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Luke Cage – On and On (Review)

Bushmaster is a fascinating addition to the Luke Cage canon.

In some ways, the character is an interesting choice to add as the new antagonist of the second season, particularly the driving force for so much of the first two-thirds of the year. The comic book character was actually introduced in the pages of Iron Fist #15, as part of the run by writer Chris Claremont and John Byrne. A product of the same experiments that produced Luke Cage. He would later die in the pages of Power Man #67, before his son assumed the mantle. His back story was rather hazy and undefined, and he was certainly far removed from an a-list villain, even as far as Luke Cage villains go.

However, the second season of Luke Cage completely reinvents the character, while retaining the roughest of outlines from the four-colour source material. Jon McIver is still a bulletproof black man, making him an effective foil to Luke Cage. However, he no longer gained his power from the same experiments and his power does not work in exactly the same way. Similarly, while the comic books left his back story hazy, the television series devotes a considerable amount of time to fleshing it out. He gets a big monologue towards the end of On and On and a series of flashbacks in The Creator.

Indeed, the second season of Luke Cage radically reinvents Jon McIver in the style of the series, as another extended homage to blaxploitation cinema. This is a risky gambit, particularly given the challenges that the series faced with the consciously campy Willis Stryker in the second half of the first season. Indeed, much of the work with Bushmaster can be seen as a do-over on Willis Stryker. As with Stryker, the character is admittedly heightened, even in the context of a superhero crime show. McIver often seems like he might have wandered out of some forgotten seventies blaxploitation film.

However, there is more to it than that. The first season of Luke Cage failed to properly capture the familial melodrama that tethered Luke Cage and Willis Stryker, the two sons of one father by two different mothers. This absurd superpowered soap opera should have made for compelling television, with the characters wrestling with their histories as much as with each other. Instead, the execution was clumsy and lackluster. With Bushmaster, the second season makes a number of subtle corrections, but retains the basic idea. Luke and McIver are two sides of the same warped coin.

Although arguably more of a catalyst for the season than a central narrative agent, Bushmaster is an important part of why the second season of Luke Cage works as well as it does.

In the first season, Willis Stryker was very consciously an homage to blaxploitation cinema. This was reflected in a number of ways, from the wonderful seventies-inflected score provided by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad through to the performance from Erik LaRay Harvey. Indeed Harvey offered one of the most gleefully heightened performances in the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe, to the point that it seemed like he’d chewed through most of the scenery over the course of Blowin’ Up the Spot and the budget couldn’t keep him fed for five more episodes.

Ignoring the (many) issues with the execution of Stryker, there was something endearing about the sheer absurdity of the character. He provided a marked contrast to the (relatively) grounded portrayal of Cornell Stokes in the first half of the season. (It is possible to exaggerate how “grounded” Cornell was, especially given he personally demolishes a building with a rocket launcher at the end of Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?) In contrast to Cornell, Stryker could be the biggest arms dealer on the eastern seaboard and Luke Cage’s secret brother and willing to march into Harlem looking like a rejected Power Ranger.

Bushmaster is just as much a blaxploitation stereotype. He is very firmly a rejection of the grounded aesthetic of the Stokes, an obviously heightened element intruding into what might otherwise be a fairly conventional crime story. If the presence of Luke Cage most overtly helps to turn Luke Cage into a hybrid superhero show, then it is the presence of Stryker and McIver that most overtly turns the series into a gigantic blaxploitation homage. In this sense, it’s telling that both Stryker and McIver assert their dominance over the narrative by seizing Harlem’s Paradise.

This blaxploitation influence is particularly obvious with the series’ soundtrack, which cannily capitalises on the larger-than-life nature of Bushmaster. There’s a wonderful moment in For Pete’s Sake when Bushmaster and the Stylers arrive, and the soundtrack starts looping what amounts to a Bushmaster theme. (It is helpfully titled Stylers Arrive.) The name “Bushmaster” repeats over a reggae beat. The way the scene plays, it is made clear that Bushmaster has his goons playing his theme music from their cars.

As Adrian Younge notes, he and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were able to craft a unique soundscape for the antagonist that sounded distinct from both the rest of the series’ score and from the licensed raggae tracks that are used at various points over the course of the season:

Cheo [Coker] was originally looking to license a bunch of old reggae tracks. We said that we wanted to create something called “symphonic reggae.” You don’t hear reggae with orchestras. We could use that to exemplify the Jamaican idiosyncrasies musically. Once we talked to Cheo about it, he agreed. It wasn’t something that we reacted to; it was something we saw while Cheo was writing that we picked up on before the show was even filmed.

