I thought the first season of Luke Cage was the best of the Marvel shows on Netflix (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, etc.), so I was looking forward to the second installment, which was released on June 22nd, 2018.
There are pluses and minuses about season 2. On the negative side, the narrative meanders a bit, which is often a problem with the second season of a series. After the initial success, the writers are trying to figure out what to do next, how to top what they’ve already done, and the story line ends up being looser. I find the Jamaican accents the actors do in season 2 to be distracting often to the point of being annoying. Gone is the standout character Cottonmouth (rivetingly portrayed by Mahershala Ali).
On the plus side, the show has the same gritty feel of season one, and similarly great music. Most of the primary characters are back. And stepping into the breach left by Cottonmouth’s absence is Mariah Stokes Dillard (portrayed just as rivetingly by Alfre Woodard). Woodard and Reg E. Cathey, who plays Luke’s father, James Lucas, give the second season an emotional depth that, it seems to me, is not to be found in any of the other Marvel Netflix series.
The one aspect of the show I want to comment on is the way it not only uses but even fetishizes and mythologizes Harlem. I always thought it was amusing how the characters in Daredevil remind the viewers that the show is set in Hell’s Kitchen every five minutes or so. The same is true (or with an even greater frequency, if that’s possible) in Luke Cage. The opening credits contain several visual reminders—street signs, a subway station—that Harlem is the setting, and then, as I say, the dialogue is peppered with references. My suspicion is that the writers of Daredevil include those references just because “Hell’s Kitchen” sounds cool; whereas Harlem is a place that has a storied history, a place that everyone knows and has some associations with.
But of course the setting isn’t really Harlem—it’s a fictionalized Harlem, a romanticized Harlem. It’s a Harlem that’s both far more violent and far more insular than the real thing, as if it weren’t a changing neighborhood with loose, fuzzy borders that’s becoming gentrified; but rather a crime-ridden, monochromatic city-state with ironclad boundaries, ruled by a crime lord. The writers have created a fictional setting where a superhero is desperately needed. Batman does something similar with New York City, but in calling it ‘Gotham’, the creators indicate that the location is fictionalized. Not so with Luke Cage. In the latter, we’re not given any clue that the location isn’t real.
In this way, Luke Cage is very much like a western. A mythologized lawless setting calls out for a strong but flawed individual (a gunslinger-Marshal or Luke Cage) with a commitment to justice to defeat the forces of chaos and evil, in order to restore law and civility to the community. This basic outline is true of a lot of superhero narratives, but in those stories the setting isn’t always (or perhaps often) mythologized, and the antagonist is usually a supervillain, someone with powers to match those of the heroes. While Bushmaster is something of a supervillain in season 2, the crime lord and boss of Harlem in Luke Cage is Mariah Dillard, a city councilwoman. It’s ultimately her defeat that Luke must ensure in order to bring balance and civility back to the neighborhood. In that way, Luke Cage is akin to Rio Bravo, My Darling Clementine, or High Noon, for example.
On a personal note, I was living in Harlem around a decade ago when I spotted one of the first Starbucks to open in the neighborhood. At the time I thought a good title for a story would be “A Starbucks in Harlem,” because of the contrast between the corporate, white bread franchise and that storied history I mentioned above (Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, Malcolm X). Today there’s a Whole Foods on 125th Street and Malcom X Boulevard, just down the street from the Apollo Theater. Gentrification indeed.