***DISCLAIMER: The following review contains SPOILERS.***
Sweet Christmas! Marvel and Netflix have done it again with the release of Marvel’s Luke Cage. Although I’m a Marvel television super fan who binge-watched both seasons of Daredevil and season one of Marvel’s Jessica Jones within 48 hours of each being released, I do genuinely believe that I have the ability to maintain an ounce of objectivity. If you’re looking for a well-written, character driven series that is full of action, Marvel’s Luke Cage is the show to watch.
Set in what is widely recognized as the cultural epicenter of “Black America,” Harlem, New York, Marvel’s Luke Cage follows the journey of hero Luke Cage (Mike Colter), an ex-cop who was framed and sent to jail, Seagate Prison in Georgia to be exact. While in Seagate Prison, Cage gets black-mailed into participating in an underground boxing fight club established by corrupt prison guard Albert Rackham (Chance Kelly), gets experimented on and in a freakish accident, given indestructible/impervious skin, and super strength. After breaking out of prison, Luke travels to Harlem and finds employment as a sweeper at Pop’s Barbershop, and as a dishwasher at Harlem’s Paradise, a nightclub owned by crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Triggered by Cottonmouth, whose henchman kills father-like figure Pop (Frankie Faison), Luke decides that he is going to take down Cottonmouth and anyone who is benefiting from his illegal enterprise.
Although basically indestructible, Luke managed to come off as someone who still needed protecting. The feeling is further validated later in the season by the Harlem community showing Luke support while evading the police, this coming in the form of many other black men dawning Luke’s signature “Holey Hoodie,” making it a headache for police to figure where Luke actually was.
As much as the show was a social commentary on inner-city Black America, it also managed to not become too “preachy.” And, as much as I may have wanted Luke to be a political activist touting the Black Lives Matter Movement, it wouldn’t have been true to the Luke Cage created in this show.
While stylistically different from the previous Netflix Marvel shows, I enjoyed Luke Cage just as much, if not more than the other series. Here, we didn’t have a hero fighting crime under the cover of darkness like Daredevil. The show also wasn’t shot as film noir like Jessica Jones. Just as “in your face” as the character Luke Cage is, the show was very much the same way. Overall, the show is as vibrant as the music used to score it.
Netflix has been able to update the story of Luke Cage, while paying homage to the Blaxploitation genre of films of which the Luke Cage comics were based. Now I admit, Luke Cage was hit or miss in honoring this genre of film. The soundtrack full of funk and soul sounds definitely set the tone for the show, and did a great service to the genre it was honoring. Viewers are even treated to performances by Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, The Delfonics, and Sharon Jones.
One area that Luke Cage may have missed the mark on was some of the dialogue, specifically that of the main antagonist, Willis Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey) aka Diamondback, Luke Cage’s half-brother. Stryker’s speeches, at times, seemed incredibly dated and slightly cheesy. But also exactly what you would expect from a “jive-talking” bad guy from a 1970s Blaxploitation film. Although a slight turn off, this wasn’t so overwhelming to affect the overall enjoyment of the show.
Luke Cage also didn’t disappoint when it came to showcasing strong female characters. Just like Elektra (Elodie Yung) and Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage provides us with strong, kick-ass women who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, all while pushing the plot forward. Luke Cage’s main female protagonist, another well-known Marvel character, Misty Knight (Simone Missick), is a detective with an uncanny talent for piecing together crime scenes. While watching the show, I found myself connecting with Misty Knight, a character with an almost understandable crisis of conscience. Misty is forced to decide between helping Luke get justice while operating outside of the law, or continuing to do things by the book, and uphold law and order as she knows it. Misty’s actions bore real consequences that affected everyone on the show.
Luke Cage’s first season also introduced viewers to Councilwoman Mariah Dillard, cousin to Cottonmouth Stokes. Dillard, played magnificently by Alfre Woodard, presents a typical duplicitous politician, she takes every chance to push her own agenda and makes sure to tie up any loose-ends that could come back to bite her. Throughout the show, Dillard continues to make moves to protect herself, and is often the smartest person in the room, finding ways to politically spin situations in her favor. By the end of the first season, Mariah has transformed from being tangentially connected to criminal activity through her cousin Cottonmouth, to having taken over the reigns of her own criminal enterprise.
Perhaps one of the best things of Luke Cage’s first season was the reemergence of Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Claire, a recently fired nurse, first showed up saving Daredevil’s (Charlie Cox) life in Netflix’s Daredevil, and is last seen saving Luke Cage’s life in Jessica Jones. Claire, once just a common thread connecting the first two shows, steps up as a confidant and love interest who is very involved in the action in Luke Cage. (Side note: Sorry fans of Luke and Jessica, I’m already shipping Luke with Claire instead. The chemistry between Mike Colter and Rosario Dawson was incredible.) Having Claire’s character be used to this degree in the storyline was long overdue in my opinion, she has the attitude and resolve to stand her ground against her superhero friends. As a fan, I hope Claire continues to play a vital role not just in Luke Cage but for the other Netflix-Marvel shows moving forward.
One of the major issues I had with the show was it lacked a truly dynamic "big bad." For Daredevil, we had the Kingpin played magnificently by Vincent D’Onofrio, and on Jessica Jones, we had Kilgrave played brilliantly by David Tennant. Although these characters were completely different, both left you sympathizing, or even cheering for them at times. The characters were relatable and captivating. Luke Cage was actually well on its way to creating this type of character with the portrayal of Cottonmouth by Mahershala Ali. The show explored his past, allowing the audience to sympathize with his upbringing. We learn that he was at one-point friends with Luke’s friend Pop. We see the love and respect he had for his friend Pop, even though it manifested itself in the killing of Pop’s killer.
However, Cottonmouth was not the big bad of the show this season, coming as a bit of a surprise, Diamondback was. And, although Diamondback’s story was also relatable, by that point, viewers could be considered to be much more invested in Cottonmouth as the antagonist. Diamondback didn’t have any redeeming qualities to present him as layered of a villain. I selfishly wanted more from Cottonmouth and less from Diamondback.
That being said, however, what I did get from Luke Cage was a truly different kind of ending to a superhero story. In most comic book shows and movies, viewers are given an immediate pay off of sorts, mainly resulting in the good guys winning. To me, it feels like the writers feel obligated to end the story with the major threat defeated. In Daredevil, Kingpin is defeated. In Jessica Jones, Kilgrave is defeated. But in Luke Cage, we don’t really get that payoff – which is very reminiscent of how comic books normally end. We see Mariah Dillard released from police custody. We see Diamondback being taken care of by the doctor who experimented on Luke Cage to make him indestructible. We even see our protagonist, Luke Cage, being hauled off to jail! This ending, denies the audience the satisfaction of the good guys winning, which I believe stays true to how many comic books are written...and leaves the audience wanting more.
Although I selfishly wanted a superhero team up in this series a la Daredevil season 2 and Jessica Jones, I believe Luke Cage perfectly separates itself as a stand-alone show, all while still setting up more of the Marvel Netflix Universe.