Luke Cage upgrades for second season and goes in the paint for black institutions

The only reason anyone takes Luke Cage seriously as a character now largely started because of a 2002 comic miniseries called Cage. It was an explicitly adult reboot that stripped the character of all previous superhero dressing and recast him as a hood for hire. It was an utterly racist reimagining from a team-up of comic legends: Brian Azzarello on writing detail, Richard Corben on art. Published in the pre-social media era, no one that doesn’t read a comic book that isn’t first advertised as a “graphic novel” knows or remembers that. That’s okay; I was there and can tell you from experience that it was painful to watch blow up. I’ve always had problems with Luke Cage, my chief issue being how frequently white creators used him to play out whatever vicarious racist fantasies they may have had. Luke Cage is historically a character whose Blaxploitation era origins betrayed him at every turn. He was corny, looked like a disco dancer, and spoke in AAVE so clearly written by white people that reading it both hurt my eyes and twisted my gut in laughter. The 2002 miniseries only amplified the problem. It took a problematic character that was at least striving to be heroic and made him a strip club-hopping amoral thug for hire, complete with ‘90s era dookie chains and a gold tooth. This was Marvel’s idea of contemporizing the character for a hip, post Y2K, still-white audience who regularly consumed the mainstream gangster rap of the new century. The series was basically a Yojimbo riff – a fallen warrior playing various crime families against one another – but the characterizations were so grossly racist it was almost impossible for me to swallow at the time. The pandering of the exercise was coming off of every page in waves so intensely that I stopped buying the title after two issues and there were only five issues in the set. Much like the exploitative tactic that gave birth to the character, Cage was again being used to cater to an audience happy to feed on black nihilism. The difference in 2002 was that the ploy worked: the miniseries took off, giving the character a new lease on life (once they ramped down the thug trappings and just made him hood adjacent). The Luke Cage that finally made it onto television owes a lot to that miniseries, while at the same time wisely taking absolutely nothing from it.

The recently launched second season of Netflix/Marvel’s Luke Cage series extends what is already a historic year, a run of cinematic offerings embracing confident and unapologetic blackness as a narrative strength rather than concerning themselves with the potential audience-reducing risk. If this were season one of Luke Cage we were talking about I wouldn’t – couldn’t – put it in such august company. Fortunately, almost everything I took issue with in the first season was met head-on by tighter reigns in writing, production values, a more focused ensemble, 90% less preaching, and 50% less name dropping. Even the music is used more effectively, integrated here and there directly into the delivered concepts regarding historical relevance, and covering the food pyramid of black music at large. The new season is an upgrade in every way. It’s not perfect – this could have been 3 episodes shorter and come out as tight as a Mike Coulter t-shirt – but it is twice the show the first season delivered. Of the Marvel show son Netflix that have more than one season, Luke Cage is the only one with an improved follow-through.

Much like the Black Panther film, Luke Cage S2 adopts an overarching political theme, in this case the issue of legacy. This is perhaps accidentally evidenced in its hard lean into the interrogation of black institutions as a goal. Most of the developments in the show reach back to the question of what makes a black institution, what is the importance of land and ownership in the cause of development, and whose job is it to ensure their success? The series touches on this in a variety of ways, effectively making the ownership of land a predominant theme in the cause of not only greed but liberation. The nightclub Harlem’s Paradise is the most outstanding example of the notion of ownership as freedom, but is also an avatar for historical Harlem at large, being the fought-over prize between recurring villain Mariah Dillard (played by Alfre Woodard, who is gleefully unrepentant and over the top) and new bad guy Bushmaster (featuring a relative newcomer in Mustafa Shakir, whose name you’ll be forced to remember). Dillard also seeks to shape not only perception but legacy and community itself in creating a center for single mothers. The barbershop returns, and takes on more of the communal aspects such institutions are known for. Almost every black business established in a black community inevitably takes on more than its charge in the institutionalization process: the barbershop becomes a social center, information node, and media shop. In Luke Cage, this plays out in the places that are being fought over, preserved and built as well: Harlem’s Paradise is not just a nightclub but a business network, a (less successful) neutral territory, and a beacon and laboratory of culture. Dillard’s daughter Tilda makes very clear the importance of owning her herbal medicine shop as a way to reset personal history, again angling legacy onto the table for dissection. Bushman, Dillard, and Cage all spend no small amount of time speaking on, working toward or fully operating toward community. Money is not the motivating factor here. Except for Cage, all of the people embroiled in the meta-struggle are already rich. Each of them is primarily concerned about what the money can build in Harlem, and each believes that some kind of revolutionary peace lies at the end of that investment if they can just reach the end of the line. There are other political considerations, of course: there is a powerful thread deconstructing masculine concepts throughout this season, and, as was true in the first season, the women lead the way at every compelling turn. But the notion of legacy and institution-based revolution – of the importance of land ownership and defining legacy in a rapidly gentrifying world – is perhaps the most powerful set of values to embed in a TV show featuring a character from so problematic an origin, and once again exposes the philosophical and artistic richness possible when you let black folks cook their own narratives. Luke Cage isn’t supposed to be a character capable of this level of political consideration, and yet here we are. You’re welcome, Hollywood: black folks fixed this one for you, too.

No review of Luke Cage would be complete without a shout-out to Simone Missick, whose Misty Knight is still the best character on this show. There should already be a campaign underway to get her character a one-off, a mini-series, or at least begin discussions about rolling her into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her character is second only to Jon Bernthal’s Punisher as a day-one ready addition to Marvel’s box office mountain.


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