Review: Luke Cage Season 1 is an important yet flawed step forward for the superhero genre

By now, chances are you’ve binged your way through the first season of Marvel Studios’ Luke Cage on Netflix, which landed earlier in this month. If you have blitzed through these first 13 episodes, I’m betting you’ll agree that showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has crafted an entertaining show – albeit one with some fairly major flaws, to.

Still, by telling a superhero story directly linked to the Black experience, Choker and his team have created something different to every other comic book adaptation out there. Indeed, Luke Cage Season 1 pushes the superhero genre in a refreshing new direction and is Marvel Studios’ most important effort since last year’s Jessica Jones.

What is Luke Cage Season 1 about?

Luke Cage picks up where Jessica Jones left off: with the super strong, bulletproof Luke Cage (Mike Colter) swapping 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 escalating conflict – including local-born Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick). As things begin to spiral out of control, Cage is forced to confront several ghosts from his past which threaten to destroy our unbreakable hero…

Shaky scripting saved by strong performances

LukeCage

Luke Cage was facing some pretty high audience expectations before it even found its way to the “Recently Added…” section on Netflix. Not only have Marvel Studio’s previous two web series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, enjoyed generally strong reviews, but comparisons were also made by the show’s cast and 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 while Luke Cage and The Wire are superficially, similar, ultimately the former falls quite a bit short of the latter.

A lot of this is down to the scripting. Writers Charles Murray, Kayla Cooper, and Nathan Jackson have created some well-rounded and compelling characters, but the narrative path they put them on is ropey, to say the least. Luke Cage Season 1 – as a whole and as individual episodes – suffers from pacing and and a structural framework that feels off. The show plods along until our interest starts to wane before ramping up just in time to hook us back in.

That said, Coker and Murry, Cooper and Jackson at least have something timely and important to say, which is more than can be said for other, more well-crafted Marvel Studios outings. Luke Cage Season 1 is about a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s about responsibility: responsibility between individuals and the community, and between the community and the institutions it has established. To this end, the show doesn’t shy away from social commentary, with topical issues like police brutality and the vilification of Black men in society tackled head-on – if a tad clumsily.

Fortunately, the cast is so excellent across the board that you’ll put up with the odd bit of clunky storytelling just to watch the actors play off each other. In a welcome change from virtually every other superhero epic, all the major roles are filled by Black actors, and of these, the MVPs are without doubt Ali and Woodard. As Cottonmouth, Ali exudes charm, menace and fragility as required, while Woodard’s Mariah is a complex creation, both principled and utterly corrupt at the same time. Then there’s Colter as Cage, who proves likeable enough (despite being lumped with some patchy dialogue), although he does come perilously close to bland at times.

Harlem has never looked (or sounded) better

“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.

There’s a gritty beauty to this version of Harlem, reminiscent of the grimy industrial beauty of Peaky Blinders‘ Birmingham. Likewise, the visual effects work by FuseFX is for the most part strong (and crucially, understated), and the action scenes – although not on par with those in Daredevil – are suitably dynamic.

Ultimately, though, it’s the music that’s the real standout in Luke Cage Season 1. The amazing soundtrack includes several show-stopping live performances, as well as a deep selection of blues, jazz and hip-hop tracks that – aside from a jarring, out-of-left-field cameo by Method Man – integrate perfectly with the story.

An ambitious show worth watching

Unlike its lead character’s unbreakable skin, Luke Cage is far from flawless. Even so, the show’s strong cast, killer soundtrack and high production values make it a worthwhile watch, while its earnest attempts to spotlight issues and themes that elevate it above other, less ambitious superhero fare.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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