If anything proves the Netflix corner of Marvel’s cinematic and TV universe has found its groove, or perhaps in this case its soul groove, it is the second season of Luke Cage.
Luke Cage as a show is possibly the most consistent entry to the Marvel-Netflix collaboration of series. The first run, which aired in mid-2016 before Daredevil’s second season and Iron Fist’s debut, established a unique tonality which a lot of the other Marvel series have struggled to find. Daredevil dropped off a cliff in its second season when it attempted to introduce wonky mysticism into the plotting, the same jarring karma which sank Iron Fist before he even really got going – and compromised parts of The Defenders too. Jessica Jones, on returning, simply could not shake off the ghost of the Purple Man aka Kilgrave, and the remnants of its pre-#MeToo abuse of power narrative. Luke Cage, by contrast, grows into its own in its second year, building on the already solid foundations laid by its first season.
Granted, Season 1 of Luke Cage suffered significantly from the same problem all of these Marvel-Netflix shows have had – pacing. None of them, not even the jewels in the crown to date—the first seasons of both Jessica Jones and The Punisher—have needed to be 13 episodes. Not one. It comes as a surprise, therefore, that Luke Cage S2 works precisely because of the element which the first half of S1 especially put effort into establishing: Mariah Stokes-Dillard. This is the season that, frankly, Alfre Woodard should be winning Emmy’s when the day is through. She propels Mariah across this season into the high-tier of nuanced comic-book villains.
Black culture in media is undergoing a phenomenal, and all too long coming, bloom in popular culture, in a way Luke Cage almost predicted a couple of years ago, in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Representation remains a huge problem across the board but, there is no question, this year men, women and children are seeing black actors, characters and culture dominate entertainment in a largely positive and inspiring way.
You can feel the sense of identity in every frame of Luke Cage now, immersed as it is within that cultural moment. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker hires key black & Asian talent on scripting duties and behind the camera – actors turned directors such as Kasi Lemmons, Salli Richardson-Whitfield & Lucy Liu. Once again, there is a strong prevalence of music given Harlem’s Paradise once again proves a major setting for a great deal of the action – yet this time, when Luke Cage pauses for breathe to indulge some reggae or blues, often as part of a montage sequence, it doesn’t slow the action to a frustrating crawl.
It feels part of the show’s atmospheric DNA in more of a seamless way, perhaps because one of Luke Cage’s strengths is that it revels in the cultural and indeed spiritual war raging in Harlem for its very soul. Coker ensures that stylistically the show has a consistency from the previous season but introduces new elements, some built out from S1 and The Defenders, some entirely new, which increasingly make Luke as a character one of the strongest in this Marvel corner of street-level heroes.
You wonder if Luke Cage could, at any other point, have made a character like Bushmaster work, for instance. Played terrifically with imposing, oft-demented steele by Mustafa Shakir, Bushmaster aka Johnny McIver is reconceptualised as representative of a very different kind of black culture. As characters like Mariah are portrayed with a strong echo of 70’s blaxploitation updated with a post-modern, gangster culture aesthetic, so Coker pays attention to get his patois down pat; Bushmaster at times almost needs subtitles to understand his thick accent and harsh wordplay.
He is a far more effective source of antagonism than Diamondback and even rivals Cottonmouth for nuance and complexity, even if they are two distinctly different people. The skill in how Bushmaster is portrayed lies in just how complicated you may actually feel about the character, in terms of the reasons for his arrival in Harlem, and the dynamic he has with Luke. Much like Mariah proves herself this season to be a remarkable villain, Bushmaster stands out as easily one of the most striking, memorable bad guys the Marvel-Netflix shows have delivered to date.
What impresses about Luke Cage’s second season is how it balances narrative with complex character work. Everyone goes on a significant journey here. Luke starts the season almost in Tony Stark territory when it comes to fame. Like anyone thrust into the celebrity limelight, however, Luke finds himself struggling with the expectation of a population he has sworn to defend.
The show also utilises well the supporting characters arcing around Luke, Mariah & Bushmaster. Simone Missick remains the heart & soul of the show as Misty Knight, the dogged NYPD detective with a short fuse and a strong vein of justice running through her; who saw The Defenders might have some idea of the personal challenges she faces as the season begins. Theo Rossi’s Hernan ‘Shades’ Alvarez deepens across the year too. Rosario Dawson once again provides ample support as the ever-present Claire Temple, Gabrielle Dennis has a very interesting arc as a character closely linked to one of the main protagonists, while the late, great Reg E. Cathey gives a moving final performance as Luke’s reverend father, which is of course sadly now posthumous.
While Luke naturally remains the centre of gravity for the series, buoyed by Mike Colter’s charming, everyman performance, Coker’s narrative and storytelling has enough swagger to allow many of these characters, with their individual narratives, to breathe in a way you simply don’t see in many of the other Marvel-Netflix series. Only Daredevil really has the strength in depth outside of the main character to warrant the same level of focus we see in Luke Cage.
What impresses most at times about Luke Cage’s maturer, richer second year, is that you frequently would be forgiven for forgetting this, ultimately, is a Marvel Comics superhero series at all. That’s no slight on the comic book TV series as an entity at all, but Luke Cage here really does throw off the shackles of being tethered to the extended universe around it. It has its own sense of style and smarts which overall makes for one of the strongest seasons in the Marvel-Netflix tangle of shows to date.
Believe the hype. Luke Cage just punched his way to being one of the slickest superhero series on TV.
Luke Cage: Season 2 will arrive on Netflix on June 22nd.