When Luke Cage first debuted on Netflix, even a jaded media consumer could tell we were witnessing a change. For too many years media conglomerates called the shots based on faulty assumptions of what would “work” and what wouldn’t using superficial metrics and interpretations of data skewed by ignorance. Then a small but tenacious media streaming service changed the game.
At first blush, Netflix was bottom feeding – giving life to long abandoned shows. But when the original content began, the entire landscape shifted. As they transitioned from DVD by mail to a streaming service, consumers made more of the choices. They watched what they wanted, when they wanted. With a new model, this upstart found itself free of the demographic “rules” which blindly drove network and cable providers. They had room to experiment. Even before Black Panther finally destroyed the myth that a black cast couldn’t carry a blockbuster, Luke Cage tested the waters.
The first season launched to scattered acclaim. It also seemed to both address and grapple with the same issue which plagues many of Marvel’s efforts – villain troubles. Too often, the stereotypical one-note bad guys don’t seem to be a worthwhile match for the dynamic and archetypal heroes they face.
Cottonmouth was a clear exception. Complex and expertly portrayed by Mahershala Ali, his performance elevated the entire production. However, his character’s early exit left an obvious void which Alfre Woodard’s Mariah fought to fill with a mid-season transformation.
While the problem of shallow villains is Marvel’s curse, Mariah’s journey almost corrected too far. Season two takes a good three episodes to get started precisely because her transformation isn’t quite complete. As she stumbles around, searching for her inner Queen while toying with the idea of leaving the game behind, her onscreen chemistry with Shades often comes across as awkward or forced. The seat of Luke Cage’s nemesis still feels empty.
Our hero for hire is left to battle the combined forces of Inner Demon, Daddy Issues, Groupie Girl, and Money Trouble. Interesting fare, but “real world”, Luke Cage ain’t. While some fans can go twelve episodes on these side stories and not blink, your average superhero fan starts itching for the super-powered smackdowns. Fortunately, Misty Knight played by Simone Missick carries the show through this opening slump with an excellent performance and provides the perfect foil for the fallout as our superhero battles the mundane.
Fortunately, Bushmaster played by Mustafa Shakir saves the show. From there, the only direction is up and Mariah’s ambitions play well off his own quest for vengeance. The season finale is gut-wrenchingly strong. Those boring family issues which dominate the early episodes pay off ten fold. Luke’s struggle with his inner demons? This single character conflict drops the mic and rolls credits at a point where you can’t be sure who really won.
Villains. Who they are and what they might be made of. That’s what saves the season in the end.
Beyond this revelation, the season also manages to do what seemed impossible: redeem Danny Bland. Though he only appears in a couple of episodes, this is the true Immortal Iron Fist’s debut.
Rand’s reappearance has all the confidence and swagger of the source material – a swagger which an entire dedicated series and spin-off should’ve allowed the oddly whiny, petulant billionaire to find much sooner. He’s both a friend and a mentor without stealing the spotlight. For the first time, fans can geek out about a classic Heroes for Hire team up.
But it would be wrong to spend too much time on Rand’s appearance. Even he kept the cameo low key, as it should be. Luke Cage is the hero, the lead, for once, and that’s the whole point of the show.
From the iconic landmarks of Harlem to the intellectual writings of luminaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois, the series shines it’s spotlight on a culture for once without exploitation or compromise. Athletes are name dropped and musicians given center stage at Harlem’s Paradise, but these aren’t the pop icons we’ve all been sold. These are deep cuts into a vibrant and influential culture which never quite receives the full recognition it deserves.
Accepting our roles as both villains and heroes. Opening up to new perspectives and acknowledging both the darkness and vibrancy of our past. Offering friendship without playing the savior or the self righteous. That’s the real transformation we need to see.