Harlem’s reluctant hero and a great supporting cast combine to produce Marvel’s finest work yet. 9.5/10
The easiest way to differentiate Marvel’s latest collaboration with Netflix from typical superhero fare is to watch the dramatic standoff between the titular hero (Mike Colter) and the crime lord, Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali) at a church service. They don’t obliterate buildings trading punches, but instead trade visions of what it means to be a member of this historic community. The two men aren’t surrounded by millions of dollars in CGI effects swirling toward the heavens; they’re presenting a philosophy on how one can overcome hopelessness to get into heaven one’s self.
With 24 hours news channels and the internet streaming the deterioration of America’s own story of race relations, the current climate provides both a challenge and an opportunity for Marvel Studios’ first superhero property starring an African-American. How far could it go to appeal to a wide audience without ignoring the front page headlines.
Marvel’s Luke Cage is more than up to the task of addressing these issues, while also producing a highly entertaining drama that is a step above their already acclaimed slate of Netflix series that includes Daredevil and Jessica Jones. While those series were both solid ventures in telling specific stories around those characters, Luke Cage seems as though it’s part of a larger cinematic universe, while also addressing the real-life questions on what it takes to be a good man up in today’s morally complex world.
Picking up five months after the events of Jessica Jones, we find Luke working under the table both as a dishwasher in Stokes’ Harlem Paradise nightclub and sweeping hair-clippings in Henry ‘Pop’ Hunter’s (Frankie Faison) barbershop. Deemed the ‘Switzerland’ of the neighborhood by its owner, the shop is supposed to be a sanctuary from the violence and enmity of the streets.
It’s not long, though, before circumstances require Cage to confront Cottonmouth’s hold on the neighborhood, not only by opposing the common street violence and graft, but also the more uptown criminal activity represented by Stokes’ cousin, Maria Dillard, played by Alfre Woodard. Waiting in the wings is a sinister figure called Shades (Theo Rossi), who represents a mysterious party known only as Diamondback, a looming off-camera presence through much of the 13 episode run.
Cage’s vigilante status brings him into conflict with the local police, represented by Detectives Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), who wonder why so much of the chaos that seems to be engulfing Harlem always involves one strangely indestructible man. Knight’s arc is a major one in the series and Missick is a revelation as the best supporting character Marvel has produced to date, almost matched by Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, who is given much more screen-time than she received in her 3 previous outings with Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Colter gives a wonderfully intense performance as a man who has been betrayed by the system at every turn, yet will not allow his past to provide an excuse to avoid his conscience. The villains of the piece, while not asked to carry as much of the load as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk or David Tennant’s Kilgrave, are complex multi-dimensional characters who work as part of a larger story without dominating the screen-time. That’s why you’ll find yourself having as much fun when Cage is on the screen as you do when Stokes, Dillard and Shades are scheming to take down a bulletproof man.
Music plays a large role, not only from a character development standpoint, but also in setting the mood for and providing the rhythm of the story. Every episode is named after a Gang Starr song, and the show features a number of musical set-pieces featuring everyone from Method Man and the Wu-Tang Clan to Raphael Siddiq and the Delfonics.
If there is one fault to be found, it’s the usual stumble of the Marvel shows, which is that the series could have been pruned to 10 or 11 episodes. This would have tightened up the pacing, but it’s less of a sin here than it was in Daredevil or especially, Jessica Jones.
In a year where the worst excesses of the superhero genre appeared on the big screen, and even the better works were either parodies such as Deadpool, or well-produced more of the same, like Captain America:Civil War, Marvel should be proud that it can produce a new look and a fresh story featuring a man who embodies the idea of a hero.
We will be reviewing the first 7 episodes of Luke Cage on our podcast available October 3rd.