This Luke Cage review contains NO spoilers. Read on with confidence.
It’s almost hard to believe that Luke Cage Season 2 marks the ninth season of the Marvel and Netflix collaboration. Their trademark blend of superheroics and prestige TV has been around long enough that some noticeable tics and bad habits have formed, but when they hit the mark, they really hit it. And sweet Christmas, Luke Cage Season 2 is good.
Luke Cage is now the third Marvel series to have a second season make it to air (after Daredevil and Jessica Jones). More importantly, though, Luke Cage Season 2 is the first of these shows to offer a second season that is superior to its first. Not only that, it joins the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones as one of the best batches of episodes to come from the Marvel/Netflix pairing.
The first season of Luke Cage was an uneven affair. After a strong start, it switched gears pretty hard around its seventh chapter, and never really recovered the swagger of its early episodes. It was as guilty as all the Marvel Netflix series of padding its runtime and stretching its story to the breaking point to meet its 13 episode count. Despite that, it was important, political, and unique, boasted a brilliant soundtrack, and offered up some genuinely compelling performances and sympathetic characters. It’s good to see that Luke Cage Season 2 does everything the first season did right and tightens up what didn’t work.
Mike Colter, who always seemed at ease with the role from the moment he appeared in the first season of Jessica Jones, seems even more comfortable here than he did even in last year’s The Defenders. Here, though, Luke is now dealing with the price of his Harlem celebrity, operating fully in the public eye (some enterprising young entrepreneur even created a “Harlem’s Hero” app so his appearances can be crowdsourced). But with that attention comes scrutiny, and there’s a balance to strike. Colter does tremendous work as a hero who occasionally revels in the spotlight, but who is also acutely aware of how the rest of the world perceives a bulletproof black man who solves problems with his fists.
Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard is now fully (at least as far as the public is concerned) legitimate. She is, of course, still dedicated to doing things her way, and there’s a manic, barely controlled element to her performance. Woodard’s Mariah seems constantly on the verge of fury or hysterics, reigning it in only to present a public face or to reconnect with her daughter (Gabrielle Dennis). Her hold on the underworld is enhanced by her relationship with Shades, and once again, Theo Rossi is an absolute delight in the role. Rossi and Woodard get as much (if not more) screen time than the show’s hero, offering a parallel story to Luke’s continued rise in the community.
But it is new threat, John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir) who really brings home just how much stronger this season is. All sharp suits and patois dialogue, Shakir is a hypnotic, scene-stealing presence, bringing a grindhouse bad guy cool (not to mention a flawless selection of reggae tunes) to the more tortured, even Shakespearean, villain subplots. I fear that saying more runs the risk of overselling the character or the performance, but on charisma alone, Bushmaster immediately joins lofty company like Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave as one of the best of these shows’ villains.
And bubbling underneath it all is the journey of Misty Knight. Simone Missick gets ample screen time this season, as Misty has to deal with her return to active duty with the police after the loss of her arm. Endlessly charismatic, often getting the best dialogue, it’s impossible not to feel for Misty in her struggles. An early scene where she connects with Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) over drinks may as well be a pilot for a Misty & Colleen Daughters of the Dragon spinoff series, and I imagine fans will feel the same way. The scene was released online, nearly a month before the season arrives on Netflix, and I assure you, it’s even better when seen in context. There are plenty of “Heroes for Hire” moments this season, and while The Defenders season 2 seems unlikely right now, there are plenty of other promising ways we can put some of these characters together in the near future.
But even when the problems appear, they seem minimal compared to how strong everything that surrounds them is. Like all these shows, characters still have a tendency to soliloquize. There are episodes that just appear to be scene after scene of two characters talking to each other. There’s a pacing issue that manifests in one head-scratching moment of police procedural cliche. But overall, this isn’t really a Luke Cage problem, it’s a Marvel Netflix one, and it’s the same problem I feel obligated to point out in every single review of every single one of these shows.
Despite that, Luke Cage Season 2 seems to contain fewer disposable episodes than its Netflix cousins. In fact, and we saw glimpses of this in season one, there are times when it feels almost like an episodic drama and not an attempt to make a “13 hour movie.” Make no mistake, this isn’t a “case of the week” season, but most episodes feel a little more contained and satisfying. It’s a heavy season and leans on its interpersonal drama even more than these shows usually do, but taken in shorter bursts rather than as a 13 episode binge, it has room to breathe. That breathing room makes its often minimalist action scenes pack that much more punch. And even if you feel things start to drag, take comfort in the knowledge you’re only a few minutes away from another Bushmaster or Misty Knight scene, another performance from one of the show’s procession of incredible musical guests, or another brilliant street-level action scenes (be on the lookout for a terrific sequence on New York City’s High Bridge)
Still the most overtly political than anything Marvel does, Luke Cage looks to make its audience confront some uncomfortable truths. It’s the kind of risk that (the occasional exception aside, notably 2017’s brilliant Logan) you’re unlikely to see in your average superhero blockbuster movie. It has, pound for pound, perhaps the strongest supporting cast of any of these Marvel Netflix shows. The warm lighting consistently makes the show feel somewhat out of time, like a movie from the 1970s, a vibe that is compounded sonically by what is still the best, most adventurous original score on TV and a perfectly chosen assortment of songs.
Luke Cage Season 2 not only feels like a big step forward from its own first season, it’s a reminder that there’s still a lot of life and potential left in the Marvel Netflix format.