This past Friday, Netflix dropped all 13 episodes of Luke Cage‘s 1st season on fans of Marvel around the world. As usual for a Netflix series, viewers were quickly binging on the season, tweeting their experiences, and making snap judgments about the latest entry in Marvel’s Defenders franchise. As time has passed, like 2 whole days, the audience has begun to settle into their overall thoughts about Luke Cage. We are no different. As such, here is TVEnthusiast’s review of season 1 of Luke Cage.
One cannot simply talk about Luke Cage without first talking about Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Each series has had a slightly different tone, in line with the characteristics of its protagonists. Daredevil is a story of perseverance, the struggle to be good in a world gone bad. Jessica Jones is about recovery, as it follows a character who has been to hell, and now is forced to pick up the pieces and stand up again. Luke Cage is about responsibility, about taking ownership of your gifts for the greater good. Because of these 3 different perspective, it is clear that the tone will differ between the 3 as well. Jessica Jones is the darkest, Daredevil is hopeful, and Luke Cage is activistic.
The story of Luke Cage picks up several months after the ending of Jessica Jones, and not long after the conclusion of Daredevil‘s second season. Luke has run off to Harlem in order to avoid attention and hide from his past. Working in a barbershop for a former Gangster named Pop with a familial tie to his deceased wife Reva, Luke is pulled into the spotlight by a chain reaction of events that trace back to Pop’s protective father figure role for a troubled youth named Chico. After Pop dies in the resulting chaos, Luke decides to get justice for the man by taking on the Gangster Cottonmouth, who he blames for Pop’s death. Luke’s actions cause the balance of power in Harlem to topple which results in a figure from his past returning to haunt him. Through all of this mess, Luke sheds his reclusive exterior and embraces his role as a hero, while his origin is explored through occasional flashbacks, as was previously done on both Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Mike Coulter takes center stage as the titular hero of the series. Coulter is just as imposing and charismatic as he was Jones, but by nature of having his own series we also get a better grasp of his personality than we previously had. Frankie Faison (Banshee) is as brilliantly lovable as always in the role of Henry “Pop” Hunter, a pseudo father figure to Cage and many of the young in Harlem. Simone Missick (Wayward Pines), shined as Mercedes “Misty” Knight, a passionate cop. Rosario Dawson (Sin City), who appeared in both Jessica Jones and Daredevil as the Night Nurse Claire Temple, returned with her largest presence yet, which was sadly unfortunate.
Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is complex and layered, but overall underutilized. Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave) gives an operatic, though at times grating, performance as Mariah Dillard. Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy) portrays Hernan “Shades” Alvarez with a creepy calm that is unfortunately overshadowed by the convoluted villainy of other characters. Speaking of which, Erik LaRay Harvey (Boardwalk Empire) is a mostly unbelievable living cartoon character in the role of Willis Stryker, AKA Diamondback, the big bad of the series.
Cage is exquisitely shot, with gorgeous lighting, and practiced framing. The music was well layered and extensively researched. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker (Almost Human) did a great job establishing Harlem’s culture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most of all, I give a lot of credit to the editing of the series which was both beautifully paced and artfully crafted. In particular, I enjoyed several cuts on sound that happened throughout the season, with the sound of 1 scene bleeding and transitioning into another in a way that would have made Hitchcock proud. The dialog of the series was strong as well, with several notable quotes and turn of phrase, but I can’t entirely praise the writing as it was also the series biggest weakness.
As a series, Luke Cage was constantly running out of steam too early, only to be propped up with layers upon layers of overly convoluted machinations that lead nowhere. While I feel that all of the Netflix Marvel series ran too long, I feel that Luke Cage in particular could have been a far more interesting and concise story with a significant cut to the episode count. Cottonmouth was an exciting and layered villain, but in their rush to kill him off and focus instead on the trio of Mariah, Shades, and Diamondback, they sent Diamondback off the deep end far too quickly, and his quick turn from managed evil to absurd villainy became sadly unbelievable. Shades was somewhat interesting with his cool demeanor, but he made less sense the longer the series went on, and by the end, was completely smothered out by the larger than life performances of Alfre Woodard and Erik LaRay Harvey as Mariah and Willis. I also felt that forcing a love story between Cage and Temple was entirely unnecessary, and unwanted.
Though I described a lot of negatives above, I still enjoyed the series, and it introduced some interesting elements into Netflix’s corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In addition, the series was able to, at times, bank on the current social issues ranging from a lack of strong non-white characters in Film and Television, and a very timely commentary on the relationship between Police Officers and African American men in America. I loved the small role Method Man performed in the series as himself, and felt that his line, “There is something powerful about seeing a black man who’s bulletproof and unafraid,” in particular, was rather poignant.
As a piece of the puzzle that is The Defenders, Luke Cage did a great job of establishing its titular character, the neighborhood of Harlem, and furthering our image of a New York City in the need of a few good heroes. Unfortunately, on its own merits, I was rather disappointed with Luke Cage‘s quick descent into a convoluted mess. Though Cage nails many of its broader strokes better than Daredevil or Jones, it comes together as a far less tight and cohesive story. The worst of the 3, though not devoid of purpose or value.
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