LUKE CAGE Season Two Shines, Corrects Weaknesses From Season One

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NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 21: Mike Colter attends the "Luke Cage" Season 2 premiere at The Edison Ballroom on June 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WireImage)

Luke Cage Season Two Review:

The following review contains Luke Cage season two spoilers. I hope to do an in-depth review later on that will have major spoilers. Because the show only came out this past weekend, I will attempt to keep this review’s spoilers minor, but there will be spoilers. This obviously contains major spoilers for Season one.

Luke Cage Season One Issues

Luke Cage was always an ambitious attempt for Marvel and Netflix–not just that they attempted the show, but in the way they crafted it. Cage, in the comics, is a complicated character with a twisting, sometimes-retconned history, but Marvel made the angle of the show very clear: Luke Cage was going to be a black hero, living in and loving the Manhattan neighborhood known as Harlem.

From the outset, we see racial topics developed and discovered. Through Mariah Dillard’s initiative to “keep Harlem black,” Luke Cage’s powerful scene telling a fellow black person not to call him the n-word, or just the general tone and setting of the show, the blackness of the series was always at the forefront.

For a series that is meant to appeal to superhero and comic book fans, this was both a bold and risky move. We had yet to see any Marvel series or movie set in Harlem (or any other predominately black area in the US), and presenting it well was an endeavor with both huge potential and plenty of risk. The attempt is noteworthy in and of itself, but is only truly impactful if the series is done well.

Season one received mixed reviews for a variety of reasons. No one would see it as the worst of the MCU Netflix series (thank you, Iron Fist), but it didn’t quite contain the compelling personal story of Jessica Jones, or the overall plot (not to mention amazing villain) of Daredevil.

However, season two of Luke Cage did a tremendous job in covering the weaknesses that season one had.

Better Hero Development

In season one, Luke Cage failed to develop much as a character. We had already met him in season one of Jessica Jones, but we got a glimpse of his backstory and didn’t know much about him as a person. He had lost his wife and his bar, and that was about it. The first season showed Luke Cage as an invincible force who bulldozed his way through criminals in Harlem. We found out he had family issues, but that backstory did more to introduce us to Cage’s brother Dimondback, the season’s final villain.

Honestly, the character who had the most depth in season one was Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. Cottonmouth, who the show was clearly establishing as Harlem’s Kingpin, was then killed by his cousin halfway through the season. Mariah Dillard came back as a main party in season two, but as a season one stand-alone goes, we went 13 episodes with only one compelling villain who died before the hero could meet him.

This was not at all a problem in season two. Luke Cage finally develops a personality, other than being stoic and bulletproof. We see him slowly slide into anger, whether it be due to troubles fighting crime or in his relationships with Claire or with his father, who we finally get to meet. Cage takes the path from hero towards anti-hero throughout the season. While the slide started somewhat abruptly, it stayed there steadily throughout the season giving viewers a real emotional anchor into Luke Cage’s mind.

The Setting

As mentioned above, season one was a bold attempt at exploring the convergence of the black community and a black superhero. It didn’t fail, but it’s hard to say that it succeeded either. The dialogue felt awkward and out of place many times in season one. For me, personally (as a resident of Manhattan who has spent my fair share of time walking through Harlem) I felt the show somewhat made a caricature of the Harlem community. I found it cool to see at first, but after a few episodes it felt inauthentic and rote.

Season two had no such issue. Possibly due to the better-developed characters, or possibly due to the more settled nature of the season, the dialogue was far more compelling. The setting was still quintessential Harlem, but it felt like an authentic representation of people in Harlem, not just the show beating you over the head that it takes place in Harlem.

I also have to mention the music. People can disagree over the direction whether using the musical concerts in Harlem’s Paradise to punctuate certain scenes was the right or wrong move. The music always fit though. The music kept the setting of the show grounded. No matter who was on top of the hill at the moment, the music stayed in character. The show used Harlem’s Paradise perfectly to remind us of what was happening. The music here felt far more authentic and in Harlem’s character than season one made it.

Secondary Characters

Season one did not fail too much when it came to developing secondary characters. We certainly got to know detective Mercedes “Misty” Knight well enough, along with more of her corrupt ex-partner Rafael Scarfe. However, we did not get the chance to follow any real compelling characters. Pop and Cottonmouth were killed off, Shades was just some creepy ex-con, and Mariah never developed. Season one didn’t lack secondary characters, but it didn’t excel in that area either.

Season two, on the other hand, provided the best all-around characters of any Netflix MCU series so far. We get to know and understand Shades. The show devotes a lot of time to understanding Bushmaster and his motivations. Mariah Stokes, with her backstory set up by Season 1, steps into the forefront as the villain we deserved to see last season. Heck, even Danny Rand is a far better character in this season than in any of his earlier appearances.

There are still some issues on this front. Police Captain Tom Ridenhour is just kind of there, without us knowing why. The high school backstory to Nandi and Misty flops. Claire Temple is barely used as a plot device and not much more than that. No show can be perfect on this though. No matter how we slice it, the fact remains that the series hero–along with many of the secondary characters–is far more compelling in season two than season one.

Graphic Sexuality

Another issue with season one was the way it used sex. For some reason, the producers of the Netflix MCU love sex scenes with Luke Cage. We saw him have sex, quite graphically, in season one of Jessica Jones and both seasons of Luke Cage.

Not only did Season 1 overuse graphic sex scenes–we get one less than half-an-hour into the series–they actually hurt the plot. The show’s first sex scene did a tremendous disservice to the character of Misty Knight. Instead of being introduced to us as the hard-working, brilliant, intrepid police officer that she is, our first impression of Misty is a woman who goes out clubbing, goes home with the bartender, and wears skimpy lingerie. I understand why movies cater to the prurient interests of fans. Hollywood learned long ago that sex sells, and people enjoy seeing their favorite actors, actresses, and characters in such scenes. But, honestly, who is going to watch a 13-hour TV show for half a dozen minutes of graphic sex? If it drives the plot, great. Otherwise, why have it?

Season two more than made up for it on this count. This season only contained one such scene, and that scene gave us insight into Luke and Claire’s relationship. Moreover, this season used sexuality in an entirely plot-driven way. All contact between Mariah and Shades is intentionally creepy. While awkward-feeling at first, that eventually shows us what each get out of their physical relationship. In fact, almost every time Mariah makes contact with another person–man or woman–there is an undercurrent of predatory sexuality there. It doesn’t quite feel authentic or comfortable, but it does a lot to help us get a good feel for Mariah’s character.

Last Word on Luke Cage Season Two

This season was an enjoyable watch and one of the better seasons in the Netflix MCU so far. Personally, I’ll put it behind the second season of Jessica Jones and the first season of Daredevil, but that’s about it. MCU-only fans would certainly enjoy it, and it had plenty of Easter eggs (check out the t-shirts) and comic book callbacks for the more die-hard fans.

The season was not perfect, either. Parts were more graphically violent than anything else in the Netflix MCU so far, including The Punisher. Fans who are young or squeamish should be aware of that. The conflict with Bushmaster was not resolved in a satisfactory manner. Fans may also leave with a bad taste in their mouths about parts of Luke Cage’s character, especially as the season progresses.

All in all, though, Luke Cage Season two was thoroughly enjoyable to watch. It both stands alone and builds on the existing Netflix MCU, as all good series like this do.

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