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Luke Cage – The Main Ingredient (Review)

The second season knows what the audience is waiting for.

From the moment it was announced that the lead-up to The Defenders would include standalone series for Luke Cage and Iron Fist, fans anticipated the pairing of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. Even before Luke Cage, let alone Iron Fist, had premiered, fans were clamouring for a team-up miniseries. As early as November 2016, following the release of the first season of Luke Cage, actor Mike Colter was teasing the inevitable collaboration between these two character, “Yeah, we’re getting ready to do Heroes For Hire eventually, come on. We’re gonna do it.”

There’s a credible argument to be made that comic book fans were more excited about seeing Luke Cage and Danny Rand on screen together than they were to see the characters teamed up with Matt Murdock or Jessica Jones. After all, the characters have a long shared history. Both originated as part of Marvel’s engagement with exploitation cinema during the seventies, thrown together into the same comic book as a pairing when neither character could keep a solo title afloat. Iron Fist and Power Man merged together to launch Power Man and Iron Fist in April 1978.

The unlikely combination of grounded bulletproof black man and aloof rich white kung-fu master stuck a chord with audiences, creating a comic book that was utterly unlike anything else on stands. While neither character could sustain a solo book for an extended period, Power Man and Iron Fist sold well enough that it went from a bimonthly title to a monthly book in May 1981. The series ran for seventy-six issues, finally retired in September 1986, reflecting the changes in an industry about to be rocked by Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Danny Rand and Luke Cage have a long shared history together. Still, it is remarkable that Luke Cage managed to pull off this minor organisational feat. Barring Luke’s introduction in the first season of Jessica Jones and Frank Castle debut in the second season of Daredevil, Marvel Netflix series generally focus on crossovers of supporting cast members: Jeri Hogarth appearing in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch, Eight Diagram Dragon Palm and Dragon Plays with Fire or Foggy Nelson appearing in AKA Sole Survivor and All Souled Out.

Still, Danny Rand’s guest appearance in The Main Ingredient might be the best thing that has been done with this iteration of the character.

Luke Cage and Danny Rand can essentially trace their roots back to Marvel’s attempts to capitalise on various exploitation trends during the seventies, to reflect the pop culture that the writers and artists were absorbing from the cultural metropolis of New York City through the four-colour prism of comic books. Luke Cage was very consciously a product of blaxploitation, with the white writers and artists at Marvel trying to capture some of that excitement and passion in their comics. Danny Rand reflected the American fascination with Asian martial arts.

These influences bled through into later incarnations of the characters. One of the most interesting aspects of Luke Cage has been the way in which it channels that blaxploitation influence in a manner that is at once incredibly faithful to the intentions of the original comics and also much more accurate to the films themselves; Luke’s origin story in Step in the Arena might be the best example, but that blaxploitation influence is obvious on the soundtrack and in the characterisation of villains like Willis Stryker and Jon McIver.

Given their shared exploitation roots, and the difficulty that the characters had in keeping their own individual titles afloat in the mid- to late-seventies, it made sense for Marvel to bring Luke Cage and Danny Rand together within the same comic book. After all, the martial arts and blaxploitation fads were even combining on film during the middle of the seventies. As David Desser notes in The Kung-Fu Craze, this was an attempt to keep both afloat:

Blaxploitation, which reached an apotheosis in 1972, began to level off in terms of ticket sales in 1973. Also contributing to a decline in blaxploitation was the rising tide of black voices against the perceived overly violent, sex-driven narratives. Mainstream, high-budget films of this period sought “crossover” audiences and shied away from all-black casts. Those which worked more closely within blaxploitation and lower budgets sought refuge in the kung fu genre. Back Belt Jones (1974, directed by Robert Clouse, who had helmed Enter the Dragon) was the first of these kung fu/karate blaxploitation films, felt by Variety to be “minor exploitation … for what’s left of the kung-fu market.” More forgettable entries in the genre included films like Black Karate and Black Kung-Fu. Jim Kelley, still wielding his karate, took third billing in the last big-budget blaxploitation action film, Three the Hard Way, released June 1974. Even the women stars of blaxpolitation participated in the kung fu craze, as Ed Guerrero notes vis-a-vis the short-lived career of Tamara Dobson: “As an indication of a shift of blaxploitation’s youth audience toward kung-fu action movies, in … Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, Cleopatra Jones travels to Hong Kong to team up with Mi Ling (Tammy) and shares much of the camera and action with her Chinese counterpart.” In fact, the first Cleopatra Jones film had already featured martial arts with Bong Soo Han listed as action choreographer. Although Variety liked the original in the two-film series, they had less use for the sequel, claiming it “[ran] the gamut of clichés in both chop socky and blaxploitation…” Perhaps Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold was the death knell of both kung fu and blaxploitation, at least for a few years, as the film never rose about 25 on Variety’s weekly box-office charts (though it stayed on the charts for two months, between mid-July and mid-September 1975).

