After two seasons of Daredevil and one of Jessica Jones, do TV junkies still have room in their hearts for another member of The Defenders team? With their new series Marvel’s Luke Cage, Netflix is hoping the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
Luke Cage finds the reluctant hero starting over after the events of Jessica Jones. He’s still trying to find his place in the world, one that will allow him to lead an ordinary existence despite having such extraordinary powers. Not only is it hard to keep a man like Luke Cage down, it’s physically impossible. As we saw on Jessica Jones, he can’t be wounded by fists, fire, or firearms.
While Daredevil and Jessica Jones focused on the criminals and the crime fighters in Hell’s Kitchen, Luke Cage is set in Harlem, an area of New York renowned for the achievements of its predominately African-American residents as well as cycles of both poverty and prosperity. This location does two things: it expands the universe of The Defenders while also showing that not all superheroes are white knights.
The season begins with Luke holding down two part-time jobs. One is sweeping hair and washing towels at Pop’s Barber Shop while the other is washing dishes at a swank nightclub called Harlem’s Paradise. It doesn’t take long for the show to reveal deeper connections between these two seemingly disparate places. It’s a great way for the series to establish the importance of family, community, and legacy amongst African-Americans, both male and female. Marvel’s Luke Cage also isn’t afraid to shy away from usage of a certain word even as it examines the different ways that certain word is used.
Whereas Daredevil’s Matt Murdock fights to save his own neighborhood, Luke Cage is something of an outsider. That doesn’t prevent Pop (Frankie Faison, The Wire) from hiring him at the barber shop, which serves as a meeting place for many members of the community. On the other hand, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards) is from Harlem, and he doesn’t like outsiders, especially when they threaten his lucrative gun-running business and his attempts to establish a name for himself.
While not as skin crawlingly creepy as either Wilson Fisk or Kilgrave, Ali’s Stokes is no less evil, but like Fisk, it’s his humanity that makes him more dangerous and believable (especially when we eventually find out more about his own past). In one episode, he comments that “I like to take my time” and it’s an apt statement. When he finally shows his fangs, it is with a sudden explosion of violence, the kind from which there is no turning back.
In some ways, his cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard, 12 Years A Slave) is more frightening as she pretends to be one thing while acting as another. This is disturbingly displayed in a scene where she greets young members of the community by name, only to surreptitiously grab a bottle of hand sanitizer from her assistant right after.
Like Daredevil and Jessica Jones before it, Luke Cage also tackles corruption among law enforcement, through both the prison system and police officers. Misty Knight (Simone Missick, Wayward Pines) is a Harlem cop whose idealism is so strong that it almost handicaps her ability to see things for what they are, while her partner Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley, Under The Dome) is a crooked cop who seems like a good guy.
At the center of the entire show is, of course, the dynamic Mike Colter as Luke Cage. As Lemond Bishop on The Good Wife, Colter was a smooth-talking, good-looking snake in the grass, but on Luke Cage, he’s someone struggling with his dual identities: one is a man who has suffered a lot of loss while the other is a superhero who simply doesn’t want to be one. While his fight scenes are impressive as hell, he’s a good guy at heart, a gentle giant who isn’t always so gentle with the bad guys.
Series creator and writer Cheo Hodari Coker has an impressive resume. He not only produced SouthLAnd, he also wrote the 2009 Biggie Smalls film Notorious. Here he takes a page from the Lost instruction manual of storytelling techniques by having several episodes include flashback sequences from Luke’s life. These explain, in part, how he got to be the person he is today while also raising even more questions about his past. They also show that quite often, history repeats itself.
The music on the show, a mix of R&B, soul, and hip hop, along with an outstanding original score from Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, are more than just a backdrop. They are also a thread that provides the impetus for some of the characters’ motivations and at times, a commentary on it. Live performances from Faith Evans, Charles Bradley, Rafael Siddiq, and Jidenna in Harlem’s Paradise are a real highlight of the series.
There are good guys and there are bad guys in Luke Cage and sometimes, they are one in the same. The show explores how ego can get in the way of genuine philanthropy but also shows how people can turn their lives around if someone believes in them. All the characters fall somewhere on this spectrum at different points in the series, resulting in some remarkably nuanced studies of the individual versus society, and vice versa.
Netflix has done it again. With Marvel’s Luke Cage it has released another skillfully written, cinematically shot, well-acted series that proves comic book stories are not just for kids. It’s not the swear words, the violence, or the sex scenes, though. It’s the way that real-world problems are viewed through the lens of the fantastical which that makes it all seem more authentic and compelling.