Hero not for hire
Luke Cage, the third ‘hero’ of Marvel’s Defenders, has landed in its entirety on Netflix. So far, the Marvel/ Netflix collaboration has been largely successful both with critics and fans. The quality of the shows are far superior to the DC counterparts on whatever angsty teenage network they are on, although they are tonally much darker and more grounded. So, does Luke Cage live up to expectations?
There will be minor plot points and minor spoilers in this article but nothing too revealing.
The opening episodes effectively set up the conflict between Luke (Mike Colter) and the headline villain of the piece, Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali). We get given some good background on this version of Harlem and what Luke has been up to since we first saw him in Jessica Jones. We meet Luke as a guy who just wants to get on with his life, he doesn’t want to be a hero, he doesn’t want anyone to know about his powers. He’s effectively in hiding. It’s pretty much the same as when we first met him. He just wants to mind his own business. One of the best things about the opening couple of episodes is Luke’s relationship with Henry ‘Pop’ Hunter (Frankie Faison) and he’s really the catalyst for Luke to become a hero, reminding him of his responsibilities as a super powered person. He’s his mentor and father figure. He reminds him to always look forward, never back in reference to Luke’s troubled past which is explored further in the series.
The entire show, until perhaps the final couple of episodes, is a slow burner and it generally works really well. There’s so much subtlety and nuance and the way Luke Cage becomes involved in the action is cleverly and carefully written. It really does feel like a crime drama. It’s stylish, cool and has a great soundtrack. And while I’m probably not the most appropriate person to comment as a white middle-class Englishman, it does feel culturally realistic. You really get a sense of the Harlem community. The show effectively explores of the morality of using money from the gangs of Harlem to prop up more legitimate enterprises and that’s interesting while it lasts. And herein is the problem of Luke Cage. The first half of the series is a compelling political crime drama but it completely loses its edge in the latter parts of the season and becomes a tad muddled. This is mainly due to the emergence of a new, less compelling adversary for Luke mid-way through the season. It has a similar issue to Jessica Jones in that it loses its way in the last few episodes. With all of these Marvel/Netflix shows I feel that it could be cut down into 10 fantastic episodes instead of 13 great ones.
On to the villains. Cottonmouth and his cousin, councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) have an interesting dynamic going on initially which again falls through midway through the season. Their family history and their desire to achieve a particular goal but in very different ways is interesting and makes them a compelling double act to watch. Cottonmouth is flawed in a way that Kingpin wasn’t. Kingpin always had a plan. He was calculating and in control. Cottonmouth is much more emotionally driven. He makes mistakes and tends to act rashly. This makes him interesting on a human level but does diminish his threat as a villain. When the ‘main’ villain of the piece, Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) shows up, the show loses a lot of what made the first half so great. He’s a very generic shoot ’em up gang leader and he’s not particularly interesting and nor is his conflict with Luke. The political/ crime aspect of the show all but dissipates and it becomes much more straightforward.
As a bulletproof man, you might be wondering where the danger is for Luke. Whereas Daredevil can easily be wounded, as we’ve seen, and Jessica Jones’ main villain was a mind controller, Luke Cage’s adversaries pose less of a threat to him than his fellow heroes’ enemies. This gives rise to some fun action sequences with Luke batting enemies away like flies but you get the feeling he is invincible and you find yourself asking why he doesn’t just sort all this mess out straightaway. The show does address this by providing Luke’s enemies with a new way of defeating him, which does instil an element of threat.
On to Luke’s allies, and Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is a good addition to the MCU. She’s given plenty of screen time and has a good story arc. Rosario Dawson returns as Claire Temple from both Daredevil and Jessica Jones and she’s just as great as you’d expect. She probably gets more to do here than in previous seasons and the ending sets up even more for her to do in the future. In fact, most of the characters and the acting in general is pretty good.
Mike Colter is brilliant as Harlem’s ‘Captain America’, as he’s called at one point. He plays that quiet rage so well and makes a character with very straightforward morals interesting and enjoyable to watch. There’s plenty of references to the original Luke Cage comic books, including numerous references of him as ‘Power Man’ and a brilliant homage to his original ’70s outfit, tiara and all. In the beginning, you’d be forgiven for not realising that this is indeed a comic book inspired series as it’s very much grounded in the communities and people of Harlem rather than one man trying to save the world.
I won’t ruin it here but the end of season 1 of Luke Cage sets up both his and Claire’s involvement in the upcoming Defenders, and I for one can’t wait to see Power Man team up with Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist (the final Defender, March 2017).
GREAT. Luke Cage begins strongly as a slow but compelling crime drama but loses its way midway through the season.
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