Oct 07, 2016
Luke Cage, the titular hero of the new Netflix series, has been a lot of things throughout comics history. He's been a blaxploitation icon for Marvel, a Hero for Hire, Power Man, a husband, a dad and a member of the Avengers. He's been written poorly, had some wonderful story arcs, and suffered under some characterizations that could charitably be described as "borderline racist." And now, he's being brought into the Marvel Cinematic Universe to join Daredevil and Jessica Jones as the "street-level" heroes who will eventually become The Defenders. So which Cage did Marvel bring to the screen?
Well, turns out, it's a little bit of all of them. The Luke Cage series is a bit jumbled in its characterizations, settings and plotting, but most of the time the sum total overcomes its weaknesses and provides a fun time. The series' titular hero is more stoic strongman than blaxploitation firebrand, which alternately works for and against the show. It's refreshing to see an African-American protagonist not slotted into a one-note role of wise-cracking comic relief or the Angry Black Man trope the comics often dipped into, but Mike Colter's portrayal of Cage means viewers are never quite sure why Cage is doing what he's doing (at least for the first few episodes).
Some of that is due to narrative choices—the build-up to the (often very good!) fight scenes go as slowly as a crime noir film, but the reason for them often seems to be "well, we should probably have a fight scene." Granted, when the protagonist is a bulletproof man with unbreakable skin, fight choreographers need to be creative.
As with all of the Marvel shows on Netflix, the villains are where the show's storylines really shine. The main villains (Cottonmouth, Mariah, and Diamondback) may lack the charming menace of David Tennant's portrayal of Kilgrave (aka Purple Man) in Jessica Jones, but they also possess a more complicated relationship to the setting of Harlem than other Marvel villains (including Wilson Fisk, whose attachment to Hell's Kitchen was under explained) that makes them much more three-dimensional. These are villains who are also benefactors, bad people who make a lot of lives a lot better via political or financial means. The flashbacks exploring the genesis of their crime empire is the show's highlight, perfectly mining a mixture of pulp and real menace to accompany the '70s gangster vibe.
The show takes a bit to get going, but once it does, it's a mostly enjoyable ride with some bumps along the way. We get an origin story for Cage (with some clever Easter eggs comics fans will enjoy), and that helps us learn why Cage is so committed to justice. Additionally, when Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) shows up, it links Luke Cage to the rest of the Defenders' shows, and gives Cage a foil that provides a little spark to all of the proceedings. Cage's other foil and sometimes-lover, Misty Knight (Simone Cook), is a great character in her own right-and is much more interesting when not trying to awkwardly flirt with Cage.
The setting of Harlem is a key to the show—this is a series (rightfully) not shy about asking its audience to dig into black history, name dropping everyone from A$AP Rocky to Ralph Ellison to explore the past of both Harlem and broader black America. As the episodes progress, the series leans more and more into this past and are the more successful for it. As episodes pass, the storytelling becomes more sure and powerful—which suggests the inevitable season two will be great.
Overall, the show could have used a little tightening (it might be time to rethink the 13-episode model, which Daredevil's second season ought to have already proven), and episodes can lag a little bit in the middle, but it's an enjoyable ride. The music choices are perpetually wonderful, the villains will actually surprise you, and Luke Cage proves himself to be a hero worth watching. (www.netflix.com)
Author rating: 7/10
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