While Marvel has become the summer blockbuster overlord when it comes to films, the company had begun to lose steam on its Netflix series front. Daredevil season 1 and 2 and the first season of Jessica Jones were wild hits, but things seemed to stagnate from there. Luke Cage, first seen on Jessica Jones, received lukewarm reviews on his own series and Iron Fist was relatively panned by critics and fans alike. The Defenders brought things back up, but things from there (The Punisher, Jessica Jones season 2) have wavered in that gray area of “good, but kinda slow and forgettable”.
Then Luke Cage season 2 releases on Netflix and the whole game is changed again.
For the first time since early 2016, the internet is particularly abuzz about the MCU on Netflix and the superhuman defenders of New York City. It’s a long awaited change and a well-earned one.
With Luke Cage’s origins out of the way, the second season focuses on what it means to be a hero on the hard, gangster-ridden streets of Harlem. With Mariah Dillard and Shades already settled in as the crime royalty of Harlem’s Paradise, all one has to do is light a match to get things going. Season one left Luke questioning his upbringing, his loved ones, and the safety of his Harlem. Now, Luke spends most of the season questioning himself, a change that leads the episodes to fascinating, introspective places.
Let’s place the disclaimer here: from this point on, spoilers may be divulged. Proceed with caution.
So, what made this season so good?
As mentioned, one of the season’s strongest points is the constant questioning of what it means to be a hero of Harlem. We focus mainly on Misty, Mariah, and Luke as each struggles with that question and all follow very different paths. The events of the season, and the war for Harlem that ensues, pushes each to their brink of what they are willing to do, and what they think is necessary, to keep their home safe.
Misty has a unique struggle, dealing with the loss of her arm and the corruption of her old partner, Scarfe. She walks the line between following the law or bending it for the greater good.
Mariah begins the season desperate to get out of the gangster life, to make all her money clean and become her own woman. But as her home is propelled into danger, everything for her begins to change. And she’s willing to do anything to protect what’s hers.
Luke starts the season in this bubble of frustration and anger about how no matter what he does nothing seems effective. Throughout the season he questions how far he’s willing to go to change stalemates into victories, and change things for the better instead of just being a bullet-proof punching bag.
The season also does a Marvel cameo right. While shoe-horning MCU characters has sometimes only been a detriment to the Netflix universe, this season its done well and right. Characters are only added in at logical points in the story. And our friendly Immortal Iron Fist is his best when its not his own show, unfortunately, so it was a treat to see him back in his best form.
Something amazing transferred from the first season to this one as well: the music. The soundtrack of the season was on point and often was a great scene-builder, mood-setter, or general champion of symbolism. I could spend a whole article talking about it. (Spoilers: I will).
And last, but certainly not least, Bushmaster was breathtaking. He managed to be charming, irrational, powerful, brave, impressive, understandable, and piteous all at once. Like most great villains should be, he was firmly in the wrong, however in a way you rooted for him. Not to win, but to gain the catharsis he deserves for whatever led him down this path. If only the ending of the season could have packed more of a punch for him.
However, as much as I rave, not everything was perfect. Damn good, but not perfect.
One of my largest critiques is also the most heartbreaking: the sub-plot with Luke’s father felt weak and his redemption arc felt undeserved. While an amazing actor, to the point of enjoying and rooting for his character despite issues, Reg E. Cathey couldn’t cover up the holes in that b-plot. Luke’s father put little effort into fixing their relationship, though the rift was mainly his fault, and only tried his best with Luke by saying he should forgive him because “family”. It’s hard to agree that Luke should forgive his father when he doesn’t do much to earn that forgiveness. While a joy to see them interact as father and son, the reconciliation hardly felt deserved.
Despite that, Rest in Peace, Reg E Cathey. You almost made it work, simply by being as wonderful as you are.
Speaking of mishandled relationships, the sudden exit of Claire Temple was abrupt, awkward, and out of character. Claire leaving because of Luke’s anger was understandable. But what’s less understandable is her incessant persistence about Luke’s father. I nearly choked when she said the infamously hated line, “But he’s your family”. All people with bad family issues will heave a collective sigh there. Their final fight was interesting, thought-provoking, real. The break-up felt real. It’s just Claire’s butting in that felt extra pushy and ridiculous and written for plot-convenience.
Several out-of-character events also dragged things down a bit. For example, Shades kills everyone who becomes a problem. Its established, between Cottonmouth and Comanche. However, he snitches on Mariah instead of killing her. Why? Not quite sure. Also, Bushmaster, after being amazing all season and a great villain, fights Luke Cage at the end and just suddenly runs home with his tail between his legs. After so much fiery vengeance pouring off of him for Mariah, it seemed painfully out of place for him to just give up after losing a fight. It was even disappointing.
And this one may be totally personal, but Tilda, Mariah’s estranged daughter, felt useless. She may have been a doctor and the lady with the herbs, but she didn’t really grow or change at all, and neither did her relationship with her mother. It ended just back where it started: hatred. Tilda learned new, terrible things about her upbringing and her mother, but she did nothing with that information except become the same anti-Mariah person she was before Mariah roped her back into her life. The actress did well and she had some powerful moments with Mariah, but ultimately her character didn’t do nearly enough for the plot, in my opinion. The holes in other plots/characters could have been filled with the time the show spent on Tilda.
But honestly, the season was still amazing and its riveting to think what future Marvel shows and Luke Cage seasons may bring.
With The Defenders seemingly back on track, a personal hype-up is this: the team-ups.
Hear me out. The Danny/Luke team-up was done very well this season, and should be done more like that over other shows. Particularly, Jessica Jones. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Jessica and Luke alone and I’d love to see how they interact. There’s a lot of history, painful and good, between the two troubled heroes. But even Jessica/Danny would be fun, her pessimism, his optimism. Or Daredevil/Luke, with Daredevil’s more traditionalist hero principles clashing with Luke’s now wavered ones. While The Defenders was fun, we’ve now created this superhero club and it would be a shame to not utilize its existence. Quieter moments could expertly explore how these characters can work with one another, as people or as heroes, and make us fall in love with the heroes even more.
Marvel’s Iron Fist season 2 and Daredevil season 3 are set to be released sometime later in 2018. Hopefully, like Luke Cage season 2, they knock it out of the park.