The third of Netflix’s Marvel superhero shows, following Daredevil and Jessica Jones, is barely superhero-y at all. Special abilities rarely figure for more than a few minutes per episode, but it’s powerful in other ways. Its strength is in the ‘real’ stuff.
If you watched Jessica Jones you will have met Luke Cage already, rattling the leading lady’s bedposts and bruising her heart before disappearing into the night. His solo series picks up several months after, with Cage now working in a barbershop in Harlem, where he’s trying not to let the local community know that he possesses super-strength and skin you couldn’t pierce with a rocket launcher. As is the way with the super-powered, he is not permitted to keep his secret for long, as the actions of a local gangster threaten the community. Whether he likes it or not, Cage is going to become a saviour.
This is a series less about its hero than the place he lives and his effect on it.
This is a series less about its hero than the place he lives and his effect on it. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker’s Harlem is a district striding toward prosperity and trying to shake off those who want to drag it back to being a criminal playground. It needs a figurehead, someone who will define its identity. There are three contenders. There is Cage, who believes that working hard and doing the right thing will get you to where you deserve to be. There’s Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a mid-level gangster with ambitions, who lives by the credo that if you show people you’re in power, either with money or violence, then that power will become yours. Lastly, there’s Mariah, played by Alfre Woodard, a politician who lies somewhere between the two. She believes Harlem is a place to be proud of and is working to make it better, but in order to get what she wants for the people she’s prepared to compromise her morals, usually by dealing with her cousin, Stokes. Mariah is the most intriguing of the three, with her House of Cards-ish ethical flip-flopping, but sadly gets the least screentime. One should never scrimp on Alfre Woodard. Unlike the two other Marvel series, Luke Cage has little interest in supervillains or ancient supernatural sects with overly elaborate schemes. The moral murk of humanity gives it plenty to work with.
Luke Cage is Marvel’s first property centered on a black character (Black Panther will become the second, and the first movie, in 2018). That is worth mentioning not just as a milestone but because race is central to its identity. As the show lays out the pieces in the battle for power in this fictional world, Choker repeatedly references real-world black history, namechecking icons and how they defined their legacy, be it Crispus Attucks, a figurehead of the anti-slavery movement and the first man to die in the War of Independence, or rapper Biggie Smalls, his massive portrait gazing stoically from Stokes’ wall, whose life became defined by gang war. Coker doesn’t make the obvious choice to frame his examination of the black experience in relation to white people and overcoming oppression. There is no white antagonist or supporting hero. He’s made this about African Americans defining themselves, rather than being assigned a definition, and looking back on their history to shape their future. It allows the show to explore black America in a way not many shows do.
The world created for Luke Cage is endlessly complex and fascinating to explore. Cage himself less so.
The world created for Luke Cage is endlessly complex and fascinating to explore. Cage himself less so. Not through any fault of Colter, who has more than enough charisma, but because Cage is not that complicated a hero. He suffers a little from the same problem that makes both Hulk and Superman difficult characters around which to build a movie: he is nigh-on indestructible. As Cage states when yet another face-off has littered a room with unconscious henchmen but left him with barely a crease in his suit, “You can’t kill me”. From an action perspective, that’s not interesting to watch. His fights are just tests of how many things, and how many people, he can break. His loner status also gives him little to lose personally. The series’ main struggle is finding a plot that puts Cage in any real jeopardy. Part of the nature of the model Netflix has created is that TV series are now built for binge-watching, so they need to compel you to watch the next episode immediately. Luke Cage moves slowly and a lot of its story beats are cliché, from the characters picked for death to the one thing that might hurt Cage. Halfway through the first series it still feels like it’s just setting things up. Its characters are rich and its world full of potential, now what it needs is a plot worthy of them.
In the second half of the series, story is piled on with greater urgency, with mixed results. It becomes clear why Woodard took her part. Trying to balance public respectability with her shadier backroom dealings becomes too much for Mariah. When she breaks it is catastrophic, a split-second decision changing her role within the show and, indeed, changing the show’s entire dynamic. Watching Woodard navigate Mariah’s transformation is the show’s greatest pleasure. Mariah doesn’t want to be a villain, and Woodard can flash internal conflict across her face with the smallest muscle twitch, but it’s bound in her DNA. She’s just too damn good at being bad to be good.
The triumph of Woodard’s Mariah is a contrast to the weakness of another big bad who joins the line-up. The addition, whom we won’t name because he’ll be familiar to comic book readers who may still be working through the series, is a plothole plug of a character. He brings a way to hurt Cage, physically, and reveals secrets from his past in ways that are more likely to induce groans than gasps. With one-liners that belong in speech bubbles and played far too broadly, in a show that does so much hard work to make its world real, he’s a character who has failed to acquire an extra dimension in his move from the comic book page. He deserves, at best, to be a brief guest at the party, like The Punisher in Daredevil, making a mess for others to clean up after he’s gone, but his plan becomes the primary plot. This pulls the show toward being a standard comic-book show, a series of revenge missions and increasingly elaborate ways to enact them.
If big fights and fantastical schemes are what you’ve come for then you’ll get more of it, but there’s the possibility here for so much more than that. The conflict between Cottonmouth and Luke Cage, or…New Big Bad and Luke Cage is about showing who is strongest, who can hurt the other one more. The conflict between Mariah and Luke Cage is one of people who are effectively trying to achieve the same goal, a better future for Harlem, but have very different ideas on how that can realistically be achieved. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has the punch-ups covered with bigger screens and bigger budgets, so shouldn’t it be the aim of the TV shows to do something different, to unfurl the complex stories that a movie, by its brief nature, can’t?
There are the bones of a brilliant series here, if it can conjure a more propulsive story.
The first season of a show is about finding an identity. By its end, Luke Cage hasn’t entirely decided what that is. It’s hedged its bets and left the possibility of two futures. There’s the tougher one, with confronting real-life parallels and characters driven not by good or evil, but by their perception of the world and the methods necessary to change it. Then there is the more traditionally ‘comic-booky’ one, in which bad people have big dastardly plans and magic devices to help them achieve them. There’s validity in either and each offers the possibility of an entertaining show. The latter, however, we’ve seen plenty of times. The former, which Luke Cage absolutely has all the ingredients to be, is something genuinely different. This could be Marvel’s best TV series so far, if it has the confidence to take a chance on being more than just a good one.
Its ambitions are greater than those of Netflix’s other Marvel series, reliant more on character that than comic book conventions. There are the bones of a brilliant series here, if it can conjure a more propulsive story.