Simone Missick and Mike Colter star in Marvel’s Luke Cage
Photo: David Lee (Netflix)

Like its lead character, Marvel’s Luke Cage is aware of the upward climb it’s facing in season two. Luke (Mike Colter) cleared his name in Defenders, but when the new episodes begin, he’s wrestling with his newfound fame and obligations, the return of his estranged father (the late, great Reg E. Cathey), and, oh yeah, systemic racism. Similarly, when it debuted in 2016, Cheo Hodari Coker’s adaptation lent greater urgency to Netflix’s superhero genre with its singular protagonist and stellar cast. But the series fizzled out long before its finale, following in the footsteps of every Marvel show before it (and since).

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But as season two unfolds, the show and its protagonist draw power from the past, both in confronting and embracing it. And in doing so, Luke Cage becomes the first Marvel show (not including Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) to not only best its first season, but also maintain most of the momentum (it’s not omnipotent, after all). The character and show regain a lot of their swagger—even the expansion into Brooklyn, where new antagonist John McIver, a.k.a Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir, who threatens to run away with the show), has been marshaling his forces, hardly causes a stumble. The 13-episode mandate is still more curse than blessing, but though the pace is stubbornly deliberate, your patience will be rewarded by the story Coker and his writing team, including Akela Cooper, Aïda Mashaka Croal, and Nathan Louis Jackson, have crafted.

Season two immediately wins back a lot of good will with its Lucy Liu-directed premiere, which finds Luke methodically making his way through another underworld stronghold. Colter is cocky and determined during these scenes, but still relatable; when one henchman says he’s aware that he’s fighting a losing battle but has to show he tried, the look Colter gives is both amused and sympathetic. It’s one of several moments that display Luke’s new confidence, which is cast in different lights as the season continues. Colter’s always cut a properly imposing figure as Luke Cage, but in season two, he gives a more relaxed, though still moving, performance. The change suits a post-Defenders Luke, who may not recite his résumé like Danny Rand—the immortal Iron Fist shows up late in the season and manages not to ruin anything, to his credit—but is finally embracing being Harlem’s hero.

Mustafa Shakir
Photo: David Lee (Netflix)

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Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad provide another great score for season two, which borrows from Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth songs for its episode titles. Luke’s arc also moves to a familiar beat. Now that he’s accepted the great responsibility that comes with his great power, it’s time for his resolve to be tested. There are plenty of contenders: Mariah Dillard, née Stokes (the magnificent Alfre Woodard), has brutally filled the power vacuum she created in season one by killing her cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). She now runs Harlem’s Paradise nightclub with Shades (Theo Rossi) at her side. But this wouldn’t be a Marvel show without a secondary villain, so Bushmaster also elbows his way into the fight for Harlem. Luke’s new adversary—or ally—makes a commanding entrance, but though he’s in most of the episodes, the show skimps on the Jamaican heavy’s backstory for far too long. Occasionally, that lack of information hinders the season’s progression, but Shakir’s performance nudges things along, conveying the tragedy and fury of John McIver’s life well before the first extended flashback.

Theo Rossi, Alfre Woodard, and Chaz Lamar Shepherd
Photo: Sarah Shatz (Netflix)

Having multiple multidimensional female characters was one of Luke Cage’s strengths in its first season, and that tradition continues in season two. Misty Knight (Simone Missick), Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), and newcomer Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) are all thoughtfully written, though Misty breaks from the group to establish herself as a co-lead this time around. Missick continues to captivate as the Harlem detective, bringing as much vitality to the squad room scenes as Luke and his street-level efforts to protect the neighborhood. Misty also reckons with the past (in the form of Detective Scarfe’s corrupt activities), but when Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) pays a visit, we get an exciting glimpse of the (potential) spin-off future.

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While still delivering satisfying and necessary throwdowns, Luke Cage is mindful of how it depicts violence. The fight choreography parallels Luke’s story—he remains efficient in taking out his opponents (the slap on the head is by now an iconic move), but shifts from more kinetic encounters early on to a ground-and-pound approach. Even the climactic showdowns are tinged with weariness, seemingly reflecting the creative team’s real-life frustrations.

Reg E. Cathey and Rosario Dawson
Photo: David Lee (Netflix)

This contributes to the methodical nature of Luke Cage season two, which is lots of fun in places and compelling throughout, but is conscious of just how fraught its storylines are. Coker has developed the most thematically rich of all the Marvel shows, one that continues to address trauma on a personal and community-wide level, systemic violence against African Americans, and respectability politics. In the new season, the show also explores upward mobility, immigrant communities, and above all else, family and legacy. The latter two weigh heavily on the minds of every character, and their responses are fascinating in their breadth. By the end of season two, Luke Cage hasn’t just reconciled with its interconnected past; it’s almost justified the overlong season, which is the most superhuman feat any of these shows have accomplished.

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Reviews by Ali Barthwell will run Friday, June 22 and Saturday, June 23.