Despite its problems, the first season of Luke Cage had its own strongly defined identity, as well as a really great cast to carry it. Where it let itself down was in its second half, losing its more compelling villain in favour of a more cliche and less interesting villain from Luke’s past. This was followed by Iron fist and a rather uninspired crossover series in The Defenders. After that three-pronged attack, needless to say I had some apprehension about Luke Cage Season 2.
My worries were unfounded, much to my delight. The post Defenders series appearing on the Netflix have been firing on all cylinders, reminding me my appreciation of them when they first started. The Punisher was brilliant, Jessica Jones’s second season was another fascinating look into her character, and this season of Luke Cage just keeps that momentum going.
When the Netflix shows are at their very best, they’re taking looks at the medium and fleshing them out to a degree the movie alternatives of the Marvel Cinematic Universe never would. These shows are based on comic books, which are historically a very black and white medium. I mean that in a moral sense. Comic books find their origins in a time where the moral line was very well defined. You had your good guys and you had your bad guys, week after week they’d fight and the heroes would always prevail.
This series takes that word: Hero, and it takes a deeper look into what that word actually means. The series begins with Luke as the embodiment of the traditional “hero”. Hell, the people around him are constantly referring to him as the “Hero of Harlem”, he’s approached in the street by people wanting to tell him how great he is or have selfies with him. To oppose this, we see the introduction of Bushmaster, a character who seems like the clear cut villain to Luke’s hero right off the bat.
The twist comes with the idea that while we might see Bushmaster as a villain, to many he is a hero. It’s not an especially original concept, Christopher Vogler; a Hollywood screen writer is famous for the quote: “A villain is just the hero of their own story.” It’s one I’ve heard repeated many a time and is the ethos behind making great villains in fiction. Luke Cage takes this is the idea and seems to imply that heroes and villains are just nebulous terms created by the people observing from the outside. Its why, between Luke, Bushmaster and Mariah Dillard, we see three different journeys that question our concepts of the term in media.
First, let’s look at John “Bushmaster” McIver. A charismatic Jamaican gang leader who ruthlessly kills his way through Harlem’s criminal underworld in his pursuit of revenge against Mariah Dillard. As the series begins, Bushmaster seems like little more than your run of the mill villain. He has power, and uses it to his own means, killing those who get in his way. The more we learn about him and his past though, the less be just becomes the “villain” and the more he becomes his own character.
Bushmaster is not necessarily a bad person. He is blinded by his quest for revenge, yes. But he is shown to genuinely care for his family and friends in a way not often seen in the comic book inspired medium. Sure, we’ve seen villains portrayed in a sympathetic light before; Killgrave, Wilson Fisk, Killmonger and even Thanos. Ultimately though, these characters are still bad, even terrible people, leaving innocent body counts in their wake that can mount up to the trillions in Thanos’s case.
Bushmaster kills people, yes, but it feels like he only does so when he has to in order to serve his revenge. What elevates him above being a clear cut villain is his relationship with his comrades. While he might initially seem like a dangerous criminal presence in Harlem, to his own people, he is a hero. A powered individual who defends the family and people from those who selfishly keep them down. His Uncle is his guiding light, constantly telling him to stop his quest in a number of quiet scenes between the two you would normally see focusing on the main character.
As the series progresses and we learn more about his origins, we gain empathy for his cause. We see the history of the Stokes and how they betrayed John’s family, killed both his parents and then tried to kill him for merely existing. The major turn for us to sympathise with him is when Mariah goes after his family and guns them all down in cold blood. While he might oppose Luke, it’s only ever because he gets in his way, Bushmaster never seems in interested in doing anything that would harm civilians. The evil actions of Mariah towards his family suddenly make Bushmaster feel like a decent person by comparison. Suddenly we question his status as a villain at all.
While we’re on the subject, let’s touch on Mariah Dillard/Stokes. Mariah is a fascinating character, one of the highlights of the series. Living in the shadow of her crime lord Grandmother; she tries to carve out her own name in Harlem, making it a better place in her own, more legitimate way. But, despite her best efforts, her Grandmother’s legacy keeps coming back to drag her deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld.
