When Luke Cage Season 1 first arrived, Netflix provided critics with the first 4 episodes. In my initial review, I praised those episodes — and by extension, the series — for boldness, style, and introducing viewers to a kickass black superhero (little did I know that Black Lightning would come along in 2017 and do it better). At the time I was naive on two accounts; one, I didn’t realize that all of Netflix’s series are built fundamentally the same way, plagued with the same issues of pacing and more episodes than story, and that they had no intention of changing. Two, I figured the rest of Luke Cage’s season would mirror those first episodes, which was very wrong; the season essentially stalled to a narrative halt and collapsed in on itself.
I spent the next year or so with a disclaimer at the start of every Luke Cage-related article I wrote that I didn’t stand by my initial review or rating, which is why it was somewhat of a relief (yet also a burden) when Netflix gave critics all 13 episodes of Season 2 to review. Sure, I could now ensure I wouldn’t be duped by a sudden change in quality, but having watched so many other Netflix superhero series, I feared the journey to get to the end might be a slog.
Luke Cage’s second season is now Marvel’s ninth collaboration with Netflix, following Daredevil’s two seasons, Jessica Jones’ two seasons, Iron Fist, team-up series The Defenders, and spin-off The Punisher. Generally speaking, we know what we’re getting into at this point. But sometimes the trajectory does change. Jessica Jones’ second season had a very slow start and then a big twist that set the story on a new path, and similarly, the new season of Luke Cage takes the opposite course of its first. Its last few episodes are fantastic — it just takes a lot to get there.
Unlike Jessica Jones, Luke Cage does acknowledge that The Defenders happened. Claire (Rosario Dawson) talks about “what Matt Murdock did to that building,” and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) shows up to help Misty Knight (Simone Missick) adjust to having lost her arm (Colleen and Danny Rand — offscreen — also give Misty her awesome bionic arm, which should happen much earlier in the season than it does). Luke (Mike Colter) has become something of a celebrity, and embraces it to a certain extent. On the positive side, his name wields a lot of power on the streets, and Pop’s regular D.W. (Jeremiah Craft) capitalizes on that by selling merch and recording him giving beatdowns. There’s also a great recurring joke about a “Harlem Hero” app, where citizens tag Luke when they spot him around town; later, as friends (and foes) show up in unexpected places, they admit they found him using that app. On the more nefarious side, though, there are drugs being put out bearing Luke’s name, showing that he’s not just a man or a hero, he’s a brand. And he’s lost control.
The series doesn’t do as much with this as it should, and falls prey to the serious pacing issues we’ve seen in every other Marvel / Netflix series. The scenes are too long, the directing and editing lacks dynamism, there’s almost no score (although there are some excellent musical performances throughout the season), and the series doesn’t seem to know what its most interesting stories are. The most engaging ones revolve around street-level problems, and how they affect Luke. There are some really fun scenes that pull from the “Heroes for Hire” stories from the comics (minus Danny), which show Luke getting scouted by Nike after doing a skills challenge in the park, and taking money for low-level appearances because he’s hard-up for cash. It’s one of the more realistic aspects in this group of series that pride themselves on being gritty while forgetting that there’s fun to be had, too. In those lighter moments, Luke Cage really shines, as Luke engages with the community in a meaningful way. It’s why the police scenes with Misty are also so good — not only because Simone Missick is outstanding and deserves her own series — they focus on the problems of the street from a non-powered citizen’s perspective.
The show also provides truly emotional character moments when it chooses to do so (which isn’t often enough). In a particularly powerful scene, Claire calls Luke out on the way he almost killed a small-time thug for beating up his girlfriend in front of her son. “You enjoyed it,” she says with disgust. Luke is having trouble controlling his rage, and to put a point on it, he smashes Claire’s wall, scaring her, and driving her away. It’s a war Luke is fighting within himself throughout the season, but there’s not enough time spent on those kinds of dilemmas.
Instead, there is a lot of time spent with Mariah, the series’ most unevenly written character. Bless Alfre Woodard for doing what she can with her, but Mariah is a mess. She’s now in a relationship with Shades (Theo Rossi), who is jealous of her relationship with Mariah’s estranged but recently reemerged daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis). But there is nothing engaging about this story, as Mariah makes various power moves across Harlem. Even when she’s supposedly challenged by a newcomer, Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who hails from the Jamaican corner of the neighborhood, his motivations and their connections aren’t made clear until the eleventh episode. That’s too long. And by then, things have mostly fizzled out.
Luke Cage remains the most visually interesting of the Marvel / Netflix series, with gorgeous production design and plenty of style on every level. But it’s not enough to patch over the fact that the show is still struggling to fill a 13 episode order. Things get really interesting at the very end of the season, where Luke is forced to choose between the warring factions within himself. What kind of a hero does he want to be? What kind of a hero does he feel like he needs to be? The choices he makes sets up plenty for a third season, it just all comes too late.
There are plenty of things this season does well, really well, but there is so much filler and narrative dragging of feet in between that it’s hard to recommend it outright. Here’s the bottom line — if you’re still watching all of these Marvel / Netflix series and you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan, then Luke Cage Season 2 will give you more of what you’re used to. If you didn’t like Luke Cage Season 1, I don’t think you’ll really care for Season 2, but overall it is a stronger story. So if you were ok with Season 1 but are hoping that Season 2 improves, you should feel pretty satisfied by it. Maybe that’s all we can ask for (that and a Misty Knight-focused detective series, of course).
Luke Cage Season 2 premieres Friday, June 22nd on Netflix.