Good drama requires believable conflict, so how do you keep a dramatic superhero show compelling when your main hero is bulletproof?
Comics and movies have played with stories about “gods” before, that is heroes with limited weaknesses dealing with the consequences of decisions made in their first chapters to become a hero in the first place. This is why sequels to popular superhero movies tend to reckon with the external issues that play into a hero’s second chapter, perhaps in the form of a villain who stands up to them both morally and powerfully.
Luke Cage, now in its second season on Netflix, wears this strategy on its hoodie sleeve and to great effect, but it’s also compounded with cultural issues unique to Harlem and its black community. The opening moments are narrated by Reg E. Cathey’s James Lucas, who has a recurring role this season, and his speech is a handy Cliff Notes outline of the story ahead, one rife with not just the usual fisticuffs, but mainly the inner turmoil happening within Luke himself, once again played by Mike Colter.
Luke now enjoys a new brand of fame in Harlem, along with the new set of problems popularity entails. His list of people to protect is only getting larger, again including his girlfriend Claire (Rosario Dawson) and many other denizens of a neighborhood still gripped by drugs and gang violence under the watchful eye of Mariah (Alfre Woodard) and Shades (Theo Rossi), who return as side antagonists.
The story beats throughout Luke Cage are once again less interesting than the atmosphere this show dwells in, where characters move about a wonderful sandbox that draws out some surprisingly gripping performances, sometimes from unexpected places. It helps that season two now has a larger cast of characters to fill Harlem’s space, as we’re now seeing the immediate aftermath of The Defenders, which feels like it came out so long ago. I honestly had trouble remembering key moments about the eight-part series.
The most consequential fallout of that series, of course, happened to Misty Knight (Simone Missick), Luke’s closest friend at the police station now dealing with a lost arm and a hunger to get back to work, somehow. Again, external circumstances have caused this inherently strong character to combat some nasty inner demons, and it results in one of the show’s most satisfying character arcs yet.
And this is much needed in a season that spends about half its episodes reestablishing the world (making me wish they’d just cut the seasons down already and rely more on recaps). Once the main plot does get going, though, Luke Cage becomes as hard-hitting as ever, though its politics have certainly shifted, perhaps for the worse.
Yes, racism and systemic poverty are present and acknowledged in season two, but don’t expect a lot of direct commentary on these problems. Much of this new season grapples with crime and other issues within the African American community, not really how the community reckons with outside forces and racism as we saw more recently in Marvel’s Black Panther.
Critics and audiences may disagree on whether or not this was the right call. On the one hand, it feels like a missed opportunity for Luke Cage to handle what it does best, addressing racially charged subject matter with its nearly all-black cast in ways most shows aren’t even half-equipped to handle.
But on the other, it is interesting to see the creative team trying to tell a different story, one that’s more about how these characters interact with each other on their own terms without addressing the elephant(s) in the room as often (at least when Danny Rand isn’t present). It’s also a bit more introspective in regards to toxic masculinity this time, making room for other political topics to squeeze in between moments of thrilling, well-scored action.
Unfortunately, the show does get seriously bogged down by its extended storytelling, and the writing suffers the most. It’s spread too thin for Mike Colter to keep the pace moving on charm alone, with episodes getting lost in the weeds of far less interesting affairs between side characters, rather than a tight, focused narrative on the heroes and villains.
Luke Cage isn’t a show I’d credit on ease of watchability. It’s not the sort of experience you should rush, despite its Netflix cache. Instead, it’s better week-to-week television than any of the other Marvel Netflix shows, the kind of narrative that takes time to settle and think about, down to even the silly lyrics of “Night Nurse” playing in the background of a love scene. But if you take the time to reinvest in Luke’s goofball, action-packed world, fraught with political neighborhood drama, you’ll likely walk away from this new season feeling more than excited for what might come next.