Luke Cage arrives for Season Two fully intent on living up to the demands of a sophomore season. The story gets deeper and darker, while the characters get even more complex. In this more mature approach to a black superhero story, the fantastical Marvel Cinematic Universe tropes often take backseat to a much deeper drama, which takes unflinching look at some serious cultural and social issues.
NOTE: This will be a spoiler-free review of Luke Cage Season Two.
Picking up after the events of The Defenders and Luke Cage Season One, we find Carl Lucas / Luke Cage (Mike Colter) a free man, now openly patrolling Harlem as its vigilante protector. In his personal time, Luke is also in a full-on relationship with Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), and for a moment, all seems bright with the future.
But in the shadows of Harlem, the past is rearing its ugly head. Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and Shades Alvarez (Theo Rossi) have carved a nice empire for themselves despite Luke's interference. However, the arrival of John Mclver (Mustafa Shakir), a cunning and powerful Jamaican gangster known as "Bushmaster," spells trouble for the duo. John has his own vendetta against Mariah -- as well as her entire Stokes bloodline -- and that power struggle quickly erupts into all-out war in Harlem's streets, one that even an unbreakable hero may not be enough to stop on his own.
Luke Cage Season 1 was a mixed bag for a lot of fans. There was overwhelming criticism of the way the story went through such an abrupt tonal shift with the reveal of Diamondback, and those same fans will be relieved to hear that Luke Cage Season Two is a much more cohesive work, in terms of storyline and tone.
The cast and their performances are the biggest sell, as Mike Colter gets much more dramatic weight to carry, and turns in a performance that adds needed dimension to Luke's character. As good as Colter is, Season Two is propelled by its two villains: Alfre Woodard's Mariah, and series newcomer Mustafa Shakir as Bushmaster. Both villains get big arcs requiring a lot of screen time, and Woodard and Shakir push for the title of most charismatic and compelling. However, this season of Luke Cage is undoubtedly Woodard's showcase, with a performance that could easily stand against some of the most acclaimed the mob genre has to offer. Meanwhile, Bushmaster is a refreshing combination (read: balance) of the best elements in both Cottonmouth and Diamondback, which is a massive course correction for the show. Shakir is interesting, likable, frightening, and broodingly handsome -- a perfect foil for Colter's Cage.
What really works for Luke Cage Season Two, however, is how showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker and his team show no fear in really going deep into the territory of larger racial and social themes surrounding these characters. Jessica Jones Season Two got a lot of acclaim for its deep and unflinching look at the social realities of being female, famous, an addict, etc; Luke Cage Season Two similarly gets into what it is to be black -- not just in the current socio-political climate, though there is that, but in terms of a shared history of trauma, violence, and disrupted bloodlines, and what scars all of that leaves on the present. The juxtaposition of Jamaican and African-American point of view is especially interesting, and makes the Mariah/Bushmaster war a truly compelling gangster tale.
As for the obligatory Marvel Cinematic Universe developments and crossover cameos: this season is smart to keep a lot of the familiar comic book-inspired Easter eggs and developments understated, unless yielding big payoff. The season arc ticks every box it needs to in order to appease fans with familiar reveals and status quo changes, while dropping in some key cameo appearances that will definitely excite fans for the future.
Season Two is overall paced pretty well, given how circular and myopic its gang war storyline really is. When there's not a talented cast delivering great drama, there's a new (and much-improved) action sequence -- including a few that will leave Marvel fans downright giddy -- along with a few interesting detours from the main storyline. In between, Coker has infused even more slick hip-hop culture and style into the show, with even more high-profile stars making appearances for musical sequences. The music design by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad is as much a character as Luke himself, and in Season Two that character dips back into the past, mixing blues and reggae sounds as roots to the modern hip-hop sonics we know and love. The soundtrack will be a bestseller, for sure.
What Doesn't Work
It's become readily apparent that a lot of these Marvel Netflix series have too much space to fill in 13-episode seasons, and Luke Cage Season Two, despite its improvements, can't avoid this hurdle completely.2comments
Jessica Jones Season Two had a nice spread of key characters whose respective storylines intertwined nicely with the heroine's journey; unfortunately, Luke Cage's storyline doesn't have as much polish. A lot of the secondary characters (especially the female ones) get pinwheel arcs, spinning in circles without ultimately going very far. The worst of these is no doubt Misty Knight (Simone Messick), who gets a promising start, but stalls in her (literally) half-cooked story arc. Thankfully, the showrunners always remember that the primary focus is the trio of Luke, Mariah, and Bushmaster, and use that core as the primary throughline. Certain obligations to the comics make for some clunky character developments at season's end; however, scene for scene, the cast plays off one another well. The one exception is Rossi's Shades, whose presence in Season Two seems the most consistently awkward and hard to buy, in terms of his interactions with the other characters. There are also an overabundance of new faces and names, that can definitely confuse and distract early on, when viewers are trying to get re-acquainted with these characters and their world.
Luke Cage Season Two deserves a lot of acclaim, and will keep most fans happy from start to finish. Season Two will premiere in full on Netflix starting on June 22nd.