This Luke Cage review contains NO spoilers, so read on with confidence! It is based on the first seven of thirteen episodes.
Luke Cage lacks the eye-popping martial arts choreography of Daredevil or the heart-pounding psychological terror of Jessica Jones. The nighttime seediness of the Marvel’s fictional version of Hell’s Kitchen is replaced by the summery daytime promises of NYC’s resurgent Harlem neighborhoods. But like its predecessors, Luke Cage boasts an excellent cast, tremendous atmosphere, and a willingness to go places that other Marvel Studios productions can’t. And it brings a few fun twists to the party, too.
As the series opens, Luke is just trying to keep a low profile, sweeping floors in a barbershop, washing dishes in a nightclub, and not letting on that he can lift a truck when he’s in the right mood. Mike Colter plays Luke Cage with the exact relaxed confidence you’d expect from a man with unbreakable skin, and his easy charisma plays well with the rest of the cast. When the show stumbles, Colter doesn’t.
Luke finds himself in conflict with Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a Harlem gangster and club owner. Stokes isn’t an uptown version of Daredevil’s Kingpin, though. While Wilson Fisk is an insecure, overgrown tough guy with delusions of culture and taste, Stokes is the real deal, whose Harlem Paradise Club attracts top of the line R&B acts (and we’re treated to performances from several of them). Stokes’ criminal enterprises are a necessity, but his heart seems to be with the music. He’s also helping his politically ambitious cousin (Alfre Woodard) who has a history of her own. Stokes is “assisted” by the mysterious Shades (a delightful Theo Rossi), a kind of gangster consultant, who exudes a serpentine charm in the margins of virtually every scene involving Harlem’s criminal element.
But just as Mike Colter was an immediate standout on the first season of Jessica Jones, so is Simone Missick on Luke Cage. Ms. Missick’s turn as NYPD Detective Misty Knight should have fans clamoring for her prominent inclusion in The Defenders (and if Netflix decides to take a chance on a Misty-centric Heroes for Hire or Daughters of the Dragon series down the road, well, all the better). She gets plenty of screentime here, so there’s ample opportunity to judge for yourself, but something tells me that Misty Knight will connect with audiences.
Oh, and the tunes! The glorious tunes! This probably shouldn’t be a surprise considering that showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker wrote for Rolling Stone, Vibe, The Source, and XXL, but music plays the most active role in a superhero production since Guardians of the Galaxy. The show’s mix of rap, R&B gems, and deep blues cuts is tremendous (John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Bad Like Jesse James” is quietly used to extraordinary effect in one scene). Equally impressive is the original score by Adrian Younge (the Black Dynamite soundtrack) and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, which adds a perfect veneer of ‘70s style to the proceedings. Marvel Studios productions aren’t really known for distinctive orchestration, and other than Alan Silvestri’s underappreciated score for Captain America: The First Avenger, few are particularly memorable. This one is just as listenable as the more recognizable tunes peppered throughout.
Daredevil and Jessica Jones are wrapped up in their fictional version of Hell’s Kitchen, but the Harlem of Luke Cage is a very different place. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the action takes place in the daytime and there’s not a costume within 50 blocks of this show, or maybe it’s the funky soundtrack, but there’s a distinct throwback feel that creeps in from time to time, like it could be airing on ABC on Thursday nights in 1975. You half expect Barney Miller to turn up in one of the police HQ scenes.
While the show picks up after the events of Jessica Jones season one, you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy Luke Cage, although there are some oblique references to the character’s recent past. In fact, like most Marvel Netflix offerings, you don’t need to know a hell of a lot about the ever-expanding Marvel Universe to enjoy this, and if you do, it’s there if you want it (and for Luke Cage comics fans, there’s plenty to love and look out for, but this is a spoiler free review!).
The show hits the usual Marvel Netflix problems, though. There are some archetypes that get leaned on a little too heavily and characters have a tendency to monologue, sometimes aggressively. That’s never more apparent than in an episode devoted to Luke’s origin story, which grinds everything to a halt under the weight of seemingly endless exposition and characters who all should know better. It’s pretty dire stuff.
While these seven episodes didn’t quite have the same effect on me as the early looks at Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the quality and commitment to characterization and story on display in Luke Cage still feels miles ahead of some of their other efforts. These Netflix shows are consistently where Marvel’s most adventurous, boundary-pushing work is getting done, and Luke Cage is no exception. A hoodie-clad Luke Cage shrugging off a hail of bullets like a scene out of Bill O’Reilly’s nightmares is a powerful image that will piss off all the right people, and perhaps the most overt political statement Marvel Studios has yet attempted.
For as edgy as Luke Cage might be, its title character is anything but. At one point, a character jokingly refers to Luke as “Harlem’s Captain America,” and that’s right in more ways than one. Mr. Cage isn’t just someone you want on your side in a fight, he’s someone you’d trust with the spare keys to your house or to talk some sense into your kid. Like they did with Cap, Marvel effectively shoots holes in the idea that someone who tells the truth, stands up to bullies, and doesn’t kill is less compelling than the alternative. Even when he’s sweeping floors, Luke Cage is just a guy trying to do the right thing, and perhaps the central message of this show is that you don’t need powers for that.
Luke Cage arrives on Netflix on September 30th.