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Luke Cage – If It Ain’t Rough, It Ain’t Right (Review)

The past stays with us.

Part of what is interesting about the second season of Luke Cage is the manner in which it engages with, and builds from, what came before. Continuity is a long-standing fixture of superhero narratives, most obviously in the four-colour source material. Fictional characters accrue a history, as individual issues and appearances add up to create a complex set of interlocking details that define and shape the character. It is in some ways comparable to how individual histories help to forge identities and determine who we are.

Of course, it should be noted that superhero movies and television shows have carried over some of this continuity from the comic books. Although cinema’s first “shared universe” was arguably constructed between the Universal monster movies of the thirties, the modern popularity of the term is driven by the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an elaborate physical construct that ties together everything from Avengers: Infinity War to Daredevil to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The idea is that, in theory, events from one end of this universe might ripple over to another. After all, Misty can drop a casual reference to “the Incident” into an interrogation in Straighten It Out, a nod to the events of The Avengers which can be used to justify the proliferation of advanced technology within this shared universe. Overlap can happen in the strangest places, such as a character mentioned by Misty in For Pete’s Sake turning up a week or so later in an episode of Cloak & Dagger.

At the same time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has struggled to build a truly interconnected universe, in part due to the commercial of realities of film and television production. As a result, Robert Downey Junior is highly unlikely to pop by Hell’s Kitchen for an homage to Born Again, while the Hulk can only be explicitly referenced as “the big green dude” in AKA It’s Called Whiskey or “the green monster” in All Souled Out. The characters from The Defenders are highly unlikely to ever have to worry about Thanos’ finger snap, after all.

This strange dissonance and discontinuity that exists between the various facets of the live action Marvel Cinematic Universe is part of what makes the strong continuity connections between the first and second seasons of Luke Cage so compelling, the sense of a tightly woven narrative that is expanding in a logical way from earlier events, where characters’ current behaviours are largely shaped and defined by what the audience has already seen. It’s a very effective use of continuity, particularly for a comic book television series.

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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.

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