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Luke Cage – All Souled Out (Review)

It is interesting watching Luke Cage in the age of Donald Trump.

The first season did not have to worry about such things. Luke Cage premiered in late September 2016, more than a month before Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the United States Presidential Election. The first season had entered production a year earlier, in September 2015, only fourth months after Donald Trump had announced his presidential bid. Production on the first season wrapped in March 2016, a couple of months before Ted Cruz would formally throw in the towel and affirm Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

However, the second season emerges in a highly-charged political environment where it seems like every piece of popular culture exists in the shadow of Donald Trump. Trump exerts a strange gravity over popular culture, making every piece of pop culture a strange referendum on his premiereship. Is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom about Donald J. Trump? How about Darkest Hour? Could the analogy stretch to Avengers: Infinity War? There is so much pop culture and so little time.

At the same time, it seems inevitable that the second season of Luke Cage would have to confront the legacy of Donald Trump and what he represents in American popular culture. However, the series does this in a rather interesting way.

It has been interesting in watching popular culture acclimatise to election of Donald Trump, which seemed to take the entire world by surprise. Allegedly, it even took Trump himself by surprise. Different writers and different producers have approached the challenge of writing for the Trump era in different ways. Black-ish famously dedicated an entire episode, Lemons, to exploring what Trumps’ victory meant to its characters. The realities of Trump’s America play out across the entirety of the second season of The Good Fight.

All art is a product of its time, and these are very turbulent times. It makes sense for popular television and popular cinema to reflect that. At some point in the space between two seasons of Luke Cage, the Hollywood production machine passed an invisible line. At some point, all of the stories that entered production before the beginning of the Trump era were released, and every major release going forward would be informed by the political realities of this most volatile of political moments.

Luke Cage is arguably more dramatically affected than any of its companion series, tied as it is to the idea of racial politics and the black American experience. With the release of the first season, Brandon Wilson argued that the production team had “refashioned Cage for the Obama era.” Jeph Loeb acknowledged that the first season was undoubtedly of that moment:

“The world has been changed by the fact that no matter where you go, there’s a camera and it’s called your phone,” Loeb tells Vanity Fair, referring to the political powder keg sparked by the deaths of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown that helped inspire Season 1 of Luke Cage in early 2015. “Cheo and I sat down and had a very real conversation about what’s going on in our country—the Trayvon Martin case, and Ferguson. Those stories were affecting the world. So of course they were going to affect storytelling.”

Of course, the first season of Luke Cage struggled a great deal in trying to bring that to screen. The image of a bulletproof black man wearing a hoodie in Moment of Truth was evocative in a general and archetypal sense, but the specifics of the show’s police brutality subplot in Take It Personal were clumsy and imprecise. Nevertheless, there was no escaping that particular context.

Two years later, it seems impossible to completely escape the shadow of Donald Trump, particularly for a show set in Harlem and featuring a predominantly African American cast. Donald Trump is a president of the United States who has received (and took a long time to decline) the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan, and has a long history of discrimination against black people. The Trump Administration has done little to acknowledge the African American community, with Ben Carson even comparing slaves to immigrants.

This is a President of the United States who described Africa and other parts of the developing world as “sh!thole countries.” This is a President of the United States who has signalled that his administration will not be supporting inquiries into systemic violence against minority communities by law enforcement, and who has encouraged police brutality. This is to say nothing of his stated attitudes towards immigrants, particularly those of Mexican or Latin American extraction.

For many people, a defining moment was when Trump claimed that there was blame on “both sides” of violence in Charlottesville, between neo-Nazis and protestors opposing neo-Nazis. For executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker, that crossed a line:

There’s no way as an African American in this society, particularly with this president, where you’re not constantly reminded of how far you’ve come but at the same time how much still needs to change. Regardless of politics, for me, the line in the sand with Donald Trump was Charlottesville. There was no such thing as good people on both sides. There was the Klan and there were people that were basically… that poor woman that got killed for nothing. And all those things that happened in that one spot, it’s like we’re in this place where the politics of the ’60s are right in your face constantly. So, it isn’t a question of necessarily dealing with it thematically in the show as much as it is depicting reality as it is. So, there’s always a certain subtext.

Coker is correct that it is absolutely impossible to write a series like Luke Cage without acknowledging in some way the shift in cultural norms and values that have taken place. Even if those forces were at work long before Trump ascended to the Oval Office, they were impossible to ignore upon his victory.

