“Man, I am so sick of this shit,” the bulletproof title character of Luke Cage (Mike Colter) vents about his nemesis, politician-cum-crimelord Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). “It’s always rinse and repeat with her.”
By that point in Luke Cage‘s second season (it debuts on June 22nd), viewers will likely feel the same way – not just about Mariah, but about this whole repetitive slog, perhaps the worst offender yet of the Netflix/Marvel drama approach of filling up a 13-episode bag with only three or four episodes’ worth of story at best.
The core narrative fueling the season – a Godfather-style saga of the multigenerational rivalry between Mariah’s family and a Jamaican dynasty, represented by Mustafa Shakir as the super-strong, spin-kicking Bushmaster – is potentially a good one, touching on a lot of the show’s sociological areas of interest. There are the usual compelling elements here as the hero-of-Harlem’s story continues, including meditations on black wealth and power (an ally of Mariah’s describes her as “bougier than Lawrence Otis Graham, but she’s got the tenacity of Frank Lucas; she’s straight gully with her shit”), political activism as a commodity to be merchandised on street corners and more. Periodically, either Woodard or the late, great Reg E. Cathey (in one of his final roles, playing Cage’s estranged preacher father) will take their performances to a grandly tragic and vulnerable level that momentarily shakes the show out of its complacency.
We also get a few welcome lighter moments where characters from the other Marvel shows pop in, particularly a bar brawl where Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Iron Fist‘s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) – with three arms between the two of them – take on a group of belligerent drunks. Shockingly, even a one-episode appearance by Iron Fist himself (Finn Jones) is something of a welcome jolt, because he and Cage have a simple but unmistakable opposites attract buddy comedy vibe.
But even if it was just Mariah vs. Bushmaster, with Cage caught in the middle, it would make for one hell of a four-episode run. There’s just not remotely enough material there to support 13 hours of TV, and the amount of running in place until it’s time for the endgame is palpable. Characters change allegiances seemingly at random while others make the same choice again and again (Misty tries to quit the police force at least three different times), all because there’s too much time and not enough plot. (See also the first season, which was great up through the moment where Mariah throws Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth off a nightclub balcony before shifting into wheel-spinning incoherence.) Even attempts at doing shorter character arcs, like a brief period where our hero starts believing his own hype a little too much, don’t do enough to effectively break up the season the way they’re meant to; they often feel abandoned in mid-stream, rather than one idea leading into the next and the next. Worse, Cage too often feels like a bystander in his own series, unsure of which side to take in the Mariah/Bushmaster war, in a way that makes Colter’s usual understated cool feel too reserved to work.
Marvel’s Netflix shows are structurally flawed because they insist on pure serialization across a full season without having complex enough plots to warrant that. (Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in particular would easily lend themselves to the Justified format, where the first half of the season is mostly standalone hours about the heroes working a new case each time, with the big arc slowly developing in the background until the big conflict begins in the second half.) But even beyond the imbalanced plot/time ratio, there’s a flatness – and cheapness – to be found across the whole run. For every one dynamic scene, whether straight-up superhero action(*) or simply a moment involving many characters bouncing off each other at once, there are at least a half-dozen lifeless two-person conversations. The same handful of points are repeated over and over: Cage won’t forgive his father’s adultery, Mariah’s business and romantic partner Shades (Theo Rossi) resents being treated like a henchman, Bushmaster insists on calling Mariah by her maiden name because of the bad blood between the families, Mariah is torn between her legit image and her gangster roots, etc. Like Cage says, it’s just rinse and repeat, all exposition of things from decades past that sound more exciting than what we’re watching in the present.
(*) Even the fight scenes are uneven, at times resorting to slow-motion, Six Million-Dollar Man-style, in an attempt to showcase Cage’s great strength and invulnerability at work, while at others, the hip-hop soundtrack is doing most of the heavy lifting. Daredevil remains in a class by itself, action-wise, among this group of shows.
At one point, Cage’s dad wonders what became of his son’s girlfriend Claire (Rosario Dawson, who unfortunately disappears a few episodes in). “It’s a looooong story,” Cage insists.
It sure feels that way.