Luke Cage has had a problem. It’s not unfamiliar, not even to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Luke Cage the character is too…static. Immovable. His morals match his fighting style: don’t flinch for nothin’. And to a point, this is interesting. Chris Evans reign as Captain America, for example, has shown that putting this character in a twisting, unnavigable world can be compelling. But for Luke, it was an entire season (plus The Defenders) of the same waves crashing against the same rock.
This season, however, it appears that the writers have learned a lesson. They’ve reflected the nature of the rock, worn down by the turbulent cascades until it looks more like the water is shaping the earth than splashing off of it. Luke has become a vastly more interesting, complex character, and the show in turn has become better for it.
It picks up soon after the events of The Defenders, meaning The Hand has been dismantled, Matt Murdock is missing and presumed dead, and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is back in Harlem. He’s working piecemeal through the drug dealers and stash houses of the city while trying to make the more normal aspects of his life work. This includes his relationship with Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and simply financing his existence.
This reveals something of a twist in the Netflix Marvel offerings. Matt constantly tries to bifurcate his life into Daredevil and jurisprudence to no avail. Jessica Jones finds her troubles inextricably tied to her profession. And Danny Rand (Finn Jones) has his woes squarely within his familial obligations. They all, to an extent, try to separate their hero side from their human side.
Luke, however, is different. In sort of an Iron Man fashion, he is the hero. His face is the face of the bulletproof man keeping Harlem safe. This makes for a refreshing perspective on the interpersonal drama that comes from risking life, limb, and relationships to do the right thing. It creates a fascinating web of dependence on what influences what as Luke begins to go from inflexible stalwart heart to a focused but pliable protector.
It is highlighted early on in the season when Claire and Luke butt heads over his shifting values. It zooms in on his “bend me, don’t break me” replacement for his former “don’t test me” facade, but it also frames it within sociopolitical issues. They dive deep into the nuances prejudice, the facets of racism, and how relationships tend to massage them into a neat little bundle that’s ripe for unraveling at the worst time—and just how necessary that is.
A tremendous amount of that works because of the performances by Colter and Dawson (since it’s definitely not the clunky dialogue). They fully channel the myriad layers fueling the drama that erupts in that scene, making it tense and believable and, most importantly, inescapable. If nothing else, this season at least gives us this episode. (Though it does skew a bit close to recap territory at times.)
Because as good as it is, these 13 episodes do have problems. The writing continues to be less than ideal, swirling together nonsensical metaphors like a horrifying amalgam of Dennis Miller reach and Aaron Sorkin gravity. It wants to hit hard but fails to untangle itself into anything digestible by the time it reaches your ears. The latter episodes especially feature a lot of brow-furrowing lines.
The action, also, is once again fails to be effective. And this is despite having a new villain in Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), a Jamaican powerhouse able to go toe-to-toe with Luke himself. His highly acrobatic style of combat—a fusion of capoeira-like flow and traditional stand up pugilism—should make for far more eye-catching fighting, but the way these scenes are shot are fatally lethargic. That may be fine for showcasing Luke’s deliberate and unremarkable tactics, but it drags everything down to that level.
Mariah Stokes (Alfre Woodard), an intriguing complication in the first season, becomes an anchor as the plot becomes moored with its obsessive smashing together of her and Shades (Theo Rossi). Her performance vacillates between terrific and confusing (does she and the director intend to make her feel impotently entitled?), but the real problem is that their relationship is zero percent convincing. We don’t understand where this comes from, why it remains, or where it’s going.
And it somehow remains in the frame the entire time. It forms at least part of the foundation of all of Mariah and Shades’ problems as they attempt to go legit and shy away from the drugs and guns business. It muddles everything it touches, which, unfortunately, is just about everything in a protracted set of 13 episodes. It neither has enough time to explore all the good stuff nor enough material to make it count.
Which is a shame because there is a lot of incredible things happening just around the proscenium. As the past emerges in the shape of Mariah’s estranged daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), we are given a compelling reason to empathize with Mariah’s sociopathic bent for control. Bushmaster is given proper motivation for his malicious intent, and Shades is filled out so he is no longer just a cool persona in the corner (and done so in a surprising and welcome way, despite the other half of the equation falling into a common trope).
And of course, there can never be enough Simone Missick as Misty Knight. The throughline of her story from the first season to the events of The Defenders to this season is emblematic of the strengths of existing inside a cinematic universe. And Missick’s performance is fantastic, perfectly in tune with the character, the scene, and the overall arc at all times. And seeing her team up with Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) is a ton of fun.
While not unscathed, the second season of Luke Cage emerges stronger than its predecessor. It finds a way to turn a totem into something flawed and interesting and zeroes in on that simple idea. There may be plenty of leftover qualms (and a few new ones), but it’s a huge step in the right direction. Perhaps second only to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this may be the best MCU television series out right now.
Final Score: 8 out of 10