By Jim Sabataso
Sweet Christmas! Now, that’s how you make a season of television.
When “Luke Cage” premiered on Netflix in 2016, it was a distinctly different thing. It was working on another level that made it more than another facet in Marvel’s street-level hero mosaic. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker brought a clear, confident point of view that used the superhero genre to explore issues of race, community and African-American history and culture.
It’s impossible to overlook the symbolism of Luke Cage. The Marvel Comics character, created in 1972 by Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin and John Romita, Sr., is an invulnerable hero with super strength — a bullet-proof black man who’s sworn to defend Harlem against threats from within and without. That symbolism is no less potent today, as white nationalism has seeped back into our national consciousness and black men continue to be disproportionately victimized by our criminal justice system.
Mike Colter’s easy smile and towering stature strikes the balance between friendly and formidable. He’s a reluctant hero motivated by an underlying sense of responsibility for his community, his neighbors and his family. When threatened, he stands tall with confidence and dignity, daring his enemies to do their worst.
Season two finds Luke adjusting to celebrity life as Harlem’s hero. But that notoriety comes with expectations. When a Jamaican gang led by the super-powered Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) starts terrorizing Harlem, the community starts to turn on Luke for, in their eyes, not doing enough to stop the violence.
Luke finds himself in the middle of the conflict, as Bushmaster’s grudge with corrupt politician and Harlem crime boss Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) forces him to protect the woman who put him in prison at the end of season one.
Shakir’s Bushmaster makes for a compelling villain. He’s a swaggering, sharp-dressed and violent menace who’s returned to Harlem to reclaim his family’s legacy from Mariah. Imbued with super strength thanks to a potent herbal cocktail, he’s a more than a match for Luke.
Bushmaster also lets the show explore the Jamaican-American community through food and music. This season’s musical score by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad mixes reggae with blues to represent the conflict between Bushmaster and Mariah.
Woodard’s Mariah benefits from a strong arc this season. Tired of a life of crime, she’s put herself on the path of a legitimate businesswoman, and reconnected with her estranged daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis). Sadly, that’s no easy path to walk, and for all her good intentions, Mariah is still a cold-as-ice villain who’s only in it for herself.
Also pulled back into action is Misty Knight (Simone Missick), the hard-nosed police detective, who’s now struggling with the loss of right her arm after the events of last year’s “Defenders” series. Missick captures Misty’s badass attitude, even as she works through the trauma of her injury.
Less front and center this season is Rosario Dawson’s Claire, who exits the story early on, after Luke’s overprotectiveness drives her away. While Claire has been a welcome presence throughout the Netflix Marvel series, she’s not entirely missed here. Clearing away the romantic subplot makes room for the development of other characters, like Shades (Theo Rossi), who also gets great arc this season as a gangster torn between his love for Mariah and his loyalty to best friend and partner in crime Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones).
A subplot involving Luke and his father, James, played by the late Reg E. Cathey, helps to further develop Luke’s character. James, a preacher, is a stubborn, self-righteous egomaniac who harbors both resentment and envy for his son. He also loves him deeply, and the show works to convey the complicated nature of the relationship. It also allows Cathey to deliver some fiery monologues, which are a treat.
Marvel fans looking for connections to the extended universe, won’t be disappointed. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Danny Rand (Finn Jones) both check in at various points. In his third go as Iron Fist, Jones finally seems to be settling into the role. That’s thanks in part to this series’ choice to not take him too seriously, by giving side eye to his rich-white-boy-fighting-dragons origin story.
Coker and co. have not only infused the show with a strong point of view, they’ve also given it great style. The series looks fantastic, with lush, colorful set and costume design. Music is also used to great effect to celebrate African-American culture, with performances by Esperanza Spalding, KRS-One, Ghostface Killah, Stephen Marley, Gary Clark Jr., and more.
Unfortunately, the pacing issues that have plagued all of Marvel’s Netflix series persist here as well. At 13 episodes, it feels overlong and bloated; a tight eight episodes would have sufficed. Coker does make use of that space by digging into the characters, focusing on one or two for an entire episode, but it still lags in places. That said, this season is tighter and more focused than season one, which dragged in the back half, as the plot strayed into superhero slugfest territory.
Watching this season of “Luke Cage,” it’s easy to forget you’re watching a superhero show. With its focus on character and real-world issues, the series feels more like “The Wire” than “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” It’s a fun, smart, stylish and distinctive series that stands as a testament to what the superhero genre can be.
CHECK IT OUT
Season two of “Luke Cage” is now streaming on Netflix.