Luke Cage Season 2 Review: The series goes deeper and darker for its triumphant return
By Devvon Eubanks
Marvel is on a hot streak. From the dynamic films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most recent being the universe-shattering “Avengers: Infinity War,” to the engaging, character-driven narratives of their Netflix television series, there is more than enough superhero fever to go around. Now, after two years away from the streets, Marvel’s “Luke Cage” returns to Harlem for a second season. More gritty and less forgiving this time around, the bulletproof man with a plan is changing as a hero, opting for a more direct approach in stopping crime and protecting those he cares about. But with the introduction of a new, more threatening adversary and a captivating storyline with shocking twists and turns, this season proves to be one of Marvel’s deepest and darkest yet.
Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a celebrity. After stepping out of the shadows and defending Harlem from Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey), Luke’s name is being publicized thanks to a new “Harlem’s Hero” phone app and promotions by his friends D.W. Griffith (Jeremiah Craft) and Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones). His work never done, Luke continues to fight and clean up the city, busting drug labs and putting the hurt on criminals. But Luke isn’t the humble hero he once was. Shrouded by the grisly empire of Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and battling his painful past in an encounter with his estranged father, Rev. James Lucas (Reg E. Cathey), Luke starts to take more extreme measures in his hero work. Further complicating matters is the arrival of John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir), who threatens Luke’s heroic reputation as the Jamaican extremist quickly makes plans to take over Harlem. In the end, Luke must find a path through his personal struggles and these pernicious threats if he wants to save the city and become the hero everyone needs.
The series re-establishes its spirit right from the start. Luke enters in his trademark dark hoodie and jeans and goes right to beating up bad guys with heavy punches and bone-breaking throws while being riddled with bullets, in case people have somehow forgotten who he is. Like “Daredevil and “Jessica Jones,” his story takes place in a diverse New York landscape populated with familiar settings, in this case Pop's Barber Sop and Harlem's Paradise. And what a story this is! It starts off a bit slow with a few rough patches, but the drama eventually picks up and gets more and more intense as events play out. This series presents an extremely foreboding mélange of scenes that focus on bloody pasts, savagery, and revenge, yet also gives amazing life lessons on forgiveness and strength in continuation of its theme, “forward always.” It's a very emotional story filled with passion, laughter, sadness, and shock which will keep viewers glued to the screen. Couple this with some good fights and a stellar, plot-driven soundtrack featuring artists like Ghostface Killah, Gary Clark Jr., Stephen Marley, Faith Evans, Esperanza Spalding, and KRS-One, this season takes everything great about Luke’s first chapter and amps it up to an entirely new level.
this new level and wellspring of emotional content is due to the intense depth of character development in Season two. Over the course of 13 episodes, characters are tempered under pressing circumstances and come out transformed due to their experiences and personal pains. Luke is questioning the difference between the nature of a true hero and the actions necessary to protect Harlem. He wants to be a better person, and it is a major internal struggle when he engages in activities that would almost make him an anti-hero, deciding his actions are about “getting shit done.” His tormented side is mitigated by his girlfriend Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), close friend and NYPD detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), and his father.
On the other side of the fence, we have Mariah, who is still dealing with her gangster persona as a Stokes, but trying to move forward as a political leader to guide Harlem in the right direction. Working with her partner and lover, Hernan “Shades” Alvarez (Theo Rossi), she has a venture to put the bloody past of her family behind her in order to ready herself for the future, which also includes reconnecting with her daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis). But the events in her storyline test her in ways that confirm her as one of the most ruthless women I have ever seen in a Marvel storyline. Both Luke and Mariah’s paths intersect throughout, and the results of their development and how they affect their respective inner circles produces some insane results. It is an emotionally twisted series of events with stellar acting that supersedes many competing Marvel series.
But none of this would be complete without the new villain, Bushmaster, who is one of the deepest characters Marvel has ever given us. He is the only character to never change in spite of his circumstances. McIver has strong convictions as a response to rejecting slavery and oppression, but he also embraces strength and brutality. Bushmaster represents more than himself; he carries his Jamaican culture and community with him. There is the engrossing music, the heavy dialects, the values of faith and hard work, and the Kingston spirit in his story. It provides a depth of character Cottonmouth and Diamondback couldn’t reach, and these aspects humanize Bushmaster as a villain. He is also quite similar to Luke Cage with his connection to family and community, which makes him a formidable threat to Luke. Albeit in a more savage way, McIver wishes to save Harlem and take back the streets by any means necessary. It makes him a relatable character you might want to pull for in various parts of the season, and Mustafa Shakir completely nails this character.
Unfortunately, there are also some flaws. Because of the sophomore season's darker nature, some language can be offensive. Perhaps it's trying to display a world that is more raw and less apologetic. And this is certainly not a series kids can watch. A lot of racial and sexist terms get thrown around, and there is also one scene which randomly brings up a negative aspect of homosexuality for story emphasis. Additionally, Misty’s character tends to get thrown under the bus a few times due to something that happened to her in “The Defenders,” and that infirmity keeps being picked at, despite her time and effort as a police officer and detective. These aspects don’t take a massive toll on the quality of the story, but these details might make it hard for some people to get into it.
The only question left to ask is where Luke Cage will go from here. With this riveting chapter, it will be interesting to see what happens in the ongoing Marvel shows, especially with the next season of “Iron Fist” slated to come out later this year. In the meantime, we hope that the bulletproof man won’t stay away for too long, and continue to dispense his brand of justice for viewers around the world.