Marvel’s bulletproof black man is up for the challenge. Season 2 of “Luke Cage” is spectacular, full of unforgettable performances, and has not one but two top-notch villains battling each other and Cage for the heart of Harlem. Season 2 gets off to a slow start, but Netflix was wise to release all 13 episodes to the media, as the second half is where the magic happens.
The things you expect are there: Hot hip-hop tracks over the action, musical performances at Harlem’s Paradise, swooning women continually asking Cage if he’d like to go out for “coffee.” But Season 2’s strength is the deep look it gives into the tortured souls of every major player.
Mike Colter returns to the role of Luke Cage, ever the charismatic protagonist who finally begins to embrace the hero-for-hire mentality of his comic book roots when he realizes invulnerability doesn’t shield him from financial restraints.
Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is looking more like her comic book self, as well, equipped with a bionic arm (after losing her limb in “The Defenders”) and trying to figure out whether she should fight the good fight against crime on the right side of the law or embrace her newer super qualities outside it.
Shades (Theo Rossi) is now a crime boss equal to Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard), and he has a surprising past he is forced to confront.
Season 2 newcomer Mustafa Shakir brings a little Erik Killmonger/angry son of the African diaspora style to his enjoyable role as Bushmaster, a Jamaican-raised man with special powers that give him the ability to stand toe to toe and go blow for blow with Luke Cage.
There’s also tons of Caribbean pride and reggae-fused flavor. Luke Cage is a bad man, but the Jamaicans will tell him quick he’s no Usain Bolt, mon.
A heavyweight title match vibe takes over every time Luke Cage and Bushmaster go at it. And when Cage takes a punch (and plenty of kicks) from Bushmaster and is knocked to the ground, all of Harlem feels it.
Equally impressive as those superpowered bouts are the moments where Cage tries to talk it out with Bushmaster, allowing Shakir to show he can mix charm with a dominating presence just as much as Colter can. There’s a brotherly aspect to the Cage-Bushmaster relationship. “Luke Cage” doesn’t dive in too deeply into that since we just saw Cage go up against his actual brother at the end of Season 1. These two superhuman black men can’t appreciate the doppelganger-ness of their relationship because Bushmaster is obsessed with defeating Black Mariah and taking over Harlem and Luke is determined to stop them both. Bushmaster sees power in his and Luke’s possibly joining forces, but Luke isn’t having any of that.
Just as Shakir’s Bushmaster begins to find his bad-guy groove, Woodard’s Black Mariah comes in and steals the show.
Never has a Marvel villain done so much without an Infinity Gauntlet.
Woodard’s transformation from reluctantly corrupt politician to queen of Harlem crime is Season 2’s outstanding breakaway performance. There is no Netflix/Marvel villain more ruthless, not even the Kingpin over at “Daredevil.”
Black Mariah’s riveting rise to power takes the last few episodes of the season to surprising places.
In the war for Harlem, you won’t see the final shot coming. Luke Cage won’t see it coming, either, and it’ll force him to make decisions he didn’t think he’d ever ponder.
Those decisions draw new lines in the sand, creating unexpected alliances and rivalries for a Season 3 that already has its work cut out for it if it’s going to top this one.