That said, Luke Cage avoids dealing with the Trump era directly. It is not as didactic or overt as The Good Fight or Black-ish. There is no obvious Trump stand-in among the cast. There is no focus on the heightened tensions that exist between minority communities and white conservative America. Luke Cage consciously avoids creating major antagonists (or even characters) that exist outside the black community. In the second season, the external threat comes from Jamaican gangs based in Brooklyn. So Luke Cage does not tackle the Trump era head-on.

This is perhaps for the best. There is undoubtedly a sense of exhaustion and fatigue about the Trump era. There are so many news stories and so many horrors that it can be hard to escape the grim reality; the initial travel ban and the ensuing chaos, the clampdown on immigrants within the United States, the pardoning of an openly racist and criminal law enforcement official, the refusal to allow victims of domestic violence into the asylum system, the separation of children from parents at the border. It is perhaps privilege to acknowledge that the cycle is exhausting, but it undoubtedly is.

There is a sense that at least some popular culture should offer an escape from this, provide a comfort blanket to an audience exhausted from all the horrible things happening in the real world. As Emily Yahr argues:

When politics has seemingly taken over the culture, the instinct is for everything — even in entertainment — to have a political angle. Broadcast TV networks courted pilots for the fall that might connect to “Trump’s America.” Saturday Night Live and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert are seeing record ratings as they zero in on the administration. Katy Perry tried to be woke.

But many yearn for escapism more than ever. Even if, as Hassapis implies, some people are worried they’ll be judged if they admit they missed a major story to watch a House Hunters marathon, or turned off cable news in favor of reading the Harry Potter book they’ve already read 10 times.

It’s a conundrum that has been around for centuries. Paul Levinson, an author and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, says it goes back to the days of Plato, who was very critical of music and poetry, because he thought it distracted society from more important things.

Plenty of others argue the opposite: For us to be fully effective as a humans, entertainment is a critical outlet, because otherwise we might just be ruminating on all the problems in the world, sending our minds into downward spirals.

This is arguably particularly true in the context of series that are aimed and set in communities that are particularly impacted by the policies of Donald Trump. Living under that kind of pressure must necessitate some escapism.

The second season of Luke Cage seems to understand this. It avoids engaging with the issues of the day in an overt and didactic manner. Despite the fact that the theme is more relevant than it was when the first season was broadcast, the second season completely avoids issues around police brutality. Given how clumsily Take It Personal bungled the theme, shying away from that sort of overt political commentary might be for the best. On a purely surface level, the second season of Luke Cage appears less directly engaged with contemporary politics than the first season was.

Nevertheless, the series unfolds in the shadow of Trump. On the passing of Mariah in They Reminisce Over You, D.W. explicitly evokes those traumatic election night results. “I haven’t felt this way since November ninth.” Beyond that, the involvement of the Jamaican gangs in the overarching plot means touching lightly on the issue of immigration. In I Get Physical, Misty visits with Gideon Shaw, who is being held by the immigration authorities in a secure facility. In Wig Out, Mariah uses sexual blackmail to bend a rival to her will, evoking rumours about Trump and Russia.

However, Luke Cage generally engages with the Trump era in a more abstract manner. One of the season’ strongest themes is the implication power and corruption often intertwine, with money as the connective. The second season of Luke Cage focuses on the idea of how celebrity and wealth form a nexus that can be leveraged into influence. In the second season of Luke Cage, it often seems impossible to assert control of a situation through legitimate means. Instead, moral compromise is not just necessary, it is desired.

This is perhaps most overt in the manner in which the second season embraces the idea of capitalism, paralleling both Luke Cage and Mariah Dillard in attempt to secure their situations by leveraging their assets into cash. “Black wealth is black power, baby,” Mariah assures Tilda in All Souled Out. Mariah is not the only character who thinks this way. In Soul Brother #1, Bobby warns Luke, “Just because you’re a woke superhero doesn’t mean you gotta be a broke superhero.” In All Souled Out, Luke finds out just how much he needs money in order to remain afloat.

