Luke Cage (Season 1) (2016)
Netflix / TVMA
Action / Crime / Drama
Starring: Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi
Creator: Cheo Hodari Coker
He just wanted to be left alone, but the city needed a hero. That’s one of the things I love about Netflix’s host of Marvel TV shows. The featured superheroes, or vigilantes as some might say, never revel in the spotlight that is thrust on them. They never bask in the glow of praise (or hate) that gets thrown their way. They just do what they feel is necessary. They get the job down because it’s the right thing to do. Luke Cage, the star of Marvels’ Luke Cage, was just the neighborhood guy, hanging out at Pop’s barber shop in Harlem. However, after his name gets tarnished he needs to fight to clear his name and save his neighborhood.
Some superheroes wear capes; others wear hoodies full of bullet holes. The one thing that Luke Cage absolutely nails, among other things, is its titular hero. We got a taste of Mike Colter’s Luke Cage in Netflix’s other series Jessica Jones, but this time around he’s front and center. He’s an ex-con who literally just wants to be left alone. He’s the neighborhood guy that everybody loves. He also has superhuman strength and durability, which comes in handy more times than not. The show doesn’t waste any time in showing you that Luke’s bulletproof. I was going to count how many hoodies he lost because of bullet holes…but I quickly lost count. Colter brings a toughness to the role that I really like. He also does a good job at portraying a man who has a lot of demons, demons he wrestles with all season. Luke’s a complex character, one that ever so relatable. As a white male, I would be lying to you if I told you that I related to Luke Cage, but there is a massive demographic of young black males that will quickly identify with Luke’s character, especially in light of the events in current society. This isn’t by accident either.
Another aspect that show creator Cheo Hodari Coker nails is the story, full of great supporting characters as well as villains. Like all of Marvel’s Netflix shows, the story stays grounded in Harlem, a city full of gangbanging and corruption. One of the neighborhoods’ biggest players is Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali) who goes by the name of ‘Cottonmouth.’ I absolutely adored Ali’s performance as the classy gangster hungry for power. Nothing made me giddier than the show’s iconic scene that has Cottonmouth demonstrating his power in front of a portrait of late rapper Biggie Smalls. It’s a great example of the show’s fantastic cinematography. Cottonmouth’s not the only player in Harlem though. There’s also councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and Herman “Shades” Alvarez (Theo Rossi). Both give great performances, along with some other villains that I won’t mention in fear of spoilers.
But who’s on Luke Cage’s side? At first, Luke’s relationship with Harlem detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is a rough, but the two slowly warm up to each other as the season moves on. They both are in search of justice and want to make sure that it’s found, no matter the cost. It’s also refreshing to see Rosario Dawson get substantial screen time as Claire Temple, a good friend of Luke’s. We have seen Dawson in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones as Claire, but only in smaller, more supportive roles. This time she’s a prime part of the story, helping Luke find answers and seek justice in any way that she can. She has experience tending to heroes like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which makes her a qualified sidekick on Luke’s quest for vengeance.
The first couple of episodes chug along at a slower pace, but the story quickly picks up at a faster and more thrilling pace. Although the main focus is Luke’s quest to avenge Pop’s (Frankie Faison) death, we also see bit and pieces of Luke’s past as an ex-con and how he became the superhuman that he is now. I think these bits of backstory are neatly framed within the context of the story and they never feel too egregious. They also play a big part in developing the characters and their motivations in the story. Even though I enjoyed the show’s story a great deal, it was still lacking a thing that all good stories need: conflict, which might seem silly when you see Luke Cage fighting his way through gangsters and taking bullets like hunting target. “Of course there’s conflict, what are you talking about!?” Sure, there’s a surface level conflict, but I never felt like Luke was ever in real danger at any point during the course of the season. There’s clever ways that the plot tries to build roadblocks in Luke’s mission, but I always knew in the back of my head that Luke was going to be just fine. That’s the problem when you have a character that is, literally, bulletproof. There were, of course, an abundance of thrills but these thrills were the byproduct of well-choreographed fight scenes and action moments…never the byproduct of conflict.
Let’s circle back to a positive aspect of my time with Luke Cage and that is the show’s production and style. Everything from the imagery to the show’s amazing soundtrack play a big role in putting you in the city streets of Harlem. I already mentioned it previously, but the scene including Biggie’s portrait is a perfect example of the show really embracing Harlem’s culture. There’s also the soundtrack, which is heavily influenced by old-school rap. It even boils down to the show’s episode titles, all of which are references to the classic rap duo Gang Starr. The show’s creators really understood the culture and setting that they were working with and hit a hole-in-one in terms of Harlem’s look and feel. It did a great job at placing you in the beating heart of Harlem’s neighborhood.
If I had to rank Marvel’s Netflix shows as of right now, I would probably put Luke Cage above Jessica Jones but below Daredevil. Regardless of its place among its sister shows, Luke Cage still excels on its own. There’s a few blemishes, specifically with the conflict for a near-invincible vigilante, but the story delivers a wonderful cast of characters placed in the beautifully painted depiction of Harlem. Ever since I saw Mike Colter’s Luke Cage in Jessica Jones I knew I wanted a full-on show devoted to the character, and Luke Cage delivers and succeeds in its mission. But seriously, Luke really needs to buy some higher-grade hoodies. Don’t they sell bullet-proof hoodies?