The Netflix/Marvel Television deal that began a couple of years ago has already proven to churn out 13-episode seasons committed to introduce audiences to the street-level vigilantes that we fans hold dear to our fanboy and fangirl hearts. Daredevil, Stick, Elektra, Jessica Jones, The Punisher – all have been given the origin stories they were due after being completely mishandled previously. (I would blame 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate but, honestly, let’s just blame the writers who lacked the vision and understanding to bring these characters onto the big screen.) So far, Marvel has been able to land punches that leave us wanting more. Jon Bernthal was granted his own spin-off in The Punisher. Daredevil is getting a much-needed third season and Jessica Jones, arguably the darkest but most fun ride Netflix has aired yet, gets a second season in early 2018, which is too far away but that’s another story. After being introduced to audiences in the aforementioned, it’s now Mike Colter’s turn to lead Luke Cage across a whole season against not one but two villains from his canon.
So – does Netflix have another home run? Well, maybe not the home run they were expected, but definitely a stand-up triple. Luke Cage is a show entirely different from the likes of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. The show is probably the most urban and grounded in reality tale that Marvel has delivered to fans as of yet, the MCU version of The Wire with the same level of foul dialogue and brutality that David Simon’s crime drama gained fame for a decade ago. While the pacing is a tad squirrely at times, the cast drives the 13-episode story from start to finish with such finesse that you get swept up into the streets of Harlem and each character’s collision course with destiny.
I was more shocked by the tone of the show more than the storytelling. Cheo Hodari Coker, who graced audiences with the biopic Notorious (as in Biggie Smalls) and heralded two seasons of Southland, is joined by Charles Murray (Sons Of Anarchy) to bring the world of Luke Cage to the screen. Granted, to bring Power Man (if you really want to reach into the well of Cage’s nicknames) to the small screen and into Netflix’s Marvel Knights-influenced universe, many of the characters were brought down into reality. You can’t have Luke Cage running around with a metal headband, matching armbands, and a bagging yellow dress shirt fighting crime. Well, you certainly could, and his original costume is hinted at largely in one episode, but the true message here is exactly as the above quote – just wearing a hoodie and blending in with the world makes him all that more believable.
“Most of these (heroes) wear spandex. Who would have thought a black man in a hoodie would be a hero?”
The show’s tone is what really makes the series stand out from its Marvel brethren (and sister). The creation of the character was rooted in the early 1970’s rise of Blaxploitation cinema starring Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, and Jim Brown. Cage was a direct answer to the rising culture of the Black Power Movement. Here we are, mid-2016, and the same topics that made headlines back in the day find themselves relevant all over. Coker harkens back to a time when John Shaft walked the streets of Harlem and didn’t take lip from anyone. Talk back to Shaft, you got your mouth beat with a right cross. People on the streets knew his name. Same goes with Luke Cage. Depending on your side of the road, he’ll either be your saving grace or the knuckles to your cheek to knock sense into your noggin.
Surprisingly, much of Cage’s origin is left intact – still the same experiment that goes totally awry. In the comics, Cage grew up alongside Willis Stryker and Shades but the trio were involved with the gang culture of Harlem, performing petty crimes to make a name for themselves. This time around, Cage and Stryker weren’t in a gang but rather boyhood friends who taught each other to box. And true to the comics, Stryker sends up Cage to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, driving him into defeat and lacking trust in anyone around him. Shades is introduced at the prison, being the blunt instrument that lands Cage (or, really, Carl Lucas prior to the experiment) onto death’s door. Doctor Noah Burstein (who does pop up across the first season, not just a throwaway character thankfully) saves his life with the experiment. In another minor change, Cage’s skin is now “titanium-tough” as opposed to “steel-tough.” Following his escape from prison, Cage just wants to be left alone but rises to become the hero that Harlem needs, a face among the crowd everyone knows but nobody snitches on to the police.
The supporting cast, consisting of some familiar faces, does deliver very strong and intricate performances to round out the slower storytelling narrative. Theo Rossi is slickly cast as Shades and, while his portrayal of Juice on Sons Of Anarchy got to be cringe worthy towards the end of that series, his turn as Shades is calm and collected, always a step ahead of the game and trying to figure out all of the angles. Alfre Woodard stars as Mariah Dillard, a New York City councilwoman whose gang-involved past has been left uncheck and is slowly resurfacing. Her cousin is Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes, a despicably cruel but underutilized character for proven actor Mahershala Ali. Erik LeRay Harvey rounds out as Willis “Diamondback” Stryker in a menacing powerhouse performance that can make water ripple with just a simple stare. Truly, the backbone of the cast is what makes Luke Cage stand on its own two feet and strengthen the show, delivering some truly jarring dialogue that evokes the ghosts of Blaxploitation past.
