Marvel’s Luke Cage
Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, Frank Whaley, Theo Rossi
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…a bold, strutting, confident slice of street heroism and urban culture…
The third of Marvel’s six Netflix shows* is almost upon us, with Mike Colter’s super-strong, bullet-proof street hero, Luke Cage, taking centre stage, fighting crime and corruption in modern day Harlem.
Making a living sweeping up at a barber shop and moonlighting as a kitchen hand, escaped con Luke Cage doesn’t want any trouble. He certainly doesn’t want to draw any attention to the superhuman abilities bequeathed to him by an illegal experiment undertaken in prison, even though his friend and mentor, Pop (Frankie Faison) urges him to use his powers to help people “like them other fellas”. For all his protestations, though, Cage is a good man and a man of his place who feels responsibility for his neighbours, and it isn’t long before he’s on a collision course with both local crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his more respectable but arguably more dangerous cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard)
As a comics character, Luke Cage was a response to the blaxploitation films of the ’70s, and its surprising and exhilarating how much the show leans into that, laying on a garish, pop-cinema aesthetic that really makes the show stand out from its more dour counterparts. Add to that a constantly shifting, energised soundtrack that takes in everything from Motown to jazz to modern R&B to gangsta rap, and slick, tough street-smart writing, and what we have here is, for all intents and purposes, the story of a modern day John Shaft, dealing with the problems of his community that nobody else can or will.
Mike Colter is simply fantastic in the role, expanding on what we saw in Jessica Jones. Possessed of an incredible dignity and gravitas, his Cage is man who doesn’t swear and doesn’t grandstand… at least until his star starts to rise and he allows himself to begin to enjoy his “local hero” status. One of the key themes of Luke Cage is the reclaiming of selfhood and pride after being beaten down, and it is so much fun to see the character evolve until he’s walking the streets in a tailored suit, putting the fear into thugs and criminals in order to help out the hardworking people of Harlem, and clearly loving almost every minute of it.
In the other corner we have Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth, the scion of a family of Harlem criminals and the inheritor of a generational cycle of violence and graft. Cottonmouth’s arc goes in the opposite direction, beginning as a figure of confidence and strength due to his elevated position as a feared criminal, and gradually losing it all as he starts to realise that it’s hard to deal with a problem that you literally can’t shoot. That’s the central binary of the story right there: Cage’s sense of responsibility versus Cottonmouth’s love of power – it’s the classic Spider-Man ethos dramatised.
Around this is woven the larger story of Harlem and the African American community therein. Make no mistake, Luke Cage is specifically and unapologetically a black story, and indeed it communicates the experience of blackness in America more entertainingly and more authentically than its Netflix stablemate, The Get Down, could ever dream of doing. That’s down to the work of the showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, who has worked elements of the African American experience into every facet of the show. It’s in the dialogue, the music, the fashion, the history, the locations and the palpable sense of place that infuses the show. From the writ-large themes of race and community to the tiniest details – at one point Cage is kicking back reading a Walter Mosley novel – this is a series that celebrates African American culture in a manner both deep and vibrant.
Which is to say it’s fun – this is a superhero show, after all, and it doesn’t shy away from its pulpy roots. Connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic are layered in, which is only to be expected, and the action beats – which are a little too spaced out, if we’re being honest – are great. Cage’s hesitant, resigned approach to fighting is never not fun; he knows he can’t be hurt, so he just kind of gently thumps his enemies until they go away, looking disappointed when they keep trying to batter his unbreakable skin.
If there’s a problem with Luke Cage, it’s one endemic not just to Marvel’s Netflix shows, but to the majority of streaming binge-watch drama: there’s not quite enough story to fill the episode allotment. Netflix supplied seven episodes for review, and there are thirteen in total, but unless something extraordinary happens in the back half, the show feels like it could have been better served by a tighter eight to ten episode season. The idea that length is its own virtue is one that plagues modern TV, though, so we’re not exactly singling Luke Cage out for it.
That niggle aside, this is an absolute win. It’s not the absolute triumph that Jessica Jones was, but it’s also not the rather muddy Greatest Hits package that is Daredevil. Luke Cage is a bold, strutting, confident slice of street heroism and urban culture, expanding the superhero paradigm to tell a story about pride, respect, community and responsibility. Can you dig it?
*We’re getting a Punisher series now, remember?