By Lido G. — Let’s talk about Luke Cage season 1 real quick.
Luke Cage season 1 happened so long ago it’s like a relic from another time, both in terms of the socio-political upheaval that’s happened in the past two years and the almost immediate drop-off in Marvel Netflix cultural cache the series ushered in. Don’t get me wrong, Luke Cage season 1 had good elements, but between the overlong running time, the inability to find an all-around strong antagonist, and the weird conservatism of a show produced just months prior to the dawn of the Trump administration, it definitely does not hold up. What’s more, it’s place as precursor to the back-to-back failures of Defenders and Iron Fist puts it in an uncomfortable position of being the Marvel Netflix show that ended up an exit point for a lot of the wider audience.
I bring this up because season 2 is an incredible leap forward that actually addresses most of the series’ biggest flaws and is easily the best Marvel Netflix offering since Jessica Jones season 1, and it’d be a damn shame if past failures kept people from checking it out.
Fixing Past Mistakes
Speaking of past failures, you don’t need to have seen Defenders or any other Marvel Netflix show to understand Luke Cage season 2. Taking place sometime after Defenders, Luke has been exonerated of the crimes that landed him in prison and has returned to Harlem as a community hero and minor celebrity, complete with merchandise and an app dedicated to spotting him. Meanwhile, his cop friend Misty Knight is adjusting to life after losing an arm, also during the events of Defenders, while trying to find her place in the law enforcement system that has for so long defined her and her world. As for our villains, the main antagonist is Alfre Woodard’s Black Mariah, ex-city councilwoman turned Harlem gunrunner eager to buy her way into the world of white-collar crime so as to bury her family’s violent criminal history. Her plan is scuttled, however, by a new villain, Bushmaster, a Jamaican mobster with ties to Mariah’s past and superpowers to rival Luke, plus a thirst for vengeance that threatens to tear Harlem apart.
So, the best thing about Luke Cage season 2 is the show managed to fix many of its flaws without compromising its unique vision of what a superhero should be. Specifically, the show sets out to better fill its 13-episode order without padding things with more action or sex scenes — we are here for character interactions first and foremost. That’s what Luke Cage decided its core is and, to its credit, it’s great at giving EVERYONE in the cast an interesting arc. Everyone is relatable in their goals. All three of the season’s main villains have well-composed and fascinating arcs that eclipse the hero at times. Black Mariah’s growing desperation to rewrite her history works as a great subversion of Marvel’s tendency to give heroes dark revelations about their own foundations. Black Mariah’s rigid unwillingness to accept any responsibility for her past slowly gives way to a violent, bigoted wallow in her own crapulence, a decision that if she can’t forget the past she will embrace it as her present.
Bushmaster is the perfect counter to this arc, almost too perfect. He’s basically a better version of Whiplash from Iron Man 2, right down to his father helping found Mariah’s heritage but ending up written out of the history books for shady reasons. It all takes me back to a quote that’s truly come to define Marvel after dark revelations in Winter Soldier, Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnarok — You come from a family of thieves and butchers and now, like all guilty men, you seek to rewrite your own history and you forget all the lives your family ruined.
The problem with Bushmaster is he’s too charismatic and likable. He’s treated like a villain because he wants to kill Mariah for revenge, which seems deeply unfair given we JUST had a whole season of Punisher with that same goal. It gets to a point at the end, as Black Mariah descends into more and more brutal savagery and racism, that you wonder why Luke doesn’t just let Bushmaster have his revenge, especially after the lengths the show goes to show his origin and Mariah’s sadism.
To be fair, Luke’s antipathy toward saving Mariah is a key part of his own arc of feeling trapped by his celebrity. It’s actually a really clever subversion of season 1’s exhaustive dedication to respectability politics by making that same respectability Luke’s greatest obstacle. He’s constantly left feeling like his actions aren’t making a difference, which fuels a growing anger in direct opposition to the idealized black man his celebrity demands he be. The show opens with a lavish media profile of Luke describing him as this synthesis of every great black male historical figure in modern memory and as the show continues it becomes increasingly obvious how much that ideal isn’t just unattainable but actively constraining Luke from orchestrating real change. In the end, Luke finally arrives at a conclusion about who he wants to be, even selecting his own black icon to emulate, and it’s a compelling statement about the need to create systems outside the law when communities can’t trust in it anymore.
Luke and The System
Speaking of the law, the most interesting development Luke Cage is its worsening relationship to the system. In season 1, the show landed firmly on the viewpoint that the system wasn’t bad but rather staffed by imperfect servants, and that if we could all trust the system a little more things would improve: it’s fair to say this message has not aged well. It’s clear the showrunners realized this with season 2, even though they aren’t quite ready to reject the system in full — there’s nothing here quite as radical as the killer cops and government-sponsored human experiments on black citizens found in Black Lightning, but things are progressing. Overall the new outlook is that the system isn’t actively malicious but ultimately powerless to help, hindered by inability to effectively police itself until after the fact and all too often co-opted by the very criminals it seeks to put away.
