(Note: This post contains spoilers for “Luke Cage” Season 2, especially toward the end of the season.)
One of the primary villains of “Luke Cage” Season 2 gives the Hero of Harlem a run for his money. Super strong and super durable, the Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir) is a lot like Luke (Mike Coulter): he can stop bullets with this chest, and he can beat up a guy who once took a shotgun blast to the face and survived without a scratch.
But we know that his abilities aren’t at full strength all the time, and that he wasn’t born with them — unlike other characters in the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, such as Luke. So how exactly do they even work?
Bushmaster, better known as John McIver, was a kid in Jamaica when many of the children in his neighborhood were given a vaccine by foreign doctors. Some of his neighbors avoided the vaccine because they didn’t trust the source, but John was among those who received it, and as the story goes, pretty much all of the vaccinated children died, except for John.
What’s not clear is whether or not it was the vaccine that gave John his strength. The people in the Yardie gang who work with John, including his mentor Anansi (Sahr Ngaujah), believe John has innate abilities that allowed him to survive. Maybe, but the Marvel universe has tons of examples of scientific/medical experiments that kill some subjects, but leave others with abilities. In fact, Luke Cage was the subject of just such an experiment at Seagate Penitentiary, which killed the other inmates who took part, but saved his life and made his skin super-strong. Apparently, Luke’s innate strength is what allowed him to survive and become enhanced.
Either way, John’s “strength” is connected to his other abilities, which he gets from a special Jamaican herb called Nightshade, prepared in a special way.
During the flashback scene in Season 2, Episode 11, we see Cottonmouth and Mariah’s uncle Pete (Curtiss Cook) shoot John. (This takes place during the last stage of a feud between the Stoke family — the bad guys at the center of both seasons of “Luke Cage” — and their former partners, the McIvers.)
But John’s strength keeps him alive long enough for Anansi to get him to a local witchdoctor, who administers Nightshade during a ritual. The nightshade pushes the bullets out of his chest and saves his life, though the witchdoctor also clarifies that Nightshade doesn’t heal, it reveals. This seems to be why Anansi and the other characters around Bushmaster insist the drug unlocks his innate abilities rather than creates them.
So when Bushmaster uses Nightshade, he’s as strong as Luke, maybe stronger. Bullets don’t bounce off his body, but they don’t penetrate, and he can literally push the slugs out of his skin from inside. Likewise, he’s super strong and fast, and on more than one occasion he manages to beat up Luke, who usually isn’t phased at all by punches, bullets, or even getting hit by vehicles.
There are two troubles with Nightshade, however. First, it’s native to Jamaica and the Yardies find it almost impossible to grow it in Harlem. When Luke and Danny Rand (Finn Jones), also known as the Immortal Iron Fist, raid a Yardie growhouse, they don’t find marijuana, they find gardners attempting to grow Nightshade for Bushmaster. It’s not working, though, because the combination of elements in Jamaica, from the soil to the sun, are key to allowing the plant to thrive.
The second issue is that Bushmaster builds up a tolerance to Nightshade over time, so he needs more of it every time he uses it, while the Nightshade becomes less effective. All in all, it’s a different spin on Luke’s powers, making Bushmaster’s abilities more about his sheer force of will than about becoming mutated or otherwise superhuman.
Bushmaster’s treatment in “Luke Cage” is pretty different from what’s seen in the comics, though. In the books, Bushmaster is pretty much exactly like Luke Cage, getting the same powers in basically the same way. Nightshade and rituals have nothing to do with it.
The comic version of Bushmaster heads to Seagate, where he forces Noah Burstein (Michael Kostroff in the show) to do the same experiments on him as he did on Luke Cage, but to a greater degree. The result is that Bushmaster becomes more powerful than Luke, but he’s seemingly killed in an explosion while the pair fight.
Of course, Bushmaster didn’t blow up, but when he resurfaces, the “Power Man” experiment that Burstein did on him has gone too far. His body is slowly turning into metal, killing him. Bushmaster tries to get Burstein to reverse the process by kidnapping his wife and threatening to kill her. He also kidnaps Luke for Burstein to test the process on. Iron Fist shows up to save Luke, though, and Bushmaster turns to metal and crumbles before he can order Burstein’s wife killed.
Later, Bushmaster’s son Cruz tried to get Burstein to fix the Power Man process using Bushmaster’s remains (and kidnapping Luke again). The experiment revived Bushmaster, who then took over Cruz’s body. But that Bushmaster seemingly died in another explosion, after Iron Fist showed up to save Luke once again from Bushmaster’s plans.
In the comics, there’s another Bushmaster — Jon McIver’s brother, Quincy. He becomes a super criminal after he loses all four limbs in an accident while trying to evade police. The limbs are replaced with bionic prosthetics, and the bottom half of his body is fitted with a snake-like tail. Quincy gets a mention in “Luke Cage” Season 2, but we don’t know what his deal is. Given the aesthetic quality of the Netflix series, it seems unlikely that a bionic snakeman Bushmaster will show up anytime soon. Then again, you never know how the MCU might deploy villains in the future, either in the shows or in movies.