As such, the merging of the two separate Iron Fist and Power Man titles into a combined Power Man and Iron Fist title was arguably just an extension of what was happening within the same exploitation cinema that had originally inspired the creation and cultivation of these two characters. Nevertheless, the introduction of Luke Cage and Danny Rand into one another’s lives made for a compelling juxtaposition.

In hindsight, it seems strange that the team of Luke Cage and Danny Rand should have endured as long as it did. Given their low sales figures and the fact that even the combination of blaxploitation and martial arts had run its course in wider popular culture, Marvel might have been forgiven for burying these two characters and concepts like so many other failed seventies characters. After all, the cancellation of Iron Fist and the inevitable conclusion of Power Man coincided with a massive contraction of the comic book market that would lead to the “DC Implosion.”

Although no concept ever truly “dies” in mainstream American comic books, many go into periods of extended hibernation. There are plenty of seventies Marvel concepts that have endured such a hibernation. It’s hard to imagine any comic book publisher leaving concepts created by Jack Kirby on the shelf, but Devil Dinosaur and Machine Man endured extended absences from the publisher’s line-up. Similarly, the publisher had a strange relationship with characters from Tomb of Dracula, including the title character and the yet-to-be-reinvented Blade.

Power Fist and Iron Man survived in large part because they had a very powerful champion at Marvel. As writer Jo Duffy explains in Comic Book Fever, Luke Cage and Danny Rand were strongly favoured by writer Chris Claremont:

“These were two really, really exploitative concepts,” says Duffy about her two protagonists. “Power Man, let’s face it, it was Cleopatra Jones, it was Shaft, it was Blacula, it was blaxploitation. Iron Fist was running the end of the Bruce Lee thing; it was the chop-socky. So there were two comics that were not really going anywhere, that had no legs under them that were just the remains of two different marketing trends that had run their course in Hollywood – except Claremont really loved Iron Fist. He was told he could keep Power Man going, but Iron Fist was his baby, as much as the X-Men, and he’s like, ‘Well, what if we team them up and make it Power man and Iron Fist?’ And they’re like, ‘Okay, yes, bless you, go forth and sin no more.'”

It should be noted that Claremont had the leverage of being writer on Uncanny X-Men, one of the most popular comic books of the seventies, eighties and into the nineties.

The dynamic here is interesting, because it in someways reflects what happens to Danny Rand in The Main Ingredient. Danny Rand was approaching the title from a disadvantage, relative to Luke Cage. Chris Claremont and John Byrne had written an extended run on Iron Fist involving the character and his mythology, but the book’s sales had plunged so dramatically and the title had been cancelled so swiftly that the all-star creative team didn’t even get to finish their story; they were forced to hastily wrap up their plot in two issues of Marvel Team-Up co-starring Spider-Man.

While Power Man was clearly floundering, it held out longer. Power Man and Iron Fist was not launched as a new title, it was effectively a rebranding of the on-going Power-Man series starting at the fiftieth issue. Danny Rand became a regular in a title following a short stint as a guest star in the issues leading up to the rebranding. As such, although both characters were included in the book’s title, it was made very clear that Danny Rand was the secondary star of Power Man and Iron Fist.

