Marvel’s previous Netflix shows Daredevil (both seasons) and Jessica Jones have far exceeded the quality of the many network superhero TV shows that currently air. Daredevil in particular has raised the bar to new levels. That being the case, fan expectations for Luke Cage were sky high, especially after the positive response Mike Colter got for his debut of the character on Jessica Jones. Does it deliver? Yes…for the most part. It’s no Daredevil but it’s entertaining.
Luke Cage is different from what you might be expecting after seeing the earlier Netflix shows. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because no one wants the kind of generic formula you get on the network shows. However, if you’re going to flip the formula, you’re taking a gamble. I don’t want to say that the gamble didn’t pay off here because Luke Cage is an entertaining watch, with lots of high points but the style utilized here potentially limits the show’s general appeal. I personally like the change in style here because its faithful to the character’s comic book origins but I fear that the retro-style may clash with the overall ‘Netflix universe’ that Marvel is headed for with next year’s Defenders.
Guided by series showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, Luke Cage moves away from the modern Nolan-esque style of Daredevil and instead goes retro, being recreated in the mold of the “Blaxploitation” movies of the 1970s, particularly the Shaft trilogy, starring Richard Roundtree. (Roundtree also had a cameo as the same character in the 2000 film Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson.) “Blaxploitation” was a cinematic genre featuring mostly black actors, set in urban areas, utilizing frequent slang dialogue and backed with funk and soul music. The shining star of the ‘Blaxploitation’ genre, Roundtree has been called the first black action hero in film history.
When comic book creators Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr. created the book Luke Cage: Hero for Hire for Marvel in 1972, it was done to cash in on the trendy “Blaxploitation” genre. Luke was written as a super powered private investigator/bodyguard, working out of Harlem, NY. This was similar to Shaft being a private detective in Harlem. The comic tried to copy the feel and technique of the first Shaft film, which came out in 1971. The wheel has turned completely around and 45 years later, the Luke Cage Netflix series has its roots in the same type of movie genre.
Another interesting change in direction here is that the show cuts down on the action quotient. There’s a lesser amount of fight sequences than we saw in the earlier shows and the ones we do get are shorter. The fights are also simpler, foregoing the amazing choreography of Daredevil. Again, this is not really a bad thing, as long as the story and characterization is strong enough to carry the show. Does the dialogue and plot make up for the limited action? Generally…yes. Luke, as played by Colter, is an interesting and likable character, and we’re invested enough in him to follow his journey through 13 episodes. We’re with him from start to finish, rooting for him.
There’s a problem, though. Luke has to share heroic duties with NYPD detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) who is basically the co-star of the series, rather than a supporting character. While Misty is well-played by Missick, the character is not quite interesting enough as written to justify the vast amount of screen time she gets. While Misty Knight is great in the comics, her small screen counterpart is lacking something. Perhaps it’s the fact that they replaced her bionic limb with her intuitive ‘visions’ which make her seem more like The Profiler (1996) than the comic book Misty. (They do tease her losing her arm but never pull the trigger on that one.) The series is also missing the web of subplots that added depth to earlier Netflix efforts.
The main villains of the show are “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erick LaRay Harvey). Luke Cage has never had a particularly strong Rogues Gallery to choose from—his makes Superman’s lame gallery look impressive—and while the talented actors here do their best to breathe life into these so-so bad guys, they don’t match the level of badness we’ve previously seen with Wilson Fisk and Killgrave. It’s not that they’re poor villains, because each has his/her entertaining moments but they come across as more plot-based than character-based.
This leads to a complaint I had with the otherwise excellent Daredevil Season Two…the fact that the main villain switches mid-season. Cottonmouth is the antagonist throughout the first seven episodes but is rather abruptly done away with, in order for Diamondback to step into the spotlight for the rest of the season. He’s not seen in the early episodes and his name does not really evoke excitement among comic fans. Perhaps if Diamondback were a more popular villain, such as the Kingpin is for Daredevil, it would seem a little less jarring for him to suddenly become the focus of the plot halfway through the show’s run.
Not wanting to be negative, let’s touch on some of the good parts…Rosario Dawson returns as nurse Clair Temple, a character who connects the Netflix universe. As in the original comic, Clair acts as the love interest for Luke, although the earlier episodes do make it seem like Misty will be the new woman in his life, before Clair comes along. Theo Rossi is refreshingly laid-back as Shades, another villain who complicates Luke’s life, although slyly working in the background, never revealing his real loyalty or agenda until the end. There’s a funny Easter-egg scene where Luke is seen wearing his original comic outfit, with the yellow shirt, headband and wristbands. Also, Coker is artful in the way he depicts Harlem in the show, making the location as much a character as Luke himself. Whereas Hell’s Kitchen was used as a backdrop in Daredevil, Harlem is pivotal to the story here.
Continuing with the 70s-inspired motif, the series makes several references to the 1970s Hong Kong “Chop Socky” martial arts films, especially those of Bruce Lee. Coker and the other writers must be fans of those films, which would explain the show’s downbeat ending, which is reminiscent of the ending of Lee’s The Big Boss (AKA Fists of Fury) which came out the same year as Shaft.
While Luke Cage is connected to the wider MCU, as well as the other Netflix shows, it’s interesting that no other heroes are mentioned by name. Characters mention ‘The guy in Hell’s Kitchen’ or ‘the man with the shield’ or ‘the green monster’ or ‘the guy with the magic hammer’ but none of them are ever name-dropped. Even the invasion of New York from The Avengers is only referred to as “the Incident”. (Luke is called “Harlem’s Captain America” at one point, but the real Cap is never mentioned directly.) If you were expecting the experiment that gives Luke his power to be connected to Cap’s Super Soldier experiment, as in the comics, you’re going to be disappointed. (There’s an Easter Egg near the end involving Colleen Wing, who will appear in the Iron Fist series.)
The soundtrack by Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest member Ali Shaheed Muhamad, adds a real-world feel, rooted in decades of African American culture. There are some nice R&B numbers, as well as some Hip Hop tunes.
Luke Cage is simultaneously an evolution in Marvel, as well as a retro-throwback. Marvel has been good at melding comic book action with other genres…Captain America: The First Avenger was a war movie; Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a spy flick; Ant-Man was a heist movie; Guardians of the Galaxy was an action comedy; Now, Luke Cage has brought back Blaxploitation. It’s a good series, with a strong lead performance by Colter, but it may have a more limited appeal to comic fans who aren’t familiar with the genre it was inspired by.
This is a strong series. Not the best work Marvel has done on Netflix but its solid entertainment. It’s an effectively well done B-plus entry. When all is said and done, It’s worth the watch.