This past weekend, fans of Marvel television got invested in one of comics’ greatest street level heroes in a big way…..so much so that it crashed Netflix. On September 30th, all 13 episodes of Marvel’s Luke Cage was released on the service and there were many who got to the binging right away. A hero created in the early 70s, Luke Cage has been known by a lot of different titles over the years: Hero for Hire, Power Man, Avenger, Father. Now T.V. star can be added to the list. Just like the Netflix series that came before it (Daredevil and Jessica Jones), Luke has been widely seen as a second stringer by comics fans for decades. He had a spike in popularity during Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the New Avengers. Other than that, he’s been more of a supporting player than a leading man. It was a supporting role that introduced audiences of Jessica Jones to this man with unbreakable skin and since then, there has been great anticipation to see Luke (played by Mike Colter) get his own adventure in the MCU. Well, he finally got it and while it wasn’t as amazing a ride as his blind buddy in Hell’s Kitchen’s two outings, it was pretty damn close.
The series takes place in Harlem, after Luke’s brief encounter with Jessica Jones. Luke’s now stationed uptown, trying to keep a low profile and working two jobs. He has no interest in being a super hero. He just wants to stay off the radar until he can figure out a way to clear his name in his former life where he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. But as much as he tries to stay out of trouble, that trouble has a way of finding him. Enter Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a local mob boss and gun runner who believes he owns Harlem. He attempts to control both the criminal element in the neighbourhood as well as the political structure, using his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a counsel woman who’s up for re-election in the coming months. Due to a series of events that would be best not to give away here, Cage is forced into a fight with Cottonmouth and his crew and this battle will lead to other major players, including some from Luke’s past, getting involved in what becomes a war for the streets of Harlem.
Much like the Daredevil series, a great deal of Luke Cage’s comic book life makes it to the small screen. A large number of characters are pulled directly from early issues of his Hero for Hire series and there are even some that from comics that were published in the same era. Even though these characters were created over 40 years ago, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker finds a way to update them for present day without losing their “blaxploitation” roots. What surprises me most is the sheer number of players involved the story. Aside from Luke, Cottonmouth and Mariah, the series also focuses on criminals Shades and Diamondback, police officer Misty Knight and the returning Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) who after a number of adventures in Hell’s Kitchen, has returned uptown to try and make sense of her current situation. All of them get a good chunk of screen time to develop their back story and character motivation. There are no lost narratives and every thread has a concrete conclusion. Coker weaves a tapestry that’s easy to follow and satisfying in the end while still working in the “Marvel” connections necessary to keep this part of the “shared” universe of the MCU.
The Netflix Marvel U is well represented in Marvel’s Luke Cage as Claire Temple becomes a huge part of the show’s story about a third of the way into the series. Claire was a major part of the Hero for Hire comic, so it’s only fitting that her biggest adventure yet comes to us now. But Claire isn’t the only connection to the rest of the Netflix shows. Rob Morgan reprises his Turk Barrett role after appearing in both seasons of Daredevil and like Claire, Turk’s got a much bigger role this time around. We also get a sample of what’s currently being talked about on Trish Walker’s radio show that was featured previously in Jessica Jones and even Frank Castle (a.k.a. The Punisher) is still a concern for the Mayor’s office. What’s great is these elements are prominently displayed for fans of the other comic book series while still not affecting the narrative of this show. You feel that this is all happening in the same world but it doesn’t confuse you if this is the first Marvel show you’re checking out.
Even greater than the story and the inter-connectivity is the performances. There is a great deal of stellar work being done by the entire cast. Simone Missick makes Misty Knight a woman not to be ignored as she has some of the most dramatic scenes in the show as a cop trying to find the answer to the mystery of Luke Cage while also trying to keep Harlem safe from Cottonmouth and other dangers. The range of situations she has to deal with would be distributed among a group of characters on any other show. But she shoulders the load and gives the audience a definitive “every person” to root for as she’s able to survive a number of harrowing situations without any superpowers to speak of. Frank Whaley chews the scenery as her partner, Detective Rafael Scarfe. Another character straight out of the comics, Scarfe is funny and entertaining but gives off a vibe that a viewer might have a hard time deciding if they actually like him or not. He does some great work.
Mike Colter gives his best performance to date as Cage and has some amazing chemistry with Rosario Dawson. The two light up the screen whenever they’re together and have some of the best moments in the series. The two do such a great job of complimenting each other that it’s almost hard to see them do any scene separately after that. Hands down, the two made the last few episodes especially excellent.
While the performances were fantastic, my major problem with the series was the glut of antagonists. While I am thoroughly impressed that Coker and friends were able to find a way to work in a number of Luke Cage villains, I feel that the sheer amount got a bit too much. There’s a great deal of focus shown to both Cottonmouth and Diamondback (as well there should be) but the development of Black Mariah and Shades is also very dense. We get a lot of back story on all of them. Yet somehow, all that information made me care less about each of them. Instead of focusing on just one, the viewer is asked to see and understand the position and motivation of each. What’s more is that we’re asked to sympathize with each of them as well.
While I applaud the ambition of attempting to give us four fully fleshed out villains, I feel that the quantity caused them to become almost insignificant as threats to Cage. What both Daredevil and Jessica Jones brought to the table was one strong “big bad” that the audience could give all their attention to. This series dilutes the strength of the “big bad” by giving the viewer four options to choose from. It just feels a little too much and causes Diamondback, the supposed “biggest bad”, to look weaker than he should.
While I was not impressed by the large amount of villains on the show, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the series as a whole. The series had a strong narrative that touched on issues that directly affect the people of Harlem (gentrification, police brutality, systemic and overt racism) while not making it the focal point of the whole show. It successfully showed Harlem as a living, breathing character and worked in music of the area’s history in a way that had a definite impact to the tone and mood of the story. Finally, it was the perfect blend of blaxploitation, film noir and classic western. That’s an incredibly daring feat to execute and Coker and the rest of the Luke Cage Team pulled it off with flying colours.
If you are Netflix subscriber, you need to watch Marvel’s Luke Cage as soon as you get the chance. If you’re not a Netflix subscriber, I strongly suggest that you sign up now just to check this show out. And remember to always move forward, never backwards…..always.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!