It’s past the middle of October, which means by now we’ve all binged our way through the first season of Marvel Studios’ Luke Cage on Netflix since it landed earlier in this month.
I think most people who have blitzed through these first 13 episodes will agree that showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has crafted an entertaining show, albeit one that’s not without some fairly major flaws, either.
Still, by telling a superhero story directly linked to the African American experience, Choker and his team have created something different to every other comic book adaptation out there, pushing the genre in a new direction and putting out the most important work that Marvel Studios has produced since last year’s Jessica Jones.
Luke Cage picks up with that show left off, with the super strong, bulletproof Cage (Mike Colter) having swapped his Hell’s Kitchen digs for a pad in Harlem.
Despite trying to live under the radar working at the local barbershop, Cage soon finds himself locking horns with local gangster Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and Stokes’ cousin and local politician Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) over the fate of the ordinary people living in the neighbourhood.
As you’d expect, the police soon take an interest in this conflict – including local-born Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) – and as things begin to spiral out of control, even as Cage is forced to confront several ghosts from his past, which threaten to destroy our unbreakable hero…
Luke Cage was facing some pretty high audience expectations before it even found its way to the “Recently Added…” section on Netflix.
Not only had Marvel Studio’s previous two web series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, enjoyed generally strong reviews, but comparisons were also made by cast, crew and the media between Luke Cage and HBO crime drama The Wire, widely considered one of the greatest shows EVER.
That’s obviously a pretty big call to make, and whilst Luke Cage and The Wire are – superficially, at least – similar, ultimately the former falls quite a bit short of the latter.
A lot of this is down to the writing. Scribes Charles Murray, Kayla Cooper, and Nathan Jackson may have created some well-rounded and compelling characters, but the narrative path they put them on is ropey, to say the least.
The whole season in general, and each of the episodes specifically, suffers from pacing and a structure that feels off, plodding along until viewers’ interest starts to wane and then ramping up the momentum again to hook them back in.
Fortunately, the cast is so excellent across the board – including, in another surface-level connection, several familiar faces from The Wire – that you’ll find yourself willing to put up with the lurching narrative just to watch them play off of each other.
In a welcome change from virtually every other superhero epic, virtually all the major roles are filled by African American actors, and of these, the MVPs are without doubt Ali and Woodard.
As Cottonmouth, Ali exudes charm, menace and fragility as required, whilst Woodard’s Mariah is a complex creation, both principled and utterly corrupt at the same time.
But what of our leading man? Colter is likeable as Cage (despite being lumped with some occasionally patchy dialogue), although he does come perilously close to bland at times.
“Bland” isn’t a word you’d use to describe Luke Cage’s visuals, however. The show benefits from a sizeable budget, and thanks to cinematographer Manuel Billeter that cash is all up on the screen.
Harlem looks great, yet suitably gritty – its almost reminiscent of the work done on Peaky Blinders, which found a certain beauty in the industrial grime of Birmingham.
Likewise, the visual effects work by FuseFX is for the most part strong (and crucially, understated), and the action scenes – whilst not on par with those in Daredevil – are suitably dynamic.
But it’s the music that is the real stand out in Luke Cage.
The amazing soundtrack includes several showstopping live performances, as well as a deep selection of blues, jazz and hip-hop tracks that all – aside from a jarring, out-of-left-field cameo by Method Man – integrate perfectly with the story, becoming part of it.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
Which, of course, brings us back around to the story, a story which doesn’t just feature black people, but told by them and about them.
It’s a story about a lot of things, but I’d argue first and foremost, it’s about responsibility – between individuals and the community, and the community and the institutions it has established.
Front and centre, we have Luke Cage himself, who initially tries to shirk his duty to protect the people of Harlem using his incredible powers, only to ultimately find that he can’t sit back and do nothing while innocent people suffer around him.
Then we have Mariah, who, in her own way, also genuinely believes in elevating Harlem and improving the lot of the black community, but who isn’t above resorting to crime and corruption to get what she wants, either.
The criminal side of things she leaves mostly to Cottonmouth, who has completely washed his hands of any sense of social responsibility, instead choosing to make himself powerful at the expense of those unable to stand up to him.
Above all this, we have the police (including Misty) who are responsible for keeping the community safe and providing justice, and their inability to do so informs the other driving force at the heart of Luke Cage: what it means to be black in modern American.
You don’t have to have your finger on the pulse to know that right now, America is a nation torn apart by racial tension, and the aspects of the show dealing with police brutality, and Luke’s fugitive status – whilst not necessarily handled in an overly nuanced way – speak to this pain.
Scratch deeper, and other, more subtly handled commentary on the African American experience can be seen.
Take Cottonmouth, who – for all his flaws – wants to hold onto his nightclub above all else, seeing it as a symbol that he has made it in unfair world.
Or what about Mariah, who is trying to make it in politics not only as a person of colour, but a woman as well, within a society that tends to overlook both.
That both of these characters seem destined never to escape their eventual fates – Cottonmouth, who could have been a successful musician, ends up another dead gangster, and Mariah falls completely from grace despite her dreams of going fully legitimate – also seems like a pretty blunt comment as well.
Still, this is a superhero story, and that means there should always be at least some hope, and we get that in the form of Cage – who represents an empowered African American man actively making a difference – but also in the sense that, with enough ordinary people inside the community (following Luke’s example) and within institutions like the police force (like Misty), positive change can occur in Harlem and beyond.
It’s for this reason, for talking racial issues head on – just as Jessica Jones dealt with issues important to female members of the audience rarely given a mainstream voice – that Luke Cage is an important show.
Sure, it doesn’t get everything right, and it stumbles into a finale that plays out like a superpowered remake of the final fight in Rocky V (sadly, nowhere near as awesome as that sounds), but it’s still telling a story that caters to an audience broader than the typical white male fanbase, reminding us all that comics – and media based on them – should be for everyone.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
Unlike its lead character’s unbreakable skin, Luke Cage is far from flawless.
But its strong cast, killer soundtrack and high production values help make it a worthwhile watch, and its earnest attempts to spotlight issues and themes that will speak to non-white viewers make it an important one, too.
That’s it for this review – now it’s your turn! What did you think of Luke Cage? How do you think it compares to the other Marvel Studios Netflix series? And what does it mean for the upcoming Iron Fist and Defenders shows? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!