Review by C.J. Bunce
Marvel has diversified its creations on film and television so much that anyone can find a series or film that grabs them and surprises them with action, drama, strong characters, superheroics and great storytelling. It’s going to be a subjective call for anyone, but the depth of every storytelling component in two seasons of Marvel’s Luke Cage makes it our nomination for the best superhero series yet. With all that a comic book fan could want (except maybe supersuits), Season Two of Marvel’s Luke Cage, now on Netflix, rises to the occasion again. The writers, actors, and other creators of Luke, his partners, and the crimelords of Harlem, could hold their own against any of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A “best of” list of the villains of Marvel adaptations will no doubt have Loki and Killmonger from the movies fighting for top spots, but it also must now have Season One’s Cottonmouth Stokes, and this season’s trifecta of villains: Bushmaster McIver, Shades Alvarez, and Mariah Stokes.
We compared Season One–which was borg.com’s Best TV Superhero Series of 2016 along with Cage actor Mike Colter and Misty Knight actor Simone Missick taking top acting kudos for the year–to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and again, Season Two is worthy of that comparison. All the key social and cultural issues affecting every-day people inside or outside New York City neighborhoods, from the 1960s and today, work their way into the storytelling of the series. The season kept its fresh approach with a new director at the helm of nearly every episode, while maintaining its focus thanks to Cheo Hodari Coker penning the overall story and leading the series as showrunner. The show’s style is unique. Even more than in Season One, nearly each episode featured the setting of the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise with an incredible performer on-stage with a relevant song to the episode. Where a modern take on 20th century Speakeasy-inspired jazz and blues was the background for Season One, music derived from the roots of hip-hop and the heritage of key show characters in Jamaica defines the style this time. This was topped off in the last episode with a song performed by Rakim that echoed Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s 1970s retro-funk series theme.
Family roots and legacies left behind top the season’s themes. Along with the drama, the superheroics were present in Cage’s Power Man persona and new villain Bushmaster’s exquisitely choreographed battle scenes. Charismatic actor Mustafa Shakir, who isn’t Jamaican, is perfectly convincing with the accent as Johnny “Bushmaster” McIver, and like Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk and series star Colter, Shakir looks like a superhuman with no need for any superhero costume. And yes, Shakir performed most of the fabulous stunt fights with Colter, with training incorporating capoeira fighting, aptly selected for the series from its focus on power, speed, kicks, and spins. Looking for the best superhero genre one-on-one battles at the movies or on television? They can be found in Season Two of Marvel’s Luke Cage. It’s even more refreshing because the series casts aside the current lazy trope in cinema of slow-motion action sequences, which can pull you out of the momentum of the action every time.
Colter gets to stretch his take on Cage more with the new season. His swagger is key to his character arc–his story is similar in development to Rocky Balboa in Rocky II. At the beginning of Season Two, Cage is “The Man” of Harlem, and some of the best humor is seen in the reactions of others to him, especially from a surprisingly strong character emerging from last season, D.W., played by young actor Jeremiah Craft. But that confidence becomes overconfidence and that same cocky attitude we saw from Apollo Creed and then Balboa in the Rocky franchise is emulated here. And like those fighters in the ring, out on the streets the attitude comes at great cost to Cage.
The team-ups are numerous for its 13 episodes–with Cage, Knight, Bushmaster, Stokes, Shades, and others in a non-stop shuffle of impossibly cool pairings and unpredictable situations.
For gritty television drama, what recent series can top this show? You can look to these actors in key roles that might help elevate Marvel’s Luke Cage onto your list of best television series you’ve ever watched:
- Simone Missick takes on the role of the PD’s toughest cop in town this season, sometimes partnering with Cage, sometimes working with people she despises. She gets a cyborg arm that gives her some additional physical power, and the CGI effects of Missick without an arm and later practical effects with the new borg arm are both rendered seamlessly.
- Everyone already knows Alfre Woodard as one of filmdom’s best actors. She may have performed her finest work this season with a complicated and complex woman in Mariah Stokes Dillard, sometimes deservingly sympathetic, but mostly not. The toughest ask of the audience is deciding how to feel about this character, comparing what we know of her at the beginning of the season to her actions at the end of the season. Few actors have the range to accomplish what Woodard created this season.
- But the breakaway actor and character of the season is Theo Rossi returning as Hernan “Shades” Alvarez. Whatever you think of the character by the end of Season One, your view will have changed by the end of Season Two. Insights into the character the writers provide in mid-season will knock your socks off, and you might find yourself coming back to each subsequent episode excited to see what he’ll do next.
- Gabrielle Dennis plays the intriguing Tilda Johnson, a key character whose story is interwoven with all the leads this season.
- Reg E. Cathey, who sadly passed away in February, reaches into your soul in each scene as Reverend Lucas, a great pairing of his thunderous voice and the story writers’ great speeches.
- It doesn’t stop with the leads. Supporting performances are superb, with returning actors Thomas Q. Jones as Comanche, Sean Ringgold as Sugar, Ron Cephas Jones as Bobby, Chaz Lamar Shepherd as Piranha, Danny Johnson as Ben Donovan, Justin Swain as Detective Bailey, and Karen Pittman as Inspector Ripley. Newcomers Antonique Smith as Detective Tyler, Saur Ngaujah as Anansi, Peter J. Fernandez as Captain Ridenour, and Dorian Missick as Cockroach each get their moments to shine.
Other staples of the Marvel television series find their way into this season, including Rosario Dawson as Cage’s girlfriend Claire Temple, plus Finn Jones’s Danny Rand, Eldon Henson’s Foggy Nelson, Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, and even Frank Whaley as the fantastic Season One character Detective Scarfe, via flashback sequences. Even more surprises will bring all the nostalgia back for fans of Luke Cage’s origins in 1970s comic books. Think Daughters of the Dragon and Heroes for Hire, which were previewed in Marvel’s Defenders.
We suggest savoring the series over 13 sittings like we did instead of the typical Netflix one-day binge. As with 2016, top written characters and top acting make the second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage the best series you’ll watch this summer from any genre. Watch all 13 new episodes now, streaming only on Netflix. And you can pick up the soundtrack to Season Two now here at Amazon. If you missed them, find all 13 episodes of Season One on Netflix and it’s also now available on Blu-ray here.