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Marvel’s Luke Cage (Season 2) Review

June 23, 2018 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
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Marvel’s Luke Cage (Season 2) Review  

Author’s Note: This is a spoiler-free review based on screeners for all 13 episodes of Luke Cage Season 2 that were provided by Netflix.

Harlem’s Hero, Luke Cage, is back for the second season of the benchmark Marvel Netflix TV series. Picking up after the events of The Defenders miniseries, the man formerly known as Carl Lucas (Mike Colter), is now free from Seagate. Things are looking up for Luke as he’s keeping the streets of Harlem clean and safe and enjoying his relationship with his loving girlfriend, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). However, Luke Cage’s quest to defend Harlem is far from over.

In the second season of Luke Cage, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is no longer in control, but a new face has entered the fray in the form of John McIver (Mustafa Shakir). Going by the name Bushmaster, McIver has come to Harlem with vengeance on his mind. Additionally, Cottonmouth’s cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) has her own plans, with Shades (Theo Rossi) at her side as her chief advisor. Mariah is trying to put her past and dark family connections behind her. However, her family’s reputation precedes her, and Dillard struggles to move beyond her lineage.

Another face who has arrived in Harlem is more familiar to Carl Lucas: his estranged father, James Lucas (the late Reg E. Cathy in one of his final roles). After Luke Cage was publicly revealed as Carl Lucas, James’ attention has been drawn to Harlem to reconnect with his son, but Luke isn’t ready to let go of the anger and resentment he feels toward his father. If you recall, in the first season, Luke Cage grew up in Savannah, Georgia as Carl Lucas. He came from a well-to-do family, and his father had a great deal of influence as the town preacher.

Unfortunately, Luke’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment at Seagate drove a rift between the two, with James not believing his son’s innocence. In addition, Luke came to the realization that his father was having an out-of-wedlock affair with another woman. The affair produced Luke’s childhood friend and half-brother, Willis Stryker, which is a fact Luke didn’t learn about until much later.

A great deal of Luke Cage Season 2 is centered around anger and vengeance. Literally all the central characters in the show are poisoned or shattered by some trauma they can’t let go of. For Luke, it’s his anger for his father. For Mariah Dillard, it’s anger at her family. For Bushmaster, it’s his past grudges. Luke’s anger is justified, but he is stubborn and unable to let go of it. For Luke’s part, his father didn’t exactly give him good reason to offer forgiveness.

The late, great Reg E. Cathy delivers a great performance as James Lucas. It’s heartbreaking watching the show and his relationship with his son unfold, knowing that we will never get to see these two play off each other again. This relationship naturally builds off of what was established in the first season and has some great payoffs.

Mustafa Shakir is dynamite as one of the new antagonists this season as John “Bushmaster” McIver. He’s another person who believes Harlem is his domain, and he’s not too pleased that Luke Cage has been adopted as “Harlem’s Hero.” Shakir has great presence. He raises the stakes since he offers a physical threat to Luke Cage, as he also has some mysterious abilities.

Mike Colter does exceptional work this season as Luke Cage, who is trying to juggle the responsibilities of becoming a nationally recognized and public superhero and dealing with the fallout as well. Series showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker plays quite a bit this season with Luke’s newly found celebrity status, equating it to pro athletes and prize fighters. Luke wants to keep the streets of Harlem, his adopted home, safe and free from crime, but the loss of Cottonmouth has created a power vacuum. Despite Luke’s abilities, cleaning up Harlem is a struggle that Luke is not familiar with, along with the challenges of his superhero celebrity status.

Unfortunately, the show’s weakest aspect this season comes in the form of Woodard as Dillard and Rossi as Shades. Their relationship is not only forced, but the show always grinds to a halt when dealing with Dillard and Shades’ latest scheme. It’s symbolic of how getting rid of Cottonmouth so early in the first season was a major misstep. Once he exited the show, all that was left were Diamondback and Mariah, and they were nowhere near as interesting foils for Luke as Cornell Stokes. The show spends a lot of time over-developing Shades’ backstory, and that’s where the show starts to get heavily padded.

