I was ecstatic when Marvel and Netflix announced they’d partnered up to produce multiple TV shows that would be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, focusing on the gritty, street level heroes of the MCU. The original plan was to start with five series. Four focusing on the individual heroes, including Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, with the fifth series culminating in an epic superhero crossover, called The Defenders. These are probably my 4 personal favorite Marvel characters, so it’s always been exciting when one of these new shows premiere.
Each series ended up being much more successful than Netflix expected. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage in particular were big hits with audiences and critics. As a result this already ambitious undertaking grew larger. What was originally a 5 series model, added second seasons for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, as well as a spinoff series for The Punisher (with more seasons to come including Daredevil Season 3 later this year). The first two season of Daredevil and the first season of Jessica Jones are among the best pieces of fiction to come out of the MCU PERIOD and that includes the movies. Luke Cage Season 1 was excellent as well, but a terrible villain who popped up in the second half of the season, really brought down the show’s average. Fortunately, the creators seemed to have learned from that particular mistake, but I’ll get back to that in a minute…
It was the kind of superhero storytelling I was always looking for. These stories aren’t about saving the world, they’re about saving a neighborhood. With fantastic character work and mature content that we’d never see on the big screen in the MCU. When these shows are firing on all cylinders they are spectacular. Sadly, there’s been a dip in quality in the last few Marvel/Netflix outings. However, I’m very happy to say that Luke Cage has returned with a phenomenal second season that surpasses the first and reminds us just how good these shows can be.
First of all, as I said before, this is just better than Season One. Luke’s arc in Season Two is complex and interesting in the best way. He’s more or less accepted his roll as the “Hero of Harlem”, but he carries a rage inside of him because of everything he’s seen and been through. Luke’s struggle to find out how to channel that anger in a healthy way is a big part of his journey in Season 2. With characters like Claire Temple, Danny Rand, and the late, great Reg E. Cathy as Luke’s father, helping him deal with that anger along the way. Luke is right up there with Matt Murdock as one of the most morally interesting characters on the Netflix shows. His rage, the responsibility he feels to Harlem, his growing lack of faith in the justice system, how race affects how he views himself as a hero, and more all add up to one of the most unique protagonists on TV.
Speaking of Danny Rand, this is probably the best use of The Immortal Iron First we’ve seen in the MCU so far. Even though he doesn’t have as much screen time as I would have liked, his presence is felt throughout the season. I wish we saw him more in the season, his big team up episode with Luke is everything you’d hope for. Of course, I was very happy to see the writers planting the seeds for “Heroes For Hire” in a big way.
While we’re on the topic of cool stuff from the comics making their way to the show. After losing her right arm in The Defender’s, we finally see Misty Knight get her badass robot arm like she has in the comics (though in this version the arm is provided by Rand Industries instead of Tony Stark). The arm gives Misty a degree of super-strength and it’s just enough to bump her up into superhero territory. She also has a few great scenes with Colleen Wing, who’s always a delight to see, setting up “Daughters of The Dragon” much like “Heroes For Hire” is teased with Danny and Luke.
As fun all the Marvel Easter Eggs are and as great a hero Luke is, it’s the so called “villains” that bring this series to the next level. Mustafa Shakir as Bushmaster, Theo Rossi as Shades, and the legendary Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard elevate the show to another level as the so called antagonists. Each of them are layered and anchored in very real, human emotions. One of the biggest strengths of this series is that each of these villains have done evil, horrible things, yet at certain points you’ll find yourself sympathize with them and maybe even root for them. At times the lines between hero and villain are blurred, with cops that don’t follow the rules and villains that genuinely want to help their community, it can be hard to decide who to root for. There simply isn’t any other show right now that has such complex villains and it’s one of the best things about the series.
Bushmaster is a force of nature, who more than makes up for Diamondback, the Season One villain that really hurt the quality of the second part of the first season. It was great to see a new villain who could go toe to toe with Luke and was also as strong a character as Bushmaster. His motivations are very personal. He’s not looking to become a Kingpin, he just REALLY, REALLY wants to kill Mariah Stokes as he insists on calling her. His history with Mariah and her family is revealed throughout the season and I wont spoil it hear.
Alfre Woodard is fantastic in pretty much anything, but I don’t think she’s ever played a character like Mariah Dillard. She’s magnetic in the role. She terrifying, vulnerable, fierce, sexy, charming, brutal, manipulative, and more. Sometimes you’re not even sure which side of Mariah you’re seeing in any given moment. Is she being genuine or is this a manipulation? She is absolutely one of the MCU’s best villains.
Her relationship with Shades is complex and layered in it’s own right. These two mix business and pleasure. Their on screen chemistry is fantastic and adds something big to both of the characters. Shades, like Mariah, has continued to grow as a character from Season One. I’ve been a big fan of Theo Rossi since his days playing Juice on Sons of Anarchy and his Shades is someone you’ll find yourself love and hate in equal measure.
Lastly, one of the biggest things people will talk about after watching Season Two is how the season ends and where it leaves Luke as a character. SLIGHT SPOILERS HERE The show did a fantastic job of making this turn for the character feel earned. It wasn’t some twist that came out of nowhere. You can see over the course of the season, after everything he’s been through, why Luke would make a decision like this. In the comics, Matt Murdock does a very similar thing when declares himself Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen during Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Daredevil. It was something I always hoped they’d get to on Daredevil’s series, but in the context of the universe Netflix has built, it makes more sense for Luke to be going down this path. I really like the idea whether it’s Matt Murdock or Luke Cage because it’s a unique direction for Luke’s journey as a hero. END SPOILERS
So, Luke Cage Season Two is real return to form for the Marvel/Netflix shows. Season Two improves upon it’s already strong first season with its rich mix of music and setting, unique and compelling hero, and captivating villains. Finally, the end of the season leaves the show in an exciting place with the potential to go in a number of cool directions. If you thought the Marvel/Netflix shows were beginning to lose a step, watch Luke Cage Season Two and you’ll see there’s still some great stories to be told through this format.
Luke Cage Season 2: 9/10
Review by Paul Wright