Couch Potato

Luke Cage and the Crushing Burden

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By this point I feel like it’s fairly clear that I’m one of the few people who have connected with Netflix’s Marvel shows. Every time I write about one of the new seasons I usually have to talk about the fact that I realize most people don’t enjoy them, while acknowledging the fact that there are problems with them. They all have pacing issues, they could all be a few episodes shorter, and Iron Fist was a goddamn mess. And yet, I generally really enjoy these shows. These are some of my favorite characters being brought to life, mostly consistently. And, we’ve been given the second season of one of my favorite entries into this mini-franchise, Luke Cage!

Now, I’ve talked about Luke a few times on the site, but he’s really one of the my favorite characters of all time. What started as a silly attempt to cash in on the Blaxploitation film craze eventually became one of the strongest and most principled characters in the entire Marvel stable. He’s a terrific superhero, and has been given some of the most enjoyable and fulfilling relationships in comics. There’s obviously his wonderful marriage to Jessica Jones, but his friendship with Danny Rand is right up there with Reed Richards and Ben Grimm for me as my favorite comics friendship in history. There’s a lot of potential when it comes to a Luke Cage television series. And, as time has gone on, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the first season of Luke Cage has its fair share of problems. They kept him away from everyone else, except for a truly great Misty Knight portrayal, and the show suffered greatly form the mid-season switcheroo when the show suddenly got a third major villain who came out of nowhere and took the show over. It tried to do too much, and didn’t exactly succeeded at enough of it become a fully functioning television show.

But, overall, I still enjoyed it. Mike Colter is a great actor, and his portrayal of Luke was a lot of fun. The whole show was full of great actors, like Alfre Woodard and Mahershala Ali in particular, and the way that the show used music was truly phenomenal. It became the show that really seemed to break the camel’s back, turning a majority of people against these show, but I was still a big enough mark to end up liking it, and being excited for a second season. And, while the second season still suffers from pacing issues and a bloated episode count, I really and truly think that this is an improvement over the first season in every way, and I kind of loved this series.

 

 

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This series picks up shortly after the events of the Defenders. Luke is well-established as the Hero of Harlem, especially after saving the city from the Hand. He’s doing his best to keep the peace in his chunk of New York while also trying to keep a functioning relationship going with Claire Temple. And it doesn’t go well! Luke is really starting to crack, keeping so many different plates spinning while Harlem just gets more and more under the thumb of Mariah Dillard and her gang. However, unbeknownst to Luke, Mariah and her right-hand man Shades are looking at going legitimate. They’re going to blackmail an owner of a major company into giving them a controlling stake of said company before it gets sold for millions of dollar, thanks to a tip from a shady Wall Street guy who calls himself Piranha Jones. But, in order to go legitimate they’re having to sell off a chunk of their empire, and in the process come across a group of Jamaican gangsters, led by a man who calls himself Bushmaster. And Bushmaster is here for revenge. His family was devastated by Mariah’s, and he wants to wrest control of the borough away from her while getting his revenge. And, part of that involves getting rid of the Hero of Harlem.

Bushmaster has given himself very similar powers to Luke Cage thanks to some mystical plants and rituals, finally giving Luke a real threat. And Luke doesn’t do too well with this much going on. He drives Claire away, makes it damn hard for Misty Knight to deal with him while she’s dealing with a lot of her own problems, and he just generally starts to crack. Luke refuses to accept help from everyone around him, and begins working with way through a series of ridiculous old Hero for Hire villains, slowly getting more and more beaten down by all of this. And he’s not the only one. Mariah is also dealing with a lot of strain, and is struggling to deal with her dreams of going legitimate. She keeps getting darker and darker, becoming more like her cousin Cornell with each decision, while the rest of her organization starts to crumble. She’s eventually exposed as the criminal she always was, and is murdered in prison by her jilted daughter, right around the same time that Bushmaster has admitted defeat after his magically endued powers start to take too strong of a toll on him. Which leaves Harlem without a criminal leader. A massive gang-war begins, with Luke Cage installing himself as a sort of sheriff. He ends up being given control of Mariah’s family club, Harlem’s Paradise, and starts running the borough, hoping that he can remain steadfast in his goal to take care of Harlem, not just become a monster like Mariah.

 

 

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This season really was an improvement over the first in ever way. And I liked the first season! The show really was firing on all cylinders this year, and it seems like everyone was just far more comfortable with what they were doing. Mike Colter continued to knock it out of the park as Luke, getting the chance to stretch his range, being more than just the stoic and respectable Luke we got in the first season. Simone Missick was terrific yet again as Misty Knight, giving a far deeper performance than she’s gotten to give in years, all while strutting around with the character’s ridiculous robotic arm. The show also really benefited from focusing on two major villains this year, and keeping away from the strange decision to become a completely different show in the second half. Alfre Woodard was frankly incredible as Mariah this year, and they really sent her out on top. But the show ends up being stolen by Mustafa Shakir as Bushmaster, bringing all the strange Jamaican mysticism to Harlem is a wonderfully menacing and believable fashion. And, even though the show made an effort to focus on one cohesive narrative I really enjoyed the way that they were able to work in a staggering amount of old Hero for Hire villains. I love old Luke Cage comics, but they weren’t exactly known for their quality villains. A lot of snake-themed guys who would try to stab or bite Luke. But they stuffed a bunch of them in as cameos, fleshing out this increasingly strange world that Luke finds himself in charge of.

And the most burning question that’s left after this season has to be, what’s going to happen now that Luke is in charge? Luke spends the entire season trying to figure out what his place in Harlem really is. He’s saved the day twice now, but nothing seems to change. Threats both old and new continue to hold Harlem in a death-grip, and he finds himself in an impossible situation. He has learned to pull his punches, knowing that if he released his full strength on the average person he’d cross a line he never wants to. Luke is a man of honor and dignity, but this season looks at Luke as he starts questioning if that’s sustainable. He wants to fix Harlem, but in the process opens it up to newer and bigger threats. He puts everything on his shoulders, trying to save everyone at the expense of himself. He’s obsessed with being Harlem’s hero, the protector it needs in order to bring peace to this tired town. The only way to wrestle Harlem into peace seems to be by becoming the thing he hates. It’s a thin line between being the protector of Harlem and the owner of Harlem, and it’s incredibly unclear which is the right call. Bushmaster wants to own Harlem for revenge, Mariah wants to own Harlem to show everyone that she can do it on her own, and Luke wants to own Harlem in order to save it. It’s certainly a more honorable desire than the others, but there’s no question that his quest may end up being futile. Luke is a good man. There’s no denying that. But even good men can be swayed by power, seduced to their darkest impulses when put in control of people. Luke’s the unbreakable man, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to sustain this assault.

 

 

 

Luke Cage was created by Cheo Hodari Coker and released by Netflix, 2018.

 

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