I loved Netflix’s Jessica Jones. By the time I had finished watching it, it had become my favorite superhero show. The original and deeply engaging story, mixed with incredible acting, interesting characters, and excellent production made for a memorable first season. At its release, I found it to be a much stronger showing than Daredevil’s first season due to its dramatic storyline and a villain that always kept me on the edge of my seat.
Jessica Jones’s first season and Daredevil’s second one really raised the bar for superhero TV shows. So, when I heard about Netflix’s upcoming Luke Cage I had really high expectations. Even though I really enjoyed Luke Cage’s character while watching JJ, I was weary about his own show being able to maintain the quality of the previous shows – just for how long can Netflix and Marvel keep up their quality programming? I watched Luke Cage with one question in mind: will Luke Cage’s solo series establish LC and JJ as the ultimate superpower couple, or will Luke be nothing more than the detective’s trophy husband?
[SLIGHT LUKE CAGE SPOILERS AHEAD]
First off, we have to ask, what is Luke Cage about? Just like its fraternal siblings DD and JJ, Luke Cage is a superhero-action series focused on its eponymous protagonist fighting crime in the streets of New York City. Nevertheless, this time Harlem is the victim of the antagonists’ nefarious pursuit of money and power.
The story takes place after Daredevil’s second season, with Luke Cage (Mike Colter) fleeing to Harlem to pursue a quiet life as an assistant at “Pop’s Barbershop” and as a dishwasher in the “Harlem’s Paradise” music club. As you might expect, Cage’s life ends up being anything but quiet when his friend Chico (Brian “Sene” Marc) gets dangerously involved in an illegal arms deal. Pop (Frankie Faison), aware of Luke’s powers, asks him to get Chico to safety.
We already met the bulletproof man in Jessica Jones, but in this occasion Luke Cage is given a lot more depth. This demonstrates the writers’ desire for Luke Cage to stand on its own instead of being a spinoff to Marvel’s other superhero shows. Throughout the season, Mike Colter gives an emotive performance which somehow makes the struggles of an almost indestructible hero relatable to anyone. At the same time, Luke remains an inspiring man rather than a corny goody-two-shoes.
One of the things I liked the most about the series is how they handled Luke’s superpower. Through all the action, I worried for him despite his insane invulnerability and strength. The fact that Luke is relatively indestructible and does not hide himself within a mask results in an interesting way for the shows’ villains to fight him: they cannot kill him but they can run his name to the ground and hurt the people around him.
Thankfully, even if this was an interesting way to fight and constrain a superhero, the writers recognized too much of this might make the show dull. Just when you start thinking Luke is too strong, the antagonists find new ways to fight him. This keeps the stakes rising and the tension growing, allowing us to continue feeling enough concern for Luke during the show’s progression
A strong point in Netflix’s Marvel TV shows has been its villains. Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave were both memorable villains in each of their respective shows’ first seasons, and surprisingly, Luke Cage introduces not one memorable villain but four.
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) is the owner of the aforementioned Harlem’s Paradise, which serves as a money laundering facility for criminal activities. His older cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a local politician, is generally an accomplice to these crimes. Together they have great control over the streets of Harlem, with the violence and resources of Cottonmouth’s gang and the political contacts and influence of Mariah.
The cousins are advised by Hernán “Shades” Álvarez (Theo Rossi), right-hand man of Diamondback, the biggest crime lord in Harlem. After many mentions by Shades, it is halfway through the first season that we get a glimpse of the aggressive and impulsive Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey), which ends up being the show’s big bad. All of these villains are memorable to a certain degree due to their personality, backstory, and their actors doing a great job at bringing them to life.
Sadly, Diamondback is both the weakest link and the most prominent villain by the end of the season. Unlike the other characters, he is a slightly one-dimensional antagonist with a revenge-oriented storyline. The development of it ultimately makes us think he is evil just for the sake of it.
Daredevil’s second season is an excellent example of how the addition of various deuteragonists with interesting character arcs does not have to imply the main character’s protagonism has to be diluted amongst the cast. Luke Cage manages to give its hero lovable allies that for the most part are given just the right amount of screen time, development and narrative relevance they require. This finely-tuned balance allows Luke Cage to be a character-centric story that does not ever leave its hero in the sidelines or saturate us with its presence.
Fighting alongside Luke Cage, we have two outstanding women: Mercedes “Misty” Knight (Simone Missick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Misty is a police detective who is in a neutral position throughout most of the show: she is not on Luke’s side or that of his enemies, but on the side of justice. Throughout the show’s development, she has an involving character arc which progresses nicely with the storyline and is made better by what might be the best acting in the show.
Claire Temple happens to be the nurse that assisted both Jessica Jones and Daredevil in their fights against crime and this time. Instead of being a minor character that is only there to heal superheroes, she ends up being a recurring character in the series. The Night Nurse becomes an important part of the action, and her inclusion is well-developed. Both of these women become of great assistance to Luke Cage and help move the story forward. However, I find it a bit disappointing that as a result of the events of Luke Cage, there will ultimately be some sort of unnecessary love triangle between the three of them.
Unfortunately, other than these characters, Pop and Misty’s partner Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), all the other characters in the show seem underdeveloped. This is a real shame because most of these characters had pretty unique personalities, but I feel like their reason for existing is to either serve as plot devices or comic relief. The inferior acting, in comparison to the rest of the cast, only makes it worse.
One thing Luke Cage excelled at was managing to introduce characters in appropriate times of the story. Focus on new ones was only given when the previously presented ones had already been sufficiently developed. This excellent “character pacing” gives us a story where, unlike what often happens in shows like Game of Thrones, we always remember the names and stories of the characters that appear on-screen.
That being said, Luke Cage is extremely binge-watchable. Even if I was aware of these and other flaws, they never stopped me from enjoying the show and looking forward to the next episode. Luke Cage has an engaging story with a lot of action, but it unfortunately suffers from some pacing problems. The first few episodes had so much happening that by episode 4 of 13 I felt I was nearing the season finale of a regular show. While that made those episodes really enjoyable, it made the latter episodes a harder watch. This was mostly due to expositional slumps that are a distraction from the plot.
Even if I enjoyed the backstories of Luke, Cottonmouth, Mariah and Diamondback, they occasionally killed the pacing. This added shoehorned exposition that, even if interesting, was definitely out of place. Another detriment to the storyline would be the script. Every now and then it can kill the mood with some actions and one-liners that feel so out of place that they throw off the main characters’ stellar performances. I also have mixed feelings about the show’s climactic final battle because, even if it was appropriate for the show, I still cannot help but think it could have been done better.
The one thing Luke Cage does not ever falter on is its style. The slang, the music, the action, the characters, and the city gave it an unique touch. This, just like with generic 80s action movies, makes Luke Cage shine and be really enjoyable despite its weaknesses. I always looked forward to listening to the R&B artists performing in Harlem’s Paradise and the dramatic scenes accompanied with their music. I enjoyed the chats Pop had with its customers in his Barbershop and how they somehow always ended up contributing to his “swear jar.”
In the end, Luke Cage happens to be a show that, despite its shortcomings, is very enjoyable because of its strengths and its undeniable charm. Just like Daredevil had a weaker first season than the one that preceded it, I would not be surprised if Luke Cage works on its shortcomings on its following season and becomes an even better show. I am unsure if we will have anything more than untapped potential in the show’s future but, much like the people of Harlem, I have hope in Luke Cage.