[This review discusses details from the first few episodes of Luke Cage season 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
The Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one marked primarily by its sense of place. Although highly fictionalized, the Hell’s Kitchen depicted in Daredevil and Jessica Jones exudes a kind of lived-in feeling and specificity that grounds the more fantastic aspects of their narratives in the tangibility of a real-world (enough) locale. The detail – either real or invented – drawn into these neighborhoods and boroughs gives this particular cluster of comic adaptations a unique advantage over their planet-sized theatrical counterparts that jump from city to city to do battle in non-descript airports or drafty bunkers in the wilds of Siberia.
It may be counterintuitive to think that the fate of a single neighborhood can outweigh the spectacle of a world-ending event, but because the world of the Netflix MCU seems so much smaller and runs with a more familiar rhythm, it can often feel like something more is at stake. And in the case of Marvel’s Luke Cage that’s exactly what makes the series tick. Marvel’s street-level series have all staked a similar claim in the MCU, one befitting their unofficial designation as “street-level”. And by developing the otherwise overlooked (or flown over) territory into something that defines them almost as much as the title characters, these programs have grown into the plucky upstarts who turned some unwanted real estate into a thriving community within a much larger universe.
Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker establishes his understanding of this from the get-go, utilizing Cage’s introduction last year on Jessica Jones in a way that allows the early focus of the series to drift from Cage to Harlem. Initially, Coker seems more interested in exploring the neighborhood and meeting the various characters who call it home than he his in getting right to the superhero action. At the start, his Luke Cage is isolated and reserved, reeling it seems as much from his history that will unfold throughout the series’ flashbacks as he is from the events that occurred while he was palling around with a certain hard-drinking private detective. Cage’s early efforts to remain insulated play to Coker’s strengths in establishing the rhythm of Harlem first, and later showing how his hero for hire might function within that particular beat.
As it turns out, this works out for the best, as Luke Cage – like Jessica Jones before it – is filled with people, places, and ideas that are far more compelling than the story that unfolds around them. Colter’s Cage is a clear-cut hero from the start. He commands the screen in every scene he’s in, representing something that, even in these comic-book-saturated times, is far too rare: a black man as the lead in his own superhero saga. Unlike Matt Murdock or Jones, Cage has no compunction about who he is and on what side of the law he stands – a compelling angle for this hero given his status as an ex-cop, an escaped convict, and now a bulletproof vigilante who can punch through walls. Cage knows what’s right and acts accordingly, pausing only to express well-earned unease in drawing attention to himself through his actions. His “I’ve got you” at the end of the first episode is as much a calling card for Cage’s brand of do-right-because-it’s-right heroism as it is a weary acknowledgement of how irrevocably changed his life will become (again).
The heroism of Cage is eventually pitted against criminal cousins Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). Like Colter, both are very good in their respective roles, and Ali is arguably great in several scenes devoted to Cottonmouth’s lust for respect and power, affording him the opportunity to pontificate on such matters while dishing out bloody punishment to disloyal underlings. Mariah, a councilwoman eager to see Harlem reinvigorated, even if it means doing so through less-than-reputable means, is required to be more reserved in public and, regrettably, scold-y when addressing her criminal kin who finds himself in a bit of hot water after an inside job sees him lose a shipment of guns. The cousins’ aspiration to rise above their criminal station is undercut by an unwillingness to avoid illegality in order to ascend. This, when tied to the political nature of Mariah’s machinations and the series’ emphasis on inner-city concerns, sees Luke Cage admirably aspire to narrative complexity and social relevance. And while the oversimplification of several elements leaves the narrative feeling David Simon-lite, the significance of Cage’s budding (super heroic) relationship with his community offers a enough of a counterweight to balance the product out.
Like the other entries in Netflix’s Marvel line-up, though, Cage struggles to maintain its momentum after the first few hours, suffering from the bloat that comes with trying sustaining a single storyline across 13 episodes. Whereas it might have been better to introduce and stick with a more compelling subplot – like one that focuses on the interesting relationship between Cage and Simone Missick’s Misty Knight – Luke Cage segues into the hero’s origin story. Unlike its representation of Harlem, the series is far less successful in its depiction of the Southern prison that turned a wrongly convicted man into a superhero. The flashbacks here are too perfunctory and inelegantly dispersed amongst the beats of the main narrative, shoehorning in characters like Theo Rossi’s Shades but not developing them enough to make them interesting. Whereas Coker is almost immediately victorious in creating a vibrant, compelling Harlem, the prison is just anywhere USA. Like most prisons it is deliberately featureless, but whereas programs like this summer’s The Night Of were able to translate that unremarkable sameness into something that spoke to the relationship between a human being and their surroundings – especially one they are forced into – Luke Cage only skims the surface in order to facilitate its superhero origin story.
Nevertheless, Luke Cage shines by presenting its character’s uncomplicated goodness as an outlier in a setting the series aims to depict as far more complex (even if the circumstances surrounding it aren’t nearly as complicated as the show would like them to seem). Cage is unlike any of Marvel’s other superheroes and the series never shies away from its acknowledgement of that fact. The show’s embrace of its hero, his neighborhood, and the themes surrounding him make this series worth watching, even when the story itself doesn’t quite reach the level of the other elements.
Luke Cage season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.