Netflix series you’ll want to binge this weekend
WHAT makes Luke Cage great isn't just that its titular hero is bulletproof or that he can contain a grenade explosion within his hands.
It's that the Netflix/Marvel series is so confident of its identity and what it stands for. This isn't just a show about a hero, it's about a community - a vibrant place where good, bad and everything in between mix with volatile forces born out of racism, violence and good intentions.
The first series had its problems, especially in the second half, but it's much more assured this time around. Luke Cage returns for a second season tonight and it has the kinetic energy we all love in a superhero series, plus the added bonus of a series diving headfirst into the conversation about prejudice and empowerment.
After the events of the first season and the Marvel crossover event The Defenders, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a celebrity around Harlem. Nike is waving sponsorship money, women ogle him in the street and kids stop to ask for selfies - he's even being tracked by a crowdsourced "Harlem's Hero" app. Luke doesn't quite know how to deal with this newfound fame or what it means to be someone's hero.
What he does know is he needs to stop series villain Mariah (nee Stokes) Dillard (Alfre Woodard) from going through with a gun deal that will flood Harlem streets with dangerous weapons.
Enter stage left the Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), a Jamaican gang head with the powers and speed to beat Luke down and a mysterious grudge against the Stokes family. His seething anger and ambition to take over Harlem makes him a potent foe.
But it's the women that are the most intriguing.
Mariah has grown to be a more compelling villain this season than last - at times she appears to be genuine about wanting to support single mums in Harlem, but then she talks about running off with $350 million in an offshore account. She also fiercely cries out that she's a Dillard and not a Stokes but then speaks with reverence about her grandmother Mable Stokes and her family's legacy. Mariah's dualities almost mirror Luke's struggle to do good through violence.
It takes someone of Woodard's gravitas to shade all that complexity in and she does it with such chilling grace.
Meanwhile, Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is dealing with the fallout of losing her arm in The Defenders battle and having to find her identity again while coming to terms with her disability. Her fight is as much with herself and that bottle of Black Label as it is with the police force or the crims.
But it's not long before she gains the metal arm the character is synonymous with in the comics and when she does, phwoar, watch out. Misty and Luke also have a great chemistry when they team up - two battle-weary lieutenants who have seen it all but still believe in a better world.
Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker is fearless about Luke Cage's soul and purpose, of it being an unapologetically "black" series. And that comes through in every ounce of the show, through its evocative use of music (including live performances from blues musicians Christone "Kingfish" Ingram and Gary Clark Jr.), the messy arguments about racism and sexism, and its rhythm.
The other Netflix Marvel shows haven't always managed to keep up their momentum in their second instalments but Luke Cage has risen above that particular curse, though it hasn't quite escaped the other part which is that it still starts out fairly slow.
What elevates and grounds Luke Cage is the stakes - not just a personal journey for its hero or the world-saving challenge of blockbuster movies. It's somewhere in-between, it's fighting for the soul of a community, and that's why it works.
Luke Cage season two drops on Netflix on Friday, June 22 at 5pm AEST.