Marvel has established a certain rhythm for its shows on Netflix. Start strong, lose steam, and then flop off the rails. Daredevil and Jessica Jones managed to keep their steam through their first seasons. Luke Cage started really strong, but couldn't keep up the pace – and that's where things really started to go downhill. Iron Fist started bad and stayed that way, and Defenders never got better than "okay." Daredevil was still good up until partway through its second season, but Jessica Jones' second season was rougher than we could've guessed.

Luke Cage, the strongest man in uptown New York, might just have the strength and endurance to break that trend. After a slow start, Luke Cage season 2 blossoms into one of Marvel's best Netflix shows and one of the few that might justify its 13-episode run. Oh, and I can even say that a certain cameo I'll talk about later didn't take away from the show like I expected it to.

As always, prepare for potential light spoilers in the review beyond.

Luke Cage's second season takes all that was good about the first season and builds on it. It continues to delve into the histories of its deep cast of characters to flesh them out and help us make sense of where they're going. The Marvel Netflix Universe works best when it stays grounded, and this second season works hard to ground its characters, making them memorable without trying to turn them into Silver-Age comic characters (I'm looking at you, Diamondback).

The characters we meet in Luke Cage season 2 and those who came over from season 1 have been shaped by their pasts in ways they continue to tangle with through this season. A lot of that struggle is painful and even counterproductive, and we see how the refusal to actually work through their pasts affects them and the ones they love.

Luke, for example, is still haunted by his resentment for his father. In the first season, we saw how his father's mistakes both created Diamondback and pulled Luke's mother away from him. That translates into an angry swagger that threatens to ruin the goodwill Luke has built with the community of Harlem and to destroy his relationships with those close to him. Meanwhile, Mariah Stokes Dillard continues to run from her family history – one fraught with murder, rape, blackmail, and more – like a flaming fuel tank that feeds her even as it threatens to explode.

The strongest aspect of the season, though, is the cast and its many stellar performances.

That starts with Mike Colter as Luke Cage, who brings to life Luke's complicated situation. He seems more ready to be a hero, but he doesn't know how to do it. The community is ready to pounce on a single mistake and turn on their hero, while those at the top of the criminal food chain are ready to capitalize on that weakness the moment it shows. Colter embodies both Luke's self-assuredness and the depth of his burden.

Meanwhile, we see Mariah Stokes' continued fall played out beautifully by Alfre Woodard. Mariah is a woman deeply familiar with her family's past and afraid to embrace it, but also someone ready to take what she thinks belongs to her. Her arc is about accepting that truth, and Woodard shows us both the vulnerability and fear Mariah experiences and the fierceness that emerges once she does.

Simone Missick takes Misty Knight from supporting cast to co-star in this season, and she's responsible for some of the best moments in the season. One in particular happens pretty early on. She's still dealing with the injury she suffered during the climax of The Defenders, and she's gone to Iron Fist's Colleen Wing to work on coping with it. The two end up at a bar after a frustrating training session, and the two women get some unwanted attention from a guy at the bar.

This fight scene is fun, in italics. Maybe even capital letters. The two women are capable and dangerous, but Misty is off her game. Missick believably conveys the confusion of an experienced fighter suddenly fighting without the help of one of her arms. Meanwhile, Colleen – who knows Misty doesn't need any of her help, and simply needs a personal victory to get her mojo back – smirks while she sips her beer in the background. Once she sees that happen, the two get into it together, and both actresses are totally convincing as people you do not mess with. Jessica Henwick seems to have grown into Colleen's shoes and her short appearance on the show is an absolute blast. She's dealt with her pain and is ready to help pull others up with her.

Shades is another character that grows and grows. Shades is layered with complexity this time around, thanks to Theo Rossi, who might be the most underrated actor on the show . He's the younger man to Mariah in a rare reversal of the Bond-with-younger-woman trope, but he's not simply eye candy. He's a smart and strategic character that moves with an almost serpentine grace as he calculates the moves and thoughts of those around him. He seems happy to stand back and influence events until he, too, has to tangle with his past. Shades is a person who loves and cares, but that vulnerability doesn't contradict who he is as a criminal the way it so often does when characters are allowed to be vulnerable.

The standout, though, is Mustafa Shakir as John McIver, aka Bushmaster. Aside from being the continuation of the show's trend of naming characters after snakes – Cottonmouth, Diamondback, and now Bushmaster – Shakir steals just about every scene he's in. He has an imposing physicality as the Jamaican crime lord/martial arts master. The show waits too long to delve into Bushmaster's origins, but Shakir's forceful performance both as character can believably go toe-to-toe with Luke Cage and as a man hellbent on revenge, make it work.

Also worth mentioning are Gabrielle Dennis as Mariah's daughter Tilda and the late Reg E. Cathey as Luke's estranged father.

And also making an appearance in this season is Finn Jones as Danny Rand. You know, the Immortal Iron Fist? The defender of K'un-L'un? Sworn enemy of the Hand? Yeah, that guy. And somehow, he doesn't ruin the show in his short appearance and instead starts on a path to redeeming the character as a point of calm against Luke's barely-restrained fury. Yes, that's right. Iron Fist is actually a plus in an otherwise solid season instead of a major detraction.

No, I'm not sick and no, there isn't a Marvel rep holding a gun to my head – I actually didn't mind Iron Fist as he shows up in Luke Cage season 2.

Generally, the show continues to be one of the most complex Marvel shows, working in all kinds of social concepts and ideas. We're still conscious of the fact that Luke Cage is a black man standing precariously between the worlds of order and chaos. We see the struggles of foreign communities trying to integrate into American culture through Bushmaster's Jamaican family and community. The realities some inmates experience in prison are brought to the surface through the deep connection between Shades and his friend Comanche.

The show intelligently asks how a hero – even a bulletproof and super-strong one – can possibly save a city from organized crime when the police have totally failed it, without actually falling into that underworld himself. It doesn't pretend to have an easy answer for it, either.

Luke Cage season 2 is the first Marvel show where the second season feels like an improvement on the first season. I still think the first half of the first season is the show's best section, but the latter half pulled the average down hard. Luke Cage season 2 remains good throughout its 13 episodes and while it could've stood to lose a couple episodes worth of runtime, I wasn't tapping my foot by the end of episode 9 and wondering when it would end. I was still focused, right up until the final moments, on what was going to happen to these characters – on how they would grow and change, and on where the show could go from there.

I hope beyond hope this will be start of something better, as we wait on future seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, the Punisher and Iron Fist. Could Iron Fist have a good second season? I dare not entertain the thought, but it's now possible.

4 out of 5