Marvel’s Luke Cage REVIEW
Asked why Luke Cage is on the run from the cops, a special guest star in the penultimate episode (who we won’t spoil, ’cos it’s fun when he shows up) quips, “Bulletproof always gonna come second to being black.” It’s a funny line. It’s also key to why Marvel’s Luke Cage is without doubt the most relevant superhero TV show ever made. Sure, we get some of the usual tropes (vigilante or hero; reluctant hero; hero vilified in the press; wrongfully imprisoned hero). We also get some clever inversions of tropes. But more importantly than that, this is a superhero show that has the guts to reflect the turbulent times in which it’s been made; an America where the police and racial minorities seem to be on the verge of all-out war.
The bizarre thing being that while Luke Cage tackles this subject head-on, it’s also the least dour, most comic-book series Netflix has yet made with Marvel. Even Colter’s Cage seems to wear the “sullen, unenthusiastic people’s champion” persona like a mask; when forced into action he seems to actively love being all macho and scary.
Don’t get us wrong. Marvel’s Luke Cage is no The Flash or Gotham. Like the other Marvel/Netflix shows it exists very much in the real world. In fact, it seems at pains to make its Harlem as authentic as possible. Not just by making it grim and druggy and bloody and whorey. The show is almost a hymn in praise of Harlem and we get to see the exciting, artistic, energetic, life-grabbing beating heart of the place too. There’s fun, there’s humour and there’s love as well as bullets and knives. And there’s probably more daylight scenes than any previous Marvel/Netflix show.
Even if you think you hate rap and need to revert to Urban Dictionary to translate exchanges like, “You know I ain’t calling no po-po. Then he bounced” “Say word” “Word, sway, I’m telling you,” it’s so easy to buy into this series and soak up the atmosphere. Under showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker the writers and directors have created a convincing and credible backdrop for one of Marvel’s foremost black characters, and produced a story around him that actually has something to say about his culture. As the series goes on what it has to say may become a little idealistic and simplistic – if not even a little cheesy – but compared to depth of the messages in most superhero fare the show is almost Mike Leigh-esque in comparison.
Admittedly the show could be accused of looking at the issues through the “Star Wars prism” – you know that old argument that with a little change of emphasis the rebels in Star Wars could be portrayed as terrorists. You could easily argue that Marvel’s Luke Cage is very one-sided and idealistic in its argument that the American legal system is broken, cannot police a place like Harlem and so the locals need to take things into their own hands. But while you’re watching it you totally buy into it.
Colter is great as Cage, a huge lumbering force of nature who, despite his own best efforts, cannot not be a hero. But the real standouts here are the three main women in the cast. Rosario Dawson has more to do here as Claire Temple than in any previous Marvel/Netflix show and she more than steps up to the mark after a brilliant introduction. She becomes Luke’s unlikely Jiminy Cricket, but a Jiminy Cricket who’s not afraid to kick ass too.
Meanwhile, Simone Missick is perfect as Misty Knight, here portrayed as a sassier, sexier, less bonkers version of Hannibal’s Will Graham – she “visualises” crime scenes. She also gets very close to Luke quickly after a surperbly spiky flirtation (“Your jacket’s too small.” “So’s your dress”) for a brief fling that has ramifications that stretch the entire series (and which sparks a great running gag about coffee that lasts just as long). And Alfre Woodard’s Black Mariah is all kinds of crazy wonderful; keep your eye on her.
Once again TV Marvel produces much better villains than movie Marvel. Tennant’s Kilgrave was always going to be hard to beat but Luke Cage’s rogues’ gallery goes for a different approach; from Mahershala Ali’s coiled-spring Cottonmouth, to Theo Rossi’s devious Shades to the mysterious Diamondback (we’re keeping shtum) all these guys look like they’re wannabe Godfathers with Bond-baddie pretensions. And Luke Cage is such a pain in all their sides, it’s almost possible to feel sorry for them at times. Well, two of them.
The show also ingeniously tackles the problem that this is a super-powered guy versus nonsuper-powered enemies. Back in ’70s and ’80s superhero shows this was always a corny joke; the producers couldn’t afford too many super-powered characters in one show, so Spider-Man or Wonder Woman or the Hulk invariably ended up fighting gangsters or Nazis. You could never understand why the vastly superior superheroes didn’t win through in the first five minutes of an episode. Here the writers make it very clear why Luke cannot just wade in and beat the crap out of Cottonmouth. What follows is almost a cat-and-mouse battle of wits as Cottonmouth, Mariah and Shades have to come up with clever ways of defeating an invincible man.
Not that there’s a shortage of action, and some of it really will make you wince. There’s a properly comic book slug-fest in the finale too, but again, we’re saying nothing.
The series also benefits from a great score. Not just the rap and soul tracks that liberally sprinkle the soundtrack and often help underpin the visuals, but the splendid original score too, which captures a ’70s blaxploitation vibe with a new millennial makeover.
There are problems. Like all Netflix/Marvel shows Marvel’s Luke Cage is about two episodes too long, and there’s a definite narrative sag around episodes 10 and 11 which feel like they’ve been inelegantly padded. As this is an affliction common across all the series (Jessica Jones suffered worst) you have to wonder why Netflix doesn’t just cut the runs; it’d save them money, and it’s not like they’re losing advertising revenue.
There’s the occasional duff piece of FX work during the fights which just look silly. One of the major villains is a little one-note and ranty. And there’s a convenient scientist with a handy lab and vats of acid in his barn who’s just too handy for word.
But against all that we have a brilliant flashback origin episode, a hell of a gamechager halfway through the run and some brilliant support characters, especially Ron Cephas Jones as Bobby Fish, an amusingly bearded chess playing light under a bushel. There’s also a brilliant excuse at one point to get Luke looking like his ’70s comic version at one point – complete with yellow shirt, chain and head band (see right) although they give the boots a miss – and loads of Easter eggs to excite all the Marvel comics fans watching (including a nods to the Luke Cage-starring comic Heroes For Hire, his ’70s code name and the fact that comics Misty has a robotic arm among many, many others).
Put simply Marvel’s Luke Cage is effortlessly cool. Although there’s probably some better, authentic Harlem for cool that we should be using. Review by Dave Golder