Luke Cage – Season II – A Review

Posted: 06/29/2018 in Uncategorized

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When I posted my initial blurb, I had set this series up to potentially outshine season 1. Make no mistake, Marvel is reaching, moving outside trope-ish boundaries and expanding scope and breadth of this genre (superhero) with powerful story telling and the desire to move away from the source material. Jessica Jones Season II did this adeptly, creating a series different from its first season but still remaining true to its core if skating slightly toward edgier, horror-based fare. Season II of Luke Cage also stretches but while a formidable bit of drama, action and character development took place, it might have come at a great cost…maybe too great. My review follows to explain my view.

While Marvel strives to expand their brand, we find Harlem’s Hero in a steady relationship with Clare (Rosario Dawson) and still working on bringing down Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). I will begin with Alfre Woodard…her performance as Mariah is among her best work. She is ambitious, craftily intelligent, passionate and ultimately unhinged and dangerous as hell. Her love affair with Harlem is offered via the show’s writing and Mariah’s frequent pronouncements but if she has a love for her city, it is a hard, brutal love. Luke Cage (Mike Coulter) is presented as a counterpoint as he too loves his home and works on protecting it while remaining as decent a human being as possible. The sparring between the two whether face to face or as plotting opponents informs the season and makes for superior viewing. You really hate her. She makes it easy. In fact, if you do not want her eliminated by the season’s end, you are a far better person than I am. In her craft, Alfre Woodard succeeds magnificently in bringing to life a criminal queen who is hateful to her core but intensely watchable. So resilient is this character that as a viewer you become convinced after a while that she simply cannot be taken out.

The main villain of the piece is Mustafa Shakir’s “Bushmaster”(John McIver). With Bushmaster we have something new. He is nigh feral when first presented, a seething core of rage and vengeance. He is also the first real threat to Luke Cage. From his introduction to his initial altercation with Luke, we recognize that this villain and the actor who plays him has ‘it’. From Harlem himself Shakir effortlessly drops forth a smooth Jamaican accent and slang along with an assured swagger. Bushmaster’s constantly correcting anyone who refers to Mariah as “Dillard” with a blistering “Stokes” isn’t just an affectation. His lust for vengeance is righteous. It is a credit to the show runners that he is presented as a brutal and somehow enhanced pure gangster before evolving into a very sympathetic character. It might be too far to call him an anti hero as he does some pretty savage stuff, but there is nobility in him and all moments with his family, particularly his Aunt Ingrid (Heather Simms) and Uncle Anansi (Sahr Ngaugah) are powerfully and beautifully acted. When Bushmaster’s history with the Stokes is presented as generational, one cannot hate the guy. Plus, he is a pretty skilled fighter whose quicker, kick driven fighting style provides a perfect foil to Cage’s more standard street brawling.  BM/McIver’s story doesn’t quite get the majesty it deserves but it still lights up the screen.

Mariah’s daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) is a new character. She is initially interesting and her moments with Mariah had due emotional punch but overall she seemed more of a plot device for the Stokes vs. McIvers storyline. A later sequence teases she may become something more in time.

Misty Knight gets a more expanded role and this is a very good thing. Simone Missick owns the role and creates a powerful, bright and empathetic character whose drive for justice matches Cage’s own. Her scenes with ‘Shades” Alvarez (Theo Rossi) were superior, including the key moment in which she recognizes a mistake on her part led to the demise of a victim for who she seeks justice. Missick is gold as she was in “Defenders” , “Luke Cage Season I” and all things Marvel thus far. She is the bridge which allows for the return of Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) “Daughters of the Dragon-cough cough” and of course the inevitable “Heroes for Hire” pairing with the return of Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones).

Rossi too deserves honorable mention for bringing a more layered performance in this run. Shades is an awful, awful person but he has a code and some vestige of honor. It is this template that allows for a character evolution and genuine conflict escalation and resolution. Rossi gives a great performance overall.

In fact there is very much a “Heroes for Hire” vibe which nicely cleanses the palate after some of the darker moments in which Cage questions his purpose and gives into anger. Finn is far better received this time around which baffles me as I thought he was pretty damn good in the panned “Iron Fist” series. In any case, his moments with Luke resonate as both share a core decency if different philosophies. The banter and commiseration works and the busting each other’s chops is met by equal measure with respect. Danny helps out and advises Luke that help is always there.  The carpet on what should be an organic rise to HFH is somewhat pulled up with this run unfortunately.

The tone of this season is grimmer fare… normally this is not a bad thing. When mining the history of Mariah and the Stokes family, it works wonderfully. Same goes with Bushmaster’s, especially when the two families, the McIvers and Stokes intersect. That the two are bound for calamity is irrefutable and well presented. Luke’s journey into darkness however is a stumbling point that begins with his relationship with Clare taking a bad turn. His disagreement with then outright opposition to Misty’s strategy also bodes poorly.

Rosario Dawson has all but confirmed that this series will be her last run with Marvel. If this is so, it is a shame. Her character in Daredevil Season 1 was a force. In Season 2, no less so. With Iron Fist, her presence became judgmental and preachy. This path continues in L.C. II. While supportive of his fight, her counsel is not grounded. Her pressuring him to righteousness is mired by her forcing him to reconcile with his father who essentially let him rot in jail and broke with him in a contemptible matter. “Clare Knows Best” is not the name of this show and while well intentioned, she comes off as more high minded than practical. Gone is the selfless “Night Nurse” who understands the sacrifices that are often made along with the burden faced by people with ‘abilities’.

I am of course not blaming her for Luke’s ‘course correction. Numerous factors, including the city he so loves work to harden him and push him toward the edge of righteousness. That its citizens in turn mock, begrudge him,  then chastise him for not righting every wrong is human nature. The age we live in is nicely reflected via such things as the “Luke Cage” app in which his movements are tracked by his fans as well as the “get rich” mindset by Pop’s replacement DW (Jeremiah Craft). DW’s later pronouncements on Luke are frankly galling.

The heart of the series however is Mike Colter’s Luke Cage. The removal of Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) is deliberate, both as the actor is busy as hell, and to stress that Luke truly relies upon and appreciates the support of his friends. With his departure and Clare’s actions… Luke is cast adrift and vulnerable. This in turn leads to his more brutal tactics which while understandable and justifiable on occasion are nonetheless out of character. At one point he meets with Sugar (Sean Ringgold) and discusses a potential solution to the gang violence that breaks out. At this point I knew exactly where this show was heading and that was immensely disappointing.

Seeing Cage unleash was good but ultimately he is an exceedingly moral man and his later meeting with his father (Reg E. Cathey) reinforces this ideology. (Cathey who recently passed away gave a very likeable and engaging performance as Luke’s dad with a funny repeated  movie reference.) The notion of Mariah as a virus, a corrupting influence is offered by her daughter Tilda and is readily demonstrated throughout the season with mixed results. While the season overall was very solid, I did feel that they ultimately botched the landing though the picture hung at Mariah’s “Harlem’s Paradise” now being Muhammad Ali does offer some hope. LC Season II was not quite outstanding but was still very much worth your time.

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