Recurring Cast: Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Erik LaRay Harvey, Frankie Faison, Theo Rossi, Frank Whaley with Rosario Dawson and Alfre Woodard
Let’s start with expectation management. Luke Cage is the weakest of Netflix’s Marvel entries yet. It boasts the sharp writing of Jessica Jones and the action sequences of Daredevil, but at this juncture, these tricks feel tired. While Luke Cage’s almost bored way of taking on his foes still thrills, it no longer sustains a whole series. As a result, there are large gaps of Luke Cage that feels like someone could have done better. However, on the other hand, Netflix prove they are still capable of creating thought-provoking alternate superhero stories, less about the blockbuster punch-ups and more about the morality of what it takes to be a true hero.
Luke Cage’s biggest triumph is identity. The entire show screams character. The first thing that hits you about this series is how it represents Harlem and the black culture it represents. Black heroes are constantly represented and their values upheld. Biggie Smalls portrait hangs in the background of several scenes, a prominent building is named after Crispus Attucks and it is impossible to ignore Malcolm X Boulevard, cropping up so regularly it is almost a guest star in itself. The story focuses on how each character is trying to support Harlem and create a strong basis for growth in the black community. Even the villains have a misguided sense of righteous and are made likeable through their desire to rebuild Harlem. On top of Harlem pride, it is impossible to write a series about a bulletproof American black man and not discuss police brutality. As the series hits its finale, Luke Cage’s biggest problem becomes the police officers hunting them, threatened by his power to turn around and become an unstoppable enemy the moment he chooses to do so. The smarter villains use Luke Cage’s success against him, turning his image into one of menace and potential danger. We have had the discussion of civilians dealing with a world full of super-humans before, even as recently as DC’s Batman V Superman, but throwing the debate into the beating heart of Harlem and into the life of a black man struggling to protect his community, gives the discussion a gritty realism. Seeing as the hero of this story is a man with a dark past, an upbringing that seems intent on bringing him down before he can so much as rise, it is so much more powerful to see Luke Cage fight to do what is right. Seeing as his powers are akin to Superman’s or the Hulk’s in terms of immortality, this gives the series the space it needs to actually challenge the hero, rather than have him come up against a group of thugs that he can take down with his eyes closed. When the show isn’t pushing agendas, it is simply enjoying being the first superhero story to feature a black hero. Black culture enjoys its time in the superhero limelight, laying down a vibrant world for audiences to step into. Black music punctuates powerful moments, villain Cottonmouth listening to the likes of Faith Evans or Charles Bradley as a fight scene plays out elsewhere. It adds an experience to the show that you feel only Luke Cage can give you.
But a world is only as good as its characters. Luke Cage has its own roster of interesting caricatures that will have you tuning in each week. Mike Colter breezes through the show with the same casual charm that made him a hit in Jessica Jones. While moments suggest he was more effective as a supporting star in Jessica Jones as the hero in his own series, Colter keeps audiences entertained. He starts the show running from his past, which is handily explained through flashbacks, but grows to accept that if you have the power to do good, then it is your responsibility to do so. His good nature is commendable throughout and it is impossible not to root for someone who is trying to stand up for what is right. The same trick works for Simone Missick’s cop trapped in a world where talking to the cops is a sure way to end up dead on the streets and Rosario Dawson who is given her meatiest role in Netflix’s universe yet. The villains are just as interesting, if not more so. Mahershala Ali is given his finest role yet with Cottonmouth. We have seen him do stoic and formidable in House of Cards and the Hunger Games, but here, he is given charisma, something he wears with dripping sleaziness. He is a man who believes he is higher than his station, dressing himself up in fine clothes, surrounding himself with fine women and strutting around his nightclub like he is a few months away from becoming Harlem’s very own Wilson Fisk. He remains dangerous despite his arrogance and if he never hits the dizzy heights of Vincent D’Onofrio or David Tennant’s villains, Ali is still a lot of fun to be around, especially when Episode 7 introduces an origin story that painfully cements how he grew into the monster Episode 1 introduces him as, reaffirming the show’s debate that talented youngsters are too easily seduced by the streets. However, it is Alfre Woodard’s villain that shines, Cottonmouth’s cousin, Mariah Dillard. She is a politician that Cottonmouth uses for his own personal gain, but the intriguing thing about the relationship is that Dillard is in it for the betterment of Harlem. In her eyes, she can use Cottonmouth’s blood money to invest in a better Harlem, actually achieving what Luke Cage is out to do, but by dirtying her hands first. It makes her for the fascinating grey area in the show’s debate and as her character grows (maybe not quite far enough, sadly), she becomes the one to watch.
But Luke Cage’s world and characters, as good as they are, simply need a stronger story to glue it all together. There are some neat tricks with some early act shocks and the trademark traitor reveals, but when the show isn’t handling its shock moments, it feels strangely adrift. It relies too heavily on preaching black culture or giving Mahershala Ali a monologue to buy some time, rather than pushing the narrative. Its biggest mistake is in putting too many chips on its mystery villain, Diamondback. Diamondback is the whispered name in the first half of the season, the mysterious name that all of the show’s villains reference. However, when Diamondback makes an appearance, he is an anti-climax. His reveal is too hasty and the character, when compared to Mahershala Ali’s charming monster or Woodard’s complex antagonist, Diamondback is simply a pantomime bad guy, displaying superficial acts of cruelty to garner quick respect from the audience. His fight scenes make up for his rough edges, but you wish that the show took its time to give Luke Cage a villain worth coming up against. The other main issue is simply that Luke Cage finds itself with nowhere to go. There aren’t too many things you can do with a bulletproof hero and like with Superman, the writers are pushed into predictable corners to truly challenge their hero. As a result, you end up finishing Cage and instantly wondering when the next Jessica Jones is around the corner.
Final Verdict: Not as thrilling as the other Netflix entries, but Luke Cage boasts atmosphere and depth that gives it a strong standing amongst the Netflix’s shows.