Even the licensed reggae tracks that are used – such as Chase the Devil or Redemption Song – serve to provide a soundscape distinct from the R & B, hiphop and rap infused soundscape that defines Harlem. (It does suggest Mariah was tempting fate by getting Stephen Marley to play Harlem’s Paradise in On and On.)

One of the most distinctive attributes of Bushmaster, particularly contrasted with the villains of the first season, is his status as a Jamaican immigrant. The first season of Luke Cage was very much focused on what Cockroach describes in Soul Brother #1 as “Southern black”, the African American community that largely migrated from the southern United States to Harlem. After all, even Luke Cage himself moved to Harlem from Georgia, making a brief trip home to Savannah, Georgia in Take It Personal.

Instead, Bushmaster is introduced as existing outside the framework established in the first season. He first appears in Soul Brother #1 as literal outsider, standing in Brooklyn and staring out towards Manhattan. “Where’s Harlem?” he asks, a stranger in a strange land. Sheldon Shaw replies, “Uptown.” Bushmaster is such an outside that Sheldon needs to elaborate further. “Across the bridge.” Bushmaster’s otherness is immediately established. Before he makes his debut, it’s hard to imagine a major character in Luke Cage who couldn’t map Harlem from memory.

Even the character’s choreography marks him as an outsider, with executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker noting that Bushmaster represented an opportunity to bring a new style of fight choreography into the series:

“[Bushmaster’s] fighting style is really influenced by Capoeira and so it’s one of the first times you see an African-influenced fighting style as opposed to traditional grappling or martial arts,” he continued. “So he fights with a certain flair that’s different than Luke’s boxing, brawler style.”

Indeed, there’s something quite thrilling watching Bushmaster move. He has perhaps the best fight choreography of any Marvel Netflix character outside of Daredevil, and that brief cameo from Lewis Tan in Iron Fist. It almost excuses the scheduling of his fights every three episodes like clockwork.

The second season of Luke Cage repeatedly draws attention to Jon McIver’s Jamaican heritage. The Creator features extended flashbacks to his childhood, which the series actually shot on location in Jamaica for authenticity. (This makes for an interesting contrast to Iron Fist‘s trip to China in The Blessing of Many Fractures, which was shot on industrial locations within New York.) Bushmaster’s goons drive cars marked with Jamaican flag. His apartment is decorated in Jamaican colours. The furnishings are often styled in greens, golds and blacks.

The use of Jamaica itself ties back to the long and rich history of blaxploitation cinema, most notably The Harder They Come. The early seventies Jamaican crime film is a favourite of Coker, even influencing Method Man’s cameo in the late first season of Luke Cage. Similarly, actor Mustafa Shakir used The Harder They Come as the basis for his Jamaican accent. The use of Jamaica in the second season of Luke Cage is more important than the simple “Jamaican me crazy” pun that Shades makes in Wig Out.

Indeed, Coker was drawn towards Bushmaster because the character represented an opportunity to explore Jamaican culture and identity on the series:

The whole idea to use Bushmaster came from a surprise birthday party that Mike Colter’s wife threw for him. I was there, Alfre [Woodard] was there, Charles Murray and a few other friends of Mike were there. There was no DJ so what Mike did was he put in Shabba Ranks on Pandora and then all these ‘90s reggae songs came up. The party was live. We were singing along to the songs. Mike spent a lot of time in New York in the ‘90s, the same way that I did. The reggae was always side by side with hip hop. So it made me realize okay, if we’re going to go for a reggae vibe, is there a character that has any kind of Caribbean background? It was one of these things where like okay, great, there’s this villain named Bushmaster who is a Luke Cage antagonist. If you look in his dossier, his origin is from a Caribbean island. Boom, let’s make it Jamaica and let’s use this. If season one is the Wu Tangification of the Marvel universe, season two could really be about addressing the origins of hip hop through the prism of the blues and Reggae culture.

Coker has often discussed Luke Cage in musical terms, even likening the second season to a visual concept album; “a bulletproof Lemonade.”

Of course, Bushmaster taps into blaxploitation tropes that extend beyond the orchestral soundtrack that the series bestows upon him. Bushmaster is identified early and explicitly as a variety of different blaxploitation tropes. His introduction in Soul Brother #1 establishes him as a mysterious and brutal crime boss, a stranger who sweeps into Brooklyn and brutally assumes control of an established (and previous lethargic) criminal empire. However, as early as Straighten It Out and even more explicitly in Wig Out, the character is aligned with mystical rituals and superstitious beliefs.

It is important to be clear here, to distinguish between genre trappings and cultural stereotypes. Luke Cage takes care to present Bushmaster’s spiritual beliefs with relative nuance and considerable attention to detail. Most obviously, it is made clear that Bushmaster is drawing up the Jamaican belief system of Obeah rather than the broader hazily-defined “voodoo” that is often used as shorthand in Hollywood depictions of Caribbean religious belief. There are a lot of nice small details, such as Bushmaster’s monologue on “Queen Nanny” at the end of For Pete’s Sake.