This ends up leaving Misty Knight in a weird place. Her overall arc is how Misty got her groove back and also a robotic arm, which works for the most part but her relationship to the system mirrors the show’s overall ambivalence. There are parts where she seems to fully grasp the uselessness of a system that lets wife beaters go free yet puts Luke Cage in prison, but ultimately she still embraces it, as if the victories she managed were due to good police work instead of the criminal community using the police as their own form of penance and punishment. This isn’t a bad place for Misty per se, as she’s still growing along with the show and it works keeping her as our one foot in the establishment while Luke moves further from it, but it’d still be nice for the series to take a stronger stance on abuses by law enforcement as they become increasingly egregious and public every day.
The area where Luke Cage season 2 skirts closest to relevance is a very bizarre throwaway plot relating to Bushmaster being Jamaican. His Jamaican heritage is interesting, playing up the divide between black Jamaicans and African Americans, zeroing in heavily on the Jamaican history of Maroons — slaves who escaped and lived in free rebel communities in the Jamaican wilderness. The politics between Mariah’s American blackness and Bushmaster’s Jamaican background is fascinating but the fact that most of his gang are Jamaican ends up creating a bizarre sequence where we hear secondhand about ICE rounding up anyone with a Jamaican accent. It’s a weird footnote in the show that doesn’t fit but at least it implies some understanding of police profiling, even if they lay the blame for this action on Bushmaster.
Speaking of additional problems, despite all the plate-spinning the show can’t quite fill 13 episodes on drama alone, which is a shame because there are a number of characters I wish had more identity and relevance. Mariah’s daughter Tilda is a new addition who ends up a major reveal, but she never really felt like as firm a presence as her mother or Bushmaster. She might have more development in season 3, but ultimately most of her screen time is spent being unsure about or disappointed by her mother — she doesn’t really stand alone. Luke’s father, played by the late great Reg E. Cathey, is another character I’d have liked more of. He’s absolutely superb whenever he shows up and definitely has an internal life and identity. He just didn’t feel that relevant, and he kind of moves in and out of the narrative too easily for how much Luke’s daddy issues come into play.
The biggest surprises of the season are Danny Rand and Shades. Danny stops by for a one-episode cameo, and it’s amazing how much better he is when he’s not a main character. He’s still playing the same insufferable hipster trust fund baby who uses a yoga studio to creep on women, won’t shut-up about the year he spent in the far east, and would rather you not call him rich, but it works when we’re SUPPOSED to find him insufferable. It’s actually really funny when he tries to insert mystical nonsense into Luke’s grounded crime story, like a Zen Jack Burton. He also ushers the show’s best action, as Luke himself is kind of dull to choreograph due to his super strength and invulnerability.
Shades is the standout though. His arc is easily the most satisfying. He’s basically a standard gangster movie plot, someone raised by the streets to never trust anyone or show emotion, testing the waters of both in his relationship with Mariah as they prepare to move out of the world of street crime. Obviously Luke and Bushmaster complicate his plans, but the real meat of his story how he reacts when Mariah becomes the kind of violent mobster he hoped she wasn’t. There are great beats in his story about who we let in or lock out, and about how much devastation we stand before money isn’t worth it.
The show's musical interludes are actually even MORE prominent this time, though maybe not quite as memorable. The musical performances are constant, blending a little too easily into the background, though they do serve a unique purpose of reflecting those in power. The Harlem Paradise changes hands multiple times and each new owner brings unique taste to the musical performances. So we cycle through classic rap and hip-hop, funk infused soul, and even reggae. It’s a nice example of form reflecting content, though there’s nothing quite as viscerally impressive as some other music/action pairings in the superhero genre of late, like Immigrant Song in Thor: Ragnarok, Am I Black Enough For You from Black Lightning, or even Luke Cage season 1’s Long Live the Chief.
Luke Cage season 2’s best description is improved. There’s still room to get better in the show’s relationship to the system, using time well, and making Luke a compelling character instead of just an iconic one, but that doesn’t subtract from everything this season achieved. It was a season of villains more than anything, a season in which bad guys were main characters, uniquely compelling and human in a way Netflix villains haven’t previously managed. Past highlights like Kingpin and Kilgrave succeeded on actor charisma or their representation of a broader threat, but Black Mariah, Shades, and Bushmaster are written as real people with real lives and struggles — we see joy from them, not just ugly cruelty. It’d just be nice if the show found more of that material for its main character because, as it stands, Luke still hasn’t been as fun solo as he was in Jessica Jones season 1. Maybe for season 3 they can split the difference and jump straight to Power Man and Iron Fist, but I guess we’ll see.