In season two of Luke Cage, the Harlem hero’s trademark invincibility–in power and persona–cracks, and his fissures create openings for his characters the cast around him. The end result is something far more nuanced and intimate than the first season. Season 2 forgoes boundaries; what it loses in much of season one’s traditional superhero and gendered posture, it gains in something even closer to a tapestry of the black experience that more firmly reflects a spectrum we didn’t get before. He has quietly become Marvel’s most vulnerable and inclusive entry into its universe.
“Let’s all read the criticism” was Cheo Hodari Coker’s constant reminder to the writing team after critics and fans combed through the first season. While most comic book adaptation teams might spend the offseason pouring through their characters’ storylines to fine tune the micro-attention fans give these shows, Coker, a self-admitted boxing fan, and his team took the critics’ hits in stride, comfortably getting knocked on their asses. But as they rose from the mat, Coker said it became clear what they had to do in season two: “we started addressing the humanity.”
Over this season’s thirteen episodes, a stronger set of themes emerge around trauma, vulnerability and empathizing with painful emotions. The cool which with Michael Colter’s Cage moved through Harlem’s intersected social, political and criminal world virtually untouched falls to the wayside this season, replaced with a hubris that feels uncharacteristic while being a logical result of invincibility. Cage spent last season conquering everything around him, and this season shows him celebrating his newfound stature as a celebrity and an icon. But after suffering a series of private and public defeats early on this season, Luke goes from parting waves when he walks through the city to becoming a popular target. The show turns this into an early storyline as Cage now takes his invincibility to a new, literal place; posturing for social media stories, defiantly claiming Harlem as not only his home, but his kingdom. What makes this season’s Cage unique is the central tension is the idea of what happens when there are no boundaries between his personal and public image.
Other superheroes deal with the figurative notion of a mask: is Bruce Wayne or Batman the real identity? And the hero often manages the dynamic with an exterior identity that they can jump in and out of, trying to stay a step ahead of friends and foes while figuring out who they really are themselves. But according to Coker, Cage’s dilemma is different. “He’s like Keith Murray, Eric Sermon, and Will Smith: MCs whose public and private selves are melded. What does that mean when you don’t wear a mask? What does superheroism look like in the face of Twitter and Instagram?” This season’s emotional core punches at that for everyone in the main cast. Much like this season of Atlanta, Cage grapples with being a black public figure in the social media age, which provides both a vulnerability and an invulnerability. Cage, like Paper Boi, finds himself at times emboldened and defeated by a constant consumption of his public self, losing more and more of his core privacy, a sanctuary to deal with his own pain and failures along the way. It doesn’t always feel fair, but the season, which moves slowsly before racing toward the show’s strongest ending yet, feels more honest as a result.
Watching the show through its hip-hop references refines this idea. Swinging between performative and intimate, egos and agendas, the clashes between Cage and Bushmaster feel personal even when the stakes are bigger than the two of them. Cage now claims Harlem and vice versa in the same prideful, symbiotic way we’ve come to associate rappers with their hoods and hometowns. Cage previously won his rap battle; his beef was over. Yet there’s always pride before the fall, and Coker is quick to introduce that with Mustafa Shakir’s Bushmaster, whose initial hatred of Cage’s arrogance and popularity feels like the coming storm of a new beef. It helps too, that this season gives the audience and the hero a greater context for Cage’s behaviors and motivations. As we watch him tackle Bushmaster and Mariah (Alfre Woodard), we also get a window into the unresolved pain behind his punches, like his fractured relationship with his father ( Reg E. Cathey), and how that impacts his relationship with Claire (Rosario Dawson) too.
As all this unfolds, the show makes space to tell stronger stories for the women. No longer suffering from the first season’s formula where most female characters seemed to exist only to fawn, the women finally shake free of his orbit. Spinning plotlines for Mariah, Misty (Simone Missick), and newcomer Gabrielle Dennis as Mariah’s estranged daughter, Tilda, grapple with sex, race, and politics beyond the lens of the black male superhero. For the first time, maybe even more than this year’s seismic Black Panther and the Dora Milaje, Luke Cage gives light to the black woman’s journey. Showing both foibles and fortitude, these characters are relatable and revelatory because they command from either side of the camera: six women directed half the season.
Luke Cage still occasionally suffers from the same tics as the first season: some of the dialogue is still heavy-handed and the musical and cultural references are as pointed as they are blunt at times. But the artificiality this season stops there. What’s been overwhelmingly grafted onto this season’s identity is a wider discussion about how these black and brown characters’ stories tap into the cost of maintaining facades with each other and within ourselves. For Coker and company, listening to the criticism about the show’s weaknesses has meant answering that call by digging deeper into the characters, using them to highlight the different ways that we all struggle to wear the right face when met with anger, humiliation, confusion and grief. It highlights too the idea that maintaining those facades means buying into our own hype; that distancing ourselves from our real pain usually only results in distancing ourselves from everyone else. For once though, the superhero isn’t the only one grappling with the mask.
Images: Netflix, Marvel