Luke Cage might be bulletproof, but the character’s eponymous Netflix series looks weaker in Season 2 – not bad, overall, but still experiencing the equivalent of a sophomore slump.
Mike Colter remains the epitome of cool as Harlem’s hero, rendered invulnerable as the byproduct of a prison experiment. In his latest 13-episode story, he must grapple with a multitude of villains, including the ruthless Mariah (a part Alfre Woodard sinks her teeth into and chews on), her accomplice Shades (Theo Rossi), and a new player known as Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), a bad guy plucked from the comics who’s almost as indestructible as Luke.
For all that, the season does a whole lot of meandering, yielding long stretches that are not just talky but almost flabby, focusing too much on the jockeying for position and shifting alliances among the bad guys, who aren’t consistently interesting enough to warrant all that attention.
As for Luke, his personal issues include his relationship with Claire (Rosario Dawson), who understandably worries about him constantly being in harm’s way. “Nothing can hurt me,” he assures her early on, a bit of cockiness that of course will be challenged.
Still, where the first season of “Luke Cage” was among the best of Marvel’s efforts on behalf of Netflix – and a breakthrough for African-American superheroes before “Black Panther” rocked the box office – this latest go-round lands more in the middle of the pack. And while Luke still tosses around thugs with ease, the most memorable parts come from smaller moments, among them the final performance by the late Reg E. Cathey – one of the cast’s “The Wire” alums – as Luke’s minister father.
Colter brings a hugely charismatic presence to the role, along with a dose of comedy as he appraises the absurdity of his status as a very public hero for hire, which includes being paid to attend a corporate party, having become desperate for cash after being sued.
It’s the kind of down-to-earth threat that Marvel has historically excelled at weaving into storylines in the comics, and the series format allows the producers to build out the show’s atmosphere, from its liberal use of music to inevitable cross-over touches with other fare in the Marvel-Netflix portfolio. But it’s also indicative of the minutia in which “Luke Cage” indulges in filling (and at times padding) out its order.
“The world’s a more complicated place,” Bushmaster tells Luke, in one of their face-to-face encounters before the punches start flying.
“Luke Cage” still has its share of worthwhile elements, and as producer Cheo Hodari Coker has said, the time was right for a “bulletproof black man.” Yet as Netflix’s trademark binges go, season two winds up being more complicated and impenetrable – and thus less engaging – than fans of its impressive debut might have hoped.
“Luke Cage” returns June 22 on Netflix.