Early in the second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage, the titular superhero’s estranged father, Reverend James Lucas (the late Reg. E Cathey, in his final role) is rehearsing a sermon about his son. “They talk about him like he’s Jesus,” the reverend says. “Magazines are calling him the Bulletproof Black Man, with Barack’s easy smile, Martin’s charm, and Malcolm’s forthright swagger.” It’s a generous assessment, as Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is hardly a font of charisma. Colter portrays him with a quiet intensity, but the character can often scan as emotionally vacant. When he’s simply living, rather than angrily pounding on enemies, Cage is a physically imposing blank slate.
Like the reverend’s sermon, Luke Cage frames Cage in relation to real-life black iconography so as to emphasize his stature within his community. This season references Jean-Michel Basquiat and Barack Obama and features cameos from Gary Clark Jr. and Ghostface Killer. The show’s vibrant Harlem setting, like its pulsing hip-hop soundtrack, is affirming by design—a means of waking audiences up to black excellence. But at other times, Luke Cage seems obliged to make its protagonist into a symbol of tragedy. His usual outfit—a hoodie, often bullet-riddled—aligns him with a specifically tragic vision of blackness: profiled, treated like a menace, targeted, gunned down.
Cage is refracted through the show’s prismatic view of black America, and given a number of distinct roles that seldom overlap. From moment to moment, he’s either a community leader, a reluctant icon, a conflicted role model, a brutal avenger, or an aggrieved son. As season two begins, Cage is broke. Friends urge him to accept sponsorship deals with apparel companies, and so he grapples with the prospect of selling out. It’s not a groundbreaking dilemma, but it leads to one of the season’s most indulgent and playful moments, in which Cage hosts the equivalent of an N.F.L. pro day, running the 40-yard dash and performing broad jumps in front of Nike executives.
But Cage is soon faced with more pressing problems than his bank account, namely a Jamaican gangster, Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who arrives in Harlem ready for a violent takeover of the neighborhood’s criminal enterprise. Simultaneously, Cage’s father attempts to re-enter his life, effectively driving a wedge between Cage and his girlfriend, Claire (Rosario Dawson). Bushmaster is a terrifying villain, brutal and gifted with formidable powers of his own, but Cage’s personal drama is consistently more engaging, providing glimpses of the hero as a human rather than a mishmash of timely symbols.
Cage is at his most interesting when rage penetrates his aura of cool. He’s overly brutal when dealing with a domestic abuser, and that scene becomes unnerving—hard to watch but equally as hard to look away from—as his power becomes more impressive as he comes unhinged. Elsewhere, an argument with Claire turns tragic after Cage punches a wall, altering their relationship in an instant; the scene continues at a somber pitch after this show of violence, with the couple quietly assessing what just happened. Whereas Cage’s conflict with Bushmaster is ultimately implausible and inconsequential, these scenes between Cage and Claire feel urgent and real. They present Cage as out of control but also at his most human: a man struggling to curb his impulses, knowing the ugliness he’s capable of at any given moment.
When Bushmaster arrives on the scene, Cage quickly tables his personal troubles and reassumes the role of hero on a formulaic collision course with a supervillain. Bushmaster aims to wrest control of Harlem from Mariah Stokes (Afre Woodard), who, coincidentally, wants to go legit. She sells her gun business to the ruthless Jamaican, leaving her defenseless when she realizes that his beef is also personal: Her family cast his out of the city decades ago. The conflict between Stokes and Bushmaster has the debasing effect of making Cage into a gangland mediator, and only when Stokes proposes to hire Cage for protection is the situation imbued with any complexity, as Cage must weigh protecting Mariah, and by extension Harlem, against Bushmaster, even if it means choosing sides between two criminal masterminds.
The series smartly rations Cage’s screen time, as he doesn’t have much to say and isn’t always compelling when saying it. Other characters emerge as worthwhile complements to our hero: Misty (Simone Missick), who lost her right arm last season, acclimates to her new and unfortunate situation, and Stokes’s attempt to go legit yields its own dramatic moments, including a surprisingly affecting twist involving two of her top henchmen. Of course, the story must eventually return to Cage, and it does so with an inconsistent view of the man. Is he a reluctant hero who didn’t ask for his superpowers and the responsibilities they entail? Or is he a poster child for all of Harlem, wearing a Black College Fund hoodie and blaring Wu-Tang in his earbuds while disarming drug dealers? The answer to those questions seem to change on a whim, seemingly dependent on who Cage is sharing a scene with.
The show’s uneven portrayal of Cage can be attributed to its understanding that, as a black superhero in a historically black neighborhood, his mantle encompasses a multitude of different roles. He’s an ambassador and lawless vigilante. His personal desires are in direct competition with his obligations as a celebrity and role model. The Netflix series struggles to coalesce those roles and present Cage as one coherent, if conflicted, person; instead, we see different iterations of the hero from episode to episode. It’s a flaw that makes for a season of Luke Cage that’s alternately bland and thrilling, formulaic and insightful—which is to say, as variable as Luke Cage himself.