"Marvel's Luke Cage" returns to Netflix: A rage in Harlem brews in tight season 2

Anger, family legacy and willful ignorance make the new season tauter than the first, and just as relevant

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 21, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Mike Colter as Luke Cage in "Luke Cage" (Netflix/David Lee)
Mike Colter as Luke Cage in "Luke Cage" (Netflix/David Lee)

Our era is increasingly defined by our inability to reconcile ourselves with history, denial of our legacy and our stubborn refusal to validate anger. Ignoring or rewriting our defining stories seems preferable to reckoning with their lasting impact. A large chunk of the population is obsessed with territory, treating national identity as if it were a zero sum game and plurality as a weakness.

Anger, though — that’s the trickiest part of this storm. Nearly all of us have a right to it, but some consistently receive the message that our feelings aren’t justified. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, #NeverAgain or immigration advocates, the aggressors demands receipts from the aggrieved before they’re willing to demonstrate empathy.

The unspoken cruelty of it is, they’ll never be willing. Even when receipts are presented, they’re ignored or called fraudulent. Accepting that there’s something wrong forces those in power to cede some of that power, to share it.

Amazingly “Marvel’s Luke Cage” pulls all of this into its second season, weaving in a parable about fame’s seductiveness and its pitfalls to boot. Considering everything he’s endured, it is satisfying to see Luke (Mike Colter) walking the streets in full daylight, head held high and uncovered by his hoodie.

Now his exploits are widely chronicled on social media. Kids stop him in the street to take selfies. He even has an unofficial manager, of sorts, in his mentor Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones), who helps Luke maintain Pop’s barbershop as a base of operations. Luke’s fine with playing the people’s champion pro bono, but he’s not above fielding endorsement offers.

Yeah, in the new season, Harlem’s Hero has it like that. But exposure leaves a person open to attack, even people with enhanced abilities. Enter Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), a leader of a Jamaican gang who has his sights set on Harlem and favors the shock and terror tactics of old-school Colombian drug cartels.

All those viral videos of Luke’s heroics become training tapes for Bushmaster, and in short order he lets Luke know he’s far from invulnerable. More worrisome is that Luke isn’t his main target, merely an obstacle to his endgame. In other words, he’s an adversary who can’t be reasoned with. As long as Luke exists, he’s in Bushmaster’s way. And for Bushmaster’s new world order to take hold, Luke has to go. Permanently.

The perennial wonder of any mythos is that any tale can operate purely as entertainment, nothing more or less, or serve as an allegory for wider truths and crises. Both approaches are equally satisfying in the vastly improved second season of  “Luke Cage,” an all-around more evenly paced and executed venture from start to finish.

From the performances to the directing to the fight choreography, every nut and bolt of this narrative has been tightened down, and the narrative energy emits more spark. But then, series showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker injects these 13 new episodes with many themes that interlock and create fresh conundrums at every turn. And this gives the cast much more to work with.

The villains in the world of “Luke Cage” have a lot more fun, of course; that was true in season 1, where Mahershala Ali, as Cottonmouth, smoked up every scene he was in until the series secret weapon, Cottonmouth’s “upstanding” cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), exploded in a conflagration of emotional instability. Mariah’s still a quilt of barely sublimated crazy that Woodard conveys in a smile that’s all surface and a subtle, desperate shakiness in moments of passion.

Set against Woodard’s magnetic performance, Colter’s interpretation of Luke’s stoic cool fell flat at times during the first season. But the many-shaded narratives of season 2, dropping Friday on Netflix, grant Colter access to a broader palette of emotions, netting a richer, better balanced performance with deeper complexity.

My likening Luke to a hot cup of joe is intentional: Luke’s still that guy every woman wants to “have coffee” with, and the scenes acknowledging his sex appeal are played for maximum levity and charm.

But in these new chapters, it never feels as if Colter is coasting on a look. This time he distinctly loosens his grip on Luke’s facade of righteousness enough for the audience to see his character’s dents and to embrace their fascinating damage.

And again, depending on how a person interprets these episodes of “Luke Cage,” it doesn’t outwardly appear to distill the topmost problems plaguing American culture into a superhero story. The parallels aren’t as clearly drawn as they are in season 1, where Luke’s origin story is established and the concept of a bulletproof black hero felt right on time. Remember, Netflix debuted the first season months after viewers were hit with a string of news stories about policemen in cities around the country fatally shooting unarmed black men.

Between 2016 and today, the nation has been shocked awake and goaded into further disharmony, sustaining moral and philosophical assaults on all fronts. Nearly all of the cops who shot down those men and women escaped meaningful official consequences for taking those lives. An already-rigged justice system erodes further by the day. Being bulletproof simply isn’t enough anymore, although we’re invited to maintain the dream that it is.

Still, even Luke is made to acknowledge that beneath the skin he wears in public, that of the positive role model and hope Harlem thirsts for, simmers a volatile brew of resentment.

Its main ingredients are ache of rejection and blame directed toward his father James (the late Reg E. Cathey), a reverend who takes over a nearby congregation. James’ presence alone dredges up Luke’s anguish, and Claire (Rosario Dawson) simply doesn’t comprehend why Luke can’t get over his father’s past shortcomings.

All that matters is that Luke is angry, and in America, upstanding black men are not allowed the luxury of anger.

Neither, for that matter, are black women like police detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who lost her arm in a previous adventure with Danny Rand and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). Her colleagues do not react to her amputee status with understanding; in fact, it inspires her rivals in the department to come for her.

This new season never explicitly references the rancor devolving our national politics, or any specific divisive policy or political action contributing to our cultural decline. Coker and the writing team don’t need to. It’s all woven into the show’s twinned treatments of family histories, both Luke’s and Mariah’s.

The borough’s top crime madam has sealed her partnership with low-key street boss Shades (Theo Rossi) with a heated romance, and she inspires him with her calculated cruelty and knowledge about how to don the disguise of legitimacy via statecraft, using down-and-dirty street tactics.

But the Dillard and Stokes history partly revealed in the first season rears up hissing and deadly in this one. Of course, Mariah chooses to ignore it until it turns up on her doorstep in grand and grisly fashion.

The family stories and local politics of this small corner of the Marvel universe are a version of current events, told in micro. In season 2 of “Luke Cage” the sins of fathers and the misplaced wrath of sons erupt into Harlem’s streets with the same entropic venom as whims of a few short-sighted, over-reaching men in the real world, wreaking massive collateral damage all around.

But here, and in the world of “Luke Cage,” a strain of the spiritual abides. There’s an acceptance of the idea that science, magic and the divine, components that go into making some men “super,” aren’t so dissimilar.

Other nuances nudged in these new episodes — colorism, the slow poison of familial abuse, the struggles and prejudices immigrants contend with, colonialist histories come home to roost — develop and deepen as the season progresses. Some of these details float by, light as a feather. Others hit forcefully enough to leave a bruise. Season two of “Luke Cage” delivers and collides these complications expertly.

A rage is burning all around us — not just in Harlem, but tearing through the country, heating up the world. Here, and in this fiction, it’s fueled by a refusal to address the past. It insists empathy is weakness.

The streets have no mercy for underdogs in “Luke Cage,” but his people always love it when they find the sharpness of their bite again. Without a doubt, this series has.

"Deadpool 2" Director David Leitch

“Deadpool 2” director David Leitch joined “Salon Talks” to discuss the highly anticipated sequel

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Luke Cage Marvel's Luke Cage Netflix Tv