I like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I'm not a huge fan of Marvel Comics, really, but the MCU tells its stories in a way I can enjoy -- the storylines in Marvel's comics never hooked me, but I really enjoy essentially the same stories when they're performed by actors.
What I also like is that the movies are really willing to play with genre. Having established how superhero movies function (since pretty well everyone tried to emulate Marvel now), the MCU is willing to mess with style and substance. Captain American: The Winter Soldier was a Cold War spy flick, Ant-Man was a heist flick, Spider-Man: Homecoming was a John Hughes-style teen movie, and so on.
While the movies play around with various cinematic genres, it does feel like the Netflix TV shows set around the MCU have even more freedom to play with genre. These are stories of super-powered people that, by and large, don't act much like superheroes. Thus we can have Jessica Jones whose titular character acts like a gritty P.I. and shies away from any whiff of the term "hero", making her show much more of a neo-noir than a superhero series. Or there's Iron Fist which really wanted to be a martial arts exploitation series (that was betrayed by how boring it was).
And then there's Luke Cage, a series deeply steeped in the blaxploitation genre (and not just because all but, like, two people to show up in the entire series are black). The most recent season dropped this past weekend and I, of course, dived right in and watched it end to end, and what I got was a show that's very hard to term as a "superhero" show. I think, however, that it worked for the world Luke Cage wanted to explore.
When we pick up with Luke (coming off the events of the first season of the show, plus the Defenders mini-series), he's now proclaimed as "Harlem's Hero" (there's even an ap named that following his exploits). He works to protect Harlem for forces that would do it harm, from without and within. However, a couple of different forces will conspire against Luke to try and drag him, and Harlem, N.Y., down. Those would be:
Mariah Dillard, who ended up being the villain of the first season and is back to continue becoming Harlem's crime queen; and,
John McIver (aka Bushmaster), a Jamaican crime-boss with designs on Mariah's fortune, her power, and her territory (all for, as we learn, familial vengeance).
Through the events of the series we see Luke, who starts off in a relatively good place, slowly get whittled down by his enemies (and his own fears) before eventually rebuilding himself in a new image. While Luke's journey through the series is interesting, one of the big problems is that he's not really the focus on much of the series. Sure, Luke will get a couple of scenes here or there, and he's an agent of change when needed, much of the screen time is devoted to everyone else. Contrast that with the most recent season of Jessica Jones where, sure, some other characters got plotlines, but they all revolved around, or bounced off of Jessica. She was the main character, through and through.
Instead, the primary characters we focus on are the villains who twist in and around each other. I think that would have been great, too, if either of the villains were at all interesting. Mariah, though, doesn't really come into her own until the last "act" of the season when she finally becomes the cold-blooded crime-boss everyone else keeps saying she is. I liked her character when she was being ruthless -- a good villain can be enjoyable to watch, and Alfred Woodard clearly had fun in the role -- but she spends so much time being passive to the other agents around her, or simpering because things aren't working out the way that she wanted, that she never really becomes a force until it's basically too late.
Bushmaster is the total opposite problem. This is a fully realized, evil through-and-through villain. Cartoonishly so, really, which detracts from any realism about the character. While everyone else, Luke included, is treating the series' world of Harlem like a real place, Bushmaster acts like he was transplanted in from a much cornier, more over-the-top, superhero flick. He changes the dynamic of the show any time he shows up, throwing off the groove of the series. Plus, to be frank, he only has one shtick -- over-the-top villainy -- and it wears out pretty damn quick.
I do like the vibe of the show, though. The series moves in and around the blaxploitation genre, exploring the world through that lens to great effect. It's very much a crime story, and the genre matches the story they're wanting to tell.
And let's not downplay Mike Colter as Luke Cage. The screen time he gets is great as he's a strong, charismatic force that drives his scenes. I just wish there had been more of him and less of, well, everyone else.
I enjoyed the second season of the series, but I do wish that it had been better. Stronger villains, more Luke Cage and, really, better pacing to speed the events along, all would have helped to make the season even better. It's still better than Boring Fist or The Defenders. It just could have been so much more.
Editor's Note: And then, after the cancellation of sibling-show Iron Fist, Netflix the cancelled Luke Cage as well. The story is there were creative differences between the showrunner and the network, leading some fans speculate about a possible Heroes for Hire spin-off starring Luke and Iron Fist. For now, though, it looks like Harlem's Hero is no more at Netflix.