It should be noted, of course, that Luke Cage has always been an explicitly capitalist superhero. After all, his initial hook was that he was a “hero for hire”, taking superhero work in exchange for cash. In fact, his first series was literally subtitled Hero for Hire. As Sam Knowles concedes, the racial politics at play in the premise were complicated:

Whereas conventional – in other words, usually white – superheroes often help others because of a sense of justice, Luke’s motivation is mercenary, with the exception being the initial story about enacting vengeance on Stryker. Luke’s identity as a self-proclaimed ‘hero for hire’ sets him up in opposition to white superheroes, whose racial privilege enables the narrative of ‘superhero-ness’ to be about altruism. As a result, others look down on Luke’s attitude–most obviously Dr Noah Burstein: “I’ve heard how you’ve helped neighborhood merchants against Syndicate protection men. For a fee. Bit disillusioning from a so-called hero, isn’t it?”

Luke’s response to Burstein is perfectly understandable, and its final phrase has added resonance: “Folks hire security guards, Doc… private detectives… Why not someone like me?” And, later in the series, he is still focused on payment: “Put in an honest day’s work—expect my bread for it!” The white artists like Englehart and Goodwin who created the original comic may have believed they were moving beyond racism, but through the very presentation of the central character they were actually rehearsing racist rhetoric about individual worth.

Of course, it could be argued that the series was illustrating the significant economic divides that existed across racial groups during the seventies, but it also played into a host of other unfortunate stereotypes. It makes sense that the production team working on Luke Cage consciously steered clear of this characterisation during the first season.

During the first season, and for a lot of the second season, Luke is motivated by a sense of altruism. Luke is trying to protect those close to him, and later decides to protect Harlem, because he has been given a unique ability and should use that for the greater good. This is a very by-the-book definition of superheroism, anchored in the idea of individual decency and personal responsibility. In this respect, the first season of Luke Cage is perhaps the most conventional superhero narrative of the Marvel Netflix series.

However, the second season seems to acknowledge that this cannot be enough. That the character has a set of laudable ideals, but they must eventually brush up against harsh reality. The second season features a more overtly capitalist and opportunistic version of Luke Cage, having set up a merchandise stand in Pop’s and arranged a sponsorship deal with the African American College Association in Soul Brother #1 and inviting talent scouts and potential sponsors to his trials in Straighten It Out.

Even before getting railroaded by Cockroach at the start of All Souled Out, Luke seems to understand the economic demands of living in capitalist society and is trying to leverage his own skills into financial reward. (To be fair, Peter Parker tried to do the same thing way back in Amazing Spider-Man #18.) Coker acknowledging that writing this arc for the character was a logical extension give the source material:

“Luke Cage is ultimately, if you look at the roots of the comic books, a hero for hire,” he tells Newsweek. “What makes Luke Cage different is that he’s gonna be a hero, but at some point he’s gonna want to get paid.”

Luke’s efforts to turn a profit in the second season represent a closer integration between Luke Cage and it source material. The show moves closer to Iron Fist in its second season. Colleen and Misty crossover in Wig Out, hinting at their comic book team-up as “Daughters of the Dragon.” Luke and Danny hang out in The Main Ingredient, hinting at their own comic book team-ups. This is beyond minor crossovers like the use of Rand Industries in All Souled Out.

However, Luke’s embrace of capitalism in the second season of Luke Cage goes beyond a nod to his comic book roots. The second season of Luke Cage places a repeated emphasis on wealth (or even just the idea of wealth) as the cornerstone of power. Mariah is practically giddy when she checks her bank balance in All Souled Out, even if she cannot yet touch that money. Much like money represents freedom to Luke, money represents legitimacy to Mariah. It washes her clean of any past sins.

This is very much tied to the public perception that Trump has created. Trump projects the image of himself as a successful business man, even though he has been bankrupt no fewer than six times. Trump would fabricate personas so that he could wildly exaggerate his wealth to reporters in order to buoy his reputation, repeatedly lying his way on to the Forbes 400 list. When he appeared on comedy shows, Trump would prevent the writers from making any joke that implied he was less wealthy than he claimed to be. Trump may be reluctant to release his tax returns because they would reveal he is poorer than he claims.

It is all about projection and illusion. Indeed, there is something rather pointed in Mariah’s belief that her wealth can legitimise a deeply shady past. “Our family fortune was born in a whorehouse,” Mariah confesses to Tilda. “So what? So was jazz.” This confession evokes the history of the Trump family fortune, which was rooted in a series of gold-rush brothels. If Trump can legitimise that family fortune to the point that he can become the President of the United States, who can begrudge Mariah for aspiring to something a little more modest?

