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Netflix's 'Luke Cage' season two disappoints by avoiding any real conversations on race

"Luke Cage" is less an heir to "Black Panther" than it is a follow-up to the pre-"Black Panther" status quo.
Image: Mike Colter in Marvel's Luke Cage season 2.
While "Black Panther" confronted racism directly, "Luke Cage" mostly spends its second season avoiding the issue. David Lee / Netflix

The Marvel film “Black Panther” is, among other things, a passionate critique of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for its failure to engage with or think about racial injustice. The film's charismatic villain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), excoriates the advanced African nation of Wakanda for its isolationism. In Killmonger's view, Wakanda should use its advanced tech to help oppressed black people worldwide. But Killmonger is also, by implication, demanding that the creators of the MCU address actual injustice, rather than just having Iron Man or Thor blast away at conveniently labeled supervillains. Director Ryan Coogler was telling his own story, but he was also speaking to the franchise. A story about justice in this world, “Black Panther” says, needs to be a story about racism, too.

If the MCU wanted to expand on the success and the insights of “Black Panther,” the second season of “Luke Cage” seems like a good place to start. Like "Black Panther," Netflix’s "Luke Cage" is centered on a black hero and a virtually all-black cast. But while "Black Panther" confronted racism head-on, "Luke Cage" mostly spends its second season avoiding the issue. As a result, the season feels deliberately aimless. Characters shuffle from plot point to plot point, carefully stepping around any real conversations, or any real stakes.

While "Black Panther" confronted racism head-on, "Luke Cage" mostly spends its second season avoiding the issue.

In the first season, the bulletproof Luke Cage (Mike Colter) was on the run from the police, which gave the series a chance to engage at least fitfully with the Black Lives Matter movement and its concerns about police brutality. In the second season, though, Cage is a celebrity, whose heroic bona fides are known throughout Harlem. The police are presented as allies in his effort to prevent a war between a Jamaican gang led by Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) and the local Harlem criminal enterprise of first season villain Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard.)

The series, in short, decides to put aside concerns about law enforcement in order to focus for 13 episodes on that conservative shibboleth, black-on-black crime. Crime in most cities has been dropping for decades, but you couldn't tell that from "Luke Cage's" Harlem, which is a throwback not so much to the violence of the 1990s as to the prohibition-era 1920s. Ethnic gangs — Korean, Jamaican, Italian — bring military arsenals to turf battles, while Cage and the cops try desperately to reimpose order. Black people in Luke Cage suffer because of (hyperbolic, anachronistic) crime, not because of racism.

Of course, racism — in the form of segregation, enforced poverty and an antagonistic relationship with the police — is intimately tied to high crime rates and gun violence in black neighborhoods. "Luke Cage," though, never makes that connection. Racism is brought up in the show, but it isn't connected to the main plot.

Instead, the occasional expression of antiracism is presented as a diversion, or even as a dangerous temptation to anger. Cage’s most explicit denunciation of racism and prejudice comes in a discussion with his girlfriend, Claire (Rosario Dawson). Recounting the prejudice he faces as a black man leads Cage to an outburst of anger that in turn threatens their relationship. Antiracism in this case isn't a source of inspiration; instead, it undermines Cage’s character.

Antiracism in the narrative is most directly associated with Mariah — who is, again, the villain. Mariah is a Harlem politician and owner of what appears to be the only musical venue in the neighborhood. Her philanthropy, and her work to advance and celebrate black women in particular, provides a front for her gun-running and general brutality. In a particularly telling scene, she auctions off W.E.B Dubois' original copy of "The Souls of Black Folks" in a money-laundering scheme. Antiracism in Luke Cage isn't a living tradition or a serious moral commitment; it's a scam.

Killmonger's methods were questionable, but his hatred of racism and injustice were sincere and powerful. That's what made him, by far, the MCU's greatest villain.

This is especially painful because Mariah is a character with huge potential. The 65-year-old Alfre Woodard plays her with intelligence, vulnerability and a simmering, conflicted sexuality. Mariah was abused by her uncle when she was a child, and she is torn between hatred of her family crime business and an overwhelming desire to use its power to protect herself. If she were allowed to connect her own turmoil and pain to a larger struggle for justice, she could be the moral center of the series, just as Killmonger is the moral center of "Black Panther."

Killmonger's methods were questionable, but his hatred of racism and injustice were sincere and powerful. That's what made him, by far, the MCU's greatest villain, and arguably it's greatest character. Mariah, in contrast, and for all her suffering, is just a hypocrite. After much vacillation, the series decides that the only thing it can do with her is hate her. Literally everyone who loves her turns on her in an orgy of loathing, as if terrified of where sympathy for Black Mariah might lead.

Image: Simone Missick and Mike Colter in Marvel's Luke Cage season 2.
Simone Missick and Mike Colter in Marvel's "Luke Cage" season two.David Lee / Netflix

"Luke Cage" is less an heir to "Black Panther," then, than it is a follow-up to the pre-"Black Panther" status quo. It's in line with the second season of Netflix’s "Jessica Jones," in which a discussion of racial discrimination was sidelined in favor of a lament about the prejudice experienced by (white) people with superpowers. It's also in line with Netflix's "Iron Fist," which cast the remarkably underwhelming Finn Jones as billionaire Danny Rand, a white guy who became the greatest master of a mysterious Asian martial art, because white guys are always the best.

"Black Panther" showed that the MCU could confront racism directly, and by so doing tell different kinds of stories. "The world’s going to start over, and we’re going to be on top!" Killmonger declared. "Luke Cage," though, either didn't hear the announcement or decided to ignore it. The result is a series about crime fighting that has no idea what justice is, and doesn't seem to care.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."