Title: Luke Cage (season 1)
Directors: Paul McGuigan, Andy Goddard, Marc Jobst, Clark Johnson, Sam Miller, Vincenzo Natali, Guillermo Navarro, George Tillman Jr.
Writers: Cheo Hodari Coker, Archie Goodwin, John Romita Jr., Roy Thomas, George Tuska, Jason Horwitch, Nathan Louis Jackson, Charles Murray, Matt Owens
Starring: Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, Ron Cephas Jones, Erik LaRay Harvey, Mahershala Ali, Frank Whaley, Karen Pittman, Jacob Vargas, Frankie Faison, Michael Kostroff, Dawn-Lyn Gardner, Jade Wu, and more
Duration: 55-60 minutes
Marvel’s Luke Cage is a lot of things, an origin story, a social statement, and a classic noir crime drama closely resembling the hard boiled detective stories of the 40’s and the 50’s.
The third in Marvel’s comics based series on Netflix, Luke Cage is not like the others, it has its unique approach to telling its story that sets it apart from the two other Marvel series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones while sharing the same DNA of being gritty and grounded as the other two. Luke Cage stands out as the most science fictiony of all the Marvel/Netflix series so far
Despite working on so many levels, including being a tribute to black culture in America, the series never loses sight of telling its story about this working class superhero who has heroism thrust upon him by circumstance. He has no mask, no colorful costume or the usual trappings associated with the role he plays. There’s not a hint of flamboyance; just the opposite. Luke’s just a working class guy who decides he has to do something to deal with the problems plaguing his community, a man who happens to have super strength and invulnerable skin.
This time around the series has less of the fantastical elements found in Daredevil. There’s no ninjas or secret mystical orders to be found here, and it differs from the tale of Ms. Jones just as much by not offering up any characters with super abilities outside of its main protagonist, Luke Cage himself; a flightless Superman with near invulnerable skin and superhuman strength.
Details emerge about Cage that shows he is a unique person that does not necessarily fit the mold you might imagine. He reads the New Yorker and enjoys detective novels while also exhibiting the symptoms of being a sports fan like many of his peers.
Watching this series develop its story, I didn’t know what to expect. It has a lot more of a feel of an ensemble production than the previous two comics-inspired productions the have sprung from the partnership between Marvel and Netflix. Whereas the other two seemed to have a more narrow focus on fewer characters, this time around this series is a sprawling and more detailed account of the world it portrays and spends more time depicting the lives of several of its inhabitants.
It struck me most as having a lot in common with the hard-boiled noir detective stories that had their heyday in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. It’s a sub genre I have always enjoyed when its done right and its done right here. There’s little in the way of light hearted moments in the series, it’s pretty grim stuff, that sometimes comes close to going over the top, but never does.
The series also has the unmistakable flavor of the blaxploitation films that gave birth to the comics that serve as the show’s source material, and indeed, it’s delightful to see the many nods the series makes to films like Shaft, Superfly, Cleopatra Jones, and other films of that 70’s sub-genre. The references are witty, subtle and amusing, woven into the fabric of the show and adding to its texture.
The cast is terrific in this, and it’s hard to imagine how it could be better. The performances of Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick, Rosario Dawson, Ron Cephas Jones, and long-time excellent character actor, Frankie Faison, are instant classics memorable and remarkable. Likewise, the villains, Mahershala Ali, and Erik LaRay Harvey are enjoyably dark, psychotic, and suitably sinister. Everyone’s great, but no one outshines Micael Colter as the titular character, his physicality, intelligent portrayal, and presence is well suited to the role, and his performance is nuanced nearly perfectly for the character he plays. A pretty demanding and complex character in situations that demand a broad spectrum of emotional responses that must have been pretty challenging to portray. His performance sells the show.
There is one more point I would like to confront about this series, and that’s its timely arrival and the apparent connection to all the stuff in the news about Black Lives Matter, and the treatment of black people by the police, and the whole issue of systematic racism in America. Luke Cage taps into the zeitgeist of our reality.
The show addresses these matters of course, how could it not? It does it in a restrained manner, without going overboard, or pandering in its portrayal. Cage, in his signature hoodie, serves to remind us that not all stereotypes are valid and that not all black people are thugs and have criminal intent.
There is a segment of one of the latter episodes that brings the matter home eloquently, through a collage of men in hoodies going about their day just like anyone would, and effectively makes the statement that their wardrobe choice or the color of their skin has nothing to do with their doing that.
Here’s a recap, laced with some comments. (*warning, spoilers follow*)
Make no mistake, season one of Luke Cage is an origin story, depicted in exhaustive detail, and like many origin stories, involves the central character’s past coming back to bite him/her in the ass. I have to admit when I found out the reasons for the villain’s hatred of Cage it seemed pretty weak to me, and a more than a somewhat cliched rehashing of Freudian stuff we have all seen before. The quality of the rest of the production’s efforts made up for this shortcoming in motives that seemed like the show’s weakest point in an otherwise solid effort.
The series develops in what are pretty distinct phases in the story it tells, and along the way, we meet a plethora of fascinating characters. There’s one character not listed in the credits, that plays a starring role. The setting where all of this takes place, Harlem, The show is like a love letter to the iconic neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, and the opening credits of each episode serve to reaffirm this.
Things start out at Pop’s barber shop, a stereotypical black neighborhood location that acts as a sort of social hub and meeting place where all the latest neighborhood news and gossip eventually see the light of day. Luke is employed there to help keep the place clean and help out in general. He’s using the place as a hideout laying low and minding his own business. Luke always tries to avoid drawing attention to himself, because of the constant threat of jail.