In Comic Book Fever, the long-serving and defining Power Man and Iron Fist writer Jo Duffy explains how she approached writing for Danny Rand and Luke Cage:

“The way I saw those characters was that Iron Fist, instead of just being a Mr. Punch-You-In-The-Face kind of guy, was going to be this person who was so evolved, spiritually, that even though he could punch you in the face, he always preferred not to, and really, he did not have an angry, mean bone in his body. And Luke Cage, I didn’t want to write anything offensive, so instead of the blaxploitation thing, I fell back on writing him as though he were the hero of an old-fashioned western. So, again, Roger [Stern], with that waggishness he has, said, ‘Great, Jo. So what you wound up giving us was the first comic book where the black hero had a white sidekick.’ And that was kind of true. Cage drove the stories. Iron Fist went along, because that’s what you do for your friends, and we were sort of doing John Wayne and Dean Martin with those characters.”

That dynamic arguably informs The Main Ingredient, in which Danny Rand finds himself tagging along on Luke Cage’s adventure as a friend, a supporting character in a story driven by Luke.

The combination of Luke Cage and Danny Rand works for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the contrast between the two characters. Opposites attract might be a questionable approach to long-term dating, but it works remarkably well in storytelling. Both Luke Cage and Danny Rand are set up in such a way that they can play off one another in a variety of interesting combinations. Among The Defenders, combining Luke and Danny is inherently more interesting and more fruitful than combining Luke and Matt, or Matt and Jessica, or Danny and Matt.

Luke Cage is a black ex-con vigilante who works in Harlem and whose experiences are relatively grounded. He has unbreakable skin, but the bulk of his enemies tend to be superheroes with some gangster themes thrown in. Luke is also from a working class background, to the point where he has tried to monetise his superheroism. In contrast, Danny Rand is a rich white industrialist who was schooled in the mystic martial arts and earned his powers by punching a dragon in the heart. There is a huge gulf between the characters, and that gulf leads to good storytelling.

In fact, the pairing of Luke Cage and Iron Fist arguably worked well even within the confines of the muddled and meandering Defenders. In Worst Behaviour, Luke even calls Danny out on his privilege. It was one of the stand-out scenes of the miniseries, featuring two characters just talking. As writer David F. Walker argues, the “odd couple” nature of the relationship between Luke and Danny is what makes their relationship so appealing:

I think that’s part of what makes them so interesting end enduring to people. It’s like that couple where you knew them individually and then you watched them get together, and you watched them date. Then you watched them get married. So you were there for the entire course of their relationship, and it gives you a more vested feeling in that relationship. It gives you this feeling like you’re really part of it as opposed to being let in on something that already existed like with the friendship between Reed Richards and Ben Grimm in Fantastic Four. So I think that’s a huge part of it, but I also think that just from a visual stand point these guys look so different, and even in terms of the background of who their characters are they’re very different. I think that speaks to the power of what a friendship can be. Because there are so many of us that have these friends where you sort of sit back and look at them and you go, “How are we friends? How did this happen?” And Luke and Danny are that way.

In its own way, the evolving (and deeply unlikely) relationship between Danny Rand and Luke Cage speaks to the potential of comic books as a strange and unique art-form; characters can be introduced separately with their own mythologies, before being allowed to grow together to forge unpredictable and nuanced relationships. Market forces, writer preferences, fan obsessions; characters are often subject to forces that are not predictable.

Given their shared history, the guest appearance of Danny Rand in The Main Ingredient seems almost inevitable. Indeed, Luke Cage spent considerable time hyping up his visit to the series. Entertainment Weekly received both an announcement and a screencap from the episode in October 2017, almost nine months before the season was released. Executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker was answering questions in interviews before the season had even been screened for critics, discussing how Danny Rand would fit into the season.

The second season of Luke Cage is consciously structured to play off the audience’s awareness of the looming guest appearance from Danny Rand. Misty Knight hangs out with Colleen Wing in Wig Out, three episodes into the season. Misty receives an invitation to a technical trial that will give her a cybernetic arm in I Get Physical, signed by “Danny and Colleen.” Misty points out that Luke could just ask Danny for a loan in All Souled Out, but he dismisses the possibility out of hand.

The second season seems to be consciously building towards the arrival of Danny Rand, in a way that feels playful and almost trollish. In the ultimate tease, Luke asks Misty at the end of If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right, “You still got Danny’s number?” When she confirms that she does, he responds, “Call him. We need a favor.” Audience members might be expecting Danny to show up an lend his assistance in Luke’s fight against Bushmaster, but it turns out that Luke just wants to borrow a big empty building for a showdown in For Pete’s Sake.

