LUKE CAGE (8 out of 10) Created by Cheo Hodari Coker; Based on the comic book ‘Luke Cage’ by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas, John Romita Sr.; Starring Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Erik LaRay Harvey, Rosario Dawson, Alfre Woodard; Hour-long drama streaming all 13 episodes on Netflix now
“Luke Cage” is the most authentic character of all of the heroes in the Marvel Netflix Originals so far.
For all of the excitement that mounts as each of Marvel’s Netflix Original series premiere, one would assume that eventually the hype will outweigh the reality. There is a similar feeling among fans and critics when a new Marvel movie is announced. So far, the teams of creatives involved in bringing these beloved comic book characters to life have yet to disappoint. With Marvel’s latest Netflix series, “Luke Cage,” they continue their trend of success but do not again reach the pinnacle that was Marvel’s “Jessica Jones.”
That isn’t to say that the series has many faults, but it does have enough missteps to give us pause and consider that balancing thirteen episodes of high action and drama through the lens of a super-hero is not an easy task. Add in the fact that this series, like “Jessica Jones” before it, continues the proud comic book tradition of being socially relevant to our current cultural events and the job only increases in difficulty.
“Luke Cage” is the most authentic character of all of the heroes in the Marvel Netflix Originals so far. Cage himself, is the most relatable character of the three primary heroes to date. His struggles are fantastical but the world around him is very much the one that many in the minority communities in America live in. The people just want to live their lives but gang violence and police misconduct are daily realities that cannot be escaped. “Luke Cage” bravely tackles issues that can cause political arguments but it does so in a responsible and entertaining way.
The series knows that its job is entertainment and does not preach, but anyone watching it should easily grasp what the hyperbolic violence is actually commenting on. Luke Cage has to get a new hoodie several times through the 13 episodes because it becomes riddled in bullet holes. Sometimes he’s shot by the criminals trying to profit off of suffering in Harlem and at other times he is shot at by police officers, even while he shields other police officers from the deadly fire of their comrades.
Luke Cage is a reluctant hero in Harlem, as he is hiding from his past, events both mysterious and those revealed in “Jessica Jones.” He is forced into taking action by both his moral compass and his mentor figure in Harlem, the barber and former criminal Henry “Pops” Hunter. Pops runs the neutral area in Harlem, a local barber shop, a place refers to as Switzerland.
Pops is concerned with the location and fate of some of the wayward neighborhood boys he’s tried to turn into upstanding citizens. He knows about Luke’s hidden powers and forces Luke into looking for one of the boys. Pops had previously helped Cage when he first arrived in Harlem, help offered in exchange for a favor down the road, and Pops decides it's time to collect. It’s at this point that Luke is forced into direct confrontation with the criminal and the police authority elements of Harlem. The catch of course being that he’s unwittingly slept with one of the police officers, Misty Knight, and he’s been dish washing at a club owned by one of Harlem’s most notorious criminals, Cottonmouth. All at once, Luke finds himself the fulcrum around which bends the lever of power in Harlem.
The first half of the series follows Luke on his investigative journey. Some tragedy occurs and Luke decides it’s his responsibility, because he has the power, to take out the criminal organization of Cottonmouth’s. This puts him in the sights of the law enforcement, especially Misty Knight. He carefully minds his identity because of his hidden past (though not carefully enough, get a mask, man). At this point, the show seems to move away from direct social commentary and shift villains in an all too obvious plot.
Cottonmouth is by far, the superior character, but he isn’t the big boss from out of town, Diamondback. Diamondback relies on the show informing us that he’s the big baddie and there isn’t much of the character development that Cottonmouth received for us to really appreciate just how awful Diamond back is. While the remainder of the series plays out, there are scenes where Diamondback is shown to be sadistic and cruel, but only after he’s introduced. It really steals from the urgency felt in the early episodes and slows the series to a crawl through the end. This amounts to one of the few major missteps the show runners make.
The bright note that pulls the show up from the sluggishness is Rosario Dawson’s Night Nurse character Claire Temple. Her chemistry with Luke Cage, played by Mike Colter, is wonderful. It will have new audiences rooting for there to be some dark, hot beverages in both of the character’s futures. Of course, the characters of Claire and Misty have their confrontations as Misty digs in her detective heals against Claire’s more pragmatic sensibilities. Misty certainly wants justice but can’t see past the illusions the villains have put in front of her. Luke Cage just can’t seem to catch a break as he has Harlem’s criminal element framing him for crimes he could have committed, but certainly would not.
The unsung villain in all of this though, has to be the evolution of Mariah Dillard through the helping hands of the truly cringe-worthy (in the best kind of way) personality of Hernan “Shades” Alvarez. Their story is certainly set up for a season 2 of the series, and despite it clashing with the urgency of the first half of the series, Shades and Mariah are utterly detestable villains. Both actors who play those roles are terrific, but I believe the edge for worst villain of the entire series has to go to Shades.
As the series comes to a close there are more references to police officer shootings of unarmed black men in America. The bullet hole ridden hoodies of Luke Cage’s turn from a national embarrassment to a sign of pride for the local Harlem sub-culture. The score plays us through the entire journey in what may be the most well composed score of any modern television series. The song, “Bulletproof Love” by Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad featuring Method Man, is a triumph that caps a score that is just as much of a character as the ones being portrayed by actors on screen. If there is any question in the excellence of this series because of its slight missteps, the score quickly eliminates those.
In the end, we get a wonderful character journey that may be sluggish at times, but is successful in the strength of the acting and score. The story itself isn’t bogged down in the social awareness that it brings to unfamiliar audiences, but the clichés it lets itself fall into do work against it being proclaimed the best superhero series on Netflix. That’s perfectly fine though, because it is still a successful series. Even more of a reason to watch and enjoy “Luke Cage” is because it does a much better job of setting itself up for a second season than the first season of “Jessica Jones” or the last two of “Daredevil” did.