Netflix’ Luke Cage series had so many viewers at one point, it may have crashed the service.
But how was it?
Well, I really liked it. Much like Jessica Jones, where Marvel television put women in charge of a show about a woman hero, this time around they put some African-Americans in charge of a show about an African-American hero. Does that make a difference? Possibly.
As I noted when I reviewed Jessica Jones, the series had a series of ongoing themes about the dangers of rape culture, trauma caused by a sexual assault, and how the powerful treat the powerless which was generally men treating women badly with a few exceptions. Luke Cage has that as well, with issues that show up quite a bit in African-American writing and art. The series handles the concepts of father-figures, what it means to be a man, distrust in the system, and identity. It probably isn’t a coincidence that many of the characters on the show are known more by nicknames than real names. Consider the list: Misty Knight, Diamondback, Shades, Pop, even Luke Cage himself. The street names or nicknames give the characters a sense of identity, and it’s worth noting only two characters react badly to their nicknames in the form of Cottonmouth and his cousin “Black” Mariah Dillard. Is it any wonder those two are the ones most resistant to being who they really are?
And that’s not even getting into the idea that the source of Luke’s power is, in a sense, his unbreakable skin. There’s a physicality to Luke, something I’ve seen written about by the great Te-Nahisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me, that was missing even in the similarly strong Jessica Jones. The opening credits, showing Harlem reflected off Cage’s skin, brings that theme home. Luke, played just right by Mike Colter, doesn’t rush if he doesn’t have to and never looks worried for long. This isn’t the raging Luke Cage from 1970s comic book stories, and it also isn’t a Luke Cage that is a “hero for hire”. Luke pointedly never accepts money for his actions and heroism.
Plus, the show’s music (and there’s a lot of it) pulls out different eras and styles, while the series goes to locales that are often important to African-American culture like the barbershop, the club, and the church.
So, that’s what’s underneath. What about the series itself?
Well, it moved slow, sort of like how Luke himself doesn’t need to rush most of the time. The biggest problem with the various Netflix Marvel series to date have been, quite frankly, not quite enough story to fill 13 episodes. Luke Cage tried to fix that by not rushing through things. That didn’t help quite so much, though the series had a great sense of when to end an episode. But the overall design reminded me of a non-exploitative version of Shaft (a black hero Cage himself namedrops at one point). The clothes, the music, the lighting, all rang through with that era, as Luke learned to stop hiding and be a positive role model and hero to Harlem. Part of that came from pushing from his late wife’s father, Frankie Faison’s Pop, and Faison is one of at least three cast members of The Wire on the show. And, of that group, though he appears in the least number of episodes, he also has the greatest impact both on Luke and the viewer.
Now, if only SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS SENTENCE they could go through a first season of one of these shows without killing off a middle-aged black man, especially if he’s another Wire alumni.
There was also some fine representation of female characters. Misty Knight makes a hell of a good impression, while Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple moves into the neighborhood from Hell’s Kitchen and makes herself rather useful here as well. I wonder what she’s going to do, if anything, when Iron Fist starts.
But as much as I dug the overall effect and style of the series, Luke Cage was far from perfect. Besides the aforementioned slow pace/too many episodes issue, the series ran into other problems. The strength of season one of both Daredevil and Jessica Jones has been a strong central villain, and Luke Cage can’t seem to decide who that central villain should be. Is it Cottonmouth? The arms dealer Diamondback? Crooked city councilwoman Mariah? Mariah, as played by the great Alfre Woodard, may be the weakest of the villains in a sense. She stays on top of things, but she also seems to be the most easily rattled and unsure of herself. Maybe by the end of season one that’s changed, but it’s a concern. She could still be learning to be that villain she’s meant to be, but considering her background, that shouldn’t be. As for Erik LaRay Harvey’s Diamondback, that character seems to be doing some major scenery-chewing throughout his every appearance. House of Cards‘s Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth makes the best impression for cool under pressure (most of the time) and in-control, but he also never seems like a real match for a bulletproof guy from the neighborhood. The series would have done better trying to focus more attention on one of these characters as opposed to dividing it up between the three of them at different junctures.
Now, it wouldn’t be much of a series if the bad guys didn’t find some way to counter an unbreakable man, and they do. What repercussions this will have in the future for Marvel television or film will remain to be seen.
Overall, I was quite satisfied, even with the flaws. I’m giving it eight out of ten “Yes, he wore that tiara”s.