This review contains spoilers for Marvel/Netflix’s Luke Cage. I have a brief spoiler free review below, but then after the cut is spoiler city. If you have NOT watched Luke Cage yet, and you care about spoilers, go do so before reading the rest of this review.
The first seven episodes of Luke Cage may be the best seven hours in the MCU. It’s certainly the best seven hours of Marvel television. Unfortunately, some momentum is lost in the back half of the season, but it still ends strong, and I would place it at second place, just below Jessica Jones, in the Marvel/Netflix offerings. Even if you are not usually interested in comic book or superhero television, you will probably find yourself intrigued by the deep, compelling characters, brilliant performances, and stunning cinematography. If you do not check out this series, you are doing yourself a disservice. That’s the end of the spoiler-free review. Below the break, I will get into spoilers.
First and foremost, the characters are some of the best parts of this series. They are deep, complex, and compelling. Mike Colter as Luke Cage is as good as we saw him in Jessica Jones and then some. This series really gives him the room to bring that character to life, which isn’t a surprise. What might be a surprise is that nearly every character surrounding him is similarly interesting and well portrayed. The series really acts as a dual origin story between Mike Colter’s Luke Cage and Simone Missick’s Misty Knight. And it functions in a different way than we saw with the other dual origins in the line of street-level Marvel series so far. The first season of Daredevil was the origin of both Daredevil and the Kingpin, and that was great, but by offering that same treatment to the two protagonists, this show creates a narrative where I really did find myself interested in both sides. It’s difficult to create that kind of parallelism, and credit goes to both the writers and the actors for pulling it off.
Speaking of villains, though, I would be remiss if I did not mention the fantastic work done by Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard to bring to life Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard respectively. The narrative arc around those two characters is a big part of why those first seven episodes were so fulfilling and tight, and helped build to the wonderfully shocking scene of Mariah’s eventual murder of Cottonmouth helping it to feel more than earned, even if I feel like the execution of the aftermath was narratively problematic (as I will address later).
In fact, the cast in general is marvelous, from the major characters like Luke Cage and Misty Knight to the kid who sells DVD recordings of Superhero fights on the corner. That’s great not just for the show, but also as a message of diversity. This is a show almost entirely cast with POC actors, and, as a result, whether it set out to do this or not, it serves as an example of that diversity. These characters are not just not marginalized, they feel deep and alive. Everyone feels like they have a story to tell that we just may not be seeing right now, and that helps give life to the show, and, specifically, give life to its representation of Harlem. Harlem feels like a living, breathing community, and that really brings the show together in a way we haven’t seen in the other shows so far. It certainly helps that the visual representation of that neighborhood is so beautifully presented.
Which brings me to the other thing that this show does wonderfully. The cinematography and every technical aspect of the show from lightning, to set design, to the color palette and even the music is nearly perfect. Even at the low points of the series, you can just enjoy looking at how beautiful the show is. The showrunners really worked to create this sort of blend of Blaxploitation and modern crime drama in the best way possible. And Manuel Billeter may be the most underrated cinematographer in Hollywood. He was, if you weren’t aware (or forgot), also the cinematographer on Jessica Jones, which was also beautifully shot, but his work is even better on this show, creating shot after shot of gorgeous, evocative film (As a side note, I am super stoked for Iron Fist, which he will also be cinematographer on, but will likely have some flashier fight scenes, as a result of being a martial arts show).
Luke Cage is not a perfect show, though it has far more good than bad. And a lot of what I see as stumbling moments for the show come out of the second half of the season. There are great moments there, too, don’t get me wrong, but it just doesn’t feel as smooth as the first half did narratively. I think that’s because of the decision to bring in Diamondback as the main villain. When Mariah kills Cottonmouth, I expected that she would take up the main villain slot in the series, and, in the end, I feel like that would have been a better choice. Diamondback was just never as compelling a villain to me as Cottonmouth, or Mariah, or even Shades was, and I feel like that was the result of not having seven episodes of character development to establish him like the other characters had. Switching to a brand new main villain in episode eight just kills the narrative momentum. The show struggles to incorporate Diamondback into the existing narrative in a way that both makes sense and resonates with the audience, and I just don’t think it ever really gets there. The best thing I can say about him is he’s functional. He’s a villain that pushes Luke in the right directions so that he can get to the plot points that he needs to in order to end up where the showrunners need him be. But he doesn’t feel as deep or complex as the other characters, and Mariah would have felt like a more natural villain to transition to. The second half of the season also falls prey to a few moments where there are some logical failings in the narrative that, while certainly forgivable, are more noticeable because the loss of narrative momentum allows the audience to stop and take notice.
