The dense real estate of movies has been taken over by super heroes and as that real estate grows ever more crowded TV seems like territory ripe for the picking. DC comics have always had a close relationship with TV and has found success from Smallville to The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl. Marvel began slowly with their Agents of SHIELD but has found a a rhythm with a partnership with Netflix. While not perfect, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and now Luke Cage are often more interesting and risky than their movie counterparts. How does the latest Luke Cage stack up? For the most part its solid but does like to indulge in the silly. Find out more in our review.
Luke Cage is an ex-con who while wrongfully imprisoned was subject to a number of experiments which gave him extraordinary strength, made him bullet proof and gave him the ability to heal quicker than normal people. After escaping prison, while laying low in Harlem he is forced to become involved and make a stand against local criminals and politicians where their unsavory ways encroach on him and those he cares about.
Luke Cage does something different straight away that sets it up to give it a different voice than what is usual and that’s a sense of place. It’s strange that it has never been a thing for other properties, like Daredevil. Luke Cage is at first another anonymous voice, laying low in a barber shop, working in a bar, a nobody hiding in plain sight in Harlem. It’s a place brimming with history from pictures on a wall of old sports heroes and a club that plays funk, soul and hip-hop. There is a culture here, a history, a sense of something more. It’s important to know because when Luke Cage gets involved he’s not simply fighting for himself.
Yet it’s the smallest of fight’s that Cage finds himself emerging from the shadows for, someone hustling his landlord out for some ‘protection’ money. He’s not a man of subtlety and his violence is clunky much the way you might expect of a wrestler. Still, like most of the Netflix Marvel crossover action moments aren’t the show’s problem. It’s fun to watch in that sense and you marvel (little m) at the mayhem that cage. Yet Luke Cage as a hero is what I would call dull. His powers are comparable to others, Wolverine, for example and the performance of actor Mike Colter which adequate is hardly charismatic enough for a lead.
Yet the reason season one of Luke Cage stands out is the there is a plethora of fantastic characters that he interacts with and for the last part are people he has conflict with. Every one of them is carefully cast and well written. Misty Knight as the cop out to find the truth but only finds betrayal; Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes and Mariah Dillard politician and club owner who strive for a legitimacy in a world where their only skills is the criminal’s game and finally there is Pop a man who brokered the peace, as much as he once was a perpetrator of its violence.
I wish all characters throughout the first season were as good as these but like Luke Cage there are also those that seem lost and without a clear direction. The character of Shades and even Stryker who while have consistent backstories manage to either become possible criminal masterminds or can access super hero technology without a second though. Finally, the emergence of Rosario Dawson’s Claire has seemed like an absurd addition to all the marvel Netflix’s endeavour and here she is even worse. The love story thing is groan worthy and the dialogue even points out how corny it is.
There are several things that kind of smooth out some of these rough characters’ inconsistencies. There is a killer soundtrack to Luke Cage mostly made up of original pieces and range from funk, blues, jazz and hip hop. Harlem’s Paradise, the club that Cottonmouth runs is where so many of these tracks take place as live performances. It’s possible that this would seem a bit out of place, but it works well even within the story. The only jarring one is the most obvious and that is the sudden cameo of Method Man from the Wu Tang Clan. Boy, does that not fit in and the fact that it even dazzles Luke Cage is striking.
What surprised was that Luke Cage finds itself firmly planted in both modern black culture and its history. References to Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Mike Tyson and even Richard Roundtree from Shaft all are name dropped as long with many I’ve never heard of. There is also this through line of the black lives matter issues too. Never being explicitly mentioned there is an arc later in the season where Cage is mistaken for a number of crimes because a guy in a hoody with his same skin colour attacks someone. Cage’s reason for never going to the police is obvious amongst the black community, he is more likely to get a shot than a fair go. It’s powerful without feeling overt or disingenuous.
For everything, it grounds Luke Cage loses itself in silly plot twist and hero tropes. Take for example the one bullet that can kill Luke Cage that drills down or the suit that make someone as powerful as Cage but never is explained. Take for example secret experiments and boiling vats of oil to remove them. It’s all dumb and it wouldn’t be so big a deal in a less grounded or gritty well, but here it doesn’t work and stands out glaringly.
Luke Cage Season One Review Cheat Sheet
Luke Cage Season One is a frustrating one. For everything it gets right, it gets something wrong. Strong Characters are brought down by weaker ones, great music and real issues facing black people comes with super hero silliness. The action is strong and there is enough to recommend it but it’s not without a list of caveats. Give it a try, but no one will blame you for abandoning it.
+ Fascinating characters that are complex, well written and acted.
+ A sense of place with culture, history and current black issues.
+ Awesome soundtrack.
+ solid action.
– Not all characters are equal and some are bad, some just not so well written.
-Silly jarring super hero stuff.
– Luke Cage as a hero seems like been there done that.