Nevertheless, accepting that Luke Cage is more specific than most pop culture in employing these tropes, it is clear that Bushmaster belongs to the rich history of using that hazily-defined “voodoo” in blaxploitation cinema. In Drums of Terror, Bryan Senn traces the origins of the trope back to the thirties film Drums o’ Voodoo:

In a rural Louisiana black community, voodoo and Christianity exist side by side. “The choral processions,” the opening written narration tells us, “the sacred chants and the incessant beating of the voodoo drums on the eve of a sacrifice, are horrible and wonderful embellishments of a religion that is practiced as fervently today in certain communities as Christianity.”

The old voodoo priestess Aunt Hagar presides over “the ancient worship of the jungle gods” while Elder Berry (!) ministers to his Christian flock.

There is a sense that the second season of Luke Cage is overtly influenced by these kinds of films. Indeed, there’s a rather clear parallel between that juxtaposition of voodoo and Christianity in Drums o’ Voodoo. At the end of If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right, Luke Cage cuts between Reverend James Lucas’ baptism ceremony and Bushmaster’s ritualised nightshade consumption.

Drums o’ Voodoo might have been the first blaxploitation voodoo film, but it was far from the last. During the seventies, there was a renewed interest in Caribben spirituality, often broadly drawn and caricaturised in films like Sugar Hill, The House on Skull Mountain and J.D.’s Revenge. In an interesting point of intersection with more conventionally European superstition, voodoo was used to both resurrect and to kill the eponymous vampire in Scream, Blacula, Scream! Voodoo was such an accepted part of blaxploitation that it got folded into James Bond’s take on the genre in Live and Let Die.

Although The Creator eventually settles on a pseudo-rational explanation for what happened to Bushmaster and the series is populated with pseudo-rational comparisons to “steroids” and “science”, the first half of the season makes a conscious effort to codify Bushmaster’s powers as supernatural in nature. His consumption of the herb is ritualised, in sequences often lit by candles and shot from more off-centre angles than the rest of the series. There is a conscious sense of “otherness” built up around Bushmaster’s use of the nightshade herb and the source of his strength.

It should be noted that a lot of the modern stereotypical and sensationalist depictions of Caribbean spirituality are rooted in colonial anxieties tied to the region’s history of rebellion and revolution. In The Transatlantic Zombie, Sarah J. Lauro traces the European and American fascination with voodoo back to the successful Haitian revolution:

After the revolution was won and Haiti had declared its independence, Europeans were understandably curious about the phenomenon of the Black Republic, and inflammatory writings drew a large readership. Works intended for European and American readers promoted rumours of occult practices like grave-robbing and Vaudou potions that could make people appear dead temporarily; such texts sought to denigrate the Haitian as backwards and (in an obvious lament of the loss of colonial comination over the region) incapable of self-rule. From the mid-nineteenth century, coinciding with the beginning of the decade-long dictatorial rule of Faustin Soulouque, a fervent adherent of Vaudou and self-proclaimed emperor of Haiti, European journalists became invested in painting the Haitian people as cruel, cannibalistic, savage, and even “satanic.”

It should be noted that while the second season of Luke Cage borrows a lot of the cues from these pop culture depictions of voodoo mysticism, it avoids some of the more sensationalist touches. There are no ominous drumbeats on the soundtrack, no ritual animal sacrifice. (On that note, actor Mustafa Shakir is a committed vegan.) Even while working through his ritual in a circle of candles in Wig Out, Bushmaster still has a flatscreen television playing.

The second season is well aware of the tropes with which it is playing. When Mariah takes back control of Harlem’s Paradise in The Main Ingredient, one of her first instructions is, “Somebody needs to clean up all this voodoo sh!t.” On welcoming Ben Donovan back into her service, she bitterly observes, “You’re here because you got gypped by Rasta N!$$@.” Of course, Mariah is far from the most culturally sensitive observer, but Luke Cage acknowledges that Bushmaster is a character who could easily become a collection of broad stereotypes if not handled with a great deal of care.

At the same time, it would perhaps be unfair or unreasonable to explore the West Indian experience without some acknowledgement of the role that spirituality and belief plays within it. After all, the second season of Luke Cage makes Christianity a major part of the season through the sermons from Reverend James Lucas that bookend Soul Brother #1 and Straighten It Out, and the undeniably strong religious subtext that run through the season as a whole; with the cult of self- and hero-worship likened to idolatry.