Indeed, Mariah argues that her attempts at legitimacy are the very embodiment of the modern American dream. “You play it forward,” she assures Tilda. “Your great-grandmother was a ghetto philanthropist. Your cousin Cornell financed all of my campaigns. Now, I am a legit philanthropist. That’s the American way, girl.” This is a very cynical perspective on “the American way”, one often reflected in gangster films like The Godfather or Goodfellas. However, in this moment of time, it feels particularly relevant.

Indeed, one of the more subtle shadows that Trump casts over the second season of Luke Cage is the recurring suggestion that legitimacy can be purchased by even the most untrustworthy of criminals for the right amount of social, economic and political capital. Mariah believes that power will allow her to wash the blood from her hands, and that she might be reborn as a humanitarian rather than as gangster if she can successfully rebrand herself as a business woman rather than a kingpin.

“If this investment with Piranha Jones works, every sin ever committed by the Stokes family washes away,” Mariah tells Shades in Soul Brother #1. However, this belief that legitimacy is a currency that can be purchased filters downwards. In The Basement, Shades articulates the idea in conversation with Comanche. “We don’t have to be just gangsters. We could be so much more than that,” Shades states. “But there’s a better way, a bigger life one where you don’t have to look over your shoulder every second. Mariah’s taught me that.” Of course, Shades doesn’t want to stop being a gangster. “I never wanted out,” he tells Comanche in On and On. Shades just wants to be both a gangster and legitimate.

This seems absurd, of course. Mariah and Shades are gangsters, lacking even the insulation that Wilson Fisk employs in Daredevil. Mariah smashed her cousin’s head in with a microphone stand in Manifest. Shades lured an unarmed woman to a meeting and shot her in the head in You Know My Steez. However, a little money clears them of these deeds. The series even makes it clear what template Mariah and Shades are hopping to follow. “So the vote sailed through, and bam,” explains Piranha in The Basement. Black Mariah Trump. Fair, square, legal, untouchable.”

The Trump political and financial organisation has been likened to an organised crime syndicate. Many of those journalists who have spoken out about Trump receive death threats. Stormy Daniels reported being physically threatened by anonymous goons to keep quiet about her affair with him. This fits with a pattern of behaviour dating back to before the election, with a lawyer representing Trump’s investors receiving threatening phone calls. This is to say nothing of Trump’s established connections to the mob.

For most of the second season, Mariah and Shades chase legitimacy. They dream of going straight and being accepted as such in spite of their checkered histories. This narrative thread would seem ridiculous in any other concept. It might make sense for Mariah and Shades to pursue the appearance of legitimacy, while remaining criminals through and through. Instead, the second season of Luke Cage is very clear; Mariah and Shades actually believe that they can be legitimate despite their past (and present) actions.

It is a scathing indictment of the current moment, that these gangsters can aspire (without a hint of irony) towards the high ground. After all, is what Shades and Mariah want any more ridiculous than what Donald Trump has accomplished? This is a man who bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women, who boasted that he could gun people down in public and his poll numbers would climb, who described an entire nation as rapists and criminals. This man was elevated to the highest office. Given this, surely Shades and Mariah can be accepted as legitimate?

Interestingly, it should be noted that Mariah is not the central Trump surrogate in the second season of Luke Cage. That would be too easy, painting the villain as the character who has most thoroughly bought into the philosophy that defines the modern political moment. Instead, the second season implies that Luke himself has been corrupted and tainted by the current climate. Over the course of the season Luke becomes gradually disillusioned and cynical about the way that things are working, and becomes convinced that only he can make things better is to seize power at any cost.

Over the course of the second season, Luke embraces the worst aspects of himself. He invites the world to challenge him and claims to be Harlem itself in Soul Brother #1. He claims that Harlem is “his yard” in a face-off with Bushmaster in Wig Out. In The Creator, he acknowledges to Sugar that Harlem might need “a king”, with the obvious unspoken implication. Finally, in They Reminisce Over You, when Mariah offers him that throne as a poisoned chalice, Luke accepts it.

Coker acknowledges that the point of the final scene between Luke and D.W. in They Reminisce Over You is to ground Luke’s journey in the current political moment:

“What he’s saying is the way we were all stunned,” he explains. “‘How did this Nazi get elected to be the President of the United States? How do you explain to your kids what happened?’ That weirdness was a direct influence.”

