Right away, it’s important to establish Luke Cage in reference to the rest of the Marvel lineup. Within both the comics and extended cinematic universe, Luke Cage is a part of what I call the Inner-city NY Continuity; that of “gritty”, low level, less fantastical setting that occasionally interacts with the more traditional superhero continuities of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and Avengers. But continuity examination is a separate post in of itself. Originally debuting as Power Man in Hero for Hire in 1972, Luke Cage was less than an ideal entry into the Black superhero column. Created to take advantage of the Blaxploitation film phenomena, he was a jive talking collection of stereotypes, and entirely focused on “the street”. As that film fad ended, his title was changed, and eventually he was paired with Iron Fist, creating a surprisingly fun buddy dynamic. His original run lasted from 1972 until 1986, an impressive length of time for a Black superhero in the 70’s and 80’s. However, unlike more high profile Black characters like the current flagship film franchise supporting Black Panther, his relative obscurity as a B-List character (maybe C-List?) allowed him to do something relatively rare for a non-white character. He got to grow and develop past his roots in stereotypes, much like Black Lightning did in the DC universe. The end result is the modern Luke Cage we see in the well-received Netflix series of the same name.
What went well in the series?
This series has some great acting going on.
On the hero side, Mike Colter as the titular Luke Cage is a case of perfect casting, he encompasses the character in ways only hinted at in his first appearance in Jessica Jones. Tasked with bringing complexity and depth to a character like Luke Cage, Mike Colter came through strong. The Luke Cage he portrays is a departure from the one in the comics, with a military and police background, with a strong moral compass as opposed to a petty criminal and gang member who tries to go legit. They also shifted him from being a native of Harlem to being from a non-descript small town in Georgia. However, he is still an inspiring figure both visually and mentally. Simone Missick as a pre-private eye/pre-cybernetic Misty Knight was superb, and the she established a fantastic character to move forward into the upcoming Iron Fist series (in the comics, her and Danny Rand have a relationship). She is, like Luke Cage, very human, and very believable in almost every scenario she finds herself in. They throw a few hints that her right arm is not long for the world, but that will be a story for a different day.
On the villain side, three of the four villains truly stood out. Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth was absolutely pitch perfect. He was the Black Godfather figure the series needed. He was honourable after his own way, and his unblinking switch from smooth talking to murderous violence was glorious to watch. Shades, portrayed by Theo Rossi, was the henchman/right-hand man that every main villain needs. His cold detachment and absolute loyalty (until betrayed, it was a bad day for Zip and his boys when they tried to kill him) made him good counterpoint to the more emotional villains he supported. Last was Alfre Woodard’s Black Mariah, Mariah Dillard. She cut a terrifying figure as a ruthless politician who made a seamless switch to running a criminal enterprise. These three villains are, in all honesty, what made the series more than just another generic comic book based romp.
The sound track to this series was dope. There’s literally no other adequate way to describe it. I have not heard such a fantastic line up of live performances and recorded music combined so well in decades. Listening to it was an absolute pleasure. After the rather boring and generic soundtracks of the previous Netflix series and the uninspiring music of the film franchises, this soundtrack perfectly and beautifully worked with the scenes and writing to create a fuller, more complete experience. Also, the cameo and Bulletproof Love performance by Method Man was a perfect cap to it all.
Which brings me to the last, and arguably greatest thing about this series. It’s stylish. Not stylized, as previous series were, but actually stylish. The sets are lavish and have clearly had a lot of attention poured into them. The clothes, the language, and the attention to detail in this show to make it a Black show as opposed to a show with Blacks in it has absolutely paid off. As gravy to that, they went to a decent amount of effort to tie the show into both the Hell’s Kitchen series’ on Netflix, and the larger MCU, ensuring that you knew that it was part of a bigger universe and not just a microcosm off on its own.
What was problematic with the show?
For all the good work the show did trying to address issues around being Black in the modern world, it still clung to an extremely troublesome narrative. The narrative in this case was that old chestnut of the Absent Black Father. This was repeated a lot early in the series by Pop, and a few times towards the end. The narrative has been used for decades to demonize both Black men as being irresponsible, lazy, and too morally bankrupt to raise their children, and Black women as being irresponsibly sexual and poor judges of character. Seeing it trotted out in a show that was unapologetically aimed at a Black audience was jarring at best, and a slap in the face at worst, since it just works to perpetuate a demonstrably false narrative.
