stop you from enjoying one of the best all-time live-action Marvel performances: Bernthal was born to play the Punisher. And for however much longer you can binge Marvel’s most violent and heavily armed anti-hero in action, treat yourself to it. Bernthal is to Frank Castle what Robert Downey Jr. and the Chrises are to Iron Man, Captain American and Thor.

He isn’t just playing a role. He is the role — from the gravel in his voice to the pain and anger in his eyes.

Season 2 of “The Punisher,” which begins streaming on Netflix Jan. 18, is more of Bernthal’s on-the-run grit. He’s as far away from the personal hell that is New York (at least in the beginning) as his equally menacing black van can take him.

If for just half an episode, he’s trying to see whether there’s anything remotely human and emotional remaining in his soul after Season 1’s discovery that his best friend (Ben Barnes’ Billy Russo) was the monster behind his family’s killing. The violent retribution he delivered left Russo in a coma and Frank feeling empty. To get the vengeance his family deserved, he had to take down the only family he had left.

In Season 2, the Punisher is either protecting or punishing.

The protecting comes courtesy of Amy (Giorgia Whigham), a teenage girl who gets caught up with the wrong crowd and lucks out that taking down bad people is the only thing that brings the Punisher joy. Frank and Amy’s relationship takes on a paternal tone. He volunteers to keep Amy safe from whatever she’s running from. That doesn’t seem too valiant because it’s obvious he not only welcomes the carnage, but needs it. Violence is his only comfort.

The punishing? There’s plenty. The bad guys after Amy have a religious hit man on call. John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), an extreme conservative, feels like bad-guy filler, plugging the holes and giving something for the Punisher to aim and miss at until the eventual and obvious confrontation between the Punisher and Jigsaw (the once again out-on-the-streets Russo).

The Punisher/Jigsaw rematch is what hardcore Punisher fans are here for. From the moment Russo gets his face rearranged at the end of Season 1, they knew it would turn him into the Punisher’s biggest foe for Season 2.

That rematch is a little hampered because despite their violent, glass-heavy battle, Barnes’ Russo is still quite dashing. Almost distractedly so. Jigsaw’s name to fame in comic book lore is a heavily disfigured face that’s tough to look at.

Through the magic of television plastic surgery, Russo has just a few scars to show for his battle with the Punisher. The creepy mask Russo wears when he’s out doing bad things is a little more Jigsaw-ish.

Key supporting cast members return and give painfully human and emotional performances, including the always justice seeking but heavily flawed agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), and the Punisher’s only remaining friend, Curtis (Jason R. Moore). Royce Johnson’s Detective Mahoney is sort of the Samuel L. Jackson-Nick Fury of this dying Netflix/Marvel universe — always around, never having enough information and continually a joy to watch. He’s a reminder that this connected Marvel world was a good idea that worked for the most part.

This might be as far as “The Punisher” goes. Netflix isn’t saying anything yet. This dark corner of Marvel’s superhero world, down to the theme song marinated in blues, soul and strife, could have kept going. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t at Netflix.

If this is the end, it’s an end well worth a stream.

David Betancourt is a writer for The Washington Post.

Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) is putting his life together piece by piece on the way to becoming classic “Punisher” villain Jigsaw.
Netflix
Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) is putting his life together piece by piece on the way to becoming classic “Punisher” villain Jigsaw.
Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) is once again on the run in the second season of “The Punisher” on Netflix.
Netflix
Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) is once again on the run in the second season of “The Punisher” on Netflix.
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