Spiritual belief is a major part of West Indian identity and culture, and so it makes sense that it should be incorporated into a heightened pulp pastiche of it. As Michael Niblett explains in The Caribbean Novel Since 1945, this spirituality is part of what made the Caribbean rebellions and revolutions possible:

We can trace the importance of such cultural forms to the development of anticolonial nationalism in the Caribbean more concretely through religious practice. Religion has been central to a number of resistance movements throughout the region. In the Anglophone Caribbean, for instance, resistance by the enslaved, such as Tacky’s Rebellion in 1760 and the so-called Baptist War of 1831-32 in Jamaica, drew on religious belief as a source of unity and inspiration. Equally, in the postemancipation period, religion played a key role in events such as the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865. Significantly, the various religious movements involved in these events did not just serve to encourage their communities’ actions, but were bound up with the very creation and coming to consciousness of those communities. Tacky’s Rebellion provides the clearest example here: researchers have argued that it was the first slave rebellion to incorporate people of different tribal origins, something Monica Schuler attributes to the rise of Myal as a Pan-African religion “which addressed itself to the entire slave society, rather than to the microcosms of separate African groups.” The role of Myal in the rebellion was thus linked to its rallying of a resistant Pan-African ethnic identity, but one that was at the same time already gesturing toward an Afro-Jamaican identity. In bringing the separate tribal traditions together within the space of Jamaica, Myal – itself an apparently new Caribbean phenomenon modeled on West African secret cult societies – emphasised the common African connection yet also signalled the transformation of these traditions within the new environment, a transformation tied to the claim now made to this environment. Here, then, a creolised religious practice became inseparable from the development of a kind of proto-creole nationalism.

With that in mind, it seems reasonable that Luke Cage should get to riff on some of the more sensationalist iconography associated with that belief system, such as Bushmaster’s use of a paralytic powder during the High Bridge showdown in The Basement.

Indeed, Bushmasters arc and characterisation in the second season is informed by the Jamaican experience as specifically as the Harlem characters have been shaped by the African American experience. Jon McIver has internalised a myth of rebellion and revolution, drawn from the history of his own people and the traumas inflicted in the Caribbean. He makes a statement in his war against Mariah by chopping off heads and places them on spikes in All Souled Out, but he contextualises it in his speech at the end of For Pete’s Sake.

“Nanny,” Bushmaster explains to the officers guarding him in the back of the van, “she would lead raids to the other plantations. And they would steal back the women and children, so they could raise families out of captivity. They cut the heads off their oppressors and put them on spikes. To put them on notice.” That is precisely what Bushmaster did. He has fashioned a cultural mythology into a personal mythology. Indeed, it is suggested that Bushmaster has done something similar with his Obeah beliefs; he has reframed his abilities in the context of his own spirituality.

Luke Cage understands that even the pulpier aspects of Caribbean mythology exist in this historical context of slavery and rebellion. Although Luke Cage avoids overtly invoking the tired trope of the Afro-Caribbean zombie, it should be noted (as Amy Wilentz argues) that even the zombie exists as part of cultural memory of slavery:

One of the first things the Haitian slaves learned in circumstances of total dependence on the slavemaster was how to use poison for suicide. If you died, in Haitian belief, you returned to lan guinee, the voodoo name for Africa, and to freedom. (You also stole a valuable piece of property (yourself), from your master, so that suicide was an act of defiant thievery.) Death was better than slavery for many – the suicide rate among Haitian slaves was very high. It was bad to be a slave. Worse would be to die and discover that, rather than returning to Africa, you continued to be enslaved as a dead person, run by a master, doing his bidding – and this is the fear that created the “Americo-normative” zombie, as we know him.

After Haitians cast off the French empire in their singular and successful slave revolution in 1804, fear of re-enslavement continued throughout the former colony. Indeed, for economic reasons, several post-revolutionary Haitian leaders came within centimeters of reimposing the system – at the time the world did not yet have many efficient alternatives to the slave-powered economy. Thus the fear of zombification, which is in its historical context the fear of re-enslavement, persisted. No one wanted to be dead, consciousness-less, and working for free for a master.

That said, while Luke Cage avoids obvious Caribbean zombie trappings in the way that it approaches story of Jon McIver, there are some points of overlap. The character was metaphorically killed and reborn before coming to terms with his power. As shown in The Creator, the young McIver was shot on the street by a Stokes family associate and dragged to a “bushwoman” to be healed.

By virtue of their different cultural experiences and history, the McIver family behave in a manner that is fundamentally different to that of the Stokes. Mariah spends most of the season trying to conceal her misdeeds, to bury them and to wash them away. She explicitly says as much in Soul Brother #1. In contrast, Bushmaster spends most of the season openly flaunting his violence and brutality. He hands over Nigel’s severed head to Shades in Wig Out. He mounts severed heads on spikes as a message in All Souled Out. He orders an attack on a police station in If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right.

