Samuel Brace on Marvel’s Luke Cage…
The imperative is on us to grade these things on their own merit, against a defined metric of excellence, an understood truth of quality. We know what is good and what is not. But with these Netflix Marvel shows, it’s impossible to not compare one to the others. Sure, there is a larger scale at play, that understood truth of quality, and we can talk about that, and it can be dangerous not too, but Netflix has set their own standard with this growing universe and it itself has become a pretty decent barometer for what is good and what is not. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Luke Cage. The first two are excellent shows, they are really very good. Some would argue they are the best of anything Marvel has done, helping to bring these fantastical stories into the real world, where the farfetched becomes just a bit more tangible. Netflix’s Marvel Universe has become synonymous with quality — a remarkable achievement in an unremarkable genre. The problem is we now have expectations; they can’t drop the ball now, even just a little. So after watching the first two episodes of Luke Cage, which debuted on Friday, how does it match up so far?
Early impressions are always risky, things can change, for better or for worse, and these Netflix shows tend to trend all the same. They start off wonderfully, go limp in the middle and pick up again at the end. This, a result of too sparse a story spread over too many episodes. Before we can shout “J’accuse!” of course, we need to see such things happen. I personally keep hoping Netflix and Marvel realise this fault with their model and correct it, but — and this is of course a good thing — at least Luke Cage is living up to the first part of this prophecy. Its start, the beginning to its tale, is damn good. We know Luke a little from his guest appearance in Jessica Jones, but that outing was by no means imperative viewing to enjoy his own vehicle right off the bat. We are introduced to a man stoic and afraid, hiding from a past trauma, taking refuge at a barber shop — a locale that acts as a kind of safe haven for the locals. Any unknowing audience member is quickly clued in on Luke’s abilities via references, nick names and physical demonstrations. There is no long tease here, and this is no origin story.
The show attempts to paint a picture of a man sitting on the sidelines, waiting for a mission that he knows will arrive sooner or later. A vivid and vibrant setting is provided, Harlem is brought to life in a similar way Hell’s Kitchen is in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and a lot of Cage is similar to those two shows; the cinematography (the show looks great), the pacing (so far so good), the emphasis on character over story and story over action. This works in Luke Cage — at least so far — as wonderfully as it works in its sibling’s shows, resulting in the action permeating when it arrives and the story flourishing when it takes over. What is dissimilar however, what is new so far about Luke Cage, is the cosiness of events, the smallness of the tale. Yes, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are by comparison to most superhero properties, small in scale, but even they have mystical ninja’s trying to take over the world and mind controlling psychopaths capable enough to ruin a city. Luke Cage doesn’t seem to have any such cards in its hand. The villain with whom we are introduced is a criminal, a gangster who owns a club, runs the neighbourhood and is cousins with a politician. Taking over the world he is unlikely to do. Again, this is all takeaways from the first two episodes, maybe the big picture stuff is still to come, but I really hope not.
If this is the direction, if this series is just going to be a tale of a man with a vendetta against another man, than I for one shall be one happy camper. Not every story needs to have such lofty stakes; the world or the city doesn’t always need to be on the line. Personal stories that are important to those involved are always the most intriguing. Personal stakes are what matters and so far, Luke Cage has plenty of that. My only hesitation about this path is how congruent it will be with that now infamous Netflix pitfall. As mentioned before, these shows don’t have enough butter to scrape over both pieces of toast. They rely on these grandiose events of mysticism and world saving to fill those minutes. Thirteen episodes so far have always proved to be too much for them to adequately pad. Hopefully this has been accounted for. Hopefully the tale of this particular Luke Cage adventure has enough miles in it to see this season through. These personal stories can sustain an entire season of thirteen episodes just on their own. Just look at Breaking Bad — the world was never at stake there. So it can be done and it has been done and here is hoping it will be done here. Perhaps I am completely wrong; perhaps Cage will take a radically different approach over the next twelve episodes. Perhaps it will be of such a standard anyway that it won’t matter. We will see. Time always tells.
None the less, I am certainly looking forward to binging the rest of what is on offer here. Having only seen its introduction, to judge overly would be premature. But Netflix has my faith, they have earned it over time, I hope they keep it and I hope the excellent and engaging opening to Luke Cage isn’t short lived. A lot can happen in eleven episodes. A lot can go wrong, but then again, a lot can go right.