This week’s Netflix pick is (predictably) Marvel’s latest installment, Luke Cage. The Netflix pick is a day late as I searched for a different recommendation. Not just because Luke Cage is too obvious but I also feel a bit hypocritical recommending it at all. We’ll get deeper in as to why but Luke Cage is by far the weakest bit of cinematic marvel. Don’t start your rageful tweets just yet, let’s dive in.
Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is laying low in Harlem. He is on the run so his jobs are menial and under the table. His abilities are kept under wraps, at least to start. A strong friendship is found in a man known throughout the neighborhood as ‘Pop.’ Pop (Frankie Faison) is a moral compass, a father figure, and a mentor to Cage. A chance run in with Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) puts Cage on her radar as things in Harlem reach a boiling point. Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard) are running the streets. When Pop gets caught up in the middle of it Cage decides it’s time to step in.
Cage was first introduced in the fantastic series, Jessica Jones. He’s a good man who just wants to be left alone. The Marvel mantra of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ attaches itself to Cage. He is invincible, virtually indestructible, and inhumanly strong. Cage wasn’t born this way, he was made. His creation is explored in the series in one of the strongest episodes it has. While Daredevil was on a mission to save Hell’s Kitchen and Jessica Jones just wanted to sit home and drink, Cage falls somewhere in the middle. He doesn’t go looking to be a hero but shoulders the responsibility well.
Let’s get the ugliness out of the way. Why I didn’t want Luke Cage to be the recommendation and why I almost gave up on the series. The first two and a half hours of the show are an utter waste. Two and a half hours of screen time where Cage is barely a C list character in his own program and the story develops at a snail’s pace. The relationship with Pop and Cage is nice but since Pop is mostly the catalyst to get things going spending so much time on him is an utter waste. The first two and a half episodes of Luke Cage could be summed up in less than half an hour.
The show focuses a lot on Harlem. There is nothing wrong with this, New York City is a living organism entirely unique in many ways. Daredevil fights for Hell’s Kitchen and Luke Cage is the Hero of Harlem (Stan Lee did always love alliteration). Where the focus on Harlem gets in the way of the show is in the long musical numbers. The music is actually quite good for the most part. Why it’s a problem is that 4-8 minutes PER EPISODE are music montages is a problem. At best these montages have something going on over them, at worst it’s literally a 3 minute interruption of an already slow show.
Now let’s get out of the negative zone and on with why Luke Cage ultimately earned it’s place as the Netflix Pick of the week. Midway through season 3 when Cage decides to be a character it gets interesting. The protagonist takes up a cause and something finally happens. Even better, Episode 4 ‘Step in the Arena’ gives us the much needed and much desired backstory on Cage. If the first two and a half episodes were condensed into half an episode and then the show carried on as written it would be just as good as Jones and Daredevil’s second season.
Luke Cage is a hero that the country, if not the world, needs right now. The vast list of show runners, directors, and creators didn’t let this fact go unnoticed. Luke Cage makes powerful statements that relate to the world of the early 70s where his character was created and are still sadly relevant and increasingly prevalent in today’s world. The most impressive thing about this super hero show having a specific message is that it never feels heavy handed or the slightest bit preachy. Writing as a middle class white guy it’s kind of odd to say, maybe it isn’t my place really, but having a strong black lead character with strong morals and convictions who doesn’t throw around racial slurs or even curse is refreshing and great for kids of all races to see. To further deliver their point Simone Missick’s Misty Knight is the most interesting character in the show for a while. She is a strong independent female lead and a fully developed character. She isn’t a plot device, she never takes on the role of victim. I cared more about her store than Cage’s for the first third of the series.
As good as Mike Colter and Simone Missick are in their roles the villains are the polar opposite. Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth is about as standard as a villain comes. He doesn’t command any scenes he’s in. He isn’t menacing, controlling, broken, paranoid, confident, etc. He isn’t anything. He’s a guy who wears suits and yells when yelling is needed. Any actor that fit his basic description could have embodied that role, and most may have actually brought something to it. He’s a watered down version of Fisk. Without the magnitude in performance of Vincent D’Onofrio or the conviction and interest of King Pin. His back store is mildly interesting, but with how bland the results are that was yet another episode where mundane tasks were needed to slog through it. Theo Rossi’s portrayal of Shades is much the same. He’s a piece of scenery that makes your mind wander whenever the story turns to his character.
Rosario Dawson returns as Claire, the night nurse. Claire is the Coulson of the Marvel TV world. Coulson was the thread that connected Phase 1 of the MCU and Claire does the same. Dawson is always charming to watch and a great actress in many regards. Her character gets a bigger piece of the story than she did in Jessica Jones and also starts to evolve into her new role and more permanent feeling part of the group, possibly literally with the upcoming Defenders.
Pacing issues and a really rough start aside, the good far outweighs the bad in Luke Cage. The 70s feel of the series pays homage to the character’s origins. The political statements slide in with fluidity that don’t detract from the story. Luke Cage and by extension Mike Colter are incredibly likable and are a welcome part of the Marvel Universe. It’s incredible how the Marvel Netflix TV universe is more interesting than the movie world in a lot of ways. The movies all must meld together and carry each other to the next one, which is exciting and wonderful, but they all feel largely the same. The Netflix shows get to stand on their own, they get more time to invite you into that part of the world; while still carrying the overall narrative forward. Bring on Iron Fist. Bring on The Defenders.