It’s especially chilling when Luke Cage tells D.W. that he’s the only one who “can make Harlem great again,” prompting D.W. to reply, “Luke Trump.”

Says Coker, “Anytime a strong man believes that he is going to be the person to save everyone, and make a change and make a difference, that is problematic.” And D.W. calling Luke “Trump” is, to Coker, “basically saying, ‘You’re deluded if you think the way you’re doing things is going to change things for the better.’”

This context perhaps explains the ambivalence that the second season of Luke Cage clearly feels towards notions of hypermasculinity and hero worship that are traditionally wired into the superhero genre.

It is perhaps telling that Luke assumes power at the end of They Reminisce Over You in a manner that more clearly evokes The Godfather than any superhero antecedent. In the world of Luke Cage, superheroism is not the path to meaning power and influence. Instead, corruption and compromise are the cornerstones of any authority. This feels strangely appropriate given that Trump’s conduct has been likened to that of a gangster, with James Comey likening the experience of being in a room with Trump to his earlier career “as a prosecutor against the mob.”

The election of Donald Trump represents the culmination of a certain type of capitalism and celebrity culture. It has been suggested that Trump was able to secure a significant voting base purely through the persona that he projected on the reality television series The Apprentice. It could even be argued that Trump has turned the government into a reality television series. Beyond that, his use of social media was innovative and very weaponised. (This is to say nothing of the use of social media by outside actors seeking to get him elected.)

This all bleeds through into the second season of Luke Cage, reflected in a variety of ways. It explains why Bobby Fish is so wary of social media in his conversations with D.W. in Soul Brother #1, why Misty is so horrified that the beating of Luke Cage is treated as a spectator sport in Wig Out, and why Luke himself seems so wary of the trappings of celebrity in All Souled Out. Indeed, All Souled Out is an episode explicitly about the commodification of Luke Cage, who is forced by economic necessity to sell himself out to “Piranha” Jones.

“My name’s my name,” Luke tells Claire in Soul Brother #1. “I control what it means.” She replies, “Like a brand?” It is worth noting that Trump sees his own name the same way. However, the tragedy of All Souled Out is that Luke finds his name has been reduced to a cheap commodity that can be sold for cash. Over the course of the evening, Luke is treated as a conversation piece, a prop, a photograph waiting to happen, a walking piece of performance art. Luke is dressed up like a doll, another addition to Piranha’s “Luke Cage Hall of Fame.”

All Souled Out suggests that Luke’s celebrity is at best completely value-neutral relative to his heroism. After all, “Piranha” Jones able to identify himself as “a big fan” (“maybe even [the] biggest”) of Luke, despite being a crooked lawyer who is at least passively complicity in sexual blackmail and arms deals. All Souled Out suggests that Luke’s fame has rendered him a set of iconography and a collection of trivia rather than a hero. Luke is not a person, but an “experience.” There is no morality inherent in any of this, just a collection of signifiers and images.

When Luke picks up a partygoer who has smashed a bottle on his skull, the jerk is not terrified or intimidated. Instead, he considers the whole confrontation to be part of his own personalised Luke Cage story. “You guys getting this?” he asks, suggesting that the entire encounter will inevitably end up online as part of what Bobby derisively described as “the selfies, the groupies, the dick pics, the twitty-twit-tweet” in Soul Brother #1. None of it has any meaning or merit. It is all just self-aggrandising noise.

In the first season, Luke was the most traditional of the Netflix heroes, the one cast in the mould of Superman or Thor. In All Souled Out, Luke is effectively rendered the superhero as a party trick. “Now, anybody can go and get a DJ,” Piranha boasts. “Trust me, you know I know ’em. You know, D-Nice, Flex, Mark Ronson. But a celebrity superhero? That’s some next-level sh!t right there.” This is the ultimate extension of Luke’s insistence that his name should be considered a brand, robbing anything he does of any real meaning.

The equation of superheroism with celebrity, and the emphasis on the vacuousness and meaninglessness of it all, seems very attuned to this particular cultural moment. The second season of Luke Cage works through a variety of models of superheroism, but there is something especially cynical about the version presented in All Souled Out as the superhero-as-capitalist-commodified-celebrity. It is a genuinely interesting spin on the genre, building on earlier film and television adaptations like Iron Man II while creating something that feels unique in the realm of live-action superheroics.