This repeated teasing of the audience pays off in The Main Ingredient, when Danny Rand just wanders into the barbershop in the teaser, as if nothing is out of the ordinary. It’s a decidedly anticlimactic, which seems like a canny move given how much the season has been teasing the overlap between the worlds of Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Watching the second season of Luke Cage, it is clear that the show is more firmly integrated with Iron Fist than Daredevil or Jessica Jones.

Of course, it should be noted that Danny Rand is something of a poisoned chalice within the Marvel Netflix sub-universe, to the point that Iron Fist is regarded as one of the few major missteps with the Marvel Studios brand attached. Cheo Hodari Coker acknowledged this when talking about integrating Danny Rand into Luke Cage:

“I think—I’m hoping—that you’ll feel that your prayers have been answered, the way that Iron Fist fits into [Season 2], and his interactions with Luke,” said Coker. “It doesn’t bother me that people have criticised Iron Fist on his series and on The Defenders. I’m arrogant enough to think that Iron Fist appearing on our show has a different sensibility. And so, it’s like—that’s the thing—I’m not dissuaded by that, because Iron Fist I think is a dope character. And I think when you see Iron Fist within the realm of Luke Cage, and the way that we do things, I think—hopefully—that people are going to come to appreciate the character differently, and hopefully that swagger that he’ll get from appearing in the Luke Cage universe will carry over into Iron Fist season 2.”

It should be noted that this isn’t the first time that another series has quietly acknowledged the disappointment of Iron Fist. The first trailer for The Defenders made a point to include various characters openly mocking Danny Rand as the lamest hero in their ranks.

Bringing Danny Rand over to Luke Cage is an interesting choice, even outside of the history that the characters share in the comic books. In some ways, Iron Fist and Luke Cage are the most strikingly opposed series in the Marvel Netflix canon, both in who is telling these stories and how those writers choose to tell stories featuring these characters. Both Iron Fist and Luke Cage can be seen as the spiritual successors to seventies exploitation cinema, but Luke Cage dedicates itself to re-appropriating its exploitation homage.

In contrast, Iron Fist suffered from difficulty in reconciling its exploitation roots with the cultural appropriation at the heart of the character. Luke Cage was a show overseen by a black executive producer and starring a predominantly black cast, allowing the African America community to reclaim the title hero. Iron Fist was overseen by a white showrunner and starred a predominantly white cast, which perhaps explains why it felt so uncomfortable tackling its roots head-on. Still, they occasionally shone through in episodes like Immortal Emerges From Cave.

Iron Fist tried to ignore the conversation that was taking place within the room around it, leading to a number of staggeringly tone-deaf creative choices such as the decision to have a poorly-trained Finn Jones handily defeat a properly-trained Lewis Tan in The Blessing of Many Fractures, and to have the only Asian character to express frustration at Danny’s appropriation of his culture and his abandonment of his post turn out to be a villain in Bar the Big Boss. As a result, Iron Fist felt especially ill-considered.

The Defenders inherited a lot of these problems, owing to the decision to make Iron Fist such an essential part of the show’s mythology. These problems were compounded by the fact that Danny Rand essentially fulfilled the same narrative role in The Defenders as Matt Murdock, a compelling character played by a better actor. The fact that Danny spend most of The Defenders tied up and incapacitated suggested some awareness of these issues, much like the decision to include a conversation between Luke and Danny about the existence of “white privilege.”

All of this makes Danny Rand a loaded character for Luke Cage, a show that is more cognisant of issues of race and identity than either Iron Fist or The Defenders. How could the production team hope to remain true to the already established character without compromising their own identity? It is an interesting challenge, and one that the second season of Luke Cage would have to meet with the same “swagger” that it recognised in Reverend James Lucas or in Luke Cage himself.

After all, this is how comic books work. Characters appear in different books, handled by different writers with different perspectives. While comic book fans appreciated the fiction that character is consistent, the emphasis shifts depending on the writer. The version of Danny Rand written by Chris Claremont is subtly different than that written by Jo Duffy, which is subtly different from the version written by Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker, which is in turn distinct from that written by David Walker. Allowing Danny Rand to guest star on Luke Cage is an extension of that.