Additionally, I felt like the “let’s frame Luke Cage” plot hook felt a bit repetitive. This is a character whose whole backstory is he was framed, and the way you are going to drive the second half of the season is to have him framed again? This comes to an almost humorous head in the final episode when the U.S. Marshals come to arrest him for breaking out of Seagate Prison, and Luke has to basically explain to everyone that no, this isn’t about the crime he was framed for recently, it’s about the OTHER crime he was framed for. I just think some variation there would have served to make the plot flow more smoothly. All that said, the faults of this series are more that forgivable in light of its strengths. In the end, it comes together and still tells a great story.
Luke Cage is a powerhouse of a show for the first seven episodes, and it still ends strong, despite having some stumbling moments finding its legs in the back six, but, perhaps some of the best things about the show are the way it works with its source material and also works in and around the superhero genre.
A lot of the early negative reviews of the show (when people had mostly only seen the first half) charged it with just not feeling very comic book-like. And that’s a fair assessment. Luke Cage is a show that uses its comic book roots to facilitate a more traditional police drama plot. Luke Cage is super strong and indestructible, but he doesn’t, for the most part use that power to take down other super powered individuals (with the exception of the fight with Diamondback at the end, which I’ll get to in a bit), he uses it in the same way that, say, Sherlock uses his deductive reasoning in Elementary and Sherlock, or the way Liv Moore uses her zombie psychic abilities in iZombie. It’s a way for him to do things that the police can’t. He gets stolen items back from gangsters, he busts up a safe house where illicit profits are being kept. He walks up to crime bosses and demands information, and he doesn’t have to worry about being shot or killed. He, as he later points out, does what the police can’t, because he doesn’t have to worry about a badge or warrant.
Is that to say that the show is afraid of comic books in the same way that I always accuse WB/DC of being? No. It demonstrates that time and again. This is a show that loves and respects its source material. Whether that is resurrecting a 40 year old comic catchphrase (There are six times when a character says “Sweet Christmas” (I counted, though, one of them was Diamondback, so maybe that one doesn’t count), or giving comic readers glimpses of classic superhero costumes. For example, Luke actually does end up in his original costume briefly in what is, perhaps, the best origin episode I’ve ever seen (most origin stories feel like necessary divergences, but this one created a flashback narrative that I was actually invested in as a story). And the last shot we see of Misty Knight is her in her actual comic costume, and she looks amazing. The show even references the name “Power Man,” because it’s what Pop’s calls Luke. And to top it off, there is a super-powered throwdown in the last episode that involves a powersuit, which is referred to as looking like a “pimp stormtrooper.” This is not a series that is afraid of comics, and it’s not a series that takes itself too seriously to be fun. It’s just a series that knows when to use its source material, and when it serves the show better to focus on the more grounded tone and themes that it’s set up for itself.
There is so much more to talk about with this show. From the way that it interacts with the current events surrounding police shootings, and the racial tensions in America, to the way that it pays homage to some problematic genre tropes while still critiquing those tropes, but I don’t have the time to get into all that right now. I may in future posts. For now, though, know this: All-in-all, this is a fantastic show. It has some problems that keep me from rating it as highly as I would rate Jessica Jones, but it’s easily the second best of four already great Marvel/Netflix seasons of television. Check it out. You won’t regret it.
So what do you think the key was to successful transition from the sometimes exploitative roots?
That’s a good question. I’m not sort of racially qualified to speak to the complex nature of blaxploitation cinema, but I think that what Luke Cage does really well as a series is it takes the best or least harmful parts of that genre such as setting it in a poorer neighborhood, dealing with the criminal aspects of said neighborhood, an inclusion of Jazz and Funk music, and a focus on non-white characters, but it also treats those things with modern sensibilities.
These are characters that are fully developed, deep, and complex. They are not stereotypes, by and large, and even if they seem to be at first, they often contain layers that you wouldn’t expect. The most damaging blaxploitation trope that the show adheres to is the seeming desire for every woman to want to get Luke Cage into bed (which isn’t exactly true. It’s really only three women, and one is in a flashback, but it sure seems like a lot in 13 episodes), and that’s a trope that is mostly harmless.
When they do reference Luke Cage’s comic book roots that felt a bit more stereotypical (his original outfit, his use of a quirky catch phrase), the show seems to poke fun at those things in a way that says “See? We are referencing these things, but we also find them ridiculous).