Riding the crest of a Blaxploitation wave, Luke Cage was created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska (with help from Roy Thomas). It’s taken a long time for one of Marvel Comics’ most important black heroes to reach the screen, but boy has it ever been worth the wait.
With this latest series from Netflix, the cooperation between the two companies has really hit a creative peak. Featuring often lower key (but always entertaining) superheroics, touching on hot button topics to give the drama satisfying depth, and with a top notch cast (highlighting beyond due but very welcome diversity, which also extends to the production team behind the cameras), Luke Cage comes in both barrels blazing and feels as unstoppable as its titular hero!
We’re introduced quickly and confidently to the cast of characters – central to which is Harlem itself, given far more of a distinct personality than Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil and Jessica Jones – in a relatively slow burn first episode, in fact the pacing throughout is charmingly classical, there’s no tearing through ADHD storytelling – everything proceeds at an even, steady tempo, giving characters time to live and breathe and allowing us to understand or care about each one. By about the third episode this approach really starts to pay dividends and then with episode four giving us a revised version of Cage’s origin from the comics, suddenly everything seems to click into place and you realise you’re hooked for the rest of the run. It’s an approach that will give this show long legs and I suspect will play well for repeated viewings (and yes, this is definitely a show that will stand up to more than one watch).
As I mentioned earlier, the cast is uniformly excellent. Colter is magnificent, striding through the episodes like a powerhouse (or even a “Power Man”, a neat in-joke used several time in early episodes – a name used by Cage in the comics), completely owning his show – all quiet dignity with fire and steel just below the surface. Cage is morally conflicted, enough to ensure there’s more than a single layer to enjoy, but at his core he is filled with a sense of righteousness and acts on that until the world forces him to step out of the shadows.
In one scene midway through the season, Cage eulogises the death of a neighbourhood friend and in doing so, gives a stirring speech to rival the kind usually given by the likes of Captain America. Cage is firmly established here as not just as man who will do whatever it takes to get the job done, but as a man to look up to, a hero.
For old time fans longing to see Cage in his traditional comic book outfit of metal headband and yellow blouson, let’s say you won’t be entirely disappointed (though you’ll be glad it doesn’t hang around long – some comic book conceits don’t translate to film). That’s just one of many nods to the character’s four-colour origins and to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s also a stronger sense here of the Netflix shows slowly coming together, as we gradually head towards the eventual team-up series, The Defenders (in fact, now we’re only waiting for the last of the key characters to be introduced, in next year’s Iron Fist).
They say a hero is only as good as his or her enemies, and Luke Cage has some great villains. These aren’t pantomime, moustache twirling cardboard cut-outs, however, Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard (as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard) are nuanced people, misusing the tools of power and money, both of who believe themselves to be the hero of their particular story. There are great fireworks here, not only between them and Cage, but between each other, and we’re allowed to feel empathy towards them as much as we’re allowed to find their actions repugnant. It’s this kind of layering which elevates drama and what helps to make these shows so engrossing. Cottonmouth and Mariah are fine additions to the Netflix rogue’s gallery established by Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and David Tennant as Killgrave. Ali brings a lizard-like cunning to Cottonmouth and Woodard is sharp and brittle, making it as pleasurable to spend time in their company as with the lead character.
Simone Missick gives us a great Misty Knight, another name which will send frissons of glee through comic book readers, her resolve in the law becoming increasingly conflicted by both the corruption she sees around her and the growing issue of superhuman vigilantes. In fact, she’s so good I’d be interested to see her go onto her own show (and be given the bionic arm she sports in the comic books). There are more than strong suggestions that Knight is already “enhanced”, so the rest wouldn’t be that huge a leap.
On the downside, this still suffers from an overlong running time. Like all of the Marvel/Netflix shows to date it’s at least three or four episodes too long. A more sensible eight to ten episodes per season would really have helped every show, and Luke Cage suffers from some narrative diffusion in later episodes (and a less effective villain) in the season’s second half.
Luke Cage is also gifted with a fine soundtrack, with both its funky as heck, 70s soul-inspired music score as well as excellent diegetic and non-diegetic use of soul, r ‘n’ b, blues and hip hop – the sequence of Cage rampaging through one of the bad guys’ stash houses set to Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ is particularly inspired and indeed, kickass rousing. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be whooping as Cage smashes his way through armed henchmen using a ripped off car door as a shield. I know I was.
And let’s not beat around the bush here, this is an important show for Marvel, the diversity behind the scenes and onscreen is both vital and energising. The show takes the time to bring in real world issues that affect a community like Harlem, and doesn’t shy away from wider issues of race, diversification and bigotry. It’s all handled deftly and intelligently, mixed in well with the superhero antics.
Marvel TV is already streets ahead of its cinematic kin in terms of diversity, having already headlined its first female lead we’re now given Marvel’s first headlining person of colour (and yes, I know we’re getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies, but Netflix will probably be on second seasons of their two shows by the time the films are released). These things are important. They matter. More so than ever in a world where a candidate for the U.S. presidency can openly spout invective of racial hatred. The fact that Marvel hit the target with superb dramatic productions each time is the icing on the cake!
Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has done something I wasn’t sure was going to be possible, he’s continued the upward ascendancy of the Marvel/Netflix productions and, Sweet Christmas, he and his talented cast and crew have given us the best version of Luke Cage we could ever hope to get.