Bushmaster communicates through open brutality, recalling the violent tactic employed by the Haitians and Jamaicans against their colonial oppressors. The Haitian Revolution found rebellious slaves breaking into their oppressors’ homes, murdering entire families, burning entire plantations. One of the defining images of Haiti’s first ruler, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was of the revolutionary holding a sword in one hand and the severed head of a white woman in the other. In Jamaica, the Maroons employed similar tactics, causing the colonial government to concede “the terror of them spreads itself everywhere.”

As such, it makes sense that Bushmaster should announce himself so confidently and so boldly, with little thought of the consequences or the rule of law. Ridenhour makes that point to Mariah in The Basement, urging her to consider taking a deal. “We’ve got narcotraficante sh!t, Pirates of the Caribbean-type sh!t,” he explains. “And now it’s in Harlem. You remember the posses? This is the posses on steroids.” There’s a sense in which Bushmaster is not waging a gang war in the way that such campaigns are usually fought, but staging an open rebellion.

There is a sense in which Bushmaster’s techniques are inherently counter-productive and unsustainable. His capture and torture of Piranha in On and On allows him to gain temporary control of Mariah’s assets, but it is made clear in The Main Ingredient that he could never have actually held on to them in the long term within the confines of the United States’ criminal justice system. The rule of law will endure. In fact, even though Bushmaster escapes back to Jamaica in They Reminisce Over You, the system still manages to take both Mariah and Shades into custody once they go over the edge.

More than that, Anansi repeatedly explains that Bushmaster’s reign of terror is having severe consequences for his own people within New York City. “This terrorism makes our people look bad,” Anansi warns Bushmaster in The Basement. “You don’t understand our people’s position in this country? We come here with nothing, and build everything up from scratch. Restaurants, car services, nursing, tax preparation, engineering. We stress education, and we work hard. You want people to be sent back? You want to make our people look so savage that this country turns on us? Come on.”

Still the McIvers see themselves as revolutionaries and rebels, in contrast to their more subdued American counterparts. “Your grandfather was a slave,” Anansi taunts Mariah in The Main Ingredient. “That’s the problem with you Yankees. You didn’t have the strength to fight your masters then. You’re lazy. You’re content with the scraps. You’re happy to sing and dance for them.” Again, Anansi is engaging in racially-charged generalisations, drawing attention to the perceived contrasts that exist between African American and West Indian culture.

African Americans don’t have the same history of revolution and rebellion. There were relatively few major slave revolts in the American South, and most were put down quickly and brutally. Of course, it should be noted that this lack of major slave revolution in the American South was often used to buttress racist arguments like those made by Anansi in The Main Ingredient. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out:

One of the most pernicious allegations made against the African-American people was that our slave ancestors were either exceptionally “docile” or “content and loyal,” thus explaining their purported failure to rebel extensively. Some even compare enslaved Americans to their brothers and sisters in Brazil, Cuba, Suriname and Haiti, the last of whom defeated the most powerful army in the world, Napoleon’s army, becoming the first slaves in history to successfully strike a blow for their own freedom.

As the historian Herbert Aptheker informs us in American Negro Slave Revolts, no one put this dishonest, nakedly pro-slavery argument more baldly than the Harvard historian James Schouler in 1882, who attributed this spurious conclusion to “the innate patience, docility, and child-like simplicity of the negro” who, he felt, was an “imitator and non-moralist,” learning “deceit and libertinism with facility,” being “easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots”; in short, Negroes were “a black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip, children in imagination.”

Consider how bizarre this was: It wasn’t enough that slaves had been subjugated under a harsh and brutal regime for two and a half centuries; following the collapse of Reconstruction, this school of historians—unapologetically supportive of slavery—kicked the slaves again for not rising up more frequently to kill their oppressive masters. And lest we think that this phenomenon was relegated to 19th- and early-20th-century scholars, as late as 1959, Stanley Elkins drew a picture of the slaves as infantilized “Sambos” in his book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, reduced to the status of the passive, “perpetual child” by the severely oppressive form of American slavery, and thus unable to rebel. Rarely can I think of a colder, nastier set of claims than these about the lack of courage or “manhood” of the African-American slaves.

More than that, the freed slaves never managed to completely overthrow their oppressors; instead, they came to live with them. Systems of oppression persist, particularly around issues like housing, law enforcement and voting rights. (There is an argument that slave desertions and support of the Union during the Civil War might be categorised as a revolt or rebellion, but are not categorised as such for primary political reasons.)

