Marvel’s Luke Cage (Season One) Review
Author’s Note: This spoiler-free review is based on screeners for the first seven episodes. This review does not contain any specific storyline information (other than what has already been revealed in the trailers and press material) and episodic spoiler information.
Marvel’s line of high-quality Netflix shows continues with the highly anticipated Luke Cage. After the 2015 acclaimed debut season of Jessica Jones introduced Mike Colter as Luke Cage for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Colter returns to the forefront in his own series, where he gets to take center stage. Once again, Marvel Studios achieves sterling results with its line of darker, edgier Netflix shows. However, just as there’s a lot of appeal for the live-action Daredevil and Jessica Jones shows that are quite different from Marvel’s theatrical features, Luke Cage stands apart from the pack with its own unique identity. In fact, Luke Cage is, in many ways, just as different from the previous Netflix shows as Daredevil and Jessica Jones are from existing Marvel Studios efforts. It’s here where Luke Cage truly shines with a style and attitude that is all its own.
Luke Cage picks up some amount of time after the events of the first season Jessica Jones. A leery Luke Cage (Colter) has retreated to Harlem in an effort to lie low and keep a low profile. He’s barely getting by sweeping the floors at a local barbershop owned by Pop (Frankie Faison) during the day. At night, he’s washing dishes at an upscale nightclub, Harlem’s Paradise. The nightclub happens to be owned by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a brutal gangster who controls and facilitates a good deal of the criminal enterprises run throughout Harlem. In fact, many of Cornell’s operations are funded by his cousin, city councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). Dillard is a corrupt politician, but a pragmatic one. She believes everything she does is to the benefit of Harlem and the community.
For Luke Cage, the character of Pop is a compassionate father figure with whom Luke has an existing history, relating to Luke’s late wife Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley). Pop upholds his barbershop as an escape from the dangers and temptations to crime for the troubled youth of Harlem. It’s an ideal that Cage respects. However, Cage isn’t just a random guy with a sketchy past. He happens to be a man with super-strength and unbreakable skin, a secret that Pop is well aware of. Pop believes Luke should use those abilities to help the community, but Luke is reluctant to snap out of his self-imposed complacency. Unfortunately for Luke Cage, his desires to stay anonymous are about to be shattered. A major illegal arms deal between Cottonmouth’s gang and the local Puerto Ricans goes sour, and a shooting death hits pretty close to home for Pop. Tensions soon escalate, and tragedy strikes. Ultimately, Luke Cage is positioned in an all-out war with Cornell Stokes. Cage’s emergence has significantly shifted the power balance in Harlem, and it might draw the type of attention Cage is trying to avoid.
While the character of Luke Cage, played by Mike Colter, was already introduced to the MCU in Jessica Jones, that was really just a scratch on the surface. Now starring in his own show, Colter really gets to sink his teeth into the Marvel mainstay character who is Luke Cage. Colter really nails the struggle and dilemma Luke is forced to confront in this show. For some time, Luke has gotten good at hiding, which is all he really wants, but the great injustices around him are getting too difficult to ignore. Pop’s saying of moving “Forward, always” becomes a mantra of sorts for Luke and a major thematic element for his central character arc.
The other benefit is that the series and Colter really get to explore and peel back the layers of Luke Cage and his personal backstory that were never previously seen, or only hinted at, beforehand. A lot of dots are connected that display what made Luke Cage into the man he is in the current time of the show.
The show is backed up by a tremendous cast of supporting players who give the series much of its unique vibe and flavor. Mahershala Ali is great as the notorious crime boss Cornell Stokes. One is almost loathe to make the comparison, but Ali is basically the Wilson Fisk of Harlem. Or maybe a better way to phrase it: he’s the Wilson Fisk of this series. That’s not meant to be knock or a way to diminish his performance. Just as Luke Cage has many layers, so does Ali’s gangster to end all gangsters. The way the story evolves over the first half of the season; there is almost a sense that Cornell Stokes is an indelible part of Harlem that simply can’t be removed. There’s a great argument: Are the efforts of would-be do-gooders such as Daredevil and Luke Cage in battling crime bosses really for the betterment of their respective cities? Or does it really just create more strife? Is Cornell Stokes perhaps a lesser evil that blocks even worse elements from taking control of Harlem? Luke Cage raises these questions as part of the show’s conflicts in interesting ways. Ali does imbue Stokes with a great sense of empathy and vulnerability in that he’s a product of his surroundings. He is a monster and a reptile in human skin, but Ali demonstrates the human pieces that remain.
