Short Version: Luke Cage is powerful. From its tone, imagery, music, and message to its real-life social parallels, Luke Cage is a powerful season of television. But despite the power, the show falls short in the back half of the season with weak villains, overused plot devices, and an all too fast ending.
Longer Version: Netflix recently released the newest of its street level Marvel hero in the form of Luke Cage, the super strong, bulletproof hero introduced in Jessica Jones. If Daredevil represents the power of courage, and Jessica Jones is power of will, then Luke Cage is heart. Who knows, when Iron Fist shows up, maybe we’ll be able to form Captain Planet?
The show’s strength shines through in in the casts performances of strong, mostly well developed characters, who all come from similar backgrounds and see their Harlem, and its future, as the correct one. This multi-perspective dynamic is what makes the show interesting and remarkable.
Mike Colter’s performance as Luke Cage is not the brash one from the comic book. He is reserved with a quiet strength about him at all times. His earnestness is what sells the character as real during hard times. His faults make him human and a joy to watch.
Simone Missick’s Mercedes “Misty” Knight is amazing, as she holds her ground against hero and villain alike. When she is on the screen, she is captivating and in command. Along with her, Rosario Dawson makes her third Netflix/Marvel appearance as Clair Temple, the nurse who patches up Daredevil and helps both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in Jessica Jones. High praise to Marvel for their continuity.
Mahershala Ali, who you may recall as Remy Danton from Netflix’s House of Cards, plays the main villain Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. He is the “bad guy”; a man brought up in Harlem’s corruption and serves as Luke Cage’s “Kingpin”. Now, he is both likable and despicable. A good quality for a villain. But as his time goes on, the striking image of his character becomes more unhinged and less charismatic, causing the show to suffer.
Alfre Woodard plays Mariah Dillard, Stoke’s cousin and the corrupt politician who really steals the villainous show. Her journey is the one worth watching. Now, the good people at Marvel have been very careful in their continuity between the TV shows and the movies. You may recall Alfre as the woman in Captain America: Civil War who found Tony Stark by the elevator after his speech at MIT and gave him the picture of her son who died in Sokivia. According to IMDB, they are separate characters. Personally, I hope she is the same character and Luke Cage was set prior to Cap 3. I would love to see it turn out that she is part of a plan to bring down the heroes. Time will tell.
The power above Cottonmouth, the mysterious “Diamondback”, who you only know about through his emissary “Shades” Alvarez played by Sons of Anarchy alum Theo Rossi, makes his entrance as a late season villain. Sadly, Diamondback’s entrance, back story, and The-Joker-with-a-machine-gun schtick, is very tiresome and feels unwelcome. Diamondback’s psychotic nature is a stark contrast to Cottonmouth and Mariah, and frankly, unbelievable. His entrance with the last 5 episodes or so is where the plot of Luke Cage takes a swift nosedive.
I can’t go into much about it specifically, less I give away a few spoilers, but from a storytelling perspective, the final act is weak. Not enough the ruin the season, but enough to leave a stain and a beautiful canvas. It felt like the showrunners crammed a potential 2nd season’s storyline into season one’s lengthy 13 episodes in the hopes of setting up for the eventual Defenders, which will unite Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.
I’ve read some reviews which fault the show for being too slow in the beginning. I disagree. The slow drama showcasing the lives of main, secondary and even tertiary characters is where the show shines. The first 60% of Luke Cage is engaging, reminiscent of Sons of Anarchy, The Wire and The Shield, at least, a toned down version.
What people forget, or fail to realize, is that the Netflix Marvel shows are dramas first. And it is in that drama where the quality programming is. When the plot turns to classic superhero tropes, that is where the shows eventually fall. Frankly, they cannot compare to comic book action like the movies can.
In addition to the drama, the bullet-proof black man in a hoodie imagery is not subtle, nor should it. While show creator Cheo Hodari Coker claims the imagery was not a coincidence, evoking the late Trayvon Martin, Coker claimed he had no ‘agenda’. Regardless, the imagery works and works well. The running theme of the show is how a neighborhood, despite hardships, poverty and criminal elements, can overcome, and pull together. Those actions resonate with all walks and all races. Bravo Luke Cage. Luke’s arc, from simple man, with flashbacks of his time in prison and the gaining of his power, to the Hero of Harlem, to public enemy #1, and back, is worth binging on.
The downside is, as I said, the rushed, muddled storytelling in the last 40% of the season. The aspects of the show which focuses on Diamondback are over the top implausible, despite the “grounded” nature of the first part of the show. When the eventual showdown between hero and villain happen, gone are the amazing, tense scenes and hallway fights Netflix original Marvel shows are known for. Instead, we are treated to a bad cosplay slug fest which is basically Ice Cube and Tiny “Debo” Lister’s final fight from the movie Friday. There are a few other eye-rolling plot devises used. Not to spoil anything, but the plot takes a turn when the villain is supplanted by another villain, and then yet another villain is thrown in there.
Final Verdict: Luke Cage is worth your time and despite a rocky ending, worthy of a second season. It isn’t the plot which makes it good; the show has no twists and turns you didn’t see coming. But rather, like I said in the beginning, it is the heart which draws you in and pulls you through. Far from perfect, Luke Cage is a solid entrance into comic book TV.