‘I ain’t going nowhere.’ Season 2 of ‘Luke Cage’ does Harlem’s hero proud

Marvel's Luke Cage Season 2

Early on in season 2 of Marvel’s Luke Cage series on Netflix, there’s a moment when the titular, steel-skinned superhero played by Mike Colter issues a public challenge. It’s a message ostensibly intended for the people following him on a fictional app that tracks sightings of Harlem’s hero, but he could just as well be talking to the show’s real-world audience on the other side of the screen.

“I’m Luke Cage. You can’t burn me. You can’t blast me. And you definitely can’t break me,” he declares into the camera.

“You want to test me? Step up, I’m right here. I ain’t going nowhere. You know where to find me.”

That bold statement is intended to be a narrative turning point for a character who has typically been uncomfortable with the power he wields, but it’s also a sign of things to come in the series’ impressive sophomore season, which delivers more heart, bigger brawls, and plenty of twists and turns the second time around.

Guided once again by showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, season 2 of Luke Cage picks up after the events of both the first season and the crossover series The Defenders, with Cage still struggling to figure out what it means to be “Harlem’s hero.” Now in the spotlight and without a hood to hide behind, he deals with the ramifications of his celebrity and the fallout from the events of season 1, as well as a new threat challenging his hold on Harlem.

The first season of Luke Cage came out punching and scored a big hit by overwhelming the Netflix servers on its premiere day, but the series lost some steam when one its most compelling characters — Mahershala Ali’s crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes — exited halfway through the season. Standout villains have typically buoyed the inaugural seasons of the Marvel-Netflix solo series, and the absence of Ali’s character was acutely felt in the second half of season 1 as Colter struggled to carry the show down the stretch.

Of the two Marvel-Netflix collaborations to pass the season 2 mark so far, neither Daredevil nor Jessica Jones have managed to match their first-season success, so it’s no surprise that there were more than a few question marks surrounding the return of Luke Cage for a second season — this time, without Ali’s charismatic crime lord. The challenge Cage issues in that early scene from season 2 is as much a response to the show’s critics and doubters, it seems, as a message to Harlem’s bad guys.

“You want to test me? Step up,” he continues. “I’m right here. I ain’t going nowhere. You know where to find me.”

Fortunately, the second season of Luke Cage makes good on all that confidence with a well-crafted, well-executed story arc that does its hero — and his surrounding cast — proud.

The action scenes involving Cage and Bushmaster are some of the series’ best so far, and possibly some of the best of the Marvel-Netflix shows up to this point.

The growing pains that Colter seemed to feel in the first season — both in character as Cage, the reluctant hero, and in his first series-leading role — are a thing of the past in season 2. Much like Cage himself, Colter finds his swagger in the show’s second season, and he carries the show confidently this time around, whether solo or in tandem with his talented supporting cast.

Whereas the quality and tone of Luke Cage season 1 wavered a bit depending on who was on screen at any given point, the second season unfolds at a consistently high level from the first episode to the last thanks to Colter’s newfound comfort in the role.

The second season also brings a new villain in the form of John “Bushmaster” McIver, a Jamaican immigrant whose ascension in the criminal underworld puts him on a collision path with Cage. Portrayed by Mustafa Shakir, Bushmaster is not only a formidable foe for Cage, but a memorable one, and Shakir does an excellent job of walking the line between sinister and sympathetic.

To his credit, Shakir brings a surprising amount of emotional depth to a character that could easily slip into the standard, nigh-invincible boss-villain flavor of the week. The story arc that runs through season 2 gives Shakir a chance to flex his dramatic muscles as well as his action chops, and he handles both elements well. In fact, as far as the latter is concerned, the action scenes involving Cage and Bushmaster are some of the series’ best so far, and possibly some of the best of the Marvel-Netflix shows up to this point.

Simone Missick continues to strengthen the case for a Misty Knight spinoff series of some sort.

Along with expanding the show’s cast of characters, season 2 also manages to significantly expand the depth of its returning characters. The dark turn taken by former Harlem councilwoman Mariah Dillard in the show’s first season, for example, lets actress Alfre Woodard throw herself into a full-on villain role this time around.

And this time she proves just as comfortable with the more nuanced elements of the shady character as she does with the moments of unadulterated cruelty.

After playing a third- or fourth-tier supporting role in the first season, Theo Rossi is also elevated to a much more active role in shaping the events of the second as former henchman Hernan “Shades” Alvarez, and much like Woodard, he takes full advantage of the opportunity.

Although he’s still not among the top-level players in Cage’s world, Rossi’s character holds his own in the scenes he shares with the more dominant personalities in the series instead of disappearing into the background as he did throughout much of the first season.

On the other side of the moral divide, Simone Missick takes the biggest leap of the returning characters, and in doing so, strengthens the case for a spinoff series of some sort featuring her character, Misty Knight. The second season of Luke Cage pushes Knight in some interesting directions after losing her arm in The Defenders, and Missick handles her character’s struggle with self-doubt as easily as her brawls with the bad guys.

Also making a return appearance after The Defenders are actor Finn Jones’ kung-fu billionaire Danny “Iron Fist” Rand and actress Jessica Henwick’s tough-as-nails martial artist Colleen Wing. Both characters share a mix of scenes with the major players in Luke Cage, shifting smoothly between character-developing contemplative moments and more action-oriented sequences over the few episodes they each appear in.

Season 2 of Luke Cage embraces its soundtrack even more than the first season.

Marvel and Netflix seem intent on testing the waters of a team-up involving Wing and Knight, and their scenes together don’t do anything to hurt that cause. Their counterparts in the comics world have a long history as partners, and it doesn’t take long for two to feel like old friends on screen.

Possibly the best compliment we can give Luke Cage season 2, however, is in its handling of Finn Jones’ much-maligned portrayal of Iron Fist.

In making Iron Fist an entertaining, welcome addition to Cage’s world, Coker and the series’ creative team succeed where a full season of Iron Fist and The Defenders miniseries missed the mark. From the pair’s banter over dumplings to the way they play off one another’s abilities while battling a warehouse full of heavily armed thugs, the scenes that Jones and Colter share in Luke Cage are the closest the Marvel-Netflix collaboration has come to replicating the chemistry that made them one of Marvel Comics’ great superhero duos. The result finally makes the idea of a “Heroes for Hire” team (as they were known in Marvel Comics lore) something to look forward to.

Marvel's Luke Cage Season 2

From its hero’s evolution, to its villains, supporting cast, and even its music, season 2 of Luke Cage is an improvement on the first season of the series in nearly every way.

The first season of Luke Cage stood out from the rest of its Marvel-Netflix peers with a soundtrack that was much more than just musical accompaniment to the action. Coker has said he approaches the series like a “hip-hop concept album,” and that strategy pays off big once again for season 2. Like Harlem, the music of Luke Cage is also its own character in the show, and it shapes the way the audience contextualizes a scene just as much as any actor’s performance.

Season 2 of Luke Cage embraces its soundtrack even more than the first season, and the expert touch that Coker and the show’s music team wield puts the series on an entirely different level than other Marvel-Netflix shows — or just about any other show, for that matter.

Much like its title character, Luke Cage proudly defies expectations — whether it’s the suggestion of a sophomore slump or questions surrounding its star’s ability to carry the show. There is a sense of established familiarity with the title characters of Daredevil and Jessica Jones at this point, but even after two seasons, Luke Cage still feels like a show chronicling its hero’s formative years and taking its audience along for the ride — bumps and all.

With such an impressive second season, here’s hoping that ride is just getting started.

Season 2 of Luke Cage premieres June 22 on Netflix.

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