TV Review: “Luke Cage Season 2” – Sweet Christmas!

Written by Jeremiah Greville July 10, 2018

Luke Cage Season 2

The Netflix branch of the MCU was released to widespread initial acclaim but has since faced harsh criticism. The first season of Luke Cage came out shortly after Daredevil‘s divisive second season, and featured an antagonist switch that many viewers didn’t like. Mahershala Ali’s engaging gangster Cottonmouth was replaced in the second half of the first season by Erik LaRay Harvey’s cartoonish Diamondback. While I enjoyed the more outlandish villain, the tonal switch was jarring to say the least. The first season struggled to merge the different elements it was playing with. And unfortunately, the second season of Luke Cage does the same. Despite that, Season 2 ultimately succeeds, all because showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker knows how to show off his toys.

Luke Cage Season 2 - Iron Fist

Luke Cage Season 2 stars Mike Colter as the titular superhuman powerhouse with bulletproof skin. He’s joined once again by returning stars Rosario Dawson, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, and Alfre Woodard. Season 2 sees Luke fully embrace his celebrity status as he defends the streets of Harlem from the villainous gangster Bushmaster, played by Mustafa Shakir. Finn Jones and Jessica Henwick also make brief guest appearances Danny Rand/Iron Fist and Colleen Wing respectively. The cast is great, and there’s very little criticism to be said against them. But while Cheo Hodari Coker allows each of his actors to shine, this ends up complicating things when you have an actress like Alfre Woodard, and a character like Mariah Dillard.

“Where’s my money, honey?”

Alfre Woodard plays Mariah Dillard, a former councilwoman turned gangster after the events of the first season. Apart from Bushmaster, Dillard is the primary antagonist on the show, and a closer thematic threat to Colter’s Cage. But the character is unstable, and unsure of her place in the current power structure. Woodard, who lives in Harlem in real life, acts circles around the rest of the cast showing every side of Dillard’s fractured psyche. The only apt comparison I can offer to fully describe her performance is Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad. She’s that good. But the problem here is that the show is called Luke Cage. Coker clearly wants to spend time with Dillard as a character, but this ends up pulling focus from the main character and his story.

Luke Cage Season 2 - Alfre Woodard

And because of this, the moments spent with Dillard are the worst parts of the show. Woodard is amazing, and deserves a starring role on a series of her own, but is simply too distracting in this superhero tale. Season 2 of Luke Cage often feels like two completely separate television shows stitched together, and that does a disservice to the final product. Coker’s great strength as showrunner is in recognizing the great strengths of his cast. But with Woodard, he gets too enamoured. Her side of the show simply doesn’t have the narrative or thematic weight to carry so much run time. It’s so bad at times that when Colter and Woodard do share moments on screen, the disconnect becomes apparent and their interactions feel more like a crossover than a single series.

“It’s my show.”

Strangely enough, this isn’t a problem at all for Mustafa Shakir’s Jamaican gangster Bushmaster. While he should stick out like a sore thumb, Bushmaster instead proves a worthy rival to Luke Cage. Shakir’s Bushmaster is the connective tissue that links Woolard’s Dillard and Colter’s Cage, and Shakir imbues the role with charismatic menace. While he’s not a bionic snake-man or made of living metal, he’s still larger-than-life enough to feel true to his comic roots. Along with Cottonmouth and Diamondback, he’s another subtle addition to the MCU version of the Serpent Society. Gabrielle Dennis also stars as Tilda Johnson, a holistic doctor, and may prove a greater threat in Luke Cage’s future. For now she’s another strong member of the cast and provides a unique way to damage a man with unbreakable skin.

Luke Cage Season 2 - Theo Rossi and Alfre Woodard

Coker’s tendency to let his actors shine applies even to smaller, supporting roles. Twice in the second season an actor breaks out into song, supposedly just to show off their singing voice. Episode 5 prominently features Chaz Lamar Shepherd as slimy lawyer Raymond “Piranha” Jones. While he’s a minor character at best, Shepherd is allowed plenty of time to steal the show. Coker clearly revels in moments like these, allowing his actors to stretch and display what they can do. Even Theo Rossi’s taciturn Shades is given several meaty scenes, despite his character being less about performance than attitude. And yes, what you’ve heard is true—Coker even manages to make Finn Jones’ Danny Rand likable and engaging as well.

“You wanna hire this hero?”

The tenth episode of the season, featuring the long-awaited team-up between Luke Cage and Iron Fist, is a blast. Instead of offering a foil to Colter’s straight man, Jones’ presence allows Colter to show rare vulnerability. In turn, this vulnerability allows Jones to relax and have fun in his role. It’s a shame they spend so little time together, because their performances bring out the best in each other. But when alone, Colter’s Luke Cage is still a delight. He’s an inspiring contradiction and welcome antidote to toxic alpha male masculinity. Colter’s Cage is sweet and goofy enough to deliver lines like ‘Sweet Christmas’, while soulful and intelligent enough to recognize the political importance of being a bulletproof black man in a hoodie. Without him, the show wouldn’t work at all.

Luke Cage Season 2 - Iron Fist and Luke Cage

But Luke Cage season 2 is far from perfect. While Colter’s great at playing Luke Cage, he’s not very good at fighting as him. His action scenes just aren’t very impressive. Some of this is due to Cage’s ‘slap-fu’ fighting style, but most of it is poor choreography. The soundtrack and live musical performances throughout are incredible, and a testament to Coker’s previous career as a music journalist. But the score outside of these moments can range from distractingly cartoonish to plain melodramatic. While there’s no serious tonal shift, several characters and plot lines do disappear in the second half. And shifting allegiances throughout become a bit of a pain when the plot is stretched so thin. While it makes sense in the moment, the logic crumbles upon later scrutiny.

“Get up and take this ass-whupping!”

Luke Cage season 2 is a return to form for the Netflix MCU. It shows that there’s more life left in this corner of the universe. While I’d love a Heroes for Hire show in place of Luke Cage or Iron Fist, season 2 leaves us in an interesting place for the third season. Coker clearly loves showing off all that his actors can do, and while it ultimately works against him with Woodard, it nonetheless is the strongest aspect of the series. If you enjoyed the first season, then you’ll find plenty to love in this one. While there are several ties to other Marvel Netflix shows, enough is explained that you should have no trouble following along if you haven’t seen them. Luke Cage proves himself to be the hero Harlem needs, and Luke Cage season 2 is the superhero show we all deserve.

My Rating: 7.5/10

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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