All words by Lloyd Newkirk
Netflix seems to be bulletproof when it comes to their gritty and adult-themed approach to Marvel characters. So far they’ve changed the game with their renditions of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and now the latest hero (or anti-hero) Luke Cage has joined the ranks of his fellow NYC heroes.
The difference here is that Luke Cage claims he is no hero. His words a few times throughout the 13 episode Netflix original. In fact Luke Cage may from the offset be the furthest thing from a hero. He’s an ex-con working for cash only in an infamous barber shop in Harlem. Even though he says he’s not a hero I think of him as one. And despite his resistance at the start, he steps into his hero shoes pretty quickly
So what’s the big deal about this character? Well firstly the guy is bulletproof. Yep. Bulletproof. Bullets literally bounce off his huge burly frame. I could give a general synopsis of the character here but I’m not going to because the less you know the better this show plays out. I read comics and some revelations brought to light about Luke Cage’s powers and how he got them are wondrous to behold on screen.
Now while the character played by Mike Coulter may have already been somewhat developed in Marvel’s Jessica Jones as a key secondary character this does not mean that they do not delve further into his interesting and harrowing tale. In fact the show’s use of cleverly paced and well executed flashback sequences are what set it apart from other origin stories.
There’s never one dimensional flashbacks or entire episodes set in the past. Instead, at certain times in order to both progress the story in the present and to provide backstory, the writers jump between the past and the present making for some truly amazing story telling. You end wanting to see what brought Luke to where he is today as much as what he’s going to do next on his quest to save Harlem.
That brings me to my next point. In Daredevil and Jessica Jones we had Hell’s Kitchen. This show moves uptown to Harlem. This particular part of New York truly shines as much as a character as Luke does. Throw in the amazing supporting characters such as Misty Knight, Mariah Dillard, Pops and Rosario Dawson returning as the likeable Claire Temple and many others and this show has you feeling as if you’re visiting the New York suburb as the suburb’s spirit is captured in the portrayal of the characters, the cinematography, locations and soundtrack.
In terms of performances, everyone shines in their portrayals of Harlem folk just trying to survive another day in one of the more dangerous parts of NYC. However the show does not descend into a crucification of a bad neighbourhood but instead gives the viewer the impression of hope in an otherwise harsh environment. Luke is here to save this place and he’s going to knock down many a door in order to do so.
The show plays out like blaxploitation meets superhero meets gangster flick. I say blaxploitation but it’s definitely not the exploitation of black stereotypes. In fact the show has some pretty serious social commentary to it. Mike Colter chose the hoodie as Luke Cage’s go to item of clothing in remembrance of the horrifying shooting of Trayvon Martin who was shot by police officers for wearing a hoodie. It’s a powerful symbol as when the bullets hit Luke they bounce off him leaving nothing but bullet holes in his attire. Luke Cage being Marvel’s first black superhero lead brought to screen is a huge step in the right direction. It’s the tale a black man, wrongfully convicted who stands up for the people and himself to get the job done.
The show is slick, stylish and supported by a killer soundtrack and score featuring many a R&B hit, loads of funk and of course hip- hop. This coupled with Luke Cages oh-so-cool demeanour equals a show that not only entertains but also succeeds in having style as well as substance.
In terms of the storyline though I must admit enjoying the first two thirds of this show far more than the disappointing final episodes that make up the final act. I’m not going to say anymore though as this is for those who have perhaps not made up their mind about binge watching this show.
Like I said before, all round all the cast members are great TV tour de force actors. However not all the characters are amazing. Misty annoyed the crap out of me at first as the girl scout good cop and the villains Cottonmouth and Diamondback were both average at best. Both characters are gangsters who run drugs and guns through the streets of Harlem, supported by Cottonmouth’s cousin Mariah who is a corrupt councilwoman who only raises her voice when her cousin uses his often overly violent methods. The backstory they delve into with these characters is on par in it’s viscerally bleak nature as Luke Cage’s but the characters in the present don’t live up to it. Where Daredevil won was with both it’s villians. At some points in season one I rooted for Kingpin, the character was layered and complex and you genuinely felt for him. The same happened when I watched the story behind Cottonmouth’s violent nature but his character in the present is pretty one dimensional and highly unlikeable despite being well developed.
Cottonmouth had the potential to grow into a truly formidable villain but this was not the case and Diamondback had some truly strange motivations (perhaps this is due to not being fully explored and rushed in the second half of the show) for his hatred of Cage.
All in all, Marvel and Netflix have pulled off yet another great, dark and entertaining foray into the Marvel world but Luke Cage is far from the bulletproof force that it’s titular character is, being marred by some lacklustre villains and an anti-climatic and sometimes laughable final act. You’ll see what I mean when you watch it if you don’t already know what I mean. Sweet Christmas this review was long.