When Luke Cage first debuted in the pages of Marvel comics, his title was branded Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Framed for the murder of his girlfriend, Luke returned to Harlem to right injustices and make himself a hero to his community. Of course, back then, Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song had just launched the blaxploitation genre in 1971. One year later, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire debuted to cash in on the genre’s popularity with lurid and pulp stories focused heavily on crime, urban decay, martial arts, and horror.
Even as Luke (Mike Colter) takes on the moniker of Harlem's Hero in season 2 of the Marvel Netflix series, he is still a far cry from the blaxploitation Luke that was first introduced to Marvel fans. The new installment of Luke Cage finds him no longer having to prove himself as a recently sprung felon. This time around, Luke is not just embraced by the community but also hounded by fans who want to catch a glimpse of the star.
Imagine Drake or Beyoncé or Donald Glover not only returning to the communities they grew up in, but allowing the public to have near-unfettered access to them and you can imagine Luke’s new life as not only Harlem’s resident strongman but now also as a member of The Defenders. Series creator Cheo Hodari Coker addressed this analogy in a recent interview with Digital Trends, saying, “All the time now you see celebrities doing what they do and then get criticized for it. Perfect example is Donald Glover. He’s a genius. Literally, everything he puts out is genius. Both seasons of Atlanta are fire. Childish Gambino records are fire. He puts out ‘This is America’ and essentially shuts down the internet. Then all of a sudden people are mad at him, and what is he going to do? He can’t stop being who he is. So you just keep being who you are. If the brother was bulletproof and saving Harlem, that’s what I think it would be like for Luke Cage in the real world.”
Naturally, to start the season on such a high, there must be a severe fall for Luke. But he’s not the only person dealing with the ramifications of last year. Police detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is still reeling from the loss of her arm in The Defenders finale and struggling with being sidelined at work due to her disability. Congresswoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) is also worried about her status in the wake of last season’s drama. She’s attempting to claw her way back to the top, but now there’s a new villain in town — Bushmaster, played by Mustafa Shakir — who wants to blow her out of the water. Figuratively and literally.
Bushmaster possesses a bullet strong enough to make Luke feel it. The indestructible, bulletproof man might not be bulletproof any longer and this season of Luke Cage is about our hero discovering who he is. Not just what his powers are, but who he is as a person and what he truly means to Harlem.
But more important than that, it’s a season where the women around him are discovering themselves. Mariah takes on a protégé, because she’s focused on leaving a legacy. Her family members have all been obliterated and she’s all Mariah has left. Claire (Rosario Dawson), Luke’s girlfriend, wants to be his aide but also wants them to live a life that’s not full of danger. Misty wants to reclaim her position in the police department and is finding a different way to control her destiny. Through the help of Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick, from Iron Fist and The Defenders), she’s training to be able to utilize her body without her arm. Each of the characters have lost something vital since we last saw them; this season is about reclaiming it and learning who they are.
As the Marvel cinematic universe reaches its endgame with Infinity War, which sent most of our favorite Marvel heroes into a world-ending battle with Thanos, however, there will come a point when Marvel will need to reckon with the disconnect between their film and television universes. With Luke gaining popularity online and beyond, there will come a time when The Defenders are called upon to defend us when Earth’s Mightiest Heroes aren’t able. Until then, they have to save themselves.