Marvel/Netflix has struggled since the release of Luke Cage season one. The two conglomerates had been celebrated for the dark and gritty Daredevil, undoing the damage of the 2003 film. Jessica Jones with its strong representation of women, exploration of addiction, and terrifying Purple Man was touted by fans and critics alike. But Luke Cage hit a snag. The first six episodes are universally beloved. Mahershala Ali, as crime boss Cottonmouth, was a shining star. However, the show’s second half quickly began to fall apart. The introduction of Diamondback brought the drama to a screeching and often preachy halt.
Cheo Hodari Coker’s first season of Luke Cage had many shining moments. The link to hip-hop history and performances, the reveal of Mike Colter as a leading man, and the phenomenal supporting cast of Alfre Woodard, Theo Rossi, and Simone Missick gave the show good legs from which to build upon. Coker was weaving stories of incarceration, incest, and poverty with expert craftsmanship. But, the season dragged painfully to its conclusion and killing off the better villain made it hard for audiences to remain connected to the material.
Since then Jessica Jones and Daredevil have aired second seasons to mixed reviews. Iron Fist was the first bomb of the joint venture. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 17 percent and a Twitter dragging of star Finn Jones, the shared New York Universe looked like it would peter out. The Defenders could have been the final nail in the coffin. Four shows finally come together to create the most disappointing climax in nerd history. The big bad, played by the legendary Sigourney Weaver, was cut short with a scheme so flimsy it falls apart at the seam. The Hand, the criminal syndicate fans had been following for three years, were killed off before fans could get a good sense of who they are or what they want.
That’s where the Marvel/Netflix universe lay until season two of Luke Cage was released this Friday. One of my big faults with season one was the perfection that existed in Luke. He was upstanding in every single way. Cage was polite, kind, unwilling to kill, and patient under extreme duress. While that version of Cage would make a great friend, he wasn’t the most engaging character to follow. Say goodbye to perfect Luke and hello to someone who is finally willing to deal with their buried anger.
Without changing who Luke is, Coker crafted an authentic angry Black man. Someone of Colter’s size and skin tone is often cast to play wild and angry thugs or gentle oppressed giants. Both representations are problematic. Such depictions don’t scratch the surface of what it is like to walk the streets of America with a kind heart and dark skin. Anger builds up quickly. When you’re not allowed to show that anger it begins to seep out in other ways.
This is where we meet Luke. Struggling to control the contradiction of his heart and his brain. Harlem is getting more dangerous. Innocent people are dying. How do you live amongst the violence and the cruelty and not catch the disease?
Mariah is dealing with a similar situation. Her family history is riddled with crime and abuse. As a child, she bore the full brunt of that violence. As an adult, Mariah seeks to legitimize her family name and heal old wounds. But to achieve her goal Mariah uses the same tools that brought her family down. Violence, intimidation, and backdoor deals keep a target on her back. Mariah may not be a madame selling women out of her home like her grandmother, Mama Mabel. But, she is willing to pimp out girls on her staff to learn more information about a rival. “I’m still better than you,” Mariah tells a photo of her grandmother as she drinks her sins away.
To make matters worse, their inner circle is disgusted by their love. Mariah is in her seventies and Shades is nearly forty years old. The dynamic of an older woman and a younger man is rare across all types of media. When it does show up it’s purely sexual. Usually, the woman is getting over a marriage and trying to get her groove back. Shades is in love with a gangster. Mariah loves that he sees her as a whole person. Everything else is ancillary.
Finally, there’s Misty. In The Defenders, Misty lost her arm in battle protecting Colleen Wing. Her journey learning to cope with a missing limb isn’t inspiring or filled with pity. It’s a learning experience. She goes to physical therapy, she learns how to box, and she demands she be respected at work. She’s the same detective with one arm or two. Misty is a force throughout the entire season. A cop so close to turning vigilante, I found myself holding my breath during a lot of her scenes. Would this be the moment she turned to the dark side of law enforcement? It’s an incredible journey.
Black nerds are not new nor are they an anomaly. They’ve been loving math, reading comics, and drawing Goku for forever. They exist in the country, the inner city, and the dessert. Representation for Black nerds has picked up in recent years, but we’re often still regulated to sidekicks or love interests. I still cry whenever I see a Black character in a major franchise that’s over twenty years old. Being seen is not a small act. To witness Colter lead a cast of such incredible talent, to watch Coker grow as a showrunner and lead a team of fantastic writers to a successful season 2 feels like a win for Black Hollywood.
Luke Cage season 2 is out now on Netflix.