TV Review: Luke Cage
Luke Cage (Netflix)
Starring: Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Alfe Woodward
After making his debut on Jessica Jones last year, it’s now time for Luke Cage to take the center stage. The latest of the Marvel Netflix Defenders series, Luke Cage is another solid example of Marvel’s partnership with Netflix, but even the bulletproof Hero of Harlem can’t overcome the same problems as the other Marvel series. However, Luke Cage is bolstered by a pretty stellar cast that really make the series worth the watch.
If Daredevil was Marvel’s take on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and Jessica Jones was their take on Noir, then Luke Cage is 100% Marvel’s spin on Blaxploitation cinema. From the opening notes of the theme song to the musical cues that accent dramatic beats, you can feel the inspiration of films like Shaft, Super Fly, and other 70’s movies. There’s also a great use of modern soul and hip hop music throughout the show, so much so that I even looked up a few of the artists to check out later (be sure to seek out Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings and Charles Bradley). Of the Marvel Netflix shows, Luke Cage has the most unique and recognizable style that is clearly all its own, and isn’t afraid to touch on hot button topics like racism in America.
Luke Cage also wears the “Hero of Harlem” moniker with pride. Filmed on location like the other Netflix Marvel shows, there’s an added sense of realism that really helps the show. Like Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil, Harlem is so integral to the show that it becomes a character. One of the highlights of the season is when Luke Cage has to help out the numerous citizens of Harlem who’ve been targeted by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes to get a rise out of him. The second Luke walks outside he’s bombarded by people asking for his help, and the montage of him helping them out is fantastic. The same goes for a sequence later in the season where Harlem residents start wearing hoodies with bullet holes in them. It’s a great way to show how much this neighborhood cares about their hero, and an incredibly powerful message as well.
These themes play a huge part in Luke Cage, and show that this is a series that is very much a reflection of the world we live in. Luke Cage not only looks at what it’s like to be a street level hero; it’s also a look into what it’s like to a superhero that’s a minority. Luke Cage may be helping the people of Harlem, but his relationship with the cops isn’t all that great. Amazingly though, for all the social commentary that Luke Cage has, it never feels super preachy. In fact, it’s refreshing, and just the thing Marvel needed to do amidst the controversies surrounding Doctor Strange and the fact that they don’t have any female lead films. When it comes to an accurate depiction of the world around us (albeit with super powered beings). Luke Cage is one of the best things Marvel has produced. You can feel the frustration that Luke, Misty Knight, and the residents of Harlem feel when it comes to dealing with the Police and each other, and that’s one of the biggest strengths of this series.
The cast is what really helps sell these moments, and it’s another area where Luke Cage succeeds. We all got a taste of Mike Colter’s Luke in last year’s Jessica Jones, but we didn’t know if he could carry a show on his own. Well, after the first hour wrapped it was clear that this is Mike Colter’s show. He commands the screen every time he’s on it, and embodies Cage perfectly. Like Chris Evans’ Captain America, Colter’s portrayal of Luke Cage is so on point that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing him. Colter’s got the charm, confidence, and all around badassness that’s needed to make Luke Cage work, and it’s a real treat watching him. Hell, he even makes “Sweet Christmas” work multiple times throughout the series.
However, a hero is only as good as his villains, and that’s where Luke Cage becomes a little frustrating. I’ll start with the good: Mahershala Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is fanfreakingtastic. As a Biggie Smalls obsessed crime lord, Ali delivers a mesmerizing performance that’s almost on par with Vincent D’Onfrio’s Wilson Fisk from Daredevil. There’s definitely a lot of parallels between the two characters (which are alluded to in the series), but I’d argue that there’s an even bigger and better sympathetic light cast on Stokes, who, while craving more power, is doing it to better his community. You can tell that even though he’s an imposing figure to the Harlem community, his real passion is music, and when the show delves into his back-story it delivers some heartbreaking revelations about the character.
But, and this is where that SPOILER comes in, he’s taken out in episode seven. And When I say “taken out”, I mean murdered by his cousin, Mariah Dillard (played by Alfre Woodward). It’s a surprising twist that unfortunately almost derails the entire show, as we’re left with an unresolved conflict between Luke Cage and Stokes. At this point, Stokes was coming up with a plan to really get to Luke Cage, and that plan was started to be put into motion, but removing Stokes doesn’t just hurt the momentum of that conflict, it stops it dead in its tracks. It almost makes you wonder if the show runners didn’t realize how good Ali would be, and by the time they did, it was too late to change anything.
The show then quickly introduces Diamondback (Erik Laray Harvey, who gives a performance that veers from off the wall Joker crazy to oddly subdued), the man who Stokes had been working for, but the stakes had been set already with Stokes, so it’s like Luke Cage hits the “reboot” button halfway through the show. Imagine if Return of the Jedi had the Emperor kill Darth Vader before Luke Skywalker had the chance to confront him again, and you’d get a good idea of how it effects the narrative of the show. A lot of people complained about the clear disconnect between the two halves of Daredevil season two, but here you can REALLY feel that divide, as the Cottonmouth and Diamondback portions of the series feel like two different shows put together. It feels a lot like show runner Cheo Hodari Coker was expecting to not get a season two of Cage and decided to just cram seasons one and two into one season.
It doesn’t help matters either that Diamondback ends up being kind of a let down. After everything we’ve heard about him, his big plan involves a “Judas bullet” that can penetrate Luke Cage’s skin. Yet he ends up just slugging it out with Cage in a goofy looking power suit designed by Justin Hammer’s company. After thirteen episodes, it’s a showdown that should be way cooler than it ends up being. Not even the revelation that he’s Cage’s half-brother adds fire to their conflict.
However, Luke Cage isn’t a complete wash villain wise. Alfre Woodward’s Mariah is really fun, and her evolution from Councilwoman in Harlem to eventual crime boss is interesting, and I actually really enjoyed Simone Missick as Misty Knight, even thought she is saddled with some pretty corny lines. Really the only actor that didn’t hook me was Theo Rossi, but that’s more because I see him and only picture Juice from Sons of Anarchy.
While Luke Cage isn’t quite the slam dunk that Daredevil Season 1 or Jessica Jones was, it’s still worth it for Mike Colter’s performance. But I won’t lie, it’s pretty frustrating having another Marvel Netflix show drag in the middle episodes, and out of all of them, this one shows the most weakness in the middle. It’s enough to make you wonder if Marvel’s deal with Netflix meant that every one of their shows HAS to have thirteen episodes, cause after this, I’d rather have six to eight awesome episodes than thirteen “good to great to meh to great” ones. At least then the need to drag things out wouldn’t be there. As it stands right now, Luke Cage definitely has some awesome moments, but it fell short of what the character and the message deserved.