Liam Hoofe reviews the first season of Luke Cage…
Netflix and Marvel are a match made in heaven. The addition of the Marvel Universe has no doubt sent users to Netflix in their droves, whilst the platform has also allowed the brand to expand its universe in a way that was just not possible on the big screen. At their core most comic books are really just dramas that just happen to involve people with superpowers and the medium has allowed Marvel to really dig its teeth into that. Daredevil and Jessica Jones have been much less about spectacle and much more about character, allowing the characters to develop more maturely than cinema is willing to allow. In Daredevil we have a man wrestling with his religion and the powers he has had bestowed upon in and in Jessica Jones we have seen an alcoholic detective wrestling with her past – two things we are not likely to see in the cinematic universe. Of the three shows delivered so far Luke Cage is the first one to have a real social commentary – a story about a bullet proof black man in Harlem has never seemed more relevant than it does right now.
Whilst Luke Cage spends a lot of its time exploring Luke’s issues with his powers, this plot line seems slightly by the numbers now and the real driving force behind Luke Cage is a story of corruption, power and racial tensions. Unlike the rest of Marvel’s superheroes Luke Cage looks to be living a much more tangible every day existence. When we meet him he is sweeping hair in a barbershop and washing dishes at a local club. From the word go this sets Cage apart from the rest. Whilst the TV shows have all clearly had a certain aesthetic, Cage feels different because we can relate. Harlem is a living breathing neighborhood where people go to work, they struggle to make ends meet and they like to go for a much deserved drink at the end of the day to get away from their realities. The Harlem Luke inhabits feels lived in and the problems that its community are facing are a mirror image of the growing racial tensions in America right now. The community in itself is also a huge asset to the show, adding a delightful array of memorable characters to the mix.
Whilst thematically it is the strongest of Marvel’s TV output the show also has a few niggling issues as well, most notably its length. Whilst Daredevil (for the first season at least) benefited from the 13 episode structure (presumably a contractual obligation), Luke Cage struggles through some of its episodes and there are at least two or three episodes in the season that feel unnecessary, focusing solely on flashbacks and in the process allowing the narrative to lose some of its momentum. The show also suffers because of this as it comes to its conclusion as the story, and the villain become even more cartoonish and the plot becomes full of contrivances, most notably in the last episode with one of the show’s big battles turning out to be utterly ridiculous.
Of course one of the biggest issues surrounding any show that is based around a bullet proof, effectively immortal superhero is just how do you give him any sort of viable threat. The show’s handling of this becomes a little hit and miss – for the first half of the season Cage’s threats come more from the corrupt underbelly of Harlem that threaten to ruin his life and that of those around him, which really allows the character to develop and provides him with obstacles, however, it is when the show opts to threaten him physically it becomes a little more contrived, chucking in some outright silly threats in an attempt to make you believe that the character has finally met his match.
For every miss though there are at twice as many hits in the series and if there is one thing the show has nailed it is the casting. Mike Colter is great as Cage, balancing both the characters physical strengths and emotional weaknesses well whilst Simone Missick and Theo Rossi are well cast in their roles as the torn detective and the shady right hand man respectively. The real stars of Luke Cage however are Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard who excel as the show’s main antagonists. The television branch of the show has always boasted superior villains to that of its cinematic siblings and Luke Cage is no different. Ali’s Cottonmouth is much more than just an African American crime lord, his character has depths that the show isn’t afraid to explore in detail and his relationship with Woodard’s Mariah Dillard, his cousin makes for compelling viewing. The screen sparkling whenever Woodard is on it.
Plaudits must also be given to the show’s use of music. Luke Cage fully embraces hip hop and Harlem’s culture, given the world a really authentic feel and whilst it does perhaps overdo its R and B/ hip hop backed montages in some episodes they still prove to be enjoyable for the majority of the time.
Luke Cage has an awful lot going for it and whilst it on the whole it may not be as strong as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, it still competes with them during its best episodes. Marvel’s Netflix output is, Civil War aside, stronger than its cinematic efforts right now and Luke Cage continues with that trend.