He is a longtime friend of Henry ‘Pop’ Hunter (long time character actor Frankie Faison), who is the owner of the establishment, and iconic neighborhood figure. Pop has a strong sense of moral duty and is a friend to the community who also sometimes serves as a source of wisdom and advice for others as a sort of surrogate father figure. He is aware of Luke’s unique abilities and often mentions how Luke could make a difference in the area, if only he chose to.
Regulars in the archetypal barbershop include Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones), a chess enthusiast who goes on to play a significant role in the series story. Also present is a young man, Shameek Smith (Jermel Howard) with big ideas, and a mouth to match, who fancies himself a contender for becoming a person of importance. He takes part in the event that ripples across the series entire narrative, a robbery that goes wrong. The robbery has a ripple effect on nearly every other character on the show.
After working at Pop’s Luke goes to his other job, at a swank new nightspot called Harlem Paradise, where he works under the table as a dishwasher, but on this particular evening the regular bartender doesn’t show up for his shift, and Luke is drafted to replace him for the evening. It’s here he meets Misty Knight (Simone Missick) a police detective who is working undercover for the night to keep an eye on Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a local gangster and person of interest in crimes the police are investigating.
Misty is a sexy, no-nonsense, kick ass, black woman cop, who more or less personifies the archetypal blaxploitation female character, after they hook up that evening, she becomes one of Luke’s best friends and allies in his crusade against crime. She has a partner, Detective Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley) who turns out to be dirty and also plays a significant role in the show’s narrative.
Cornell, who doesn’t like being called Cottonmouth only relates to power and influence as being of fundamental importance in life and fancies himself a major player in the world and a paragon of style. He is a narcissist and sees himself as having the qualities of a king and a person of immense importance, but the truth is he is not the top man in this situation. That honor belongs to Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey) who Cornell answers to and depends on for support by way of his lieutenant Hernan ‘Shades’ Alvarez (Theo Rossi)
Cornell serves well as the series chief antagonist, for most of the first season, but eventually gets bumped aside, and supplanted by Diamondback who emerges as the real series villain, when Cornell dies at the hands of another character towards the end of the season.
Another important part of Cornell’s world is his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) a city supervisor, who is involved with her gangster cousin because she used funds from the city’s coffers to lend him for a big deal that went south and now it may come back to bite her in the ass. This series is as much hers as anyone else in the cast, and her performance comes close to upstaging everyone else including Cage himself.
Woodard’s portrayal of Mariah is moving, memorable and quite remarkable. It’s an impressive representation of a journey into darkness and watching her transformation in this series is an extraordinary experience. She is incredibly good in the role, and her passage to the dark side is not one to be missed, or once seen, soon forgotten.
Also on the way to work his second job we meet Connie Lin (Jade Wu), owner of the hilariously named Chinese restaurant Genghis Connie’s, and Luke’s landlord, who reminds him he is late with the rent. Connie is a tough old fortune cookie and enjoyable addition to the show.
If all of this sounds complicated, it is a bit, but worth it. Everything and nearly everyone in this series is all connected in some way. It’s like weaving, where if you pull one thread, it affects all the others. It’s a pretty remarkable story. One event sets up a series of repercussions that affects nearly every character in this series and beyond. The robbery that goes wrong is the trigger that launches the series narrative.
Also on board for this is Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the nurse we met earlier in Daredevil, she is the tie-in to the Marvel Universe, and has evolved as a character, she is not just a nurse anymore, but is emerging as a hero, and a brilliant scientist. She casually mentions an interest in pursuing a career in specializing in medical treatment for people with special abilities. She is one of the several strong women in this series that go a long way towards making a case for more female characters of this sort in genre films and tv productions going forward. When a vibranium bullet wounds Cage, it’s Claire that plays a significant role in his recovery and return to fighting form.
The show also spends a lot of time portraying Luke’s past including his time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the story of how he got to be the Power Man, as Pops called him, and his subsequent escape. It’s an engaging story, as much as the story the series tells is in its entirety.
The death of his friend Pops is what sets Luke on the path towards becoming a hero and taking action to intervene in the criminal activities that he sees as the biggest source of the problems that plague his neighborhood. The scenes that follow this decision are excellent and demonstrate some intelligent restraint on the part of the show’s creators. Unlike Daredevil where it seemed like every conversation resulted in a long drawn out violent confrontation, and sometimes that maybe the series depended too much on the violent situations as part of its makeup, Luke Cage seems to rely on violence less.
Also, the nature of the fight scenes is different this time around, where the fights in Daredevil were often long and drawn out in ever escalating depictions of violence, the fight scenes in Luke Cage are often brief and quickly concluded with only a few exceptions. When Luke hits you, you stay down. Also, it was great fun watching him walk into a barrage of gunfire without caring or coming to harm. His super strength was also well portrayed. There’s one scene where he survived a rocket attack on Genghis Connie’s and buried under the rubble of the place; he saves her life and his own by digging and punching his way out. Great fun and pretty amusing stuff.
I guess it’s no secret by now; I enjoyed watching this series from stem to stern in just a couple of days, I felt it was a remarkably well-done comics based material that featured some excellent writing and a lot of great acting in its compass. A top quality production in every way. Another great job from the folks at Marvel/Netflix that left me hungry for more. Eager to see how they treat Iron Fist and the team-up story that includes all four characters, The Defenders. Happy viewing.