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What went right and what went wrong for Luke Cage’s second season

Marvel’s Luke Cage is great, but it doesn’t need 13 episodes.

Luke Cage
Luke Cage
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

It’s (sweet) Christmas in June, the second season of Marvel and Netflix’s Luke Cage is here.

In this installment, Luke (Mike Colter) is now Harlem’s hero, after taking out Cottonmouth and Diamondback. (For those who aren’t quite up to speed, don’t worry — there’s a lot of refreshing and exposition in the first half of the season.) But as with any comic book saga, there’s a new villain who, sensing a vacuum of power, wants to wreak his own brand of havoc upon Harlem, as well as some of the existing fiends we’re already familiar with.

This season is entertaining enough, thanks to strong performances from leads Mike Colter and Alfre Woodard. But more so than with the first season, you can really feel the 13-episode format taking its toll on Luke Cage, gumming up what should be a consistently thrilling show.

Here are the good, bad, and weird qualities that make for an intriguing, but slightly less riveting, second season of Luke Cage.

The Good: Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard is fantastic

The very best seasons of Netflix’s numerous superhero series have been defined by their charismatic villains. The first season Daredevil had Wilson Fisk. The first season of Jessica Jones had Kilgrave. And this second season of Luke Cage has the heir to that throne, Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard.

Mariah’s transitioned into the life of crime after being ousted as politician last season. Her new life is fulfilling — it gives her wealth and influence — but it doesn’t fully quench her thirst for power. Mariah wants more than what’s already set for her; she wants a legacy, and will do anything to make sure she’s remembered.

That desire plays out through the season’s main conflict, the fight over Harlem. A new villain named Bushmaster (The Deuce’s Mustafa Shakir), a seemingly indestructible Jamaican gangster with a power set equal to Luke’s, wants to take over Mariah’s neighborhood. Having Bushmaster looming in the background adds another element to Mariah’s vulnerability — there’s another super-powered individual for her to deal with — as well as insight into her psyche.

Being a former politician, Mariah knows the importance of image and polish, and Woodard gives Mariah a sturdy veneer that conceals the smoldering rage beneath. You can’t tell which of her relationships are genuine and which are political, and it creates narrative intrigue, not knowing if Mariah will cross her partner Shades (Theo Rossi) or her daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), or if she’s truly committed to them.

It’s fun to watch Woodard in moments where Mariah lets that rage free, but Woodard’s real gift is finding the right frequency at which to play Mariah’s more human moments. Watching Mariah struggle to hold onto the power she’s amassed gives the narrative a feeling of tragedy, because you know just how much that power means to her, and that she knows it can’t last forever.

The Bad: 13 episodes is too much (or too little) to tell this story

I’m not entirely sure why Marvel and Netflix are wed to 13-episode seasons of their superhero shows. None of them, including both seasons of Luke Cage, really need 13 episodes. Thirteen episodes is both too sprawling to tell one central story and not sprawling enough to dig into any of the show’s supporting tales in a satisfactory way.

This overstuffed-but-empty feeling is exacerbated by the fact that there’s a ton of exposition going on, particularly in the first quarter of the season. In the second episode, Luke and Claire (Rosario Dawson) have a little verbal fight that seems like a couple not seeing eye to eye, but devolves into an explanation of what happened in the show’s first season.

The show also spends an inordinate amount of time explaining a crime ring, nefarious deals, and its cast of minor characters, which involves characters talking about what they’re going to do, doing what they said they were going to do (sometimes an episode later), and then talking about what they just did. Those nefarious deals and minor rogues end up being a small part in the overall design of the season, but there’s just so much attention paid to it — attention that could have gone elsewhere. (There can never be enough Misty Knight.)

The Good: Mike Colter is so damn charismatic

All that said, if you told me that Luke Cage’s second season would just be 13 hourlong episodes of Mike Colter washing his hands, I would probably still tune in. Colter is impossibly charming — possibly the most charismatic actor from the four Marvel Netflix superheroes (with stiff competition from Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones). And in season two, Colter gets to explore the character more, building on the foundation he established in season one.

This season sees Luke dealing with the aftermath of his heroism. He’s become an icon, a superhero that doesn’t hide behind the mask like Daredevil, or in the shadows like the Punisher or Jessica Jones. But living in the public eye that doesn’t come without consequences, and Luke faces his own breaking point.

Luke comes to realize how much he cares about his name and, like Mariah, his legacy. As much as he would like to think himself free from the constraints of the public opinion, he wants to find a way to prove to them, and possibly himself, that he’s the hero that Harlem says he is. He also questions his identity, his nature, and how that pain has shaped him.

This all allows Colter to delve even deeper into Luke’s pain, his flaws, and his ego this time around. Luke isn’t perfect, and by the end of this second season, perhaps not the hero we imagined or thought we knew — and that’s credit to Colter’s performance.

The Bad: many of the action sequences feel like filler

One of the running jokes in the first episode is how many henchmen try to use guns on Luke Cage. It’s a coy wink to the audience, since we all know that Luke has bulletproof skin, and that only complete dummies would bother shooting at him.

As the season unfolds, though, it never really makes good on that joke. There are a plethora of fight scenes where Cage is being shot, over and over, to no real effect, other than being repetitive. To be fair, Luke Cage isn’t a martial artist like Daredevil or Iron Fist, so no one’s expecting overly stylized fight choreography in the show. But the repetitive nature of guns popping, Luke shrugging off bullets, and then beating up the shooters make each of these sequences feel less necessary and less imaginative than the last.

The Weird: the dialogue sometimes struggles to convey the season’s big ideas

Superheroes are political, and Luke Cage hasn’t shied away from that, with the first season using imagery like Cage in a hoodie (an allusion to Trayvon Martin) or moments like Cage’s distrust of a corrupt police force to comment on the ugly reality that black men and women cannot escape.

This season is no different, as the first few episodes explore the relationship between masculinity, power, and race, something that Marvel’s other Netflix shows, let alone Marvel’s superhero movies, don’t really touch upon (at least until Black Panther this year). The public reacts differently to the heroism of Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, than it does when a black man like Luke performs acts of heroism, and Luke Cage doesn’t let the public off the hook or give it the benefit of the doubt. The bystanders in Luke Cage are innocent, but they’re also full of the prejudice that we see in the real world.

It’s a strong, bold idea. But bringing it into characters’ dialogue is another story. There are spots where the show’s writing feels less concerned with exploring these ideas through character and/or narrative development than with providing a clever teaching moment.

“Look, you’ve never had anyone clutch their purse on an elevator,” Luke tells Claire in the third episode.

“That’s like saying the only choice for a woman is ho or housewife,” Claire responds later.

Perhaps it’s the familiar turns of phrases, or the lack of intimacy between Luke and Claire, but moments like these feel like they’re talking to an audience more than each other.

Minutes later, however, the conversation feels more natural, and by extension more poignant.

“God forbid he’s changed. And you can’t use him [Luke’s father] as an excuse anymore,” Claire tells him. “If he were to see what you did, and your justifications, he’d be ashamed,”

Claire’s words get at Luke, because we know how much he struggles with his relationship with his dad. No turn of a phrase needed. It’s no surprise then that Claire’s words set Luke off, and are more effective at expressing the tense themes that the show wants to tackle.

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