Warning: major spoilers for the first season of Luke Cage below.
Marvel and Netflix’s third superhero show (after Daredevil and Jessica Jones) centres on Luke Cage, a super-strong, indestructible black man trying to live a quiet life in Harlem but drawn in to the role of a crime fighter. The first season of Luke Cage premiered on September 30th and immediately impressed viewers with its combination of a reluctant hero origin story, a variety of strong female characters and flawed villains, its tributes to the history of black music and culture in Harlem, and an engagement in many aspects of racial politics in America as seen from multiple black perspectives. Excitingly and “unapologetically black”, Luke Cage’s characters, story, and setting offer a metaphor for black experience and hope with its bulletproof hero in a hoodie who fights and evades bloodthirsty gangsters and systemic corruption while also struggling with accepting the abilities and responsibilities thrust upon him.
Mike Colter plays the titular hero with handsome stoicism that sometimes comes across as bland and boring, but that may also have to do with the way the character is written. Luke Cage is a little old-fashioned (certainly very corny) and stubbornly reluctant to step up and be a hero because of his complicated past. Another issue is the presentation of Luke Cage's background, which is a grab bag of elements. He's a preacher's boy, a boxer, an ex-Marine, and an escaped convict. These bits should add up to some sort of repertoire of knowledge and skills, yet they are rarely utilized. Instead, Luke simply powers effortlessly through buildings and baddies. His fight scenes are more humorous than thrilling because of his strength and indestructibility. It’s not necessary that Luke Cage’s action scenes be as creative or exciting as Daredevil’s, but since the show’s non-action scenes occasionally veer into clunky and over-long dialogue, the overall presentation is weakened.
Aside from Colter’s character, many other performances stand out on Luke Cage. The always-excellent Rosario Dawson is back as Claire Temple, the super-savvy nurse and best friend every superhero needs. Simone Missick also does well playing the tough and guarded Detective Misty Knight but her internal conflict is only a shade more interesting than Luke’s. The truly magnetic performances are by Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, a shady councilwoman, and Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, her crime boss cousin. These two very intense and complex characters have a close familial relationship that drives them forward in their pursuit of power, yet they often butt heads when discussing how to pursue their goals and what their goals really are. This dovetails interestingly into questions of race and power, be it political, cultural, or material.
The music, of course, should also be acknowledged. The show is peppered with musical performances by famous rappers, hip-hop artists, and R&B musicians thanks to repeat visits to the nightclub setting of Harlem’s Paradise. Among the many stand-out performances are Jidenna’s very catchy “Long Live the Chief” and Method Man’s powerful and political “Bulletproof Love”, which makes direct reference to the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
The first half of the thirteen-episode season is vastly entertaining and engaging. However, the story and characters start to fall apart around episode seven. The oft-mentioned character, the villainous Diamondback (Erik LaRey Harvey), finally shows up and proceeds to muddle the plot with his egregious, over-the-top cartoonishness. Other characters start repeating their earlier actions and getting nowhere. And inexplicably, there is a ridiculous Dr. Frankenstein-esque scene involving a mad scientist, a bubbling vat of acid, and electricity. By the end, however, the pieces fall into place for the next season: the beginning of Marvel’s The Defenders, which will team up Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and the yet-to-be-introduced Iron Fist. Sweet Christmas, that’ll be exciting!
Rating: 4 out of 5 portraits of The Notorious B.I.G.