Recurring Cast: Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Mustafa Shakir, Gabrielle Dennis with Rosario Dawson and Alfre Woodard
Out of all of the Netflix Marvel series, Luke Cage is the odd one out for quite a few reasons. While Season One was arguably stuck in the realms of average with the rest of the Netflix entries of that time period, it was middling for the opposite reasons of the other seasons. Entries like Jessica Jones’ second season and The Punisher failed, because the story was so slow-burning and character-based that it struggled to keep the momentum going. While characterisation is important, it began to take priority over creating exciting superhero content and lacked that much-needed punch. However, with Luke Cage, the opposite was happening. The first season of Luke Cage built up a fascination world of the underbelly of Harlem, becoming a political gangster thriller with an occasional superhero back-drop. However, the second season devolved into a typical superhero narrative, where a bland villain showed up and punched Luke Cage a few times. The drop-in quality was almost fatal for Luke Cage; the answer was clear. Less time needed to be spent on superhero antics and more time used examining the interesting bit players in the world of Luke Cage.
Thankfully this brings us to the other big reason Luke Cage is the odd one out of the Netflix Marvels: it is the series that is learning from its mistakes. Season Two of Luke Cage starts as a more confident, self-assured creature. It opens with Luke Cage. Misty Knight and Mariah Dillard all reacting to their new worlds. Luke Cage has become an internet celebrity, almost evolving into a brand name (aided by D.W who sells merchandise and home videos of Luke Cage’s adventures), to the point where he gets his own app, where fans can track him across Harlem. It gives the opening of Season Two a good debate on the role of the black celebrity. While Season One referenced a lot of historical black figures, Season Two is definitely about the modern black hero, like Usain Bolt who is mentioned on several occasions. Luke Cage finds himself in a limelight and has to struggle with embodying the role of idol. Meanwhile Misty Knight readjusts to the role of a police officer with one arm missing and Mariah tries to balance her criminal life with her dreams of being a politician who cleans up Harlem. There are enough strands here to make for good television. Mariah is a fantastic villain, dripping with three-dimensional beats. While Kingpin and Kilgrave are definitely the villains to beat, Mariah definitely has the most depth going for her, veering from misunderstood hero to a victim of her past to a monstrous figure. Just when you decide you either pity her or hate her, something will happen to reverse your opinion. She is surrounded by the best of the supporting stars too, conjuring up interesting relationships with Theo Rossi’s Shades (who is much better this season), and Gabrielle Dennis, who plays the suspicious daughter, unsure whether her mother is turning a new leaf in reaching out to her or pulling her into the dark family business. Luke Cage’s struggle with morality and how to best handle his hero status brings out shock revelations from his relationships with his father (played incredibly by the late Reg. E. Cathey), and Claire Temple. Rosario Dawson, who is beginning to threaten to be the stale bit player in Marvel, gets something impressively interesting to do. However, while characterisation is definitely the key to a good Luke Cage script, the showrunners write in the more superhero baddie of Bushmaster. At first, Bushmaster seems like another misstep for the writers, a souped-up criminal that can match Luke Cage punch for punch. However, learning from the mistakes of the past, Bushmaster is more than a throwaway nemesis for Cage. He has his own captivating backstory, putting him as another Luke Cage player who honestly believes he is doing right by Harlem. Him and Luke Cage both want to take Mariah down; only Bushmaster believes putting her in a body bag is the only way to achieve this. As the season grows, Mustafa Shakir mesmerises with an enthralling performance, every episode seeing his character fleshed out that little bit more. Just to make sure that Luke Cage doesn’t get stale, either, the fight scenes are fantastic, keenly choreographed and stylish. While past Netflix Marvels have suggested that we have to choose between a great story and good action, Luke Cage Season 2 proves that both are possible.
Pacing is still somewhat off. While the slow-burning character-based plotline definitely feels more worthwhile here than in other seasons of Netflix’s Marvel, there are some clear points where a finer trim in the editing booth was needed. It is clear to see why the editing team and directors were so reluctant to cut down on superb intercharacter play between some of the actors, but it is painfully obvious that Luke Cage Season 2 has at least one point in each episode where the pacing begins to sag. Characters’ points of views are reaffirmed. We get yet another scene between Luke and his father. Sometimes a scene hovers on something just too long. For fans of Alfre Woodard being an outstanding actress, you get something worth tuning in for each episode, but Luke Cage Season 2 perhaps falls in love with itself a little bit too much. Perhaps it is more noticeable that Luke Cage feels free of the constraints of usual television pacing. In order to squeeze the most out of the story the writers want to tell, the show doesn’t feel compelled to end the show on a big bang. The Bushmaster storyline ends a few episodes earlier than one would imagine and, while the thread burns in the background until the very end, the final episode isn’t one focused on action. It means that we don’t always have that promised final punch-up to hang onto, resulting in the show being only as good as its current scene. While the quality is often strong enough to survive this, it means that when a ropey, or perhaps simply unnecessary, scene come along, we feel the strain on the pacing that much more. However, Luke Cage proves a show that doesn’t need the action. The ending of this season is up there with the shock levels of Game of Thrones. The political battle over Harlem ends with shocking full stops to character arcs. Whole factions are trimmed down, alliances are shattered and when the curtain closes on Mike Colter’s Luke Cage himself… Let’s just say Season 3 promises to be even more of a gamechanger.
Final Verdict: Luke Cage’s second season finally breaks the diminishing quality of Netflix’s Marvels with an intelligent and shocking run of episodes.