With the next Marvel/Netflix collaboration rolling out this month in the second season of “Marvel’s Iron Fist,” it was about time I finally checked back into Harlem to give my thoughts on the other small-screen hero to return this summer. As the bulletproof “Hero of Harlem” Luke Cage stepped back into the spotlight, the sophomore season of the Netflix series successfully expanded upon what made his 2016 debut such a stellar and thoroughly-investing outing. From its conflicted and “woke” central hero to the show’s distinct New York atmosphere, “Marvel’s Luke Cage” shattered any fears of the infamous “sophomore slump.”
After clearing his name as a falsely-accused convict, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) has become the face of a neighborhood still plagued by violence and crime. As a media-obsessed society flourishes within Harlem, Cage has amassed far more attention from the world than he ever wanted before. Following the death of her volatile cousin Cornell, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) maintains a fierce grasp on Harlem, her fingers in every avenue of the city’s seedy underworld. While the drug-and-gun game sours under Mariah’s hand, her loyal companion “Shades” (Theo Rossi) doing much of the dirty work, a new threat arises in John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir). An American with Jamaican blood, fueled by vengeance towards Mariah, McIver comes toe-to-toe with Cage as a startling new war sparks on the streets of New York. Despite that, trade wars and adversaries tough as iron are the least of Luke Cage’s problems.
With each of Netflix’s quartet of small-screen Marvel heroes now introduced, their individual stories culminating in last summer’s “The Defenders,” the aftermath of the team-up event notched each hero into unique spots among their street-level environments. As things get even more complex and complicated for the big-league heroes like the Avengers, the faces that lie at the heart of the individual Marvel/Netflix series have come into their own issues as their stories continue to unfold. As the second season of “Jessica Jones” unveiled further troubles for the super-strong private eye, and this month’s “Iron Fist” seeks to paint the naive warrior of Danny Rand as a more compelling hero than before, it’s the weathered and wicked streets Luke Cage occupies that I found myself this time. As the legacy of the “bulletproof black man” thrives and shakes things up, the second season of “Luke Cage” is where the central hero-for-hire really hits his beat.
Much like the debut seasons of “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and even “Iron Fist,” I enjoyed the first outing of Luke Cage aka Power Man even amid its subtle pitfalls. Luckily for the so-called “Hero of Harlem,” Marvel and creator Cheo Hodari Coker managed to craft a tale equally as riveting and distinct in tone as Netflix’s first dive into superhero affairs with “Daredevil.” As the series moved out of Daredevil’s territory of Hell’s Kitchen and into the culturally-vibrant streets of Harlem, it found its focus in a hero that breathed and bled the injustices and anxieties of the ever-divided world we occupy today. That hero, manifested in Mike Colter’s moral-driven, headstrong Luke Cage, instantly became a figure to rally behind as his first season worked to give meaning to his vital cause in Harlem.
As his cause to protect Harlem and its people from harm flowed into both “The Defenders” and Season 2 of his eponymous series, the character of Luke Cage was peeled away even further as his life became increasingly complicated. While Season 1 of “Luke Cage” sought to introduce us to both the power set and the emotional state of Cage as he strived to reclaim his innocence, the second season saw the hero battling with even greater internal forces than he ever imagined. From familial struggles (accompanied by a phenomenal performance by the late Reg E. Cathey as Cage’s father) to his own morally-converging paths towards justice in Harlem, Season 2 looked to pitch its indestructible hero against his greatest fight yet. Toss in the ever-fluctuating scales of power among Harlem’s most vile players, and you’ve got a season full of startling twists and bittersweet outcomes.
While Marvel and Coker distinguished “Luke Cage” in a number of ways, from its seething, culturally-infused narrative to its emphasis on capturing the music scene of Harlem, the first two seasons of the series found much of its appeal in its performances. Just as the show’s sophomore season expanded upon the rich culture of Harlem’s people, it also proved that its main and supporting cast are what really give the series its style. As we see Colter’s bulletproof savior struggle with his true purpose in Harlem, we also see the other side of a number of characters in the show. From the equally-determined detective in Simone Missick’s Misty Knight to the emotionally-unstable gangster of Theo Rossi’s “Shades,” the swagger that once shielded the supporting characters of the show was broken down to reveal just what motivates each persona that runs across Colter’s central hero.
With other great performances running parallel to Colter’s, like Luke’s pastor-father in Reg E. Cathey’s James Lucas, much of the season’s focus tilted towards detailing the affairs of its central antagonists. As the scales of power and justice shifted as villain “Bushmaster” McIver entered the playing field, the dynamic between the revenge-seeking Jamaican and the queen of Harlem in Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard became just as vital to the season’s narrative as Luke Cage’s own journey. With the season detailing Mustafa Shakir’s haunting manifestation into a man built from the rebellion of his homeland, the newcomer to the series proved to be as vicious and stone-cold a villain as last season’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). As he collided with Woodard’s callous Mariah Dillard, the two feuded over their destructive past and familial issues. Matched with their desire to manipulate Cage to their will, the villain and villainess of this season gave Season 2 the proper nerve it needed to elevate the story to unexpected heights.
The entrance of John “Bushmaster” McIver wasn’t the only factor that bled into one of the season’s essential themes. As the season continued its exploration of Luke Cage’s moral code in protecting Harlem, and his subsequent denial of said code to maintain order, it also focused primarily on the muddled relationship between Cage and his estranged father. As Reg E. Cathey’s hard-edged wisdom as James Lucas clashed with Cage’s stubborn ideals of “heroism,” their steady reconciliation throughout the season fueled its focal point of family. Paralleled with not only Bushmaster’s reclamation of his birthright, but Mariah’s complicated bond with her daughter (Gabrielle Dennis) as well, the theme of family became even more prevalent than it was in Season 1.
Overall, as Season 2 of “Marvel’s Luke Cage” raised the stakes on Luke Cage’s ever-burdening struggle to keep Harlem safe, the continued story of Harlem’s hero and the diverse and deadly realm in which he operates managed to send up a gripping second outing. As it revealed more and more about its central and supporting characters, from their shifting moral agendas to their violent ultimatums, the second season elegantly glided past the feared sophomore slump a number of shows tend to face. While the second seasons of “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” faced a handful of missteps in both story and pacing, comparatively, “Luke Cage” managed to maintain the distinct tone of its debut season, all while crafting a dynamic narrative of reclamation, revenge and above all, reputation.
You can stream Seasons 1 and 2 of “Marvel’s Luke Cage” now on Netflix. “Marvel’s Iron Fist” returns for its second season Friday.