Luke Cage makes a statement. He doesn’t hide in the shadows like Daredevil or even drunkenly stumbles through alleys like Jessica Jones. He is a perfectly stoic and heroic, an unwavering force that kicks down doors rather than open them and charges headfirst into a hail of gunfire. If he’s been there, you’re not going to miss it.
But just as importantly, Luke Cage also makes a statement. What else could it be when its black protagonist saves Harlem by wearing a hoodie, being bulletproof, and standing firmly within the realm of Superman-level morality. It struggles through some hilariously clunky writing, frustratingly broken plot points, and molasses-esque pacing, but punches through those few and relatively brief quibbles to ultimately bring another winning entry into the Marvel/Netflix roster.
If you caught the first season of Jessica Jones, then you are undoubtedly already familiar with the character of Luke Cage. Now relocated to Harlem, Cage is a part-time worker at a barbershop and a club as well as being a full-time result of an experiment that rendered him insanely strong and his skin (mostly) unbreakable. And strangely yet thankfully, this is kind of where the broad parallels with the comic book character ends.
There are definitely some loving throws back to the meaty origins, though. His nickname, his transformation wardrobe, certain blaxploitation tropes. Superficially, a lot of it is there, but the spirit is drastically different, and almost necessarily so. The character himself actually states it outright when he says he’s no hero for hire, a direct contradiction to his publication debut and much of the foundation of his personality.
Not enough can be said how much of this has to do with Mike Colter’s impeccable portrayal of the character. Rather than any sort stereotypical or prejudicial affectations of the norm, his Cage is overwhelmingly well-spoken, well-educated, and beyond reproach in terms of his ideals. Despite his tremendous strength, he keeps himself reigned in and never kills. Despite the ease of the tactic, he never uses firearms and instead actually renders those he finds useless with one solid squeeze of his powerful fists.
He is an entire and succinct and powerful commentary on the current social climate of race relations. (I don’t think I could say it any more simply or effectively than showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker did at SDCC.) And more over, because it was filmed far before the most recent and numerous controversies erupted, it’s even more potent; it stands both timeless and prescient, just as much as the original character was back in 1972.
To say it’s just about that, however, would be unfair. This is a genuinely ambitious and unique show in many other ways as well. It’s a distinct and unapologetic black, urban voice, one that evokes more of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing than Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. It rarely ever deals in broad strokes, instead relying on specificity and nuance that reminds me of my early childhood in the same environments. (It even ends in a finale climax that is the single most Harlem thing you’ll ever see on TV.)
The idea of keeping it within the neighborhood, even if it means keeping it down, is heavily present here as it is in real life. The pointed awareness of both fighting and working with the system, broken or not, is woven into the entire season. And of course the rabid conflict and collision of social, familial, and personal obligations inevitably and wonderfully explode into drama and bullets.
It even manages to accomplish many of this while subverting many of the expected plot points of a Marvel/Netflix show. We, for example, never have to deal with the trite, pointless dramatic and selfish revelation to a best friend that they were under the mask the whole time. Nor do we have a singular, villainous voice to plow against, which necessarily loses the intimacy of a Jessica Jones story but adds immense and welcome complexity as the antagonist shifts between different hands and roles.
And amongst both the good and the bad guys, these are heavy hitters in the talent department. Mahershala Ali as mobster slumlord Cottonmouth Stokes is bewilderingly good. He has the perfect presence, taking over a room with a booming, threatening voice, but only tenuously and shallowly, as you can only do when your power is, well, power. And combined with Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard, who is almost too obviously and perfectly a subtle and malicious manipulator, they don’t just chew the scene with dripping menace but wholly ravage it.
Perhaps, though, not enough can be said about Simone Missick as Misty Knight, the NYPD detective who initially and, later, erroneously connects the dots on Cage and all the disasters hitting the streets. Her range of emotions feels almost ethereal at a certain point. Over the course of the season (let alone especially impactful individual scenes), you see her as the most powerful person in the show to the most vulnerable. Her arc folds in oh so wonderfully with Cage’s own path and characterization. (Oh, and if Rosario Dawson could just go ahead and be in every MCU property, that would be great.)
It takes a while to get there, though. While the actual opening scene of the series is pretty much flawless and exactly what it needed, the rest of the first and next few episodes are oppressively slow and expository. It’s partially because it settles back into a character we sort of but not really but actually do know from Jessica Jones, so it safely retreads some of that. But really it has to set up all of the dominoes for the myriad threats that come at Cage, including a couple that don’t ever really pan out.
And there are a couple places where it almost feels like it tries to catch up on this lost introductory time, sacrificing logic for progression. There’s a point where there’s an anti-Luke Cage rally, and the justification for it is absolutely bonkers. Not even M. C. Escher could make those twisted, disconnected lines look right. (Also, watching Detective Scarfe try to use chopsticks is the worst thing I’ve seen in years.)
Visually and aurally, though, this show is stupendous through and through. It takes the blaxploitation, funky, 70s soundtrack and pumps it into the blood of the show. It even takes on a Chapelle’s Show-style exhibition of actual (and terrific) musical acts like Raphael Saadiq and Faith Evans. And there are so many times where a shot will strike you as so shockingly beautiful and poignant that you just have to pause and look on in awe.
Superficially, there’s a lot to this show. And one layer deep, it already approaches an unwieldy amount of drama and threads to unpack. But it keeps going and it keeps handling (most of) it with aplomb. It struggles through rough, unsavory bookends, but the meat is incredibly bountiful once you get to it. From the social commentary to the complex and rewarding narrative to the satisfying characters and their arcs, Luke Cage is one hell of a program.
Final Score: 8 out of 10