Again, this notion of Luke Cage as a celebrity commodity who has been stripped of any deeper meaning or context beyond his own fame taps into contemporary anxieties. George Monboit argues that there has been a tangible shift in how our culture approaches celebrity over the past two decades:

An obsession with celebrity does not lie quietly beside the other things we value; it takes their place. A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology reveals that an extraordinary shift appears to have taken place between 1997 and 2007 in the US. In 1997, the dominant values (as judged by an adult audience) expressed by the shows most popular among nine- to 11 year-olds were community feeling, followed by benevolence. Fame came 15th out of the 16 values tested. By 2007, when shows such as Hannah Montana prevailed, fame came first, followed by achievement, image, popularity and financial success. Community feeling had fallen to 11th, benevolence to 12th.

This is certainly a valid observation to make in the context of Luke Cage, in which the central character is trying to make a difference in the local community while also wrestling with his own fame.

It should be noted that fame seems to have become an end of itself. There are any number of modern celebrities who could be defined as being “famous for being famous.” Trump has been described as “the first true reality TV president”, having not quite put in the political legwork that Ronald Reagan did to separate himself from his own celebrity status. There are open discussions of celebrities who might challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 election, with little discussion of policies. Kanye West was mooted as a possibility. Oprah Winfrey seemed to stoke speculation.

One of the most interesting aspects of Luke Cage is the series’ conservative streak. Indeed, the character of Luke Cage himself has been identified as a “black conservative.” For his part, executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker has argued that this is the character rather than the show, reflecting Luke’s status as “an old head from the nineties.” At the same time, there is a sense that the series itself can be a little old-fashioned in its outlook. It should be noted that there is nothing particularly unusually about this; the modern superhero genre is arguably (by its nature) conservative.

While Luke Cage never explicitly condemns the advent of social media, there are various points where it seems genuinely concerned about the direction in which modern culture is moving. In Soul Brother #1, D.W. is allowed to make some response to Bobby Fish’s lecture about “the problem with [his] generation”, pointing out that celebrity has always been a tool that can be used to spread a message, but Bobby is allowed the last word when he insists that earlier celebrities “used publicity to communicate our message” as opposed to an end of itself.

While Claire can cleverly use selfies to take pictures of the various players at Harlem’s Paradise in Soul Brother #1, the series is wary of selfie culture and of the need to document their every waking moment. At the end of Wig Out, there is something exhausting about passers-by snapping photos of Luke Cage as he walks through Harlem in a daze following his breakup with Claire. At the start of I Get Physical, the entire street stands by and videos the “good old-fashioned ass-whooping” that Luke receives from Bushmaster. In All Souled Out, Luke is forced to pose for selfies so people can claim an authentic “Luke Cage” experience.

There is a certain strain of political commentary that draws a clear connection between the emergence of “selfie” culture and the victory of Donald Trump. This perspective is perhaps best articulated by Patrick Rosenblum:

Prior to 2010, photography had almost always been about capturing what was in front of you (instead of you). The lens faced outward, and so all of the pictures that you took were of the world before you. Taking photographs forced you into the world; to participate in the world; to engage with it. You were behind the camera, everyone else was in front of it.

The selfie reversed all of that. It reversed our relationship to the rest of the world. The selfie turned us inward.

How perfect then, and in a way how very predictable, that we would elect a man who was perhaps the most self-obsessed person to ever occupy the White House. The first Selfie President. For him, it was, and it remains to this day, all about him. How HE got Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to go after Qatar, the ‘source of terrorism.’ How big (or small) his fingers were; how big (or small) the crowds at his inauguration were; how big (or small) was his margin of victory. The list is endless. His self-obsession knows no bounds. His camera is always pointed inward at the only thing that really interests him ― Donald Trump.

There are times when Luke Cage seems to agree with this assessment. The season’s central thesis seems to be that Luke’s belief and investment in himself above all others leads him down a dark path, set-up in the opening monologue of Soul Brother #1 and paid off in the final scene of They Reminisce Over You.

It should be noted that this is very conservative panic over the huge technological shift wrought by social media, with emphasis on a particular brand of social media engagement. The reality is, of course, much more complex. Social media is easily exploited and abused, and can contribute to a more self-centred culture. However, it can also work to shed light on stories that would otherwise be ignored or overlooked. Social media helped to get out the word about what was happening in Ferguson, helped to draw attention to Flint, helps anti-fascist groups to organise and mobilise. It is not all bad.

