When Marvel releases a new Netflix series everything stops. I become a hermit for a few days as I binge the entire season in an unhealthy amount of time. This continued to be the case with the release of Marvel’s Luke Cage. I shut myself off from the world, and much like a child that eats too fast, I ingested the entire 13-hour run in just over two days. I’ve spent the time since then actually digesting it. But unlike the kid who eats too quickly, it didn't leave me feeling sick to my stomach. Instead, I thought it was a fun ride even if it was, if you’ll allow me to continue the food analogy, somewhat undercooked.
Marvel has had a tendency to start off strong, at least with its Netflix fare, and Luke Cage is no different. We pick up not long after the events of Jessica Jones with our titular hero (even he insists on saying “I’m no hero”) working two jobs in Harlem just trying to “be left alone”. Unfortunately for Luke, it wouldn't be much of a show if he got his wish. Right off the hop we start seeing glimpses at the web of crime that seems to perpetually lie beneath the streets of this fictionalized New York. After a series of coincidences (even people on the show mention how strange it is) Luke finds himself in the middle of an illegal gun deal gone bad. From there, things escalate quickly into what is an otherwise great show that for whatever reason seems to cut corners at strange places and tends to lean into some unnecessary cliches. But before I get into that, let me talk about the things I liked.
Once again, Marvel has nailed the sense of place in a way that is unmatched by any other comic book program. Of course they have the advantage of being set in a real world location, something that DC and their CW programming does not. Luke Cage is the hero of Harlem and without having actually been to Harlem myself the show takes me there and lays out an atmosphere and culture that feels genuine to the story they are telling. Often times shows like Arrow, which is set in the fictional Star City but filmed in Vancouver, try to use back alleys and warehouses to make things look gritty but it never feels quite right. Marvel has the luxury of filming on the streets of New York and takes full advantage of that to create their version of Harlem, which feels lived in and honest.
The same can be said for casting, Marvel has a strong track record of picking the perfect actor to embody their characters. Just to name a few, they’ve nailed it with Krysten Ritter, Jon Bernthal, and Rosario Dawson all killing it in their respective roles and Luke Cage has continued this trend. Mike Colter fits the physical role of Luke Cage like a glove. He certainly looks the part. That being said, I would have liked to have seen a bit more emotion from him. He’s definitely mastered the superhero art of brooding. A bit more emotion would have gone a long way. However, my gripes with Mike Coulter might lie more on the script side, as I don't remember him being so wooden in Jessica Jones. As far as the villains are concerned, once again Marvel has been on a role. Vincent D'onofrio's King Pin is almost universally loved (I’m not as sold) and David Tennant’s Kilgrave was superbly creepy. With Luke Cage, it's not as easy to nail down one main villain, but I’d say they did really well with three out of four of their bad guys. Mahershala Ali was perfectly sleazy as Cornell 'Cottonmouth' Stokes, Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard was nicely nuanced as the two-faced city councillor and Theo Rossi totally embodied the cool and collected criminal that was Hernan 'Shades' Alvarez. Unfortunately, I can't expel the same virtues for Erik LaRay Harvey as Willis 'Diamondback' Stryker. This is, again, more of a script issue though so I can't fault Erik LaRay Harvey too much. Unfortunately for him he’s straddled with a paper thin, way over the top villain that, to make matters worse, is supposed to be “behind it all!”. It’s really hard for me to express how much I disliked this character. He seems to check every terrible bad guy cliche possible on his incoherent rampage through the back half of this story. Related to the hero? Check. Despised the “favorite” child all the way into adulthood? Check. Spouts random bible verses to “justify” his actions? Check. Constantly has his henchmen try to take out the hero (who’s literally bullet proof in this) instead of doing it himself? Check. Finally gets his chance to finish off the hero when he’s at his weakest but inexplicably lets him live? Check. That's just a few of them, I could actually go on a lot longer listing them. Diamondback is my biggest problem with the show and it’s all because of the contrived family drama that is barely explored until the finale.
Luke Cage falls into the same trap that all the other Marvel Netflix shows seem to fall into, a weak finish. In this case, it all hinges on Diamondback and his “relationship” to his half-brother Luke, except that relationship, which is such a motivating factor for Diamondback, is criminally underdeveloped. Instead, much of the time we could have spent developing that is spent watching all the bad guys try to frame Luke for what seems like every crime they’ve ever committed. That all being said, I’ll admit that I strangely enjoyed the detour that Luke and Claire went on to find the “mad scientist” that gave him his powers, but except for that and the Method Man cameo the second half of the season was largely a failure in my opinion.
In terms of the format, ever since Marvel started this whole Netflix experiment with Daredevil they have been playing with the ending each of their episodes with a “cliffhanger”, and it's worked to varying degrees of success. This time, they absolutely nail it! It seemed like every single episode left me craving more, even if I felt like I was ready to put it down only minutes before. Regardless, I’ve always been fascinated by the approach to the Netflix “cliffhanger”, and this might be the biggest reason why I binged the whole thing so quickly. Since entire seasons are released all at once the need to tease what's coming next seems almost unnecessary; in theory you could have each episode play out more like segments from a 13-hour film rather than 13 individual episodes. But I suppose, much like single issue comics coming together into a trade, it just seems to work best this way.
Finally, when it comes to the larger world that is the MCU, Marvel’s Netflix shows continue to frustrate me with their lack of connective tissue. At times it seems like they go out of their way to avoid those connections. Maybe I’m just being impatient but if I hear Clare Temple suggest “a good lawyer” one more time without seeing Matt Murdock I might lose it! Luke Cage first appeared in Jessica Jones where he was searching for information about his deceased love Reeva. Well, much of that pays off here but unless you recently watched Jessica Jones (and were taking notes) or did some background reading you’d have a hard time knowing that. Which is exactly the wrong way to go about connecting these stories. As far as the little nods to the greater MCU, there wasn't much to choose from but I really enjoyed the street kid selling bootleg DVD’s of the “incident”.
- Frankie Faison was very charming as the lovable Henry 'Pop' Hunter. Even if you could see his death coming from a mile away.
- When Marvel wants characters to sound like they’re a part of the MCU all they have to do is have them mention how they “don't have a magic hammer”.
- The look of Luke’s powers is really subtle and well done. I love when he just slaps people in the head to knock them out.
- I would be remiss to not mention the amazing assault on the project's scene that really showed off what Luke could do. So much fun.
- How cheesy was Misty Knight’s “seeing the crime through pictures” thing? I apologize if that is something from the comics but I almost laughed every time it happened.