MARVEL’S LUKE CAGE
Netflix | 13 episodes
Review of episodes 1 – 7
Much will be made of how the Harlem setting plays a role as a character unto itself in the newest Netflix series, Marvel’s Luke Cage – and this is truth. The mood, the music, the color of the culture are all vital elements true enough, however, what stands out the most in the change of venue from the Hell’s Kitchen location utilized in the prior Netflix series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones) to this one is the fun.
Marvel’s Luke Cage eschews the grim, gritty darkness that is all pervasive in the earlier Marvel Netflix offerings, choosing instead to relish in the vibrant art, music and glee that is an often under represented element of black culture. The humor of this show is a wonderful change of pace, the one liners and jokes flow naturally from the story unfolding, never feeling out of place, hammy or like coonish pandering. It feels as if the cast and the creators behind the scenes have stolen a page from the current David Walker penned Power Man and Iron Fist by embracing the breadth of avenues that can be taken in the genre. They are truly having a good time and it shows.
A good man with gruff charisma, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is no boy scout. He wants to do right by his people and the first several episodes address Luke’s struggle to get beyond himself and his own self-interests in remaining in the shadows. Luke is the typical reluctant hero, the series does a great job of exploring the origins of this reluctance and effectively provides his motivation for coming out of the shadows to embrace his role as a protector and defender (see what I did there?) of Harlem.
The usual “Hero’s Journey” is given newfound flavor as Luke contentedly works sweeping, polishing, cleaning, and clowning with the staff and clients of Pop’s Barbershop. In Pop, Luke has found a mentor and surrogate father figure with whom he shares a history steeped in a life lived on the other side of the law. Pop is one of several guideposts that come into Luke’s life, serving to direct him along his path to becoming the hero Harlem needs. Luke finds an adversary that is every bit as intractable, determined and a man of Harlem as he is, the goodness and light in Luke is reflected brilliantly in the dichotomy of his relationship to Cottonmouth.
The smooth criminal Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes will be compared to Daredevil’s Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, and that is actually quite an appropriate compliment. Inasmuch as Fisk is a representation of the evil Hell’s Kitchen can produce, he also took pride in it, with his criminal enterprise intended to purportedly help reinvigorate the area.
Cottonmouth and his cousin “Black” Mariah Dillard are the rotted fruit of Harlem. They are entrenched in the streets and the politics of the neighborhood, wanting Harlem to prosper in a manner that benefits them even if it hurts the citizens.
Credit must be given and praise due not only to Alfre Woodard (Mariah) and Mahershala Ali (Cottonmouth) for breathing life into their characters, but also to the writers who have crafted some of the most complex television villains, that happen to be black, to grace the screen since The Wire. These interpretations of Cottonmouth and Black Mariah while TOTALLY different than their comic book counter-parts (particularly Black Mariah as presented in the current series), are not just stereotypical tropes, they are full-fledged characters with hidden depths, subtle nuances, complicated histories and events that shaped them into who they become when we encounter them in this series.
Frank Whaley as Rafael Scarfe, alongside the beautiful Simone Missick as Misty Knight, are both refreshing in their supporting roles and distinguished from previous Marvel Netflix shows due to their subplot becoming intertwined in the central narrative from the first episode. Scarfe is exactly who you think he is while Misty Knight is a feminized version of the bad ass detective. Often in film and on television the female bad ass is made to adopt masculine traits in order to display her alpha nature. That is not the case with Missick’s portrayal of Misty Knight.
At no point do you ever lose sight of the fact that she is a supremely capable bad ass and also very much a woman. It is a magnificent balance that I applaud Missick for pulling off flawlessly!
In fact, the structure for this series differs from the second season of Daredevil where there were distinct roughly four episode arcs, calling back to the structure of Jessica Jones where the central narrative played out straight through from the pilot episode. I personally found the Daredevil season two take to be a much better means of parceling out the show with mini-arcs introducing characters and story elements that were quickly resolved yet also dovetailed perfectly into the main narrative.
Having Jeph Loeb as the partially unseen hand is a boon as you can tell that the showrunners are fans of the Marvel Universe who did their homework. There are several bits of fan service, some more obvious than others, with plenty of references and mention of the Avengers throughout. The appearance of Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple further solidifies this shows tie to the other Netflix shows, with Claire playing her biggest role to date since her first appearances on Daredevil. A friend and confidante to Luke, she too acts as a guidepost further directing Luke along his way and unexpectedly assisting him in his adventure.
Luke Cage is another winner for Marvel and Netflix. Your individual mileage may vary dependent upon your expectations going in, but if you view the show on its own merits it is a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon. If nothing else, this show will give new meaning to going out for a cup of “coffee!”
When the series finally drops on September 30th, the FanBros will be back with further analysis of Marvel’s Luke Cage!