There Are No Cracks in Netflix’s Latest Marvel Series ‘Luke Cage’

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Luke Cage

Fear not, dear reader, there are no spoilers present in this review of Luke Cage.

Luke Cage, one half of the Heroes for Hire and sometimes known as Power Man, is the latest character to get his own show as part of Netflix’s partnership with Marvel Studios, which is expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the darker aspects of heroism where the movies dare not go. Played by Mike Colter, Luke Cage had his first appearance in Jessica Jones, but now the man with the indestructible skin is front and center with his own show, simply titled Luke Cage, one that also expands the diversity within the MCU with a predominantly black cast in what is also the most socially conscious work to take place within the MCU.

Over the first four episodes, Luke Cage takes the first two of its thirteen episodes to lay the foundation for the rest of the season. It may seem slow at first, but by the time the show shepherded by creator and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker establishes itself it presents a thrilling, captivating piece of superhero fare without any spandex on display. Luke Cage also takes its time in revealing the origin of the hero’s superpowers, withholding that aspect to the character’s story for the fourth episode. By the conclusion of that fourth episode, any and all doubts about the power and veracity of the show should be quickly dispelled.

Mike Colter embodies the physical stature and demeanor of the character as seamlessly as any actor to take on a comic book character. He is a towering and imposing figure, but has a reluctance to his heroism. Colter’s Cage is a man capable of causing immense destruction with his super strength and invulnerability, but he’d rather stay out the skirmishes and spends his time reading and studying, including Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This is a man with a past that he’s been trying to run from, one where trying to do the right thing left him wronged.

Luke Cage would rather work diligently and quietly at his various jobs, sweeping hair at a Harlem barbershop and washing dishes at a nightclub. The barbershop is run by Pop (Frankie Faison), who’s a revered figure in the neighborhood. At Pop’s Barbershop, the feuds of the streets are set aside; Pop refers to his shop as “Switzerland,” where people can chat about basketball without profanity – all foul language necessitates a donation to the shop’s swear jar. The nightclub that Cage works at is run by Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a ruthless criminal mastermind that seeks the illusion of legitimacy while shunning the nickname bestowed upon him, “Cottonmouth.” Stokes uses the funds from illicit guns sales to fund a community revitalization project spearheaded by local politician Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard).

The illegal operations of Cornell Stokes are being monitored by NYPD detectives Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Scarfe (Frank Whaley). Things get all the more complicated when a gun deal is sabotaged by a trio of local hooligans that leaves Stokes short one million dollars amidst a number of dead bodies. This heist gone wrong is the first shot fired in a war that will wage for the future and soul of Harlem, a war that will make Luke Cage a reluctant soldier on the front lines.

There are few moments of action in the first two episodes of Luke Cage. In the very first episode “Moment of Truth,” there’s the gun heist and shootout with bodies blown apart by shotgun blasts and the first action involving Cage, where a bad guy’s hand and wrist are shattered apart by trying land a punch on the hero’s jaw. It’s really the third episode “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” where the show kicks into high gear, featuring an impressive action sequence that might not have the daring technical aspects seen in Daredevil’s famed hallway and stairwell sequences, but with more brute badassery than the Man Without Fear’s battles. Preparing for battle, Cage places in his earbuds, starts cranking Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckus” and proceeds to pummel and beat an army of armed thugs. It’s doesn’t have to be presented with the illusion of a single take, as each edit amplifies the action and makes each punch land with an resounding impact.

The fourth episode “Skip the Arena” is mostly a flashback that tells the origins of Luke Cage’s powers, as well as valuable insight into the character’s mindset. Before he was Luke Cage he was Carl Lucas, a former cop framed and wrongfully imprisoned. The private prison he’s incarcerated in is overflowing with corruption right on down to a fight club overseen by the sadistic guards. When defiance leaves him bloodied, bruised, and the verge of death, Carl Lucas is placed into an experimental healing device that explodes and leaves him with super strength and indestructible skin. What’s really funny about these scenes is the way that character is adorned with tiara and bracelets that wore in the ‘70s issues of the comics, and during his escape the hero grabs a yellow blouse that finishes off the cheeky homage to the character’s past look.

Over the course of four episodes, Luke Cage establishes some fascinating character dynamics that set the stage for a larger battle with twists and turns along the way to keep the events suspenseful and interesting. Cornell Stokes, or Cottonmouth, is like a black version of Kingpin, the kind of ruthless villain who sees himself a hero by using his violent empire as a means to fund community reinvestment. There are still multiple details about the bloody code of honor and past of Cottonmouth, but there’s enough present in the early episodes to ensure that this is a character not to be reckoned with lightly. The relationship between Cottonmouth and the corrupt politician Mariah Dillard is an unholy alliance where each sees the ends as justifying the means.

Conversely, the relationships that drive Luke Cage are also firmly established in the early episodes. There’s great care in illustrating the bond between Luke and Pop, as well as Pop’s influence in Harlem that extends to all sides of the fight. Complicating matters is the relationship between Cage and Misty Knight, a one-night stand that concludes with each party not being exactly honest with each other. Yes, there’s plenty of action within the first four episodes of Luke Cage, but this is first and foremost a character driven story which makes the action all the more investing dramatically.

Like its hero, Luke Cage packs a mighty strong punch. With a soul, funk infused soundtrack, Luke Cage has the feel of a classic Blaxploitation take on the superhero genre geared for modern times. The show takes on issues of gentrification and political corruption with pulp sensibilities that are as fun as they are thoughtful. Anchoring the show is the strong performance by Mike Colter, who probably embodies his character in manner ripped straight out of the comic books better than anyone since Christopher Reeve played Superman. With a standout hero, a nefarious villain, and a reason to battle, the pieces are in place for Luke Cage to be the best show to emerge from the Marvel and Netflix union. As a character, Luke Cage may have indestructible skin and a rock-solid frame, but as a show, Luke Cage has those very same characteristics.

Luke Cage
  • Overall Score
4

Summary

Led by a rock-solid performance by Mike Colter, Luke Cage takes a couple episodes to finds its footing before shaping up into some of the most thoughtful, fun, and character driven bit of action-packed superhero fare with the pulpy feel of classic Blaxploitation.

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