Daredevil fights ninjas. Jessica Jones fights creeps. Luke Cage fights the status quo.
This review of the entire first season of Luke Cage contains minor spoilers.
On September 30th, Netflix premiered Luke Cage, the third of four solo series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, The Punisher) produced by Marvel that are intended to crossover as The Defenders in 2017.
Cage (Mike Colter) is a black, bulletproof defender of the streets, created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita Sr. and George Tuska for Marvel Comics to capitalize on the popularity of “blaxploitation” films of the era such as Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Across 110th Street, and Shaft.
Netflix’s Luke Cage is indebted to these influences, as well as the pulp noir stories of the early 20th century. Here, Cage is a modern black Phillip Marlowe: a hard man, quick with a line, dark-yet-philosophical, violent but with a code and has a bad habit of getting involved with dangerous women.
Cage was born Carl Lucas, an innocent man falsely convicted, sent to Seagate, a maximum-security prison in Georgia and then experimented on by a shady scientist. These experiments granted Lucas super-strength and bulletproof skin, which he used to escape from prison and relocate to New York.
His show opens after the events of Jessica Jones. Cage has relocated from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem and lives quietly working in a barbershop run by mentor and community staple, Pop. The barbershop is one of the defining locations of the show, a place where much of the plot of the series unfolds but also a hangout for its characters to just be and talk to each other without exposition. The first few minutes of Episode 1 Moment of Truth have Pop, Cage and some neighborhood kids discussing the Knicks and Pat Riley. Every episode has at least one of these little scenes and they give a soul to Luke Cage that has been missing from Jessica Jones and Daredevil.
Later on in the episode some of the kids from the barber shop hold up an illegal gun sale, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his cousin, New York City Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) were behind. Cottonmouth runs their front business Harlem’s Paradise, while Dillard uses her political influence to change Harlem for the better.
The swirl of politics and culture that helps define the black community in inner cities, in this case Harlem, shape both Cottonmouth and Dillard and make both of them more grounded and even more dangerous than apolitical foes like Wilson Fisk and The Hand.
In Daredevil, Fisk talked about remaking Hell’s Kitchen, but it was never genuine. However, Cottonmouth and Dillard both sincerely want to rebuild Harlem into something greater than it was even during the height of the Jazz age. The lesser antagonists and other assorted bad-guys such as Shades and Turk are also well defined considering their amount of screen time, but it does demonstrate that there’s been a significant increase in writing quality compared to the other Marvel shows (Jessica Jones being the exception to all the things of course).
Some of Cage’s supporting characters deserve mention as well. Detective Misty Knight is another fine example of how to do a strong female character well. Her interactions with her male coworkers and her female superiors accurately portray the struggles of many working women. The dialogue and subtext is both clear and direct enough to apply these interactions to virtually any industry. The fact that all the women in the precinct are black and mixed-raced women is a lesson in intersectionality that should be learned by many.
It’s worth noting that these and many, many other characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are much different interpretation than their comic counterparts (Mariah Dillard especially), and that these are often better uses of these characters than in the comics (Mariah Dillard, again).
Not only has writing improved, but the cinematography has improved as well, using many cool aesthetic choices to establish Luke Cage as not just film noir, but Black Film Noir. Scenes in Cottonmouth’s club are bathed in tangy reds and deep blues, the camera freezing for several frames on Charles Bradley as he wails ‘Ain’t It A Sin.’ A carefully framed shot of Cottonmouth speaking to his crew as his head slowly replaces the picture of Biggie behind him, his crown perched on the new king.
Simply put, this series is full of imagery.
Cage has traded in his comics costume (a plain yellow tee) for a bullet ridden hoodie, evocative of Trayvon Martin and many other young black Americans killed by men with guns. He stands and waits as crew after crew of men spray him with gunfire, echoing John Crawford III who was shot by police standing in a Wal-Mart.
Episode 4 Step Into the Arena flashes back to Cage’s time at Seagate, an island prison off the coast of Georgia; New York’s Rikers Island Prison a clear influence. At Seagate Cage suffers the kind of brutality and dehumanization many other black men suffer in the private prisons of America; the shady Dr. Burstein and the conspiracy behind his experimentation a grim reminder of Tuskegee and how sometimes reality is worse than fiction.
As the show races towards it conclusion, the political and comic book elements combine in Episode 11 Now You’re Mine, when Cage tries to save a group of hostages from a nightclub as the police and city government consider storming the building to arrest Cage using superpowered bullets. Episode 13 You Know My Steez climaxes with nothing short of a big super brawl in the streets of Harlem is grounded by a lesson on hate and gang violence.
The latter half of Luke Cage meanders more than it should and is structured weird. This is an issue that has plagued all of the Netflix Marvel shows to date, but with Cage the series feels over at its halfway point. Not all of these lessons, allusions and allegories hit their marks and don’t start really cooking until Episode 4, but the voices both in front and behind the camera are loud, proud and clear in the story they want to tell and how they want to tell it. There’s not much else in the realm of television that’s as exciting and necessary right now as Luke Cage. And sweet Christmas that soundtrack is stellar!