The show is best this season when it focuses on the Bushmaster and Luke Cage dynamic. Bushmaster is not only a match for Luke Cage in terms of charisma, but physical strength as well. Bushmaster also has some other interesting vulnerabilities and layers that add great texture to his character over the course of the season. That’s why it becomes so frustrating when the show is constantly switching between Mariah and Bushmaster. If one of the main flaws of Jessica Jones Season 2 was a consistent series of narrative bait-and-switches, one of the main flaws for Luke Cage Season 2 is a series of role reversals.

The other major flaw this season is the writers’ struggle to fill in 13 episodes of plot. In the show’s defense, the acting is all solid. The second half isn’t quite as uneven as the first one, but Season 2 still gets really flabby toward the end. The first season took a major dive after the death of Cottonmouth. For season 2, the plot peaks about at nine or 10 episodes in, which is when the season probably should have ended. It’s strange because Daredevil really made the most of having a 13-episode first season. Then, it seems in subsequent Marvel TV seasons, the shows tended to run out of steam in the back half. Meanwhile, the greatly maligned Iron Fist seemed to have the reverse effect. The first half was really weak, but the show started to improve midway through the first seasaon. However, the damage was done for Iron Fist because most reviewers only watched the show based on the season’s first half.

Luke Cage Season 2 shows that 13 episodes is becoming too much. If the shows do start switching to a 10-episode season, that is probably for the best. Episodes are becoming heavily padded, and the narrative is stretched too thin. It’s like a big action movie having its major climax, and then the movie runs for another hour. The actual ending to the season is way more satisfying than the first, but the writers easily could have arrived at that point in a more concise manner.

Luke Cage does well in connecting to the rest of Marvel Netflix. Jessica Henwick makes a welcome return as Colleen Wing and has some great scenes with Simone Missick as Misty Knight. Missick also gets a lot more to do this season as she’s recovering from losing her arm in The Defenders. It’s already clear that she finally receives her bionic arm this season, and that subplot delivers some incredibly satisfying moments.

Finn Jones’ as Danny Rand/Iron Fist has been one of the most divisive, polarizing characters to come out of the Marvel Netflix line. He does make a guest appearance in Season 2, and it’s easily one of the best highlights. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker does an infinitely better job at writing Iron Fist than both Scott Buck in Iron Fist and Marco Ramirez in The Defenders. Longtime comic fans are really going to enjoy Danny’s appearance and seeing one of the best superhero duos in comics develop onscreen. Hopefully, this shows good promise for what’s to come in Iron Fist Season 2 and leaves fans with a much better impression of the character.

The action and fight choreography are especially good this season. Without giving much away, Luke Cage gets more than a few strong displays of his powers throughout the season. While nothing tops the best fight scenes from the first two seasons of Daredevil, or some of the brutal shootouts in the first season of The Punisher, the action is all very solid.

Much like the first season, music and musical interludes are heavily woven into the presentation of the show. Harlem’s Paradise is still a central setting, and the series continues with showcasing real-life musical artists performing at the club juxtaposed against major scenes or moments throughout Season 2. Season 2 mixes in some nice blues music into the soundtrack, which livens and changes things up.

Overall, this is a good outing for Luke Cage. It appears the staff and writers are starting to become hampered by the require length of 13 episodes for the Marvel Netflix shows. That’s why a format change for about 10 episodes cannot come soon enough. This season is highlighted by a strong adversary for Luke Cage in Bushmaster, and an emotional payoff with Luke reconnecting with his father. This might not be one of the best Marvel Netflix seasons, but it is one of the better ones.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Marvel delivers a strong second season for Luke Cage Season 2. It's a very good second season, but its slightly held back by a lot of padding and being overly long. The show continues long after it likely should've ended. The season is anchored by some great performances by the likes of Mike Colter as the titular hero Luke Cage, the late Reg E Cathy as his father James Lucas and Mustafa Shakir as Bushmaster, who is a great foil for Luke Cage this season. Simone Missick really comes into her own as Misty Knight. There are also some great connections to the other Marvel Netflix shows that are sure to satisfy fans. If the writing team could've cut off some of the fat and leaned this out to about 10 episodes, this would've been a much stronger season overall. Regardless, Reg E. Cathy as Luke Cage's father and Mustafa Shakir as Bushmaster are definite standouts this season. This might not be one of the best Marvel Netflix seasons, but it is one of the better ones.