[Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers for “Marvel’s Luke Cage” Season 2.]
Like the changing of the seasons, another new superhero tale from the folks at Marvel and Netflix has arrived, continuing to expand upon the street-level action of New York City, far far away from any cosmic drama and snapping fingers.
“Luke Cage” is extremely earthbound, in fact, focusing on the titular Harlem’s Hero (the always delightful Mike Colter) attempting to navigate his role as a very public superhero (his Power Man alias from the comics does come up, but it’s always Luke’s story) with all the complications of the modern world. Should he accept that endorsement deal? How should he handle the people he knows are up to no good in his neighborhood? And how do his actions affect the people around him?
The series comes in with an established world and very little catching up to do following the events of “The Defenders” (his release from prison is the only major plot point that Season 2 viewers might not be aware of, and that’s quickly established), most importantly continuing the reign of Mariah (Alfre Woodard, having so very much fun playing the villain) as the crime queen she thinks Harlem needs. The only major new wrinkle is the introduction of Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who humiliates Luke before his true intentions are revealed.
At this point, one way to evaluate the Marvel/Netflix shows is to appreciate what they add to the format established initially by that first season of “Daredevil.” “Luke Cage” has always stood out in this respect, with its ballsy invocation of real-world issues affecting the black community and some of hip-hop’s greatest acts performing as themselves at Harlem’s Paradise. (Some of the artists booked this season include Faith Evans & Jadakiss, Ghostface Killah, Joi, D-Nice, and Rakim.)
However, it can’t escape the inherent flaws of that format, which have become more and more clear after eight full seasons of these series. As we’ve said more than once: Marvel shows do not need to be 13 episodes a season anymore, especially with later seasons that don’t have the heavy lifting of establishing origin stories and new characters.
The show is, to be clear, worth admiring for the way it deeply cares about its ensemble and their journeys — Misty (Simone Missick) in particular is well-served with plenty to do. But that’s where most of the bloat lies: long scenes, with pretty quick emotional conclusions. Her struggle to recover from her injury is given plenty of attention, not to mention a few key interactions with Claire (Rosario Dawson) and Colleen (Jessica Henwick), but what if she’d gotten her robot arm earlier? A newly introduced rivalry with another officer gives Misty something else to do, but while her eventual betrayal does eventually connect back to the main narrative, so many scenes lack for surprise.
“Luke Cage” might be an action drama, but it’s also damn talky at times, and those dialogue-heavy scenes always feel twice as long as necessary. It’s incredibly cool that “Luke Cage” has defined itself as a show where three professional black women can share a scene together, and it feels not just normal but right. But the way things drag on can be a frustration.
It’s actually shocking to say this, in fact, but when Danny Rand (Finn Jones) strolls in for a one-episode guest appearance, it’s almost a relief. Danny’s outsider status lets him engage in some real talk with Luke — though Luke doesn’t pull back when it comes to his own thoughts about Danny’s own privilege — and the duo prove to be a strong pairing, establishing both some cool new moves (including “pattycake” and a more low-key spin on the Fastball Special) and advancing the dynamic born in “The Defenders.”
And this is because Luke’s journey in this season is the sort of story we don’t see superhero narratives on screen tackle that often. So much of Season 2 is about Luke just trying to be a guy doing the best he can, a double-edged sword for the character and the way the show treats him.
Because of course, on a physical level, Luke’s “the best he can” is extraordinary, as shown in one of the season’s most joyful scenes, a demonstration of his abilities led by New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles (just one of the season’s notable cameos). But while in some ways, Luke is allowed to be one of the Marvel Universe’s most complicated, flawed, and sexual characters, sometimes the way the show chooses to prove it is by letting him make some big mistakes. He screws up his relationship with Claire (which leads to her subsequent absence from the rest of the season — in general, underusing Rosario Dawson is one of the Marvel/Netflix series’ greatest crimes), disappoints the people of Harlem, and eventually begins a path towards what could be real darkness.
Which is why the best part of “Luke Cage” Season 2 is how it ends, with a daring declaration about where Season 3 might go that practically dares Netflix not to renew the Marvel superhero drama for another round of episodes.
Mariah’s decision to leave possession of Harlem’s Paradise in the hands of Luke gives the season finale a dark edge, with the final moments invoking not just memories of Season 1 big bad Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali), gazing upon his kingdom, but the iconic scene at the end of “The Godfather,” when the door shuts on Kay Corleone. (Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker told IndieWire in an interview that the “Godfather” homage was most definitely not an accident.)
Luke Cage’s real nadir might come before he inherits the club, though, in a confrontation with D.W. (Jeremiah Craft), who begins the season so devoted to Luke that he’s literally selling T-shirts with Luke’s face on them. However, in the finale, D.W. confronts Luke over abusing his power to bring more order to Harlem, and when Luke says that he wants to “make Harlem great again,” D.W. doesn’t just call him “Luke Corleone” — he reminds Luke of who exactly he sounds like.
For a show that otherwise has been so smart about the way it incorporates reality into a show about a man with superpowers, the moment is jarring, too obvious in its messaging. But the way it then blends into the final sequence makes it clear that what comes next may be the show’s defining arc.
It takes a season for Luke to find some sense of certainty, for better or for worse. The next step of his journey may be the most fascinating. But it could have come a whole lot sooner.
“Marvel’s Luke Cage” Season 2 is now available to stream on Netflix.