When the first season of Daredevil aired on Netflix, I loved it. While successive seasons of the Defender-themed shows have sometimes been good, or sometimes in desperate need of reworking – I am looking at you, second season of Jessica Jones – that first season which started up this little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has always seemed like the best one to me, and easily among Marvel’s best works to date.
But now, at last, I can finally say it has some proper competition in the form of the second season of Luke Cage.
Marvel seems to have seriously stepped up the production rate of their Defenders-base series. Including Iron Fist‘s second season, due to hit us in September, that makes three seasons this year, and, including Punisher last November, four seasons released within ten months of each other. While Punisher was a brutal slog through so much slaughter, and Jessica Jones was an extended rambling about how everyone has it hard and nobody knows how to deal with it, and I have no clue what yet what Iron Fist will be, Luke Cage was clearly written first and foremost as a story about what makes people tick.
People can be very complicated creatures. We can want such simple things, but obtaining them comes with great difficulty, including unexpected consequences. The world turns like a door on the hinges of small, everyday choices. That is how a person changes, slowly, day by day, leaving behind who they were before and becoming someone so similar, yet so very different. We are defined not by what we want, but by what we choose, and as our choices keep piling up, our very character is slowly transformed. That is how ordinary men become heroes or villains, and the line between the two can blur to the point where the one becomes the other.
That, in essence, is what this season of Luke Cage is about. It is riddled with themes of people, relationships, choice, consequence, the past, the future, and mutable character.
Needless to say, it is fairly complex and intricate, but in a good way.
In fact, it takes many of the things that other Defender shows have done right and combines them, without all the accompanying weaknesses. The latest season of Jessica Jones had no singular villain, but Luke Cage actually manages to pull that off. Like its first season, the villains change up, but in ways far more nuanced than simply being rid of one and introducing another. Like Daredevil, it has several antagonists who are all strong characters in their own right, and like Iron Fist, there are human, redeemable sides to said villains. It does not shy away from graphic brutality and sensuality, but it doesn’t dwell on such for too long, either. And this season has clear connections with Defenders, including the characters of all the other shows, but it never makes that connection feel forced. It feels natural.
Oh, and at no time in this show did it feel like it was dragging on, which has been a typical failing point thus far, so, kudos.
Neither does anything feel forced, it’s very character-driven, and so the characters have all the room we could want for them to breathe and grow and develop.
Chief among them, of course, is Luke. His first season ended on a pretty low note, but since then he’s achieved a certain status in his community. He’s very much on top of the world, no matter his humble circumstances, when this season begins. Then he goes through one heck of a roller coaster, being humbled in more ways than one, forced to adapt and compromise as he suffers stinging defeats, and his flaws begin to be made manifest. By the end of it all, the place he arrives at begs the question of if he’s on top of the world again, or if he’s descended to the bottom of it. It also begs the question of if he’s still really a hero, or if he has fallen.
Standing mostly opposite of Luke is the figure known as Bushmaster. He is one of my favorite villains now. He has a vendetta to settle, and as we learn the nature of it, I can’t really disagree with either what he wants or who he targets. Heck, all things considered, I might even be able to understand his brutality. My initial problem with him is simply how he dithers about and prolongs things instead of finishing the fight as quickly and efficiently as possible. He does terrible things to people who don’t truly deserve it, and his mistakes end up clearing the way for a number of innocent people to get hurt. If he’d simply limited, and streamlined, his revenge, there would have been far less collateral damage, and he might have even come off more as an antihero than a straight up villain. Yet, I can’t disagree with his primary goal at all.
In contrast, we have Mariah Stokes, the MCU version of Black Mariah, who I have never liked, and who proves to be an even worse and more dangerous person than I thought. And still, even in her complete amorality, she still talks like the hero of her own story… which, aren’t we all? She may be one of the most vile human beings ever, but it is partially her past which has twisted her soul into this present monstrosity. She still deserves every terrible thing we see happen to her, and yet, in a perverse sort of way, her role in Harlem has served a noble purpose, as is demonstrated, and she has at least tried to take the sins of the past and turn them towards something good and worthwhile.
The addition of Mariah’s daughter, Tilda Johnson, was especially enjoyable, and functional for the story. She is a healer, a servant of all things good and kind, and yet, like Luke, she journeys down the rabbit hole of her family’s most despicable deeds, and, also like Luke, she is polluted and transformed in unhappy ways by the experience.
Mercedes Knight returns and rises from her previous trauma, and rises through the present turmoil, to become a much stronger, more likable person. The henchman called Shades has his own arc, and while he doesn’t change much, he finds that there is a line, something he can’t tolerate having done. A number of other characters come and go, including Claire, Colleen, Danny Rand, and Luke’s own preaching father, each of them important in their own way, each of them bringing something original and human to the story.
Heck, there’s one character, a perfectly normal guy, whose name I can’t even remember, and he might be one of my favorite heroes ever simply because of what he does in the final episode of the season. Skating around spoilers, he has practically worshiped the ground Luke has walked on, but when he sees Luke making a compromise he can’t agree with, starting down a darker path, he stands up to Luke and even becomes sort of the spiritual heir to Pops from the beginning of the show.
Which goes into what I would say the season is truly about, namely: how heroes truly fall.
I’ll elaborate more on that some other time, so as to avoid spoilers here and now.
Suffice to say, the second season of Luke Cage is intricate and riveting, with layers and themes galore, and possessing one of the most compelling and least predictable plots ever. Where the first season ended in defeat with hopes of a later victory, the second ends with a victory that is arguably Luke’s most devastating defeat in disguise. It’s a bit bloody and horrifying at times, but it’s one heck of a good story about human nature.
Rating: 9 stars out of 10.
Grade: solid A.