By ANDREW FOERCH
Luke Cage is an invulnerable man living in a vulnerable world. Netflix’s third foray into the street-level Marvel universe is a fun and refreshingly relevant exploration of black heroism in America. Just two weeks after debuting on Netflix, Luke Cage has already been renewed for a second season.
We got a first glimpse at Luke Cage, played brilliantly by Mike Colter, in last year’s Jessica Jones, as a romantic counterpart to the superhuman private investigator. Despite the connection between series’, it isn’t necessary to see Jessica Jones before Luke Cage. The latter follows the strongman to Harlem after a climactic battle with Jones leads to his departure from the fictional Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y.
The show’s pilot finds Luke laying low, sweeping hair at Pop’s Barbershop — a unifying sanctuary of conversation and banter for the men and boys of Harlem. Pop’s is recognized as a longstanding, well-respected corner of this established community, and this location plays an important role in driving the events of the first season.
Community, and place in general, are major themes throughout this first season — we are shown the significance of places like Pop’s, Harlem’s Paradise, Crispus Attucks (our antagonist’s fortress) and more. While Cage is protected by bulletproof skin, Harlem is not. Ultimately, it is the threat on Harlem’s well being, and that of its people, that inspires Luke to reveal his superhuman existence to the public. Righteous, upstanding locals want to see Harlem flourish and reflect its own rich history as the modern epicenter of black art and culture, while the corrupt antagonists seek power and influence through a twisted sense of entitlement over the borough.
Colter shines as a lead through the show’s first 13 episodes. His quiet confidence and subdued shades of grief and anguish add depth to a character that could just as easily have fallen flat. Luke is an indestructible man. He runs into buildings crawling with armed henchmen, walks through machine gun fire, and slaps enemies aside like flies without thinking twice. Because he is so resistant to physical damage of any kind, the show gives him a great deal of emotional and sentimental strife to deal with. That’s why Colter’s performance is so great — because he takes this indestructible superhero, and makes him exceedingly human. It doesn’t hurt that the fight scenes are downright awesome.
Colter’s isn’t the only stellar performance. Heading up the supporting cast are Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Alfre Woodard as Councilwoman Mariah Stokes, Simone Cook as Detective Misty Knight, and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple — a recurring character in the other Defender series. With Daredevil and Jones, Netflix clearly centered their focus on building compelling characters rather than pushing a plot, and Luke Cage follows suit. We get a detailed origin story for our hero in the show’s fourth episode. Additionally, Cottonmouth is given an extremely intriguing backstory that complicates his arc. His history also connects him to Councilwoman Stokes, who struggles to maintain power in Harlem without being corrupted by the shady business dealings of those in her immediate social sphere.
Unfortunately, Cottonmouth’s reign as the baddest guy in Harlem is blindsided halfway through the season by the appearance of Willis “Diamondback” Stryker. This, unfortunately, is one of the weakest points of the season. Right when Cottonmouth really gets interesting, we’re introduced to this new, mysterious villain who will (supposedly) make Cottonmouth look like just another henchman. Diamondback is cold and ruthless, but proves underwhelming. Where Cottonmouth succeeds as a calculated, precise character, Diamondback fails — he’s one-dimensional with no real convincing motive. His master plan is full of holes that ultimately drag down the season’s third act. Still, Diamondback is one lapse in what is otherwise an engaging story
An especially cool thing about Luke Cage is that it’s rooted in the reality of 2016. Yes, we’re talking about a muscle-bound man with impenetrable skin and super-strength, but we’re also talking about a black man brave enough to make the decision to be a hero and to fight to preserve what he knows is right. This kind of self-aware social commentary within the narrative is one of Luke Cage’s strongest features. To quote Method Man, a Wu-Tang Clan rapper who cameos in the show, “There’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and unafraid.” This statement rings especially true when the black superhero’s costume is a hooded sweatshirt quite often riddled with bullet holes, a nod to Trayvon Martin. Meth asserts that he speaks on behalf of the streets of Harlem when he voices his support of Luke Cage.
While imagery like this is generally delivered with subtlety and purpose throughout the first season, there are some instances of dialogue and in-episode explanation that are a bit too direct and come off as corny. Most of this occurs, coincidentally, in the season’s third act — after we’ve been introduced to Diamondback. There are some extended dialogue sequences that feel forced and preachy, and these attempted cultural lessons lose a lot of the punch that they carried in early episodes.
Still, the show gets much more right than it gets wrong. One noticeable victory so far is the show’s fantastic soundtrack. Cottonmouth’s club being a major set, Luke Cage capitalizes on some great opportunities for live music performances – we get tracks from Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, Charles Bradley, Jidenna and Method Man, among others. The music of Harlem gives the show much of its soul, and bathes individual scenes in their respective moods.
Additionally, the cinematography is nothing less than beautiful. The stylistic influences of the original 1970s Luke Cage comics — Marvel’s response to the blaxploitation films of the decade — are abundant. Many individual shots look like they were oriented around images from a single comic panel. There are lots of long, wide, close-ups on character faces as they speak. The camera captures every nuance of their facial expressions and their reactions, letting the audience see their true intentions.
Luke Cage’s first season is fun — its action is exciting, its message is righteous and relevant — but it is not perfect. A muddy third act and a relatively uninteresting climax drag the season down from the stratosphere, but it succeeds nonetheless. Luke Cage sits comfortably next to Daredevil and Jessica Jones in Netflix’s catalog of groundbreaking Marvel stories and the future looks bright for these dark superheros.
Andrew Foerch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org