Cheo Hodari Coker was not daunted by the challenge of writing for a character who had been so poorly received, but was instead invigourated by it:

When I was a journalist, I didn’t care how many people talked to Ice Cube before I talked Ice Cube. I just knew that when I talked to Ice Cube, it was going to be different than what anybody else had done, and it was the same with any group. I couldn’t compete with all these different magazines, but I knew that when I get my shot, it was gonna be different.

What we, as a writing staff, wanted was that, if we were going to have Iron Fist, it was gonna be different than The Defenders and his own show. We were gonna do it our way. We were lucky enough that both Marvel and Netflix allowed us to play a little bit because I wanted to give him a different swagger. Conventional wisdom was like, because Iron Fist Season 1 had so much against it, in terms of critics, we shouldn’t want to have him in our show. I was like, “No, f?!k that!” My attitude and arrogance as a showrunner is like, “Just because this player didn’t run your offense, it doesn’t mean that he can’t come on our team and fit perfectly.” In Akela’s episode, he did. In that moment, for that warehouse fight, I think people are gonna look at that and be like, “Wow, holy sh!t! This is fun!” Knock on wood, and I’m probably gonna get in trouble for saying this, but I would love to do a Power Man and Iron Fist spin-off. I think that would be a lot fun. It’s something that reflects their friendship. They have a 48 Hours with superpowers friendship, and I think that would be cool.

Watching The Main Ingredient, it’s hard to disagree too forcefully with Coker. It would be great fun for half of the third season of Luke Cage to pull Danny Rand into its orbit, for “48 Hours with superpowers.”

It helps that Luke Cage very cannily and very effectively acknowledges the issues with Danny Rand almost straight away. Danny Rand is a character who is the living embodiment of cultural appropriation, and so there’s a compelling dissonance in treating him as a special guest star on a series that is very much about cultural re-appropriation. After all, Danny Rand is the antithesis of the philosophy that Mariah espoused in Moment of Truth, that “for black lives to matter, black history and black ownership must also matter.” Danny is Asian history without Asian ownership.

The second season of Luke Cage softly acknowledges the issue with Danny before he even shows up. In Wig Out, Misty Knight is sparring with Colleen Wing. Colleen is of Japanese descent, played by Jessica Henwick who is of Singaporean Chinese and Zambian English descent. Despite being having an Asian background, Colleen effectively plays sidekick to Danny Rand. Danny spent a non-insignificant portion of the first season of Iron Fist lecturing Colleen on her own heritage.

Misty breaks down in frustration. “You don’t know what it’s like to feel powerless,” she tells Colleen. “To have somebody take your identity from you, your soul.” There is a moment of hesitation. Colleen responds, honestly, “I do, actually. More than you know.” In the context of the narrative, Colleen could easily be referring to the betrayal that she experienced at the hands of Bakudo in Iron Fist and The Defenders. However, it also seems like she is acknowledging the awkwardness of being a secondary lead to a white guy in a show about Asian culture.

The Main Ingredient more playfully develops the idea when Danny Rand shows up, in a number of relatively subtle ways. There is the wonderfully awkward double-take that he gives D.W. on meeting the young man for the first time, as if to suggest that Danny is not yet entirely sure what he makes of Harlem. Then there’s the episode’s closing lines as Danny gets upset at Luke for questioning his dragon story as they eat in a Chinese restaurant. “Dude, have some respect,” Danny earnestly insists. “It’s my history.” Luke sighs, resigned, “Okay, it’s your history.”

That moment, which is the closing beat of The Main Ingredient seems designed to highlight the very absurdity of Danny Rand as a character, turning what might seem like cultural appropriation into a spirited joke. This is a white guy, in a Chinese restaurant, telling a black man to show some “respect” to the “history” that he has appropriated involving magic dragons and mystic martial arts. It suggests that Danny’s claim on his heritage is so ridiculous that it cannot be taken seriously, and that Luke’s dismissive sigh is the best response to it.

This might be the best approach that the Marvel Netflix shows can hope to take to the character of Danny Rand, now that they have committed to him as a concept, to shift away from the painful earnestness of a white guy explaining a collection of vaguely Orientalist clichés to the rest of the cast and towards the acknowledgement that Danny is a fundamentally decent guy who is just oblivious to the cultural politics of what he is doing. It doesn’t quite laugh at Danny Rand, but it chuckles at him and is willing to move on from the point. This is a significant improvement.