To be fair, Mariah does get to land her own blows against the McIvers in The Main Ingredient. When Anansi gets all self-righteous about the Jamaican resistance to slavery in contrast to what he sees at the American experience, Mariah responds with her own pointed insights. “Oh please,” she sighs. “Every Jamaican talks that Maroon bullsh!t. What, y’all didn’t get your freedom What? 1962. And then you got enslaved by the World Bank.” It’s another charged generalisation, but it underscores the gulf between the experiences of the Stokes and the McIvers.

The Stokes are a product of a completely different history, and this is reflected in the different ways in which they engage with the system as compared to the McIvers. They are integrated much more tightly into the community. It is perhaps revealing that Mariah is largely untouchable by the authorities until she begins responding to Bushmaster with the same level of violence and brutality. For most of the first two seasons, Luke and Misty lament that they cannot bring Mariah down, but her fate is sealed when she orders the public massacre of the restaurant at the climax of The Main Ingredient.

However, Mariah is not the series’ main point of contrast with Bushmaster. Instead, the second season repeatedly and pointedly compares and contrasts Jon McIver with Luke Cage. Both are bulletproof black men. Both are products of illegal and immoral experimentation. Both adapted alternate names and personas. “Under different circumstances, we could have been friends,” Bushmaster tells Luke Cage at the end of The Basement. In The Creator, Bushmaster goes one step further, “You and me, we’re not so different. We could have been brethren.”

Both Jon McIver and Luke Cage are defined by their pride and by their wrath. Characters repeatedly point out that Luke can let his own macho self-image get in the way of the greater good; his challenge to the world in Soul Brother #1, his beating of Cockroach in Straighten It Out, his pointless posturing with Bushmaster in The Basement. Similarly, in On and On, Anansi suggests that Bushmaster’s obsession with Mariah is causing real harm to his own community. “You’ve got all the money you could ever need, respect from your people, while the cops are tearing the city apart, harassing hardworking Jamaicans.”

The second season of Luke Cage repeatedly argues that its heroes are not defined by their gifts or their ability, but a more fundamental attribute of self – a variation on the idea that it is perhaps better to be a good man than a great one. In The Creator, Ingrid insists that Bushmaster’s power does not derive from the nightshade or even the experiment, but comes from something internal. “The nightshade saved him,” she tells Luke, “but he was always indestructible.” That seems true of Luke himself. After all, in Soul Brother #1, his father argued that Luke “ain’t nothing but a man.”

The similarities run deeper than that. The climax of On and On actively crosscuts between Luke’s argument with his father and Bushmaster’s revenge upon Mariah. In both cases, Luke and Bushmaster are discussing the loss of their mothers, the last time that they saw them alive, creating an unspoken bond between these two hypermasculine figures. The cuts reinforce this comparison. “I never saw her again,” Bushmaster explains at the end of his story. The conversation cuts almost immediately back to Luke Cage telling his father, “That’s the last time that I saw her.”

At the same time, there are obvious distinctions between Luke Cage and Jon McIver. Luke firmly rejects any point of comparison between the two. In The Creator, Luke warns Bushmaster, “You don’t know me, the pain I carry inside.” However, the season suggests that the two are more alike than either would concede. However, there may be one major difference. “Him let this anger go,” Ingrid tells Luke in The Creator. “You internalise it.” Neither Luke nor Jon can get past their anger, but Jon feeds it through his rage against the Stokes family, while Luke lets it simmer until it explodes in the beating of Cockroach.

Cannily, the second season of Luke Cage also distinguishes Luke from Jon in other subtle ways. Luke brawls like a boxer, while Jon fights like a martial artist. Even the manner in which their powers manifest is treated as fundamentally different. Luke and Jon are both bulletproof, but in slightly different ways. Bullets bounce off Luke, failing to dent his skin or leave any mark. In contrast, the bullets embed themselves in Jon, even if they never penetrate. Jon pries the bullets from his skin in Straighten It Out, and they do leave a mark.

It is possible to read too much into this, tying back into the difference between the African American and West Indian experiences. Perhaps reflecting both the white population’s refusal to acknowledge the horrors of slavery and continuing oppression of the black community in America and the fact that these wounds are still being inflicted upon that community through systems of violence, there is a train of African American thought that imagines the community unaffected by the ravages of violence and colonialism, untouched and unblemished by the violence inflicted upon it.

Black Panther is the most obvious recent example of this school of thought, imagining a great and powerful African nation untouched by the horrors of slavery and imperialism; a country with a population that was never scattered across the globe, never subjected to tyranny and oppression. Black Panther may be set in Africa, but it is informed by African American perspectives. There is a reason that it opens in Oakland, California with a child requesting a story of “home.” Similarly, there is a reason why Kilmonger is the film’s breakout character; a black man raised in America, journeying to an African nation spared of colonialism.