Perhaps the most obvious shadow that Trump casts over the second season of Luke Cage is the general ambivalence that the second season as a whole feels towards the very concept of superheroism, the idea that it is possible for one person to save a community single-handedly. After all, this is the myth that Trump has cultivated , the idea that only he can save the United States from sinister forces that would seek to undermine it; the politicians in “the swamp”, the foreign powers taking advantage of the United States, the immigrants “flooding” in, the forces trying to dismantle American identity.

In doing so, Trump has built a cult of personality around himself. His most devoted followers almost worship him. Even during the early days of Trump’s campaign, commentators like Annika Hagley were pointing out the obvious parallels between the myth Trump was cultivating and the superhero template:

A field of politicians ineptly stumbling in the dark as they watch the ascendance of a reality TV star who deals daily in the rhetoric of vigilantism as a fix for everything from “annoying, stupid” protests at his rallies to foreign policy conundrums. It is perhaps unfair to lay the blame at the door of the American people. Most do not support Trump’s candidacy, and those who do have been swept up in a culture that celebrates swift action at the expense of democratic institutions. A culture embodied in the superheroic ideal.

Each time Trump urges his supporters to “knock the crap” out of a protester, he is triggering the urge within everybody who is disenfranchised to resort to violence, the urge that is so satisfyingly played out in every superhero movie. Violence is OK when the good guys are doing it; vigilantism is OK when it’s Batman. At the heart of this latest batch of films is the question of what is an acceptable response to the breakdown of trust in democratic institutions and processes.

Again, there is something quite crude and reductive here, something that glosses over the fact that superheroism is not a value-neutral concept; that Superman’s history of toppling slumlords and defeating Nazis is as essential to his identity as the methods that he employs to do so.

Nevertheless, there is something potentially uncomfortable in the borderline fascist undertones of most superhero stories, the idea that legitimacy is rooted in strength and that it is necessary for strong men to operate outside the law to protect society from itself. This is particularly true in the context of a broader popular culture that has worked to strip any meaning out of superhero stories beyond superheroism as end of itself; think of the pains that Captain America: Civil War goes to in order to avoid being about anything but superheroes. That power is an end of itself, existing in the abstract, with no moral weight.

After all, Civil War is a nominally a story about forcing the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to take responsibility for their actions, to submit themselves to oversight by an organisation rooted in the principles of civil governance. However, Civil War finds Steve Rogers rejecting the idea of democratic oversight because of his own rugged individualism; his desire to protect his friend, a wanted terrorist and walking weapon of mass destruction. Civil War repeatedly argues that Steve is correct to reject outside supervision based on nothing more than the fact that he is a superhero and the film’s protagonist.

Steve roots his act of rebellion in the value of an individual saying “no, you move” to the rest of the world, but without attaching any moral weight to the stance. As Abigail Nussbaum notes of Civil War, the film is fundamentally an ode to the idea that moral authority flows from individual strength, rather than vice versa:

Late in the movie, Steve tells Tony that the fundamental difference between them is that while Tony puts his faith in institutions, Steve chooses to believe in people.  This is, obviously, a false and facile dichotomy, but what’s worse is that it isn’t even true.  There is nothing about Steve’s behavior in Civil War that suggests that he believes in people.  On the contrary, his actions can only be explained by a profound distrust–perhaps even disdain–for the public, the press, and anyone who might form an opinion and pass judgment on his choices and actions.  Instead of arguing publicly against the Sokovia Accords, instead of demanding in the press that Bucky be granted the same right to a fair trial as anyone else, instead of exposing things like the government’s secret prison, Steve’s approach is to expect everyone else to trust him, implicitly and without question, even as he repeatedly squanders that trust through his choices and actions.  Civil War is a lot more subtle and insidious about it, but by its end the portrait it paints of Steve is not that different from Zack Snyder’s take on Superman–they’re both men who believe that they have the right to exercise violence as they see fit, and that anyone who tries to question them is so wrong that they’re not even worth engaging with.  For a character who was introduced, way back in Captain America: The First Avenger, with the line “I don’t like bullies,” this is a profoundly disappointing turn.

