Our very own Power Man, Richard Drumm, takes a look at Luke Cage, the television series created for Netflix by Cheo Hodari Coker, based on the Marvel Comics character.
As an entity, Marvel are becoming quite irritating, aren’t they? Even their lesser films manage to get by relatively unscathed critically, and financially now have enough consistent brand quality and recognition that nothing can really ‘fail’ anymore. Even the comparatively unsuccessful entries like Ant-Man get a sequel green-lit, despite not making typical Marvel money, and end up with new fans who didn’t even see the film when Paul Rudd steals every scene he’s in in Civil War. Then there’s Netflix. While the TV division of Marvel has definitely been shakier when it comes to the traditional broadcast model (Agents of SHIELD seems content just to do its own, so-so thing while the world forgets it exists and the also-perfectly-fine Agent Carter got a respectable two seasons before closing up shop), but everyone just knew the Netflix output would be good. A cleverly chosen set of fan-favourite characters that would never have gotten their own films, getting a season each before culminating in the Avengers-light Defenders (next year), all wrapped up in Netflix’s traditionally sexier and more violent trappings? People couldn’t get on board fast enough.
A year and a half later, with two seasons of Daredevil’s blood-soaked crusade well-received, and Jessica Jones surprising a lot of people with its distinctly un-Marvel content and tone, we now come to Luke Cage. Marvel’s eponymous Hero for Hire, who returns from his stint as a recurring character in last year’s Jessica Jones, is another street-level superhero with super strength and a healing factor who cleans up the mean streets while occasionally uttering his famous exclamation: “Sweet Christmas”. Or to sum him up more succinctly with a quote from the show: he’s Harlem’s Captain America.
Tarantino, who unsurprisingly had a Luke Cage film in the works at one point (picture what Black Dynamite directed by him would have been like and you’ve just visualised exactly how that film would have looked), came out expressing his disinterest in the show due to its present-day setting, explaining how Cage as a construct is so at home in the ’70s that a modern-day adaptation seems boring. One can only assume he’s not watched it because the show not being ’70s enough is very much not an issue. If anything, it’s almost a problem. While you’ll likely adjust to it over the first few episodes, it is initially a little hard to reconcile in your brain that this is meant to be set in the present day, let alone the extended MCU. From the score, the licensed music, the tone and type of dialogue being used and even the (initial) story at play; there is a very distinct and intentional ’70s vibe to proceedings. Even looking at and listening to the title sequence in isolation, you’d be forgiven for assuming this was a period piece. While it definitely has its feet firmly planted in its comicbook roots (looking at you rocket-launcher cliffhanger), these moments can stand out in a slightly bemusing fashion given the otherwise real-world aesthetic and sensibilities over the first half of the season. Much like Jessica Jones, the series gets increasingly bogged down in referencing and establishing the various elements from its source material but at the outset, Luke Cage being a bulletproof strongman seems like an incidental part of this tale of local politics, gangs and gun smuggling.
In keeping with the trend of the Netflix series eclipsing the films in one key area, the villains here don’t disappoint. Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard and eventually Erik LaRay Harvey all make for enjoyable on-screen presences and have the air of being the adult-orientated versions of Saturday Morning Cartoon villains. While far less so showy than with D’Onofrio’s Fisk or Tennant’s Kilgrave, Ali in particular is a lot of fun to watch with some backstory and hubristic motivations to back the character up. The way in which he repeatedly breaks out into hearty laughter during tense moments, make his more focused and aggressive outbursts of violence all the more unsettling. Woodward meanwhile does an impressive job of conveying an initially sympathetic character who gradually becomes perhaps the most hateable character in the show, and likely a fun villain for a future season, by the end. LaRay Harvey in many ways steals the show once he’s finally introduced. His character, the villain Diamondback, represents the crescendo of ’70s-ness the first half of the season was building toward; he’s cold and calculating but also quotes the bible with almost Shakespearean gravitas, and his entire motivation is similar to a far better executed version of what SPECTRE foolishly attempted. His final costume, a nod to his comic appearance, is also delightfully naff and a lot of fun.
The cast for the goodies fare equally well. Colter continues his solid work from Jessica Jones and brings a lot of pain and damage to Cage but with well-timed comedic turns and a believably imposing presence for the numerous action scenes. To some extent the show is as much an origin story for Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, a brilliant detective and fan-favourite character from the comics who could easily carry her own show. Her arc is as much the focus as Cage’s by the end and with any luck she’ll be even more of a main character in any future seasons. The quiet star of the show, for me at least, was Rosario Dawson. After some recurring character work on Daredevil and a nice guest appearance in Jessica Jones, it was good to see her Claire Temple finally take up a series regular spot and get some much needed attention and exploration. If Claire is going to be the character that ties these shows together for the big Defenders throwdown next year, Dawson is a great choice to carry that burden. She’s probably the most believably human character in these shows, has a razor sharp wit and a reluctance but unwavering morality that’s dramatically very engaging, all the while taking zero shit from anyone.
If there is a main negative to draw attention to, it’s the same as the previous Netflix series but slightly more amplified; these series don’t need to be 13 episodes. Daredevil initially suffered this but tried to mitigate it in season 2 by effectively splitting up the season into different story arcs. Jessica Jones’ issue was that it had an interesting tale to tell but only enough material to sustain *maybe* ten episodes. Cage is somewhat different. In many ways, it has too many stories and characters running around its stylised Harlem for its own good yet conversely never seems to have enough for them to do. The lack of a central through line starts off as a niggling problem but to leads an exponentially bigger issue as the series continues, changing focus suddenly and at odd moments. It’s actually almost refreshing when story turns manage to surprise you but, around the episode seven mark in particular, it gets difficult to tell if that’s an intentional outcome of their storytelling choices or an unintended consequence of poor structure. If you’ve watched and enjoyed the previous shows without minding their respective issues then you’re unlikely to have an issue with this. It’s never boring, it just lack focus and a degree of clarity. The second half does admittedly get more focused once Diamondback shows up and there’s more obvious goals and situations that the characters can move toward. Still, it remains meandering and can never quite lose the sense that half of every episode is just killing time (with characters that are enjoyable to spend time with) because the season on the whole has a couple hours left over to be filled.
There’s one very specific annoyance the show also falls afoul of. Given that the hero is a bulletproof, pointedly unarmed, black man in a hoodie, the show invariably has to make some moves toward addressing the Black Lives Matter movement and the insane, horrific ongoing situation in the US. While it does use its soapbox in the latter episodes to make some sermons practically down the barrel of the lens, it is disappointing that when we get the scene of Cage being shot at by police, while unarmed and in a hoodie, it’s not a white cop doing it. The image of the cop’s bullets bouncing off him remains powerful but that tiny detail is confusing at best, and smells of cowardice at worst.
Cage is an enjoyable watch and the overall ’70s vibe (some of the score is truly glorious) really makes the, now slightly standard, gang-and/or-ninja-based shenanigans of these Marvel Netflix series feel somewhat fresh again. A really great cast and some fun writing and over-the-top action mean that it’s certainly never boring but if you start to lose patience with its muddled and sometimes glacial pacing, no one would blame you.