Luke Cage season 2 spoiler-free review: "Can any series really afford to be such a slow burner?"
Harlem's hero is back on Netflix, but the series still suffers from the same pacing issues that plagued season one, says Huw Fullerton
Luke Cage is the story of a bulletproof, super-strong man punching his way through Harlem's criminal underworld. So how on Earth does it manage to be so slow?
Pretty much every Marvel Netflix series – Daredevil, The Punisher, Iron Fist, even Jessica Jones – has had serious issues with pacing, often beginning as stylish and accomplished stories (OK, apart from Iron Fist) but ending up bloated and without momentum, doomed by excessively long episodes and a dragging 13-episode serialised arc.
In the first season of Luke Cage this issue was all the more highlighted by the fact that at the halfway point (when these dramas usually start to become a bit of a slog) the series spectacularly killed off the villain, replacing Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth with an over-the-top baddie called Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey).
In the end Luke Cage’s first solo outing was good, but not great, full of more holes than Luke’s trademark hoodies.
For many it was a disappointing end for a series that showed incredible promise, but high expectations still await showrunner Cheo Hodari Choker (who has, unusually, publicly expressed his regrets about how the first season concluded) and his next run at the character when season two is released on Friday 22nd June.
But is the optimism warranted?
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Well, having watched the first half of the new season, it’s… hard to say. So much of what made Luke Cage great last time – incredible soundtrack, musical guests, quick-witted political commentary, action scenes where Luke (Mike Colter) lazily slaps people into unconsciousness – are back, but so are many of the same issues that stopped it being a perfect 10.
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As usual the whole thing is just too damned long, devoting a lot of time in the first half of the series to a pretty tedious organised crime deal (that ends up being a footnote to the main storyline anyway) and uninteresting relationship drama between crime queen Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), her daughter, and toyboy/crime partner Shades (Theo Rossi).
Some of these scenes are watchable, good even – but they kill the pace during the series’ already-flabby hour-long episodes, and leave you longing for a simpler story without the padding.
By far the strongest moments in the new episodes come when Luke has to deal with his unwanted fame or confront new nemesis Bushmaster (an equally super-strong Jamaican gangleader played with charisma by Mustafa Shakir), but these scenes don’t come nearly often enough.
Around episode five, the series finally feels like it's about to kick into gear – the battle between Bushmaster, Mariah and Luke for the heart of Harlem is genuinely compelling. But in the age of Peak TV, where viewers have hundreds of different TV shows available to stream, can any series afford to be such a slow burner? Should viewers have to work through the meandering lows to reach the highs?
Luke Cage has a lot to offer a dedicated fan, from great music and action even through to a redemption for Finn Jones’ Iron Fist (who has a cameo later on in the series). But I’m still not convinced it’s doing enough to earn those fans’ dedication in the first place.
Luke Cage season 2 is released on Netflix on Friday 22nd June