Some spoilers for Luke Cage Season 2 ahead.
The Punisher aside, the Netflix-Marvel Universe, has been on a downward spiral ever since the second season of Daredevil became less about Frank Castle and more about Matt Murdoch having a hardon for Elektra. Much like that, the first season of Luke Cage also struggled to maintain remotely engrossing after Cottonmouth’s demise (which is still one of the most whack creative decisions on TV in recent memory). Season 2 of Jessica Jones is entertaining only because Krysten Ritter is above and beyond the material she’s working with. The Defenders is below average at best and Iron Fist is the equivalent to what my toilet looked like last night after I lost terribly in a game of King’s Cup. Naturally, I wasn’t the least bit excited for Luke Cage S2, though, I remained hopeful.
The fact that it took me three whole days to sit through all 13 episodes (13 long, 1-hour episodes) should tell you everything you need to know about this show. Luke Cage is kinda like me in bed: meh. Just like many of the Marvel Netflix shows, Luke Cage S2 suffers from serious pacing issues. After your standard issue, but much-welcomed hero introduction sequence — we see Mr Cage whoop ass, deflect bullets and ask a bystander, “what’s my name?!” — we get a string of vacant, ineffective episodes so obviously conceived for the sole purpose of filling up the 13 episode quota. It isn’t until episode five or six that the narrative of Luke Cage S2 finally kicks in. Which would’ve been fine had the first few episodes been compelling character explorations and not stodgy babble.
Anyway, the story. I’m going to need a second to actually decipher what exactly the story is about. In the meantime, you can stare at this GIF of Luke Cage and Misty Knight getting down and dirty.
And I’m back. Here’s the TL;DR version. Two rival gangs — the Harlemites lead by Mariah Dillard and the Jamaicans lead by Bushmaster — are at war with each other for control over the city of Harlem and the
Iron Throne nightclub, Harlem’s Paradise. Which sounds intriguing in concept. If only the execution wasn’t so flimsy.
When it comes to story beats, Luke Cage S2 has some great ones. A turf war between two rival gangs with differing ideologies and approaches sounds great. Luke battling his inner demons; Misty needing to find herself after losing an arm; the biblical ‘Sins of the Father’ theme. All of these sound cool. The problem, however, isn’t with what the show is about, it’s how it’s about it.
The writing by showrunner Cheo Hadari Coker (and many others) fall flat. When Luke randomly loses his temper at the beginning of the season, I found myself asking why. Why is he suddenly so egotistical? Why is he screaming at Claire? Luke feels like a totally different character from last season, which can be great as characters need to evolve, except there seems to be an entire arc missing.
Luke Cage S2 tries to do The Godfather thing. The good man who went down the dark path yada yada yada. It even includes Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic door closing scene. But compare the bland shot of Luke closing the door on Misty to the effectiveness of that moment in The Godfather. When the door closes on Kaye in The Godfather, it is an exclamation mark. A punch to the gut. There is a sense of sadness and dread in the air. It marks the completion of Michael’s transformation. Our heart sinks.
We don’t feel that here. In fact, I chuckled out loud — I see what you’re trying to do; *wink* *wink* to you too. Because despite having 10 more hours than The Godfather to tell a story, the show doesn’t earn that moment. I didn’t feel Luke’s slow descent into the darkness. We were at point A at the end of last season, with Luke as Harlem’s beacon of hope. He vilified the n-word. Now we’re at point B (or maybe point F), with Luke as Harlem’s biggest crime boss (he tosses around the n-word freely). How did we get here?
The same can be said about almost all the characters in the show this season. Who are the villains and why should we care about any of them? Cheo Hadari Coker keeps flip-flopping. One episode we’re told to feel for Mariah and hate Bushmaster. The very next episode we’re told to empathise with Bushmaster and antagonize Mariah. Again, it’s an alluring idea. We have seen it in Game of Thrones. When we meet Jamie Lannister in season 1, he’s a f**king prick. We loathe him. But by the end of season 7, we root for him. That’s because in between him pushing Bran off the top of the tower in Season 1 and him walking away from his sister in Season 7, is a journey that is dense, gripping, organic and emotionally draining. But here, it’s as if the writers only knew how they wanted the season to end, without a damn clue on how to get there. By the end of it, the only character I cared about — the only character whose arc felt whole — is Shades.
It’s also bad that not once throughout the entirety of Season 2, did I worry for Luke Cage. We know that Luke Cage is bulletproof and virtually indestructible. So, how do you make us care? How do you make your audience invest in a character that essentially cannot be killed? By convincing us that this unbreakable man is breakable. If not physically (think Bane breaking Batman’s back in The Dark Knight Rises), then emotionally and mentally (think the death of Rachel in The Dark Knight).
The first season of Jessica Jones thrived because we see our hero at her lowest, struggling and on the verge of giving up, despite her superhuman abilities. A good villain attacks our hero’s weaknesses. Yet, throughout the second season of Luke Cage, we see people constantly shooting at him over and over and over again. And if they’re not shooting at him, they’re whacking him with stuff. There is even a meta comedic line that addresses this. We don’t see Luke Cage brought to his knees. He’s never pushed against the wall and forced to make an impossible decision. His lowest point happens very early in the season when he argues with Claire. And even that, we don’t feel the repercussions. So, what is the point? Who are we rooting for?
But trekking through all that, fighting against the current of mediocrely written TV, are performances that save the whole damn thing. Everybody acts their soul out. Consider the aforementioned argument between Luke and Claire. That scene had no right to be as magnetic as it is because of the poor writing. It didn’t feel natural that Luke would react that way to Claire. But boy, when they started arguing, I was drawn in. It was a scene made powerful by the commitment of Rosario Dawson and Mike Colter. Claire is a strong, independent woman, who isn’t afraid to stand up to Luke, yet when Luke punches the wall so ferociously, you sense her fear and sadness. And when she leaves and Luke begs her to stay, you feel his pain.
But it isn’t just in that one scene and these two performers. Every single one of them, from Alfre Woodard (who plays Mariah with a psychotic sexiness) to Theo Rossi (who brings a vulnerability to Shades) to Simone Missick (who is believable as Luke’s equal) and Mustafa Shakir as Bushmaster, all bring their A-game. And because of them, this season stays afloat; because of them, I actually managed to complete the whole season. I didn’t care for the story, nor about the characters’ journey, but I loved watching them on screen.
If you, like me were hoping that Luke Cage season 2 would be Marvel-Netflix’s return to form, then you’re most likely going to be disappointed. This is nowhere near the brilliance of Daredevil Season 1 and Jessica Jones Season 1. It’s a made-in-China version of The Godfather, with solid performances and a great soundtrack.
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Luke Cage Season 2
Luke Cage Season 2 is a made-in-China version of The Godfather, with solid performances and a great soundtrack.