As critically acclaimed and popular as Luke Cage was in its server-crashing first season, it suffered from problems common to Marvel's Netflix dramas, with uneven pacing, an unnecessary road trip and a disappointing third-act antagonist. However, most of those shortcomings are firmly in the past with the arrival of the impressive second season, which projects a confidence that Luke, and his father, would undoubtedly call swagger.
To characterize Season 2 as The Godfather Part II to the first season's Godfather doesn't lean too hard into hyperbole, because not only is this the rare sophomore outing that improves upon the original, but the influences of Francis Ford Coppola's seminal crime saga on the story are apparent, and celebrated.
Following the events of Marvel's The Defenders, Luke (Mike Colter) has returned as "Harlem's hero," even if no one -- least of all Luke -- is certain what that means. But while he previously operated as somewhere between an urban legend and a folk hero, now he's a celebrity whose every move can be tracked using an app, and whose name and catchphrases are plastered across sweatshirts (available for purchase at Pop's Barber Shop). The burden is almost too much for even Luke, who, without the benefit of Pop's moral compass, finds the line between right and wrong becoming blurred, even as he wonders whether Harlem needs a sheriff, a king or, in Mariah Dillard's view, a queen.
Misty Knight (Simone Missick) has her own struggle as she comes to terms with the loss of her arm in The Defenders finale, and how that affects her sense of self and her work at the New York Police Department, where she's viewed as a rising star by the top brass, an untouchable troublemaker by her immediate supervisor, and with a mix of pity and scorn by her co-workers. Much like Luke, she questions whether the ends can justify the means, all the while attempting to escape the shadow of her late, dirty partner Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley).
But as much as the second season is Luke's story, naturally, it also belongs to Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who here surpasses Daredevil's Wilson Fisk to become the most compelling antagonist of the Marvel Netflix shows, and arguably of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like Michael Corleone, Mariah wants nothing more than to go legitimate, even if she has to get her hands dirty to do it. However, this is Luke Cage, so nothing is that easy. Mariah is haunted by her past -- not only by the specter of her grandmother, the larger-than-life Mama Mabel, and by her own murder of cousin Cornell (Mahershala Ali), but more tangibly by new rival John McIver, aka Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who's fueled by a deep-seated hatred for the Stokes family.