Luke Cage Season 1 Review
On April 10, 2015, Netflix released Daredevil, a web television series developed by Marvel Television that brought unprecedented style and nuance to the superhero genre. On November 20, 2015, the online network and the production division collaborated once again to bring audiences Jessica Jones, a series that drew heavily on film noir and post-modern themes to deliver what many critics regarded as the best superhero television program ever produced.
On September 28, 2016, Luke Cage, the latest joint project between Netflix and Marvel, premiered via streaming. Naturally, given the acclaim that surrounded the previous Marvel/Netflix series, expectations were high, and perhaps just as naturally, the show was quickly lauded by critics and fans alike. With a superb cast, a fun and definitive style, and an unrelentingly complex and bold story, Luke Cage not only matches the fast-growing standard for Netflix superhero programming, but also cements itself as one of the most promising new series of 2016.
The show centers around its titular hero, Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a wrongfully-imprisoned inmate who escaped lockup after a freak experiment endowed him with super-strength and bulletproof skin. The character, based on the groundbreaking 1970s African-American superhero of the same name, is doggedly devoted to his personal principles and his adopted community of Harlem, New York City, where the brunt of the show is set. Luke’s unbending sense of justice and his determination to rid Harlem of corruption and crime make him an enemy of politicians, mobsters, and police alike, but quickly win him popular support among the black community in New York.
Although Luke Cage’s writing team is admirably devoted to developing several complex characters, the plotline of Luke himself indisputably takes the forefront of the show. Colter plays Luke without compromise, lending the show’s protagonist a surface appearance of pure strength and persistent moralism (Luke refuses to take the lives of his enemies) while aptly displaying the hero’s inner conflict of values in his quieter, weaker moments. Luke is, on the surface, confident, charming, and obliquely devoted to his moral code, but internally he feels torn as to whether his personal fight against injustice is best for the people of Harlem and for himself. His character arc interestingly parallels that of the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, a book Luke is shown reading on multiple occasions throughout the series.
Luke faces a number of his nemeses from his original run in the comics, meticulously updated for the 21st century. The first is Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a gun-runner and club owner whose illicit operations Luke repeatedly shuts down with brute force. Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a corrupt city councilwoman and Cottonmouth’s cousin, is perhaps Luke’s most persistent adversary in the show, a cunning political operator who actively profits from the illegal activities of her relative. Season one’s overarching villain, however, is undoubtedly Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey), a militantly Christian weapons manufacturer who holds a personal vendetta against Luke and uses both Cottonmouth and Mariah as his pawns in an all-out war against the bulletproof hero.
The performances and writing behind Luke Cage’s villains are particularly praiseworthy. Ali dominates the entire first half of the season with his layered portrayal of Cottonmouth, a tragic villain who was born into a life of crime he never asked for. Ali uses his considerable acting ability to illustrate both the over-the-top machismo and internal despair of Cottonmouth, making him a simultaneously fearsome and pitiable antagonist. Woodard, delivering perhaps the most riveting performance of the entire season, gives the audience an equally complex character in Mariah, a natural manipulator perhaps better suited for her cousin’s role as a mob boss than for her own political position. While Harvey’s portrayal of Diamondback also contains trace levels of nuance, his bombast and overtly sinister villainy makes him more of a fun, straight-from-the-comics type character that provides a physical and verbal foil to Colter’s measured and ethical Luke.
Luke Cage’s deuteragonists (of which there are several) do far more than just fill out the show’s roster, as characters have been apt to do in past Netflix/Marvel collaborations. Perhaps the most notable of these secondary characters is Misty Knight (Simone Messick), a police detective arguably as morally motivated as Luke. Receiving huge chunks of screen time, Misty’s arc is second only to Luke’s in detail, with her character dominating most B plotlines. Messick devotedly portrays the intrepid detective’s struggle to reconcile her origins in Harlem with her duty to an increasingly bureaucratic, corrupt, and often racist police force. Several other secondary characters vie for the series’ remaining B and C plotlines, perhaps most notably Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), a fan-favorite first introduced in Daredevil and Jessica Jones as a battlefield nurse for Manhattan’s super-community.
While strong writing and acting forms the backbone of Luke Cage, some of its most fun moments come from its colorful stylistic choices. While both Daredevil and Jessica Jones are clearly influenced by ‘70s noir films, Luke Cage draws on the Blaxploitation films of the same era to not only strengthen the show’s thematic ties to the black community, but also to heighten the enjoyable outrageousness of the show’s many expertly directed and executed fight scenes. The show revels in its fistfights between the overpowered Luke and veritable armies of street toughs, whom he dispatches with a flair taken straight from the action sequences of movies like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft. Additionally, most of Luke’s dated, corny pickup lines and battle quips seem to be ripped straight from the mouths of smooth-talking Blaxploitation-era heroes. Even the show’s funk-filled soundtrack echoes the compositions of Isaac Hayes and Marvin Van Peebles, although it also contains several songs by the Wu-Tang Clan and other New York based rappers.
Perhaps Luke Cage’s biggest accomplishment, however, is that it manages to accomplish what previous Netflix/Marvel outings could not: it stays cohesive in both style and story throughout its entire first season, and refuses to make compromises in plot and character. While both Jessica Jones and Daredevil suffer from confusing character changes and pacing problems due to clear efforts to tie together loose storylines, Luke Cage focuses on painting complex characters first, then allows for its story to develop naturally. Only a few writing decisions (like Luke and Claire’s shoehorned-in late-season romance) feel unnatural, with most character choices coming from clear motivations that are established as early as the first episode.
Luke Cage gives audiences and critics a new pinnacle of superhero television, a show that not only features style and complexity, as Daredevil and Jessica Jones do, but delivers them with crisp writing and a cohesive set of themes and visuals. The performances, writing, and production choices of Luke Cage should not only re-enthuse superhero fans preparing for the upcoming Iron Fist and Defenders Marvel/Netflix series, but should admonish the last of any cynics claiming that comic book premises cannot result in structured and smart shows, because as Luke Cage has indisputably proven, they can and do.