Alfre Woodard plays a central role in the story as the legal face of Stokes’ operations, Mariah Dillard. Woodard really emerges as one of the strongest characters in the show, and she nails the pathos of what lurks underneath Dillard very well. Other standout performances in the first half include Simone Missick as Detective Misty Knight, another mainstay character of the Marvel Universe, and the incredibly underrated Frank Whaley as Misty’s partner, Rafael Scarfe. Misty and Scarfe represent the legal and police side of epic battle between Cage and Stokes. Misty Knight has her own personal stake in Harlem that becomes clear later on.
While it might sound cliché to explain how the city backdrop for a comic book show is like a main character in the story, Harlem really fits that phrase to a “T” here. For Luke Cage, Coker and directors such as Paul McGuigan, who helms the first two episodes, really capture the ethos of Harlem. But even more than that, Harlem gives the show a unique verve and character that makes it feel very different. Harlem in Luke Cage is as different from Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil as dogs are from cats. Another thing this show does: it brings out how the world of the MCU has been changed and affected by “The Incident.” If you’ve been keeping up with the Marvel Netflix shows, you know what The Incident means at this point.
Luke Cage undoubtedly has the best soundtrack ever conceived for any Marvel project to date. Music is a major part of the show’s identity and really helps Luke Cage stand out in a satisfying way. The original music composed by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad is evocative of 1970s Blaxploitation-era pictures. From the opening to the original cues throughout the first seven episodes, the music has this really cool throwback, funky beat and style. Luke Cage is definitely a show that wears its influences on its sleeves. Besides the original music, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker builds large portions of various episodes around musical numbers and performances. However, it’s actually real-life artists performing renditions of their own licensed music. It would not be surprising if Marvel and ABC Studios spent a good chunk of the show’s budget on licensing song rights to use tracks such as Charles Bradley’s “Ain’t It a Sin” or Jidenna’s “Long Live The Chief,” and actually booking the artists to appear in cameos for the show to perform their songs. Either that, or showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker used his connections from his time as a music writer and journalist to call in some solids from his friends.
Throughout the first seven episodes, there are sequences where there’s essentially a musical montage featuring an artist performing live at Cottonmouth’s nightclub, underscoring a fight scene or action that’s going on elsewhere. These are among the more satisfying scenes in the show and really serve to allow Luke Cage to have its own cool style and feel. If Marvel and ABC play their cards right, the soundtrack for this show could be absolutely huge and pay off in dividends. Luke Cage is very much a love letter to the music and spirit of Harlem with a lot familiar soul, R&B, funk, rap and hip-hop tracks peppered throughout the soundtrack.
Another great aspect is how the show pays homage to its Marvel Comics history. The first season is filled with Easter eggs, cameos and references to the lore of the Marvel comics, the Netflix shows and the rest of the MCU proper. Some of these references are more blatant than others. Without giving anything away, fans of the comics will recognize them when they happen. There are cameos and references distributed throughout the first seven episodes, but some of the best ones go beyond the show’s basic setting and premise. Coker and his writers clearly did their homework for this series. So keep your eyes, and ears, peeled.
No disrespect to Jessica Jones, but the action and fight choreography in that show, specifically where it pertains to Cage and his abilities, were rather lacking. The action takes a major step up here. For the most part, the action and presentation in Jessica Jones, especially where it came to Cage’s powers, were very sloppy. The direction here does a much better job of showcasing what it means for Cage to have super-strength and unbreakable skin. The camera shows exactly what happens when a big thug winds up and tries to nail Luke in the face with a punch. It’s not pretty. The action scenes do a splendid job highlighting Cage’s strength. In short, with bulletproof skin, he’s pretty much a one-man army, with no weapons needed.
If the first half has any flaws, there are some story developments that come off in a bit of a convoluted way. Similarly to Jessica Jones, there are some rather convenient story developments and character backgrounds that seem a bit too coincidental. To be fair, these issues could be resolved later. However, that remains to be seen. Some other issues are better addressed after viewing the rest of the season. Regardless, presentation so far is pretty tight and sharp, even when the show takes time to explore outside of Luke Cage’s perspective.
Luke Cage thus far is another winner for the Marvel Netflix line. The show bravely forges its own identity in presenting a show with a unique style and attitude that make it truly entertaining. However, the show still doesn’t forget its comic book roots. This is one to put on the Netflix queue on September 30.