Indeed, Luke Cage arguably uses this one-shot guest appearance from Danny Rand to position him as the “token white character” in its extended blaxploitation homage. As Frazier Tharpe explains, the “token white character” has a long history in black pop culture:

Those featured were one of the only prominent white characters in their respective black films, if not the only white overall. Also, they usually fulfill one of three standard roles within the narrative. Number one is, of course, the antagonist, almost undoubtedly a racist as well. Then, in keeping with the changing times, we have number two, the White Fish Out of Water, whose curiosity is piqued by African-American culture. Finally there’s number three, the fully assimilated white guy. Sometimes he wears du-rags (though we have no idea why), the slang rolls off of his tongue with ease, and he’s draped up and dripped out in whatever the rappers are currently wearing.

Danny operates somewhere on the spectrum between the second and third option. He is generally curious about African American culture. (“Man, I love these streets,” he declares, somewhat brazenly.) However, he’s also fully integrated into Asian American culture. It’s a weird dynamic, a compelling juxtaposition.

It should be noted that the second season of Luke Cage largely avoids having white characters intrude too heavily into its narrative; one of the benefits of having a season of thirteen episodes is that even prominent single-episode guest stars don’t tend of overshadow the narrative in the way that (say) the “Tolkien white guys” (Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman) did within Black Panther. There is not a single major recurring white character in the second season of Luke Cage, which is arguably an improvement over even the first season, which had Rafael Scarfe as a recurring guest star.

The most prominent white characters in the second season of Luke Cage are either blow-ins from the other Marvel Netflix shows or guest stars from the previous season popping in for a visit. All Souled Out features a supporting role for Foggy Nelson, possibly the whitest series regular in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a version of Scarfe conjured from Misty’s memories. While Luke Cage is never disrespectful to any of these, it is always clear that they don’t quite belong on the series. Luke pointedly leaves Foggy standing by the door in All Souled Out, making awkward attempts to integrate. (“I’ll be here, just hanging.”)

In keeping with this tone, The Main Ingredient has fun with the character of Danny Rand. The production team are clearly delighted to have the opportunity to work with a character who is very much outside of their comfort zone. The fight choreography is actually more impressive than that in Iron Fist or The Defenders, whether because Jones has had more time to train, or because there was more time afforded, or simply because the stunt team are better. Even Jones himself seems to have loosened up a little bit, working better as a supporting cast member than as a lead.

The extended sequence in which Danny and Luke raid the grow-house is largely pointless in plot terms; there’s very little here that Luke couldn’t do himself, and actually having Danny with him is something of a liability. It certainly feels rather low-stakes for a big crossover episode. While having Danny take part in something more important to the plot (like taking down Bushmaster or Mariah) would undercut Luke’s agency within the narrative of his own show, having Danny assist Luke in raiding the grow-house feels like asking Superman to help with the ironing.

However these low stakes are part of the appeal of the sequence, which allows Luke and Danny to cut loose to the Wu-Tang Clan’s 7th Chamber, Part II. Cinematographer Petr Hlinomaz coats the sequence in vibrant greens and purples, the colours of comic book villainy. Director Andy Goddard opens the sequence with a short but effective single take that whirls around the action and showcases the production team’s finely honed skill. There are lots of wonderful touches, from Luke blocking machine gun fire at Danny to their climactic “patty cake.”

The fight sequence is legitimately fun to watch, which gives it an advantage over most of the brawls in Iron Fist. Over the course of that thirteen hour season about the best martial artist in the world, only a handful of fights stood out; the axe-driven hallway fight in Eight Diagram Dragon Palm, the opening fight in Immortal Emerges from Cave, and the battle with the Hand’s champion in The Blessing of Many Fractures. In contrast, the character’s one big fight scene during a guest appearance on Luke Cage is as good (and maybe even better) than anything from his own series.

However, the production team on Luke Cage use Danny Rand in a very interesting way to further the thematic arc of the season. Danny’s visit has a big impact on Luke’s character direction running from The Creator through Can’t Front On Me and into They Reminisce Over You. The irony, of course, is that Danny has exactly the wrong kind of influence on his old friend. This is perhaps another example of the wry sense of humour that Luke Cage has towards Danny Rand. Danny cannot even offer his friend proper moral support without indirectly making things worse.