Another issue I picked up on was inconsistent characterization with Misty Knight and Black Mariah. Misty Knight went from a being a cop trying to use the system to do some good to inexplicably breaking protocol and losing her objectivity without any real or tangible explanation. I get she was trying to exonerate Luke Cage, but she suddenly refused to use the system she had so stalwartly supported and pushed, resulting in the death of a witness and her losing her collective shit on Black Mariah. I know she has to shift from being NYPD to private-eye in her character arc, but this just didn’t make sense. With Black Mariah, it was the out of character code switching and mannerisms at the end of the series in the interrogation room. She went from polished to dropping N-bombs back to polished with no one so much as blinking an eye. Given her atypical youth compared to Cottonmouth (she was sent to private school to get her away from her sexual predator of an uncle) and subsequent career in politics, it was jarring to me.
The final problematic issue was pacing. The return to Georgia lull in the middle of the series was too long and broke what had until that point been an excellent story pace. Bear in mind with this that I’m a fan of older movies with slower, more story than action driven pacing here, so the slower pace at the beginning wasn’t an issue for me. I liked watching the characters develop before the beat downs and ATGM missiles in Harlem started flying. But the trip back to Georgia was too long and too much of a slowdown in the series.
What went wrong?
Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple. She added very little to the show aside from being another casual sex interest for Luke Cage. She was that irritating “I’m not good at not going where I’m told not to!” character that grates on me like a rusty cheese grater. I literally hate these characters and actively want bad things to happen to them so they learn that maybe, just maybe, if someone tells you that shit is dangerous, you should stay away or at least be less useless. I understand she was acting as a tangible link to the Hell’s Kitchen series, but she just did not have the presence of character to match up with the other characters she was competing for screen time with.
Diamondback. Erik LaRay Harvey did the best job with what he had to work with, but the writers really dropped the ball on this character. After the good effort that went into the menace of Cottonmouth, the cool detachment of Shades, and the dangerousness of Black Mariah, he was little more than a generic Marvel Villain shoehorned into a show. After the build up around him in early episodes, he was disappointing to watch in action. He was too unhinged to be the mastermind he was described as. He was way over the top. And then they broke out his super-suit. It was a fuck right off moment. In an extended universe, where every character has had visual upgrades and updates to make them fit in with modern esthetics, he comes out to do battle in something that looked like it was from a mid-range made for TV movie from 1995. He looked like he belonged in Meteor Man or that Nick Fury movie that had Hasselhoff as Nick Fury, not at all like he belonged in the modern MCU. This character had a lot of potential, but he got let down.
The last problem big enough to fall into the “What went wrong?” category was the untimely death of Pops. Pops was something the show needed, something the MCU needed. An older father figure to help guide and sort things. Instead, he got the Uncle Ben treatment. This hurt, because as much as Luke Cage is a great role model and strong character, Pops was that rare older one. The one who had made mistakes and lived long enough to rectify them. I wish that for once, an older male role model would be allowed to live long enough to do more than just get the hero on the path.
Luke Cage is a good series, and much needed shot in the arm for the MCU. It brought some diversity to what has largely been an all-whites affair, and did so with a level of style and substance that quite frankly, I had not expected from the show. Even with its hiccoughs, the show was strong and focused on its intended audience: Blacks. This of course has lead to backlash from the other side of the equation, with a number of non-POC viewers either branding the show “racist” (I’m also fairly certain a lot of it is intentional anti-progressive/social justice trolling) or suddenly having to deal with their own unacknowledged racism. That said, the reviews have been largely positive, and I’m glad that I’m able to say that the show is not just extruded generic comic book product. It’s intelligent, stylish, topical, and was executed well. The show is well worth watching, and if there’s any justice in the world, it’ll have a second season with a bigger budget!
The image used is property of Netflix and Marvel, and was used here with minor modification for review purposes.