Marvel’s Luke Cage premiered on September 28th, 2016, the third in a series of shows that began with Jessica Jones (check out our latest review of that here) and Daredevil (and our latest review of that one here) and will conclude with Iron Fist prior to the Marvel’s Defenders miniseries. The show, created by Cheo Hodari Coker, takes place in the ever expanding MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), and shares continuity with all of the Marvel Studios movies and shows contained within.
Mike Coulter stars as Luke Cage, a former convict on the run from the law. Fans first got a taste of this character in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, where he featured as a guest star, and was deemed popular enough for his own show.
The story takes place in modern day Harlem, New York and opens in a barbershop run by Pop, a jolly, wise old man who grew up on the streets and opened the shop so kids would have a place to hang and hopefully avoid the life that he had. We join Cage, who works for Pop, talking basketball with the patrons. Through a couple of different conversations, we learn that Luke doesn’t like bullies, is popular with the ladies, and, after picking up the washing machine like it’s made of paper, has a secret.
Kudos to the writing staff for not revealing what happened right away. Not knowing much about Luke Cage going into the show, I expected a typical origin story followed by a typical superhero plot. All the right ingredients are there: jaded, hesitant protagonist, wise mentor, a cop who becomes suspicious of the hero, and of course, a mysterious backstory. Instead, Cage’s past is revealed little by little which ups the intrigue immediately.
In fact, it’s obvious in the first episode that this will be anything but a typical superhero story, which works both to the show’s credit and detriment. We cut to the most happening club in town, Harlem’s Paradise, owned by the biggest gangster in the city, Cornell Stokes, A.K.A., Cottonmouth. His cousin, Mariah Dillard, is a corrupt city council woman whose questionable methods are matched only by her love of Harlem and its culture. We quickly see that the two have the city in their pocket, but things get interesting when a gun deal goes sour and Cottonmouth loses face. A man called Shades arrives on behalf of another gangster named Diamondback to offer counsel. The one thing none of them counted on is that Luke Cage has a second job as a dishwasher in that same club.
Here is where things begin to play out more like a detective story. What follows are three episodes of Cottonmouth and Mariah plotting discreetly, a detective named Misty Knight investigating them discreetly, and Luke Cage acknowledging that there’s a problem in Harlem, but he’s not the right man to set things straight, and the process repeats.
What should be an intriguing mobster plot with layers of juicy story becomes a struggle in patience as the characters crawl through their dialogue in an attempt to make it interesting. Also there’s a superhero who plows through flunkies in a quick action scene at the end of every episode.
The strange part is it’s almost hard to point to the reason why. The characters all have interesting histories and motivations, the triple conflicting storylines of Cage, detective Misty Knight, and the villains make for a great set up, and the performances are all solid for the most part. Yet for some reason the first three episodes are a chore to get through.
In their effort to differ this show from other superhero stories, the writers seem to have forgotten why people enjoy comics in the first place. The action is minimal and the tropes seem a little forced. The idea was the make this a realistic representation of Harlem as opposed to the grandiose vision of Hell’s Kitchen in Jessica Jones and Daredevil. The problems with gang violence in the show mirror a lot of the real life issues going on in Harlem.
This realism helps in some ways; the choice to convert Cottonmouth, Black Mariah, and Shades into regular people was a smart one. Their comic book appearances and demeanors would have clashed with the gritty tone the show is trying to set.
There is also such an immersion into Harlem culture, history, and music that the city itself is almost a character. We get glimpses into what life is really like. Unfortunately, we also get a lot of life lessons, first from Pop, then from Cage himself, many times delivered in awkward fashion. I’ll admit it’s cool to find out just how many famous people came from Harlem, but most of the time we’re discovering this through a lecture that Cage is giving to a random thug who is just standing there listening. I was waiting for someone to just say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Mahershala Ali (of The 4400, House of Cards) is great as Cottonmouth. His gruff voice and suave outward appearance would make for a great villain, except that he isn’t. For all his bravado and ruthless moments, Cottonmouth actually spends a lot of time being humbled in one way or another. No real reason is given for Cage to be at odds with him other than he is evil. The stakes just aren’t high enough to get invested.
And then the fourth episode happened.
At long last we learn about Cage’s background and all of the hardships he had to endure in prison. After this point, the show picks up. Cage finally accepts his destiny and goes on the offensive after Pop get gunned down in a brutal attack. We learn more about Misty Knight and some of her issues as well, all the while her investigation puts her at odds with Cage.
This is one area where the show shines. Every superhero has one of two kinds of cop; the cop that shows up at the end just to mop things up and the cop that is convinced the hero is a bad guy and chases him for the majority of the story until he wises up. Luke Cage gives what is probably the most realistic portrayal of how the police would interact with a meta human vigilante.
The cops are always after Cage for one reason or another, but their reasons are always valid. It never feels like an attempt to add more drama.
Events take an even more hectic turn as Cottonmouth meets a shocking end and the true villain is revealed. Diamondback emerges from the shadows and our gritty, realistic tone is instantly lost. Cage’s half-brother, he got into a life of crime, framed Cage for murder and is wreaking havoc all across Harlem…because his father loved Luke more than him. I kid you not, that is his whole motivation. But who cares, Erik LaRay Harvey gives us a slightly over the top baddie that doesn’t fit at all, but is so darn fun to watch it’s hard to care.
Things come to head when the police finally come around to Luke’s innocence and all that’s left is a confrontation between Cage and Diamondback. Once again credit is due to the creative staff for not making this fight too bombastic. In keeping with the spirit of the show it plays out like a street fight with superpowers tossed in. Cage wins the day and the series ends on a cliffhanger.
The acting is great all around, even though I was never one hundred percent sold on any character with one exception; Claire Templeton, played by the breath of fresh air that is Rosario Dawson. Her performance is hands down the best on the show. Reprising her role from Daredevil she gives us an endearing character that you can’t help but love.
The only actor I had a problem with was Mike Coulter as Luke Cage. He gives the character a quiet, jaded sense of justice and he sounds like a learned man. But I rarely saw the deep emotion of the character cross Coulter’s face. The most important tool an actor possesses is his eyes, specifically the eyebrows, and Coulter’s always seems to remain dormant. Many times he came across as a boy scout who was there to spout black history rather than a Marvel superhero. It’s fun to watch him kick butt, but I was much more invested in the side characters.
The Bottom Line:
As a lesser known Marvel hero, Luke Cage was decent in his own show, but that’s about it. The actors’ passion was evident, even Coulter’s, and the attempts at realism work. Unfortunately, a lot of the dialogue came across as corny and heavy-handed and the pace felt like it needed a strong caffeine boost to get it going. However, I’ll admit that I wanted to know what was going to happen next, and that’s really all that matters. If you can get through the first three episodes, it’s entertaining enough. Definitely worth checking out on Netflix! – 7.0/10
Staff Writer: Nerd Nation Magazine