If there’s one criticism regularly (and justifiably) leveled at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is its overall homogeneous nature. There’s always a quippy hero, a forgettable villain, and things going all Chicken Little in the final act with the sky falling. But when it comes to Marvel’s collaborations with Netflix, things are far more diversified.
Daredevil gave us a violent martial arts drama examining the blurry line between vigilante and criminal, while Jessica Jones was a brooding character study dealing with the psychology of rape. And with Luke Cage Marvel and Netflix are once again flexing their genre muscles. This time it’s a blend of 70’s blaxpoitation, a The Wire-esque look at street crime, and a heavy helping of timely sociopolitical commentary… all centred around a bulletproof man who can backhand people through concrete walls. That juxtposed mish-mash of genres sets up Luke Cage to be more bold and daring and crucially relevant than anything Marvel has ever done, and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker pulls it all off with aplomb. Well, most of the time anyway.
Spinning out of his appearance in Jessica Jones, Mike Colter reprises his role as the titular strongman with the unbreakable skin. After the events of that previous series, we find him hiding out in Harlem, a neighbourhood being run by cousins Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). Cottonmouth is a slick gangland monarch with surprising depth and soul, while Mariah is a game councilwoman, her politically polished veneer hiding the street-savvy manipulator below.
Luke’s proverbial hideaway is that of Pop’s, a local barbershop/cultural landmark run by Henry “Pop” Hunter (Frankie Faison), a neighbourhood father figure aware of Luke’s abilities. Pop frequently encourages “Power Man”, as he affectionately calls Luke, to put these powers to constructive use but he prefers to lay low. When folks close to him earn Cottonmouth’s ire though, it forces Cage to start questioning his reluctance, especially when secrets from his past come back to haunt him. And these are secrets that police detective Mercedes “Misty” Knight” (Simon Missick) is determined to unravel as she suspects them tying into her quest to take down Cottonmouth.
And when it comes to the primary characters, Coker and his cast really nail them. Missick’s Misty is tough and sexual and self-doubting all rolled into one with ease. Ali’s electric charisma means you can’t help but be attracted to Cottonmouth despite all the blood on his hands. Woodard and Faison, as the elder statesman/woman of this ensemble, both pack in a believable world-weariness – but where his is tinged with hope, hers cracks with psychoses. Rosario Dawson also reprises her Daredevil and Jessica Jones role as nurse Claire Temple and once again does stellar work. And then there’s Colter, whose Luke Cage is silky smooth in his constraint, an air of pensive power always present. A power that gets unleashed with serious ferocity, but only when needs be. There’s a definite lack of kineticsm to the character, but what need of darting about is there for a man who can just calmly stroll through a fusillade of firepower?
Unfortunately that deliberately plodding nature bleeds over into the show’s writing as well at times. It’s a smidgen bloated in its plotting during some chapters, stretching out only about 10 episodes worth of story to 13. This occasional spinning of narrative wheels is a condition that also plagued Daredevil and Jessica Jones to varying degrees as Netflix’s unconstrained episode model allows beats to drag on just a fraction too long.
The scripting also goes off the rails a bit when it comes to Diamonback (Erik LaRay Harvey), a mob boss villain teased throughout the early part of the series by his harbinger Shades (Theo Rossi) before stepping up in its back half. While Cottonmouth and Mariah are deeply developed, compelling characters, Diamondback is a cackling helter skelter cartoon. The series never seems to know what he is (puppet master mob boss, opportunistic hoodlum, or psychopath with daddy issues), and in the end just gives him a cheesy Bible-quoting gimmick and a really, really goofy look. Not helping matters much is the contrived convenience of his backstory which stretches coincidence close to breaking point. But hey, at last Harvey gets to chew some serious scenery.
But if Coker and co fumble the ball slightly when it comes to pacing and the introduction of Diamondback, they make up for it in abundance with an incredible singular vision. In a time where having black skin in America has become such an incendiary factor, here that very same black skin is the source of our hero’s power. It’s powerful imagery like this that really elevates Luke Cage above the occasional failings of its material, as it taps the conversation that has gripped America of late. There’s simply no coincidence in Luke Cage, a black man in a hoodie, spending several scenes in the series with policemen pointing guns at him. And even when those bullets bounce off him, the show always reminds you that many in the real world were not so lucky.
On top of evoking potentially explosive politics, Luke Cage also stands as a celebration of blackness like few other series out there. This isn’t a story about a superhero that’s black. It’s a story about a black superhero, and it makes damn sure you know the difference. It’s completely unapologetic in its deification of black America, in particular Harlem, which becomes a character all unto itself. The series is almost mythic in its treatment of the neighbourhood and it’s icons – both human and real estate. And tying it all together is the show’s simply masterful soundtrack.
Composed by Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Luke Cage boasts a fiery combination of hip-hop, soul, and blues that underscores so many absolutely critical moments (a musical montage with Method Man’s original piece “Bulletproof Love” is about as effectively awesome a moment as Daredevil‘s famous hallway fight scene). Live-performances from famous real world artists abound. And then there’s the genius use of 70’s and 80’s influenced incidental music, that gives it an extra layer of cool nostalgia that I was not expecting. All in all, I cannot emphasize enough how integral this aural tapestry is to creating and enhancing this unique slice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And its that uniqueness, that soulful texture that really makes Luke Cage shine. Coker has packaged this piece of hood opera with such unflinching confidence and flavour that you can’t help but like it. Even more, you can’t help but respect it. Yes, it is most definitely flawed, and the occasional shakiness to its narrative framework and character development pushes it lower than Daredevil and Jessica Jones on the ranking totem for me, but this is still one of the most purely cool things Marvel has ever done. The fact that that coolness is also coupled with a strong message and unshakable self identity makes this another hit for Marvel.
Last Updated: October 4, 2016