This arguably carries over to Infinity War, a film so preoccupied with the trials of super-people that the audience has to wait until after the credits to see the impact of the film’s events on anybody outside of the superheroic community. The “ordinary” people are unimportant and incidental.

The second season of Luke Cage develops along this line, touching on the strange erosion of any political or moral weight within the superhero genre was suggested by the success of films like Civil War. If films like Civil War are correct, and there is no actual moral weight attached to being a superhero beyond the authority to exorcise individual power, then Luke’s transition in They Reminisce Over You makes a great deal of sense. If the superhero can be stripped of all moral weight, what is to distinguish it from the archetype of the gangster?

This perhaps explains why the second season of Luke Cage is so wary of its protagonist’s desire to present himself as a superheroic icon. “Who is he really, Luke Cage?” asks Reverend James Lucas at the start of Soul Brother #1. “Does he serve the Lord, or does he serve himself?” He elaborates, “You have to realize that not one man can save a community. One man cannot do it by himself, no matter how good, no matter how strong.” In some ways, the second season of Luke Cage is an appeal against the idea of a superhero.

The very existence of Donald Trump arguably poses an existential limit case to American individualism, a central thematic plank of the superhero genre. In the world of Luke Cage, as in the real world, even a well-intentioned individualist can lead a community down a dark path. Even a well-meaning superhero can get caught up in his own pride and anger, as Luke does repeatedly over the course of the second season, often with disastrous consequences. Even a man with the purest of ideals can be blinded by his own human flaws, without a wider system of checks and balances to protect both the community and himself.

Even within All Souled Out, Luke’s struggles with the stripping of meaning from the concept of the superhero and his shift towards a rugged self-interested individualism is pointedly contrasted with Misty Knight’s own struggles with the system. After the system fails and Cockroach is released, Misty finds herself facing an existential crisis. How can she keep Harlem safe when the system can fail in such a fundamental way? Perhaps influenced by the time that she has spent with people like Rafael Scarfe and Luke Cage, Misty hints on a cunning plan; she will frame Cockroach, and get him locked up once again.

In this context, it is perhaps rather pointed that Misty has her long dark night of the soul in the very same episode that she receives a mechanical arm to replace the one that she lost in The Defenders. A gift from Rand Industries, the arm serves to welcome Misty, even tangentially, into the superhero fraternity. The mechanical arm is such a common superhero trope that even Deadpool 2 has the protagonist recognising Cable’s “Winter Soldier arm.” It even ties directly back to Civil War, with the centre of that movie’s conflict being a superhero with a similar mechanical prosthesis.

Of course, Misty eventually decides not to plant evidence, not to take the law into her own hands. She seems to reach this decision through reflection, accepting that the structural failures that led to Cockroach’s release were actually individual failings. In his own way, Scarfe was acting as a vigilante when he planted that gun. He was taking the law into his own hands, assuming that he knew best. This assumption would have severe consequences, with Scarfe’s death in Suckas Need Bodyguards leading to the retroactive tainting of all convictions of which he was a part.

In fact, the second season of Luke Cage seems to suggest that the system can work, and that the biggest problem with the system is the individuals that work within it. “When you brought him in, he tested positive for GSR,” Captain Ridenhour explains to Misty. “You guys might not have needed the gun to bust him.” The irony is that the gun tainted the conviction and got him released. Ironically, Ridenhour is a victim of his own work outside the system. In On and On, he is killed while working Comanche as an informant. However, Ridenhour’s decision to run the informant off-the-books makes the crime harder to solve.

In this context, it’s worth noting that Misty achieves arguably the biggest victory of the entire second season by working inside the system. Mariah ends up arrested in Can’t Front On Me due to Misty’s working of Shades as informant, rather than as a direct result of any action by Bushmaster or Luke Cage. Similarly, Misty manages to arrest Shades for his crimes in They Reminisce Over You by exploiting the technicalities of the deal that he had negotiated. Misty ends the season in a much stronger place than Luke himself, all because she refuses to go full vigilante. She refuses to break the law.

This all explains where the second season of Luke Cage ends, with the most powerful man in the community mutating from a superhero into a gangster, motivated by the belief that only he can save Harlem from the darkness in the world. Given that Luke Cage exists at a point in time in when the most powerful man in the world is arguably little more than a mobster, this feels like the season’s defining comment on Trump’s America.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of Luke Cage:

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