Luke Cage – Season 1 Review
“The past is the past. And the only direction in life that matters is forward. Never backwards.”
Luke Cage is an interesting installment in the Marvel Netflix franchise. Like the preceding seasons of Marvel shows, Jessica Jones and Daredevil, Luke Cage starts stronger than it finishes, but the gap in quality between the beginning and ending might be the most significant one yet. However, even if the narrative gets clumsy towards the end, it does have numerous strengths that it makes fine use of throughout. This show paints Harlem as a living breathing entity that bleeds culture and history. I’ve often described The Wire and Treme as being character studies as performed on cities, and much of Luke Cage could rightfully claim to be a similar study of Harlem itself even if its narrative is more centralized. The casting of Mike Colter as Luke Cage proved to be an excellent decision back when he appeared in Jessica Jones, and he is no less perfect for the role here. However, there are many decisions involved with the writing that ultimately prove to be unsatisfactory half-measures. These largely come in the form of hints and references to Jessica Jones and Daredevil or events that occurred in the comics that are never properly followed up on. The tone of the series also gets derailed when a new villain is introduced around halfway through the season. This character’s larger-than-life cartoonish persona constantly rode the delicate line between working and not working before landing heavily on the side of not at the very end. The end result is that Luke Cage is the Marvel Netflix series with the most cohesive and well constructed environment and with the most uneven and scattered narrative.
The narrative follows from where Jessica Jones left off with Cage now living in Harlem with Pop, the owner of a local barbershop who serves as a mentor and voice of reason to many of the people living in the area. Pop is played by Frankie Faison, who is probably best remembered for his role as Ervin “This is Baltimore, gentlemen. The Gods will not save you.” Burrell on The Wire. His role in this series is technically somewhat limited, but his character is one that clearly had an impact on those around him, and Faison does a fantastic job of giving Pop the appropriate sense of wisdom and influence. Cage gradually comes into conflict with a local weapons dealer and nightclub owner named Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, played by Mahershala Ali. Ali also does a great job with the character, but he gets effectively sidelined midway through the season which, in turn, leads to another issue. If there is one key weakness that sets Luke Cage apart from its predecessors it would be the lack of a defining antagonistic performance. Daredevil had D’Onofrio’s Kingpin in the first season and Bernthal’s Punisher in the second (along with appearances from D’Onofrio to top it off) while Jessica Jones had Tennant’s unforgettable performance as Kilgrave. Luke Cage has a number of prominent antagonists in Cottonmouth, Cottonmouth’s politician cousin Mariah Dillard, the enigmatic Shades, and more. Unfortunately, none of them succeed in rising above the fray and standing with a proper sense of menace. Cottonmouth arguably came the closest, but, as I stated before, the series ultimately pushed him to the side in favor of another character. This character is clearly intended to be the central villain, but, again, he felt bizarre and silly even before they decided to put him in a costume.
The show makes significant references to its comic roots and its Netflix brethren. Some of these elements work, and some don’t. Seeing Luke Cage dressed in his classic 70’s attire including the ‘tiara,’ that works. Making various references to Daredevil and Jessica Jones, but never actually contacting them for help, that doesn’t. I should also add that while Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple is prominent and awesome in this season, the hints of romance between her and Coulter’s Luke Cage fell completely flat for me. It’s one of those instances where my enjoyment of the comics may have influenced my opinion, since I’d much rather see Luke end up with Jessica like in the comics. There is also an odd half measure that comes with the character of Detective Misty Knight, played here by Simone Missick. Like Dawson, she is featured prominently in the show, and a number of nods are made towards her comic book counterpart. One of these comes in the form of a bullet wound to the arm that Temple warns her might require amputation if not properly treated. Fans of the comics would likely assume this will lead to the removal of her arm, a significant event for her character in the comics, but they would be wrong. Little ultimately comes from this plot point, and instead it proves to be a halfhearted reference that doesn’t go anywhere. These sorts of moments end up just feeling distracting to fans, and are likely to bring some confusion to non-fans. At one point, Method Man shows up as himself, and, after encountering Cage during a robbery at a bodega, performs a rap called “Bulletproof Love” that prominently features the term “Hero for Hire.” This would come off as a fun reference if it wasn’t for the fact that Cage, on many occasions during this show, proclaims he isn’t for hire.
Despite those various points of frustration, the show is well acted, and its musical score is easily heads and tails above anything else Marvel has done outside of Guardians of the Galaxy. I already mentioned Method Man’s “Bulletproof Love,” but I should add that, despite its lyrics contradicting the show, it is a fun track. Works by artists including Mahalia Jackson, Dusty Springfield, and, unsurprisingly, The Wu-Tang Clan are featured. The show also makes use of the nightclub setting of Cottonmouth’s Harlem Paradise to feature many live acts. Had this been handled poorly, it could have turned into a distracting element, but instead it serves to breathe life and character into the setting. A large portion of Luke Cage feels like it is about a community, and it is in that sense that the show thrives.
Before I wrap up, a few Notes and Nitpicks:
- Aside from Frankie Faizon, Luke Cage actually has three other alumni from The Wire with Sonja Sohn who portrays a police captain, the doctor who gave Luke Cage his powers is played by Michael Kostroff, and Method Man himself. Sonja Sohn portrayed one of the main characters of that series, Det. Kima Greggs, Michael Kostroff played the lawyer Levy, and Method Man had a recurring role as Cheese Wagstaff.
- I’m pretty sure that at no point does Luke Cage put on a yellow t-shirt during this season. On one hand, it is definitely a minor detail to make note of, but it’s also an easy element to incorporate. He wore one during his first appearance in Jessica Jones, but, for whatever reason, I guess someone on the staff just thinks Mike Coulter looks terrible in yellow. Instead, they mostly put him in black hoodies. I can certainly respect the symbol and context there, but the decision to exclude the character’s iconic shirt started to irk me after a while. However, the overall aesthetic does seem to favor yellow…
- I didn’t touch upon the fight scenes in the bulk of the review. In an odd way they appear to be the inverse of Daredevil’s fights, which is to say that they get better the more one-sided they are. What I mean is, when Luke is fighting someone who is on equal footing with him, the fight can feel a bit silly, but when he is plowing through a hallway filled with people, nonchalantly smacking them into ceilings or through wall, it can be very engaging.
- For the record, any potential arguments suggesting that the reason they avoided having Jessica or Murdock show up was because they want to have the first season of the show to stand on its own are undermined by Mike Coulter’s presence throughout Jessica Jones‘s first season.
Uneven but never unenjoyable, the first season of Luke Cage embraces and celebrates the character and what he stands for. However, it is undermined by noncommittal narrative decisions and a weak central antagonist. It is still a strong season overall, but the conclusion may leave you pining, just a little, for the polished charm of the opening episodes.