(Review) Marvel’s Luke Cage: A multipurpose, all-American hero’s journey

(MINOR SPOILERS)

You have to give it credit for its ambition. Like the titular hero, the show is busy working multiple jobs. Luke Cage is a thoughtful, modern take on a superhero originally created in response to the Blaxploitation film craze. So on one hand it has a LOT to say about the African American experience. It ruminates on the topic but never gets too heavy-handed or bogged down by it. The show also features some of the most fair depictions of black people in this genre to date. Much of that is owed to showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker. There’s an earnestness to the black identity you just won’t find on the CW.

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Sorry, Iris.

On the other hand, it tries very hard to invoke the Blaxploitation style (or at least a Tarantinoesque, Kill Bill vol 1 interpretation.) The 70s musical cues can be a little obtuse. Sometimes the cuts work, sometimes they don’t. I’m not always sure what’s an homage and what’s just a cliche.

Mike Coulter portrays the character as both reluctant demigod and frustrated intellectual. Cage is acutely self-aware of every role he’s forced into: convict, gladiator/slave, fugitive, hero, freak. You can see how they all chafe against him. That said, he occasionally comes off a little flat. And I do have a hard time with his hazy but convoluted pre-prison origin.

Unlike its Netflix predecessors, Luke Cage’s biggest weakness is its lack of a compelling villain. In fairness, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin and David Tennant’s Kilgrave are tough acts to follow that outshine most of the MCU movie villains. And even in the comics, Luke Cage has a D-list rogue’s gallery. But Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard bring heart and chemistry to cousin duo Cottonmouth and Mariah Dillard. While not exactly larger than life, they make up for their lack of action figure bankability with character complexity. And this is definitely one of Alfre Woodard’s most memorable performances.

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Be glad they didn’t keep it too much like the comics.
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“Black Mariah.” Seriously.

And then there’s Diamondback played by the distractingly Tony Todd-like Erik LaRay Harvey. They spend half the season hyping up this guy and when he debuts, he’s like an over-the-top villain from a 90’s action show. I’m talking Robocop: The Series, Time Trax or The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. Diamondback is the most cartoon-like element of the series. I’m ambivalent about his mcguffin of a super weapon. His connection to the story is a bit implausible for me. Every line of dialogue was a sing-song threat.

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All he needed was a snake-like lisp.

Simone Cook charms and shines as Misty Knight. It wasn’t obvious at first but her character brings an important balance to this world: She an honest, black, human cop. I half expect her to make appearances in all of these shows just like Rosario Dawson.

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I hope she does, bionic arm or not.

And of course Rosario is back as Claire Temple, the healer and confidant to New York’s miscellaneous heroes. And I could tell from the moment we meet Claire’s mother that Dawson wanted in on the show’s ethnic grounding. The night nurse seems to be headed in a more proactive direction. I’m curious what her dynamic will be with the ensemble Defenders next year.

Theo Rossi as Shades gets an honorable mention. An enforcer/consigliere/liaison, Shades is a surprisingly great supporting character. He’s enigmatic, sinister and clear-headed. I assumed he had powers the minute he was onscreen. Shades genuinely seems evolved: more suited for a post-powered/post-superhero criminal world than everyone else around him.

This is another installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe depicting a New York carrying on in the aftermath of alien invasion, the spectacle of the Avengers and an influx of vigilante and/or superpowered characters. As such, watching the previous Marvel movies is not exactly prerequisite but having seen Daredevil and Jessica Jones is a good idea. Of course it’s full of Easter eggs and clever references to both the Luke Cage comics and the MCU.

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It’s like they want to reward you for having sat through Iron Man 2.

Like the shared continuity into which it fits, the show works as long as you don’t focus too hard on the details. Wouldn’t Mariah’s family have been previously scrutinized? Are we going to acknowledge when the Hulk tore through Harlem (or is that shunned like Edward Norton?) What impact did the events of Daredevil season 2 have on organized crime in New York? Exactly how stupid is Tone?

The climax was similar to that of the movie Friday. (I’m still not sure how I feel about that.) There’s far less resolved by the finale than the first seasons of DD and JJ. With The Defenders hot on its heels, Marvel has no time for the modesty of self-containment. The show’s final shot and Cage’s last line of dialogue are almost on-the-nose in expressing their intentions. That said, it was a lot of fun and they definitely have my attention for the next phase.

I give it a solid B.