There’s an argument for nature over nurture I’m not going to get into here, especially when it comes to her own daughter, Tilda. But when Mariah’s attempts to use her criminal connections to go legitimate fail, she is forced to submerge herself completely into the criminal underworld, and it changes her completely. To the point where even her primary confidant; “Shades” who is a hardened criminal himself, feels like she has gone too far.
Acting as a minor antagonistic presence as the series begins, the line keeps moving further and further until she eventually gives up trying to toe it at all. She gives in to her Grandmother’s legacy, retaking the Stokes name and suddenly becoming the embodiment of a comic book villain. Suddenly doing and saying terrible thing after terrible thing, the show oversells it if anything. As events transpire around her, and she loses more and more, her inhibitions and ‘constructed self” are stripped away and we see what she is at her core.
As her and Bushmaster’s relationship and status flip round throughout the series of instigator and victim. She moves from the reluctant accomplice to Cottonmouth she was in the first season to a hardened villain herself, while Bushmaster takes more and more heroic aspects throughout the series. All of this happening with Luke Cage is caught in the middle.
Luke puts himself in that position because he has an unwavering moral code. It’s one the aspects of his character that makes him a hero in the more traditional comic book sense, the need to do what he deems as right. Despite the fact that he really should just let Bushmaster and Mariah kill one another, he is unable to ignore them, continuously stepping between them. His main conflict throughout the series is how his brand of heroism doesn’t seem to be getting him results. It’s the Batman dilemma. Batman refuses to kill, thus his rogues gallery continue to escape and he is destined to fight them over and over. The very comic booky nature of this is something season 2 of Luke Cage deals with, as Luke becomes increasingly frustrated with his inability to create lasting change in Harlem.
Despite being surrounded by people who reinforce his moral compass; Clair, Misty, his father, Bobby Fish, Danny Rand. He himself continues to question whether his actions are having the impact he wants them to. It changes for him little by little, as things happen outside of his control, people on the street begin to turn against him. He makes personal sacrifices, giving up his integrity to take on a public appearance job to make some cash. One by one, those closest to him leave him for one reason or another. With less people around to reinforce his moral grounding, he makes more and more choices he wouldn’t previously make.
In a strange turn of events, in a final act of villainy from Mariah, Luke ends the series with the airs of the criminal he was initially fighting, trading in his bullet riddled hoodie for a suit as he takes over Harlem’s Paradise.Luke is adamant that he will be better than those that came before, and that he needs this degree of control to keep Harlem safe. The series ends with Misty not looking too sure as Luke potentially begins down the path that Mariah herself started at the beginning of the first season.
Luke has compromised his ideals by the series end without realising he has done so. It’s reminiscent of Jessica’s journey in her second season. She too had a moral code she followed aggressively, only to throw it away when it came to the fate of a loved one. Luke’s own frustrations lead him to do the same. But in his own eyes, nothing has changed. Most of the positive influences in his life have become absent for some reason or another, and without some moral grounding, Luke only has the public still hailing him as “the hero of Harlem” to let him know he’s still doing right by them. He isn’t totally oblivious though, as he turns Clair away when she returns at the series end.
Luke still sees himself as the hero, because the public keep reinforcing it for him. Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed even end the series performing a song about him in the Paradise. So he has to still be the good guy, right? Despite the looks Misty gives him as the series ends.
There are a lot of layers to this show, while I’ve only dipped into the storytelling implications from its origins as a comic book. There are cultural and musical influences I haven’t even gotten into, more than I probably even recognise. And the subplots regarding Misty and her moral dilemma after the revelation about her parent as a dirty cop in the first season. Luke Cage is an especially good series for me, one with a strong cast and with a strong identity that just bleeds out of every scene.
While I felt like I was missing out slightly in the first season, like a lot of its influences weren’t directed at me as its target audience, this second season and its deeper dive into comic book morals and toying with them really gave me something to sink my teeth into. Marvel’s Netflix shows are back into top form and I’m actually looking forward to see what they do with a second season of Iron Fist later this year.