It is very clear that Danny has a lesson that he wants to impart to Luke. Danny wants to teach Luke to loosen up, to calm down, to accept that he cannot singlehandedly save Harlem. “Look, I know it can be a lot, taking on everything by yourself,” Danny tells Luke. “But you need to realize Harlem was here long before you. And it will still stand long after you.” Luke replies, “Easy for you to say. People always talking to me about walking away. But nobody understands what it’s like to have these abilities.” Danny responds, “I get it. But you don’t have to carry this burden by yourself.”

This is one of the big thematic arcs of the whole second season, the idea articulated by Reverend James Lucas in Soul Brother #1 that “not one man can save a community. One man cannot do it by himself, no matter how good, no matter how strong.” Luke really needs to learn that lesson over the second season, and he keeps failing to accept it. Danny is perhaps the most explicit attempt to make this point to Luke, having the lead character another show come over to offer moral support for his friend out of solidarity, and then explicitly hammering the point in the closing scene.

Luke point blank refuses to accept the advice that Danny is offering. Indeed, given how generous Danny has been with his time, it seems fair to imply that Luke also politely rejects the offer of continued assistance from his friend. “Yeah, well, sometimes you you gotta face things head on,” Luke warns Danny, once again embracing his archetypal masculinity. “On your own.” Danny replies, “Oh, boy. You’re starting to sound like I did. It’s not good.” Given that everybody accepts that Iron Fist and The Defenders were disasters, this is most definitely not a good thing.

However, while Luke refuses to accept the wisdom that Danny is trying to impart, The Main Ingredient suggests that Danny accidentally imparts some other life lessons to Luke that inadvertently fuel his decisions later in the season. “You know, power comes from stillness, Luke,” Danny states early in the episode. “No,” Luke replies. “Power comes from getting sh!t done, Danny.” Luke clearly respects Danny, and pays attention to not only how Danny acts, but also how other characters act around Danny.

When they visit Harlem’s Paradise, Luke remarks that Mariah’s goons are intimidated by Danny’s net worth. “You always have to make this about my money,” Danny insists, getting a little touchy. “I told you, I don’t even live off it anymore.” However, Luke seems genuinely frustrated at Danny’s refusal to acknowledge wealth and material as sources of power. “You don’t get it, do you? The glowing fist is the least powerful thing about you. Especially up here. Stillness is power? No, money is power. That’s what flows. That’s the one thing they respect.”

Later on, taking Luke to a vantage point where he can overlook Central Park, Danny instills in Luke the importance of standing over things and viewing the world from above. “When you clear your mind, everything comes into focus,” Danny explains. “That’s why we came up high. Mariah she likes that perch because she can see everything. Like a hawk.” Again, this is a lesson that Luke seems to internalise from his time with Danny, even if he doesn’t embrace it in the way that Danny would like or expect.

Luke’s time with Danny in The Main Ingredient seems to inadvertently inspire Luke to install himself as “king” of Harlem in They Reminisce Over You. Danny is a constant reminder of the protection and authority that wealth brings, the comfort and insulation that it creates. When Luke wants to destroy the grow-house, Danny just has to make a phone call to buy it first. As Luke stands and looks out over Harlem’s Paradise at the end of They Reminisce Over You, it’s hard not to think about him looking out over Central Park with Danny in The Main Ingredient.

(To be fair, Danny isn’t the only character in The Main Ingredient who demonstrates to Luke that money makes anything possible. Turk Barrett makes his obligatory appearance in his new role selling drug paraphernalia, perfectly legally straddling the criminal world and the legitimate world. “So you opened a head shop, huh?” Luke asks. Turk responds, “Hey, I followed the money, baby.” In the second season of Luke Cage, as increasingly in the real world, money makes it possible for what appears criminal to be perceived as legitimate.)

The Main Ingredient also makes nice use of Danny Rand to provide a sense of context for Bushmaster. With his Obeah rituals and his Caribbean mysticism, Bushmaster exists somewhat outside the contextual framework of Luke Cage. There was nothing in the first season to suggest that Luke Cage operated in a world where he routinely interacted with magic, notwithstanding the fact that he theoretically shared a cinematic universe with Thor and Doctor Strange.

