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'Marvel's Luke Cage' review: Season 2 is bloated and disheveled, despite some memorable performances

Some memorable performances and a great soundtrack salvage the second season.

Netflix's

Netflix's "Luke Cage" in its second season stars Mike Colter (pictured) as a Harlem celebrity and superhero. Photo Credit: Netflix/David Lee

THE SERIES "Luke Cage"

WHEN | WHERE Season 2 now streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A Harlem celebrity, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) can stop bullets but he still can't quite make a decent living. His pal D.W. (Jeremiah Craft), who's not above exploiting him, wants to market the fame, but Luke is reluctant. But when a particularly nefarious newcomer to Harlem — John McIver, aka Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) — threatens his life and the city he loves, Luke's open to new income opportunities, if only to help defeat him. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick) are back to help the man they love (if only they knew how). Meanwhile, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and her sidekick "Shades" (Theo Rossi) are about to meet their match, and that's not just Luke.  

MY SAY Go ahead: You try to produce 13 hours of superhero television without tying yourself into a knot along with the hapless viewer who's along for the ride. You try to figure out what to do with Bushmaster and Misty and Claire and especially Mariah — who morphs from evil to good, then back to evil again, with various shades of depravity in between.

You, too, would eventually put in a call to Danny "Iron Fist" Rand (Finn Jones) because — well, just because. There are 13 hours to fill, and not nearly enough story, or at least coherent story, to fill them. Danny might at least help. Might. (But, actually, not.)

It's always easy to tell when a series starts to vamp to fill time. The cameos are called in, and they arrived here almost immediately. Todd Bowles, head coach of the real-life Jets, did one in the second episode that managed to accomplish nothing more than confirm that Luke had superpowers. A reasonable coach, particularly the one running the Jets, would have drafted him on the spot. But because Luke never leaves Harlem — or Bowles doesn't know a sure bet when he sees one — that wasn't going to happen either.

And so, the second season of "Luke Cage" thus rose and ultimately fell: Too much canvas with wild splashes of paint deployed to fill it. Compared with the first, the second is a disappointment, but far from a failure. Best experienced in small bites instead of huge indigestible chunks, "Luke's" second is also filled with plenty of memorable performances —and a soundtrack that's a sonic wonder (Composers of the first season,  Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, have returned for the second one). 

The second also features one of the last performances by Reg E. Cathey, who died in February at the age of 59. (The second season is dedicated to him). He plays Luke's estranged father, the Rev. James Lucas, a minister who initially fulminates against Luke before his flock — "One man cannot do it by himself, no matter how good and how strong, and believe me, Luke Cage is nothing but a man ..." — but ultimately patches up their differences.

A particularly fine actor who made one classic ("The Wire") better and one political potboiler ("House of Cards") more grounded, he certifiably improved "Luke's" second as well. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker must have known this as well because he gives the Reverend the last words of the season: "...Science, magic, God — the power flows from within (but) what comes out when the pressure is heaviest, that's the real magic, that's what defines being a man, what defines being a hero."

Nice words, nice clarity, and especially nice voiceover. Maybe the third will live up to its spirit.

BOTTOM LINE Bloated, disheveled story but a super soundtrack and performance by Reg E. Cathey.     

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