Luke Cage’s powers are arguably an extension of that same idea. He is a black man who cannot even be marked by bullets, whose skin carries none of the markers of oppression of violence. Cheo Hodari Coker has talked repeatedly about why he includes so many scenes of Luke getting shot on the show and how he “will never get tired of seeing a bulletproof black man.” Watching Luke Cage, it’s possible to imagine what the world might have been like if Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis or Michael Brown had been bulletproof. In the midst of the ongoing struggle, it makes sense to wish such wounds had never been inflicted.

In contrast, Bushmaster is the product of a vastly different experience. For the black populations of Haiti and Jamaica, revolution and rebellion are part of their cultural identity, which means that the brutality and oppression leading to those defining events. As such, it makes sense for Bushmaster to carry the marks of such violence on his skin more readily than Luke Cage, for the bullets to embed themselves in his flesh and for him to have to remove them manually afterwards. It’s an interesting visual contrast between two characters who have nominally similar power sets.

At the same time, the manner in which Luke Cage approaches Bushmaster’s powers is interesting. The early episodes of the season – especially Wig Out and If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right – approach the character through the lens of mysticism. It is suggested that Bushmaster derives his power from the mysterious “nightshade” herb and that it might even have something to do with his ritual presentation and consumption of the herb. At certain points, it seems like the series might be willing to commit to the idea of Bushmaster as deriving his power from magic.

However, the season very firmly and very quickly backs away from it. Anansi repeatedly likens the use of “nightshade” to that of steroids in episodes like Straighten It Out and If It Ain’t Rough It Ain’t Right, playing into a number of thematic threads; it evokes the idea of superheroes as athletes, and the notion of the nightshade as a drug. More than that, the characters pointedly refer to the application of the “nightshade” as a science rather than anything more mystic. Discussions of the herb and its powers are treated in very rational terms.

In For Pete’s Sake, Luke states of Tilda’s homeopathy, “Maybe there’s a science to it.” There are other moments in the series when the use of the word “science” to describe Obeah is use to blur these boundaries, a nice example of the season’s attention to detail and the respect paid towards that system of spiritual belief. It feels almost as though the use of the phrase is designed to obscure the mysticism at play, particularly for audience members without a grounding in the intricate details of Afro-Caribbean spirituality.

When Anansi carries the wounded Jon McIver to the “bushwoman” in The Creator, he asks, “You’re sure this science thing is gonna work?” In the back of the police van in For Pete’s Sake, Bushmaster describes how Queen Nanny “kept the science alive.” Even listening to the Blues in Harlem’s Paradise, discussing how it is “the ancestors” speaking through time, Bushmaster warns Mariah that this is “science in its purest form.” The use of this terminology is very insistent and very forceful.

These details get more precise as the series goes on. In The Creator, characters make it very clear that Bushmaster doesn’t derive his power from any ritual or any herb. “That bushwoman’s nightshade hardened his skin,” Ingrid advises Luke Cage. “But he was special long before that.” She elaborates, “The nightshade saved him, but he was always indestructible.” Within the episode characters reiterate the idea. “Nightshade not give,” Sheldon states. “Nightshade reveal.” The bushwoman acknowledges in flashback, “Nightshade no heal. Nightshade reveal.”

This is suitably vague, but it at least leaves open a number of possibilities. Perhaps Jon McIver was born special. Perhaps Jon McIver was chosen. Perhaps Jon McIver was transformed through sheer force of will; after all, what is a superhero but somebody with enough force of will to impose their vision upon the larger world? These would all be interesting metaphysical ideas that would open up all manner of possibilities. After all, Luke Cage just shared an eight-episode television series with Danny Rand. There should be room for the abstract and strange in his world.

Instead, Luke Cage falls back on the most tired of superhero clichés. Of course there was a secret experiment conducted on the island. Of course this experiment fundamentally changed Jon McIver’s biology. Of course the nightshade just happens to act as a catalyst for this change. “When we were younger, they injected kids with a free vaccination,” Sheldon tells Tilda. “They gave us money. They gave us food. Johnny got the injection with all the other children. They all died. But Johnny, he lives.”

It is almost as though Luke Cage is afraid of the implication of the supernatural, of the prospect that something might exist beyond the confines of the mortal world. There is something very juvenile in this rigid pseudo-rationalist pulp fiction, as if the idea of a bulletproof black man is only legitimate if he is the result of rigourously-conducted fake science as opposed to the result of magic. It is surprising that nobody pauses the action in Luke Cage to discuss the sample sizes and study methodology employed by Doctor Bernstein in order to assert how grounded the whole thing is.

