Following on from the events of last season and crossover series The Defenders, season two of Luke Cage (or Marvel’s Luke Cage if you prefer) sees the titular Hero for Hire (Mike Colter) settling into the groove of being Harlem’s champion-about-town. Old enemies are still around to make life difficult for him, chiefly politician-turned-crime-boss Mariah Dillard/Stokes (Alfre Woodard) and major-domo Shades (Theo Rossi), and a new threat arises in the form of Jamaican gangster Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who wants to take Harlem for himself and has no qualms about employing horrifying violence to do so.
Which sounds like there should be plenty for our man to deal with this year, but unfortunately Luke Cage Season 2 is a fairly sluggish affair. It’s a show that absolutely shines in the details but fumbles the big picture, filling the screen with fascinating and vibrant elements of African American culture (the soundtrack, again highlighted by live performances at the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, is all killer), but hampered by leaden pacing and an almost terminal lack of narrative direction. It’s always fun to hang out in Luke Cage’s Harlem, but this season it seems to have a real problem with figuring out what kind of story it’s trying to tell.
That’s weirdly appropriate in a way, as Luke’s main arc is figuring out what kind of hero he’s going to be. He spends a lot of time this season ruminating on his position in the community, and figuring how to get paid (Hero for Hire, remember?) without compromising his ethics – and he’s not always successful. In parallel, we get Mariah trying to negotiate her transition from political player to, ultimately, gangster, which is a rough journey and not as well written as you might hope. The series seems to have a real problem with understanding who Mariah is or who they want her to be, and as a result her characterisation is wildly erratic and inconsistent, lurching from calculating mastermind to drunken mess to aggrieved matriarch and back. Luckily Alfre Woodard is an absolute gun and remains eminently watchable even when the script doesn’t give her the support she deserves.
Season 2 also continues the grand Marvel thematic tradition of Oh No My Dad Was Problematic, bringing in the late, great Reg E. Cathey (this was his final role and the series is dedicated to him) as Cage Senior, a preacher who has been alienated from his son since the latter was jailed, and who blames the stress of that ordeal for putting his wife into an early grave. Mariah is also struggling with her legacy, trying to reconnect with her daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) a doctor-turned-naturopath who has turned her back on the family legacy. Between this and season 2 of Jessica Jones that’s two instances of Oh No My Mum Was Problematic we’ve had from Marvel this year, which is some kind of blow for representation, we guess.
Still, themes of family, legacy and community run deep in Luke Cage, with pretty much every character directed by, or struggling to get out from under, generational issues – old debts, bad blood, family shame, cycles of violence and revenge. Even Bushmaster, a charismatic and ruthless villain with a nice line in capoeira kick-fighting, is driven by the desire for vengeance for crimes against his family. This is the good stuff – by grounding the action of the series in this palpable sense of place and history, the whole thing has a greater dramatic weight.
That weight does slow things down though – although perhaps that’s just Netflix’s insistence on sticking to their unwieldy 13 episode season plan, which we have griped about before. Once again, there’s not enough story to stretch over the 13 hour framework comfortably, and we spend a lot of time spinning our wheels or dealing with needless complications that don’t forward either the plot or the themes of the series. This is a problem endemic to the Marvel Netflix stable, and perhaps it’s no more prevalent than in most episodic entertainment, but given we’re encouraged to binge this stuff, it becomes all the more apparent and damaging in this context.
It does allow time for little detours and fun moments, though, and as we pointed out, it’s in these little details that Luke Cage sings. We get a few fun cameos from the broader Marvel Netflixiverse, and we get to spend a lot of time with tough cop and – since the events of The Defenders – amputee Misty Knight (Simone Messick), who refuses to let the loss of a limb slow her down (even if it is eventually dealt with in the most Marvel way possible). One of the most fun interludes involves Knight hanging out with Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and kicking an impressive amount of ass in a barroom brawl – this might be the closest we get to a Daughters of the Dragon show, but we’ll take what we can get.
Which is a good attitude to go into this one with. Luke Cage isn’t a bad show, but it definitely falls short of its obvious inherent potential. It’s entertaining enough and sports excellent performance scenes, but the whole thing doesn’t hang together as well as it should. If we’re getting a third season – and S2 leaves us in a place where that seems like a certainty – hopefully it’s a tighter and more focused affair. We’ve hung out enough – it’s time to get moving.