Family First: LUKE CAGE (Season 2)

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.

Marvel’s partnership with Netflix to weave together four shows set in New York City has reached an interesting place, after three years of regularly airing content. The Punisher added a fifth main show to the mix late last year after The Defenders, a much-touted coming together of Cage and fellow heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, underwhelmed a great many. Iron Fist’s first season last year suffered a critical mauling, while people have been lukewarm on Jessica Jones’ recent second season – after it raced out of the gate in late 2015 with a powerful piece of comic-book television. In other words, the Netflix corner of Marvel is drifting a touch, and is in sore need of a booster to remind people of how good it can actually be.

It looks like Luke Cage may, therefore, have returned at just the right time.

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. However where Daredevil S2 completely lost the plot halfway in, Luke Cage S1 started to find its mojo upon dispensing with Cottonmouth (as great as Mahershala Ali always is) and pushed forward with Diamondback as the villain; it gained a sense of impetus going into the climactic few episodes. This is, I’m well aware, contrary to the popular opinion that the season faltered when Cottonmouth was killed. I’m not trying to be reactionary for the sake of it but I genuinely started to enjoy Luke Cage more when the dynamics changed.

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 she truly becomes ‘Black Mariah’ in every sense of the portrayal and, 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.

It could be that Luke Cage has returned at exactly the perfect time. 2018 is turning out to be an incredible year for black culture and representation in cinema, television and popular culture. Black Panther’s almost $1.4 billion haul at the global box office, emerging as cinematic phenomenon almost overnight; the stunning rise of Donald Glover, whether as the new incarnation of Lando Calrissian in Solo, his critically adored TV show Atlanta, or even the Childish Gambino ‘This is America’ video; the Oscar-glory of Get Out and its director Jordan Peele; even the mainstream popularity of Janelle Monae’s newest album Dirty Computer, plus her much publicised (possible) relationship with Tessa Thompson, which has propelled her into the mainstream as a female heir apparent to Prince and Bowie.

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. 

Cheo Hodari Coker, Luke Cage’s showrunner, taps into the same cultural emergence with a new season that confidently knows its place in the world, and there’s a sense he knows it:

Here’s the thing: I’m just being me. … I lean into what I know. What I know are Timberland boots, Carhartt jackets, the ’90s era, Das EFX. Lords of the Underground’s Chief Rocka. That was my era. The show is going to reflect that sensibility. Basically, I lean into ’90s hip-hop the way that [Martin] Scorsese leans into ’70s rock and roll. Even though [Scorsese] is in his 60s or 70s, he’s always going to go back to that because that’s where his swagger comes from. He’s trying to do what he does. As a hip-hop showrunner, hip-hop is always going to be a part of the sensibility of Luke Cage. It’s always going to be a reflection.

You can feel the sense of identity in every frame of Luke Cage now, immersed as it is within that cultural moment. 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, which turns out to be a major thematic point for this new season. 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 – the Yardies of Jamaica. As characters like Black 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 the Jamaican 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 by the end of the season, 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, to the point—without spoiling anything—the show at the start of the season and at the end is a *very* different one. Luke starts the season almost in Tony Stark territory when it comes to fame; Harlem knows him, treats him like a celebrity stopping him in the street for photos & such – there’s even an app built around Luke’s actions defending their part of the city. Like anyone thrust into the celebrity limelight, however, Luke finds himself struggling with the expectation of a population he has sworn to defend. 

Coker this season is very interesting in what it means to ‘rule’ a population; Mariah sees herself as a Queen to the people of Harlem, even though she’s little more than an organised criminal operating under the veneer of civility – a veneer which steadily crumbles across the season. Parallels are drawn with Luke and Bushmaster in significant ways as tides of power shift and thematically, Luke Cage becomes about something more: not just defending those you love, but the person you have to become in order for everyone else to find peace. All of this is tied in with family, with the past, with legacy, and being unable to truly become who you are meant to be. The season is thematically rich with ideas and payoffs that have been earned.

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 as his relationship with Mariah grows ever more complicated. 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. We even get a few tie-in cameo performances from one or two very recognisable faces from the extended Defenders universe, one in particular which could set up a future direction for Luke and another key character in this universe if they choose to tap into comic-book history. 

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, beyond a few guest appearances and mentions of events in other shows. It has its own sense of style and smarts which, despite a final episode perhaps a little bit too concerned with setting up where the show is heading for a prospective third season than truly giving this run some closure, overall make 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.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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