This is incredibly lazy and hackneyed storytelling. There is a sense that Luke Cage is even aware of how hackneyed and cliché this is. After all, the injection is discussed in The Creator as an afterthought, a handwave from Sheldon to Tilda. The narrative arc of the flashbacks builds towards the activation of Jon McIver’s abilities, which are tied to his grief and to his trauma, and to the religious ritual that the “bushwoman” conducted upon him. The injection element feels like a hastily-applied bandaid, a pseudo-rational explanation designed to prevent this story about bulletproof superheroes from getting too “silly.”

Now, to be fair, there are good reasons why Luke Cage might be reluctant to commit to the idea of stereotypical voodoo mysticism as a potent force in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it runs the risk of reducing the Jamaican characters to caricatures and their religion to stereotypical cartoons. In this respect, it’s worth noting that the actual religious belief system is better described as “vodou” rather than “voodoo”, which might be used to describe the caricatured depictions that are common in American (and international) media.

After all, it is hard to imagine Daredevil treating Matthew Murdock’s Catholicism in such a literal-minded manner. The fact that there is a long history of voodoo stereotypes in popular culture would not excuse the perpetuation of that stereotype. Indeed, it seems fair to argue that the second season of Luke Cage might brush up against that line as it is, given the manner in which the series portrays Bushmaster’s consumption of the “nightshade.” Using these rituals as one of the beachheads for magic within the Marvel Cinematic Universe would likely be deeply problematic.

It should be noted that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is largely afraid of the idea of magic and superstition. This is obvious in a number of respects, but most obviously in the original Thor films. In the comic books, the character is the literal God of Thunder, and the Asgardians are treated as sentient self-aware stories tied to other pantheons. In the films, all of those metaphysical elements are stripped away for the most shallow explanations. The Asgardians are simply sufficiently advanced aliens who visited humanity when they were too primitive to understand such things.

Doctor Strange does slightly better with magic, accepting that it can do a variety of physically impossible things. However, there is also an increased emphasis on concepts like dimensions and multiversal structures to provide a science-fiction framework for what should really be a fantasy film. Thor: Ragnarok does manage to embrace some of the more god-like aspects of the Asgardians, shoot ancient battles like Renaissance paintings, but it does so in the context of a story that has the title character exiled to an alien world plucked directly from an eighties album cover.

Even on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the character of Ghost Rider is reconceptualised in pseudo-rational terms. Ghost Rider. The characters whose entire deal is that he is “the Spirit of Vengeance.” Showrunner Zeb Whedon justifies the decision by reference to Clarke’s Third Law:

“The Marvel rule is that magic is science we don’t understand,” Whedon explained. “But when we are trapped between [dimensions] in [Episode 7], we’re in the quantum energy fields between dimensions. The Ghost Rider very clearly says, ‘That’s where I came from. I know where you’re being dragged down and I don’t want to go back.’ One of the things that it allows us, and Doctor Strange allowed us, to do is to have something you would call a ‘hell demon’ on our show because we’re opening holes between worlds and between universes. Any time there’s something that on another show would be a wave of the wand magic thing, we can chalk it up to, oh, it’s from another dimension. There’s another set of physics rules in that world and so it’s allowed us to put it all under the science umbrella. The word ‘dimensions’ is sort of covering a lot of ground there.”

Whedon makes it clear that this is a company-wide policy rather than an individual decision. It is perhaps revealing that even Luke Cage offers a similar formulation in For Pete’s Sake. “They say that magic might just be science that we haven’t figured out yet.”

In its own way, this insistence on pseudo-rational explanations for everything in the shared superhero universe as more absurd and condescending than embracing the possibilities of mysticism or supernatural forces. Most obviously, it runs dangerously close to legitimising homeopathy by suggesting that Tilda’s medicines might be rooted in something vaguely rational rather than simply working by the logic that this is a comic book series. (Indeed, Sheldon’s reveal that injections were being used to conduct experiments on children sounds dangerously like anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories.)

More than that, it reduces Jon McIver’s religious faith to something of a cruel punchline. It is very clear watching the series that everybody by Jon understands that his powers are derived from science rather than mysticism, with Anansi describing the rite as “science” and Sheldon knowing about the “injection.” As such, Bushmaster’s use of religious ritual seems foolhardy and shortsighted, suggesting that he has never exercised any critical thought about what happened to him whatsoever. This portrayal is perhaps even more patronising and condescending than indulging in the vague mysticism of so-called “voodoo.”

Still, this issue aside, Bushmaster is a worthy addition to the Luke Cage canon, and a character who adds a lot of richness to the second season as a whole.

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

2 Responses

  1. I’m hardly an expert but I think practitioners of Obeah call some of their own rituals ‘science’, too. It’s not something Choker et al. invented or necessarily misused.

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