And what would Luke Cage be without the ladies in his life? Simone Missick brings Misty Knight to the MCU with a touch of sass, a wide range of emotion, with her ability to place herself in the scene of the crime propelling the narrative forward as the NYPD detective dogging Cottonmouth and his gang. Seeing as how Misty Knight eventually has a very much larger part in the world of Luke Cage and Iron First, it’s only fitting we see how she was raised and now works in the environment she refuses to flee. (There’s a big teaser in regards to how she becomes a heroine herself – but we’re not quite there with her yet.) Returning yet again is Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, serving as the binding glue for all of the Netflix shows to date. As true to the 1970’s comics, Temple and Cage share a very romantic companionship that develops across episodes, drawing us into believing the two are perfect for each other. Never mind that Cage got cozy with Jessica Jones previously (Luke Cage picks up presumably after Jessica Jones). The core of villains may increase the tension in the Harlem streets, but Marvel Television continues to develop strong female characters that are hard to be matched.
Luke Cage is also gifted by a dynamite soundtrack, riffing on 1970’s scores intertwined with modern hip hop. Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s score is heavily influenced by a vast variety of musical styles – 1930’s jazz, 1960’s electric piano, 1970’s electric guitar, and 1990’s hip-hop. Each episode has its own soundtrack, not just recycling themes across the season like many shows are guilty of these days. The score is infused with standalone riffs to bring a classic and standalone feel that separates the show from almost any television score I’ve ever heard in my 32 years on Earth. The music is soulful and boisterous, with a twinge of Ennio Morricone with each rise of the string, a small female-led chorus reaching for your heart. Factor in the musical talent contributing to the soundtrack and this is the stuff that most shows can’t even get right with their chemistry. Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, John Lee Hooker, Dusty Springfield, and Wu-Tang Clan all have some of their classic offerings sprinkled across the series. The standout moment for me was a new song by Method Man called “Bulletproof Love” that, frankly, caught me off-guard with its references to real-world news topics of today.
Which leads me into the most unexpected fact I found in Luke Cage – while the pacing is at times so wild the action scenes seem far and few between, I applaud Coker and his writing team for incorporating a very heavy tone into the narrative. Sure, the tone of the show might wink at its Blaxploitation roots, but today’s headlines are ripped off the pages and written as the backbone for the story. Cage spends much of the series pursued on the streets by the NYPD, framed for wrongdoings he didn’t commit, but don’t overlook what’s really going on here. A grown African American male draped in a black hoodie to cover his face. Police cracking down on people just for the color of the skin, not for a crime they may or may not have committed. Police brutality. People being wrongly accused just because they appear to look mischievous. Hell, there’s one scene where a young boy is clearly beaten by a cop. (The scene is shown off camera, and for good measure.) Echoes of Trayvon Martin and the recent rash of violence across the country, from Charlotte to Chicago, ebb and flow across the story arc. However, before you dismiss this as anti-police rhetoric – truly, Coker is trying to bring to light there’s a middle ground everyone needs to achieve peaceably. I’m more surprised that many other reviews I’ve perused seem to overlook the backbone of Luke Cage but believe me, it’s all there and makes a somewhat tired-and-true plot stand out on its own.
“Sometimes backwards to move forwards. Always.”
Also, for being a Marvel show, the language truly had my jaw drop and surprise the hell out of me. Sure, anyone who’s seen Django Unchained heard a literal chorus of colorful curse words as the movie moved along. That’s Tarantino’s schtick. While Luke Cage may not drop the big bad F-bomb (though we come damn close on several occasions but the dialogue is cut short), Marvel has allowed Coker and his writing team to reach into the well. Good guys don’t drop certain derogatory remarks, but the bad guys do. And frequently, whether as slang or to refer to a person. I don’t think I need to repeat the word but it’s quite taboo and, also, quite ignorant to say in real life. But on the show, given the types of characters that are in play, I can understand why certain expletives are necessary. This is how any one person would talk in reality, color or creed regardless. I applaud Marvel for letting the creative behind Luke Cage to do as they wished, to create an environment as believable as you’d expect it to be.
Minor nitpicks about the awkward pacing and some of the storytelling aside (the second half is almost entirely different form the first half – an annoying trend with the Netflix shows aside from Jessica Jones), Marvel Television has managed to create another winning show, utilizing a very different formula to stand out from the rest of the cannon. I think it should be obvious that Colter is wisely cast as Luke Cage and, without first meeting him in Jessica Jones, the ability to level with his character would not have been the same. The relationships with those he both loves and loathes is very authentic, reminiscent of the turmoil in our everyday lives. (Well, minus the gun-running. Clearly not that facet.) If Coker and crew can polish the story for the second season and smooth the edges, then Luke Cage will hit the ground running without feeling the need to slowly ingest the series. I wisely took four days to assimilate the series and catch every second. I didn’t feel the need to stop. Luke Cage is the type of show you need to absorb and appreciate. Seeing as how the season finale is left with many questions, there’s no doubt we’ll see Luke Cage back to tear down the walls. Until then – I’m more ready for The Defenders than I’ve ever been.
Reber’s Rating – 88/100 (second only to Jessica Jones in the Netflix shows)