The newest Marvel superhero TV show to premiere on Netflix, Luke Cage, is a notable departure for the standard superhero TV fare. The question is does Luke Cage deliver the goods? Sort of, to be honest.
In trying to be different, the show falters in some important areas. Namely, in keeping up the momentum, the villains aren’t as compelling or as interesting as the other foes featured in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and rarely does it feel as if Luke Cage (Michael Colter) is ever in real danger.
That is a problem with a superhero like Cage who is nearly invulnerable. Bullets bounce off him, his skin is impenetrable and he can shrug off attempted beatdowns from local thugs. Sure, it’s cool to watch Cage being all badass in his hoodie and walking in slow-mo as punks try mowing him down, but after awhile these scenes lack any sense of peril or urgency. Later in the show’s run, the criminals start to up the ante with him and finally put him in danger, but it takes too long to get there. The show tries to get around this by putting people that he cares about in danger and that has mixed results. Sometimes we care about what happens to them, like with Pop (Henry Faison), a local barber who offers sage advice. Other times, we don’t.
Luke Cage is smothered with many colorful characters who are there to add mood and atmosphere, but the show goes overboard in trying to establish a so-called gritty tone that seems inauthentic at times despite the location shots and the constant use of 70s style background funk music. It tries too hard to set up a street-level atmosphere with callbacks to blaxpoitation films instead of providing a reason to keep watching the show. The other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) shows on Netflix can be binge-watched without a thought, with Luke Cage, there isn’t that compulsion to find out what happens next. It all depends on how invested you are in the characters and Luke Cage should have been front and center the main focus and at times he isn’t so that is a concern.
A lot of screentime is spent on the show’s main adversary Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a Harlem crime boss that crosses path with Luke Cage. The problem with Cottonmouth is that he just doesn’t come across as particularly menacing. He is weak and inept at times, always being concerned with another crime lord, his superior Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey). Cottonmouth lacks the amoral sociopathic verve of Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave or the volcanic brutality of Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk. Then there is Shades (Theo Rossi), an annoying lackey for Diamondback that is always around Cottonmouth to remind him of what he has to do. Shades tries to come off as intimidating, but looks like a poser with these stupid sunglasses.
The show’s other characters were more interesting like Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who nearly steals the thunder from Cage and is deserving of her own TV show. Hopefully we’ll see more of her in next year’s Iron Fist. Rosario Dawson reprises her role as the nurse Claire Temple and is a welcome presence as she reminds us that this show is part of the MCU. Speaking of the MCU, to this show’s credit, it does not hit viewers over the head that it is part of the MCU even though there are tons of Easter eggs. Interestingly, the events from The Avengers still have an impact even though it is more subtle. The references do not feel intrusive nor give the impression that someone has to go and watch all the MCU films and TV shows.
As for Cage himself, Colter does a terrific job playing the title hero. He exudes a quiet nobility and steel fortitude and never descends into a cliché. His back story is actually different and fresh. Once a lawman named Carl Lucas, he was framed and sent to prison where he got his powers from a lab experiment. After escaping prison, he adopted the Luke Cage identity and tries to live a low-key life. But his powers call out a responsibility and duty to his community that he cannot ignore. The moments when he becomes a local legend were pleasing highlights.
By no means does this criticism mean that Luke Cage is a bad show; it’s a good, solid effort and isn’t unwatchable like Agent Carter or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s just with all the talent behind and in front of the screen, it could have and should have been much better. Still, there is the hope that the next season, which is coming, no doubt, will work out the kinks and give us a better show.
T. Rod Jones