Luke Cage – remember the bulletproof bartender and love interest of super-powered private eye Jessica Jones, as seen on Marvel’s Jessica Jones last year?
From that guest appearance, Cage (The Good Wife’s Mike Colter) did not come across as a very strong hook on which to hang an entire 13-episode season in Netflix’s ongoing crusade to serve up some of the finest superhero drama on TV. (It is also building up to a team show, The Defenders, comprising Jones, Cage, Daredevil and Iron Fist, who gets his own solo series in March.)
Yet Marvel’s Luke Cage, which premiered on Sept 30 and (possibly) contributed to server outages at the streaming giant owing to high demand on its debut weekend, is a triumph.
For starters, it transcends not only its main character’s somewhat glum guest stint on Jessica Jones but also the character’s cheesy Blaxploitation-fuelled comic-book origins (even poking fun at the original “Power Man” name and costume several times).
It also pushed me to binge-watch all 13 episodes over its launch weekend, something I haven’t done with the other Netflix Marvel shows, and not since the heyday of 24.
Luke Cage scores top marks not just because it depicts its central character as a strong, conflicted, flawed and complex individual, in whose struggle the viewer can easily get invested.
It also scores highly because of its multilayered story and because nearly every supporting character of note – like Frank Whaley’s Detective Rafael Scarfe, a regular from the comics – is written and performed to such a fascinating extent that you’d want to kick back and just shoot the breeze with them over a cold brew.
Kudos to showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker (Southland, Almost Human) and the writing team for coming up with plots that are well measured and punctuated with satisfying payoffs; for writing dialogue that fairly sparkles, littered with pop culture references (when two nasty baddies make an offhand Diff’rent Strokes reference, you know this is gold) and deeply rooted in the culture of New York’s Harlem neighbourhood, where the story is set; and serving up a gangster story that is highly compelling on the grandly operatic scale of Mario Puzo, as well as the gritty street-level mystery noir fiction of Walter Mosley (Cage is a fan of the author).
Luke Cage is so richly written, in fact, that even the customary Easter eggs seem more subtle here, with Marvel icon Stan Lee appearing on a poster and numerous references to Marvel Cinematic Universe events and characters demanding your full attention to catch.
A few links to other Netflix Marvel shows are clear, none more so than “Night Nurse” Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the most obvious connection to both Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
After the events in Jessica Jones, Cage left Hell’s Kitchen and sought refuge in Harlem, where we find him in the first episode of his own show sweeping out neighbourhood fixture Pop’s Barber Shop by day and washing dishes at the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub … well, at night.
It just so happens that the club is owned by local gangster Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), who has history with Pop (Frankie Faison).
Two of the street kids being mentored by Pop get mixed up in a robbery involving Cottonmouth’s merchandise, and set in motion a chain of events that will shake Harlem to its core.
The show is based on Marvel’s Luke Cage, Hero For Hire comic which was first published in 1972, at the height of the Blaxploitation craze in movies and TV shows, to cash in on that pop-culture phenomenon.
Staple villains from the comic – Cottonmouth, Mariah “Black Mariah” Hillard (Alfre Woodard) and Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey) – are prominent characters in the series too.
The baddies are significantly different from their newsprint counterparts, but the series by no means disrespects the source.
A pity that Diamondback, who is meant to anchor the dramatic conflict in the second half of the season, is a somewhat one-note character and the least multi-faceted of the villains.
However, Ali and Woodard are nothing short of mesmerising in their roles, owning every scene they’re in and fighting for dominance when they share the screen (Woodard in particular will make your blood run cold on more than a few occasions).
It’s to Colter’s credit that his smouldering steadfastness helps him stand his ground against such powerhouses. Luke Cage is a smartly realised combination of great writing and low-key but charismatic acting that neatly weaves the character’s old-school Blaxploitation roots together with current Black Lives Matter sensibilities.
His understated stand for preserving the legacy and cultural heritage of Harlem, which runs counter to Hillard’s hidden agenda of gentrification, also gives the series a very effective undertone of holding fast to one’s identity against the pressure to conform or morph into something “acceptable”.
As viewers will learn through the retelling of his origin, Cage has good reason to remain low-profile, frequently claiming – contrary to his comic-book roots – that he’s no hero, and he’s not for hire. Colter really gives you the impression that he means it, so much so that when bad people finally force him to act, it’s a moment to stand up and cheer.
If Colter is a revelation here, so too is Simone Missick, an actress you may have seen in minor roles in shows like Wayward Pines and Ray Donovan. In her first major role as Misty Knight, a beguiling woman Cage meets at Harlem’s Paradise and who turns out to be a cop, Missick nails the feistiness and embraces the flaws in her character (yes, she is annoyingly flawed but that makes her more believable).
As a comic fan, I’m hoping they also get her comrade-in-arms Colleen Wing right in the upcoming Iron Fist series and spin them off into their own show (#win!).
I’m no authority on music, but the soundtrack of Luke Cage beautifully rounds out the show and elevates it, as a whole, to excellence.
The song choices – and performer choices, too – are right on target in conveying the mood of a community coming together to make it through tough times, to stand up to oppression and to rally around figureheads who represent “the struggle”.
The title of each episode also happens to be the title of a song by rap collective Gang Starr. Even Method Man shows up – as himself – in a late episode, providing an amusing moment as “Power Man” goes all fanboy on the rapper.
It’s another example of how Marvel’s Luke Cage goes beyond just pop culture and proves itself to be culturally aware, significant and accessible, and how Netflix-Marvel consistently exceed expectations. Move aside, Luke – you’re not the only beaming fanboy here.
All 13 episodes of Marvel’s Luke Cage are available on Netflix.