Starring Mike Colter, Rosario Dawson, Mustafa Shakir, Theo Rossi, Alfre Woodard, Reg. E. Cathey, Simone Missick and Finn Jones.
Spoilers for Season 1. Minor Spoilers only for Season 2.
I really wasn’t a fan of Luke Cage after season one. By which I mean the show, not Mike Colter’s character. Colter has always convinced in the role ever since he first appeared on Jessica Jones’ first season. But aside from several good acting performances (by Colter, Mahershala Ali etc.) Season 1 was very, very disappointing, and in my opinion, was one of the most critically overrated TV series (I’d give it a 2.5/5). Sure, it was a landmark event in that it was the first Superhero TV show centred around a Black Superhero and a majority Black Cast. But this doesn’t automatically make it good television, no matter how powerful its message is. It had a unique feel, sure, with a soulful soundtrack that worked wonderfully, but I wouldn’t have recommended it to anyone.
Luke Cage had three major issues in S1: its pacing, its villains and a failure to use its hero in an interesting way. Luke was often too sidelined in favour of the supporting characters throughout the first season, and his whole ‘reluctant hero’ schtick really wasn’t that interesting a character arc – it just made him seem selfish and jaded and didn’t let Colter’s natural charisma show the way it did in Jessica Jones and the Defenders. Worse, the nature of Luke’s powers meant he was completely invulnerable for the first 6 episodes, but then once a weapon that hurt him was introduced in episode 7, he kept going down far too easily (i.e. the familiar Superman/Supergirl problem). The shows pacing was all out of whack, as is usual with Marvel’s Netflix shows, and was definitely 3 episodes too long. The biggest problem, however, was the villains. S1 had 4: Cottonmouth, Diamondback, Shades and Mariah. Although the actors did their best with each of them, we never got any reason to care about Shades or Mariah, who were really bland throughout, Diamondback was very OTT and had a really hackneyed origin story (Luke’s resentful brother, I mean seriously??! talk about cliched) and Cottonmouth (the only decent one) was killed off halfway through.
I gave S2 another chance because, as I said, I like Colter’s performance and figured the show could do a lot better. Has it?
Yes it has. Thank God!
Luke is a much, much more interesting lead this season. He grapples with more compelling themes, struggling with anger issues, his newfound celebrity status, and his desire to do what’s right even when he knows he could solve Harlem’s problems more quickly by just killing Mariah or working outside the law. While he still feels a bit too sidelined at times, the screentime Luke does get is put to much better use. Colter clearly relishes the role he’s playing this time, whether its sparring with Claire and Misty over his methods or trying to reconnect with his estranged father (marvellously played by the terrific late Reg. E. Cathey, who the series is dedicated to).
The writing has also improved a lot, mainly because it focuses a lot more on character work, so that even when the plot slows up we still get some compelling scenes. The racial politics and progressive messages are still there, but are included with far more nuance, and aren’t so jarringly on the nose as they were in season one. As Black Lightning proved, these things work far better when they are simply shown, rather than being patronisingly spelt out for the audience. In other good news, the supporting characters this season (Sugar, D.W. Piranha, Comanche, Tilda, Anansi) are all much more interesting than Misty, Scarfe or Shades were last season. Thankfully, Misty is a much easier character to like this time round, simply because she’s clued in and on Luke’s side from the start. Even more surprisingly, Shades becomes one of the shows most intriguing characters this season, as Theo Rossi gets much better material to work with and gets the chance to really show his talent as an actor. Alfre Woodard gets a better storyline as Mariah as well, as the show does a better job of transforming her into a main villain, though arguably it gets too focused on her in the latter episodes of the season.
The show’s biggest strength, however, has to be new villain Bushmaster. Not only is this villain capable of going hand-to-hand with Cage (something which Mariah, Shades and Cottomouth were handicapped by their inability to do), but he’s also played with great charisma by Mustafa Shakir, who turns Bushmaster into one of the most memorable villains in Marvel TV (he’s virtually Tennant as Kilgrave good, and that’s the highest praise I can give). His fights with Luke are highlights of the season, and the fight choreography in general seems to have taken a massive step up this year – you’ll never get bored of Luke smacking down thugs or going toe-to-toe with Bushmaster, who is the first character to ever pose a genuine physical threat to Luke. It’s just a pity that Bushmaster gets sidelined in favour of Mariah in the last few episodes of the series, as he was definitely the stronger adversary of the two.
The series still isn’t perfect however. While it feels like you could get 13 episodes of story from the plot, each episode weighs in at 50-65 minutes, so the episodes do feel stretched out in places, normally because police incompetence or Luke’s reluctance to kill keeps some villains in play longer than they need to be. If you fancy a drinking game, have one everytime there’s an interlude mid-episode for a musical performance at Harlem’s paradise – it happens like every bloody episode and probably adds at least a good half-hour of runtime over the season. There’s also an Iron Fist crossover episode, which has its moments, but feels more like fan-service than actually adding anything to the plot (though I’m happy to say Finn Jones is much more likeable as Danny Rand now).
Overall, the shows character-driven scripts and cool fight scenes, in addition to a more subtle and nuanced approach to its political message, make this a huge improvement over season 1. However, it still feels stretched out and arguably focuses on the wrong villain in the final few episodes. Despite this, its probably up there with Jessica Jones’ second season in terms of quality, so I’ll give it the same rating.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Final Thought: Make sure you watch S1 of the Defenders before you watch this, because there’s a lot of references to the events of that crossover series here, particularly regarding Misty and Danny Rand’s role in events.