However, the mere presence of Danny Rand in The Main Ingredient reminds the audience that Luke exists in a world populated by concepts far stranger and more mystical than a bulletproof black man who gained his powers in an experiment that seems like a cross between the ones from Captain America: The First Avenger and X-Men II. Bushmaster is a character who is not difficult to reconcile in the context of a character tied to concepts like the mystical city of “K’un-Lun” or the dragon known as “Shou-Lao the Undying.”

As Luke hunts for Bushmaster, Danny repeatedly points out that none of this is at all exotic or out of place to him to him. “This place kinda reminds me of an old apothecary back in K’un-Lun,” remarks Danny on visiting Mother’s Touch. “Any sickness, any pain, Old Ming would have a leaf or a remedy for it.” This is not too far removed from the homeopathy that Tilda practices, which relies on principles and concepts that are alien to more rational medical disciplines.

Danny even explains away Bushmaster’s deteriorating mental state by reference to the mysticism of K’un-Lun. He talks about Bad-Kan, which “encompasses our physical structure and our mental stability. And if you manipulate it too much, then you could lose your mind.” This is very similar to how Anansi described the dangers of using the herb in For Pete’s Sake, warning his nephew, “Your body is falling apart. Your mind will follow. Your soul is the last to go.” Tying Bushmaster’s vague mysticism to Danny Rand’s vague mysticism is canny use of the guest star’s mythology.

There is something endearingly cheesy in the way that Luke serves to literalise the more abstract metaphorical quality of Danny’s mythology. “It says that nightshade is highly toxic,” Luke reports from one text. “That the more you take it, the less effective it is.” Danny recognises this. “Bad-Kan,” he explains. “You need more, more frequently, and it’s less effective.” In case the audience doesn’t get the metaphor that the series has been pushing with Bushmaster’s addiction, Luke states, “Like heroin.” He waits a beat, to make the mystical parallels clear, “Chasing the dragon.”

(This is undercut by the revelation in The Creator that Bushmaster gained his powers as the result of a conspiracy involving vaccines given to Jamaican children. That back story strips away any potentially mystical or magical explanation for Bushmaster’s abilities, and firmly recontextualises him in terms of the “science run amok!” school of superheroes and supervillains that accounts for most of the characters on Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It is shame, particularly given how well The Main Ingredient seeds the idea that mysticism can exist on Luke Cage.)

The second season of Luke Cage accomplishes a great many things. Not the least of these is in finding a way to incorporate Danny Rand into the Marvel Netflix universe without causing untold damage in the process. This might seem like no small accomplishment, but Luke Cage manages in one episode what Iron Fist and The Defenders could not accomplish in twenty-one.

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

One Response

  1. >Power Man and Iron Fist sold well enough that it went from a bimonthly title to a monthly book in May 1981. The series ran for seventy-six issues, finally retired in September 1986, reflecting the changes in an industry about to be rocked by Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Crisis on Infinite Earths.

    …And in the end was cancelled primarily to free up space for the ill-fated New Universe line. But the PM/IF era is also notable in that the latter years were the first time an African-American writer took charge of Luke Cage (said writer being Priest) and featured Cage’s first African-American dual creative team (Priest/Bright).

    >It should be noted that Claremont had the leverage of being writer on Uncanny X-Men, one of the most popular comic books of the seventies, eighties and into the nineties.

    Kinda, sorta. The X-Men were still building a reputation at the time – their comic wasn’t even monthly (which is how Byrne was able to partner with Claremont on both titles simultaneously). X-Men was still on the rise – but no one knew then just how high it was going to climb.

    (also, who was the villain who originally brought Power Man & Iron Fist together? Bushmaster, natch.)

    I enjoyed this episode a lot; it really helps to stave off the droning sense of ‘Netflix fatigue’ to have episodes with different tones, or in, in this instance, a notable guest star. This is the Danny Rand I always hoped Finn Jones would give us – the aloof, fish-out-of-water character which made him fun to contrast against Cage in the comics. The embittered, angry character in his show was no fun to be around (among the show’s many other problems).

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