I see these kids now with “Christmas” printed on their shirts. Pfft. Now Luke Cage, he’s a man that can teach you how to say “Sweet Christmas”!
by Thom Yee
It’s been two shows, three seasons, and, really, only about a year and a half since this little Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first started with the adventures of a blind lawyer doing his best (i.e., violence) to clean up Hell’s Kitchen, and in that time a lot has changed in the shared Marvel Universe. Tony Stark’s overzealous efforts to protect the world led to the destruction of a small Eastern European country, Inhumans are (apparently) popping up all over the place, and superhumans have been forced to register with the world’s’ governments and submit to their approval. But you wouldn’t know any of that if you’ve stuck exclusively to the Marvel Netflix shows and their focus on the street-level stories of the MCU, and with Luke Cage, the third and latest of them, things have started to get a little… funky.
It’s fair to say that with Luke Cage Marvel is taking on a much larger problem than simply carving out its own place in the video-on-demand world or proving that it can tell gritty and realistic stories with its comicbook superheroes. The unofficial rallying cry that Luke Cage launched with is “The World is ready for a bulletproof black man”, and with police shootings dominating the news cycle, in the midst of Black Lives Matter, and near the tail end of one of the most overtly racist American Presidential campaigns in history, it’s a sentiment that’s hard not to agree with.
From that perspective, Luke Cage is a bit of an irresistible force, and an argument can be made that because of its lightning rod status, the show was always going to get a pass from entertainment critics and acceptance from fans, almost the affirmative action of the Marvel Netflix shows. As oversimplified and ignorant as that might seem and as monstrously grotesque as that idea sort of is when you break it down, it’s hard to deny that these issues haven’t affected how the show’s been received. On the other hand, it’s still fundamentally a show about people hitting each other for our amusement, so maybe we don’t have to get too worked up about the politics.
What’s it about?
Despite the great strength and steel-hard skin he’s been gifted with, Luke Cage is a man who keeps things quiet and sticks to himself, working low-level jobs day and night, but when the violence in his local community of Harlem becomes too much to bear, he decides to use his powers for good and crush the criminal empires destroying the neighbourhood.
Debuting in 1972, Luke Cage is a very particular type of superhero from a very particular time in comicbook history. Created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita, Sr. in what was essentially the second age of Marvel creations after Stan [Lee] and Jack’s [Kirby] initial creative outbursts, the character is very much a product of the early ‘70s’ Blaxploitation movement, and that much is obvious when you take a look at the cover of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1. With lurid images of girls, gambling, prison, afros, and at least the implication of drugs, Luke was a bit of an awkward fit for what had come before in the Marvel Universe, eschewing many of the conventions of the superhero genre. While he had a superhero name, “Power Man”, he operated openly under a civilian identity (even if that name was, as discussed, a pseudonym), and where most superheroes did their good works for the sake of goodness, Luke Cage was…y’know, a hero for hire. Also, he was black.
But that’s only the Luke Cage I’ve read about, those aren’t the Luke Cage adventures I’ve actually read. The Luke Cage I know isn’t the Harlem-set hero for hire from the ’70s (I, thankfully, wasn’t even around in the ‘70s) but the Brian-Michael-Bendis-written version, the one who joined the Avengers and eventually grew to become one of that team’s key leaders in the mid-to-late 2000’s. It’s under Bendis’ eight-year-long run on the Avengers group of comicbooks that Luke Cage came to the prominence that he enjoys today after being mostly absent for most of the ‘90s, and it’s also under Bendis that Cage took on many of the characteristics we see in the show, including his current look, his more realistic and less cartoonish attitude (see here for some of his ‘70s roots), and his relationship with Jessica Jones (to whom he’s married and has a daughter).
Is it any good?
The world of Luke Cage is unlike any we’ve seen so far in the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe saga, filled with characters influenced as much by their ethnic backgrounds as their upbringings, and with a narrative style that very deliberately recalls the ‘70s aesthetic. Musically, it’s easily the strongest of any of Marvel’s works (and that includes the movies), leaning heavily on both contemporary and iconic black singers, and visually, it’s more considered and striking than what we’ve become used to with these types of shows, the rooms walled in earth tones, the streets coloured in a neighbourly warmth, and the lights shining dark reds and yellows. Its strengths are myriad, with strong casting, explosive action, and socio-political relevance, and I think of all of the Marvel Netflix shows, Luke Cage feels the most immediately confident and self-assured.
I didn’t like it.
Everything positive I just said about Luke Cage is true. This is a show with good roots, a strong foundation, great casting, and a style all its own. It’s just the story being told that’s the problem. To start off with, I will say I enjoyed the show quite a bit towards the beginning, but even then there were all sorts of little things that felt off and those things grew into full-blown problems as the series continued. To be clear, Luke Cage is a show you can like and even love, but I don’t think you can break it down critically, look at it from all sides, and conclude that its storytelling is anywhere near as bulletproof as its protagonist.
When we first meet Luke Cage, he’s essentially hiding out in Pop’s Barbershop following the events of Jessica Jones (a preceding Marvel Netflix series in which he debuted in a guest-starring role), keeping to himself as he works days under the table as a cleaner for Pop and nights as a dishwasher for local Harlem magnate/gangster Cornell Stokes, known in less savoury corners as “Cottonmouth”. It’s at Pop’s Barbershop — a sort of “Switzerland” in the community, where all parties treat it as a neutral, peaceful territory — that Luke develops the ethos with which he operates throughout the rest of the series as he and Pop discuss the responsibilities a bulletproof black man has in today’s world. It’s initially unclear why he’s so reluctant to step out of the shadows and use his powers for good. As we find out more about Luke’s background, however, we learn that it’s far more than just a secret identity (“Luke Cage” wasn’t exactly the name he was born with) that Luke’s trying to protect. Along the way we also learn more about Cottonmouth and his cousin, local politician Mariah Dillard, and the stranglehold the two are trying to establish over Harlem and we also meet local detectives Misty Knight and Rafael Scarfe, the former having grown up in Harlem under the watchful eye of Pop, a man who’s become a sort of benefactor for Harlem youth over the years, showing them a path away from the crime that rules the streets.
And that’s all fine, that’s all rich territory for drama as our heroes and villains circle each other, fight each other, betray each other, and otherwise conflict, but precious few of the pieces of this puzzle fit together. The ‘70s-driven narrative is a valid choice and one clearly informed by Luke Cage’s origins, but as evocative and provactive as that style may be, it clashes with a lot of what’s really going on, especially with Luke Cage himself, who, in this incarnation, is a much cooler, softer-spoken guy than his ‘70s comicbook counterpart, and much of the sheer ridiculousness of the show’s trappings just doesn’t work when playing off of the calm, collected, and, in some ways, stoic lead at its centre. This is a story about a bulletproof strongman, but it’s a small story about a man with limits to his powers who’s facing issues that his powers cant necessarily help, and when characters suddenly bust out rocket launchers in a show about gun violence or others exclaim “Sweet Christmas!” because that’s what he said in the ‘70s comics, it doesn’t fit, it’s not right. It’s actually hilarious, but in the wrong way, in a way this show and its protagonist aren’t comedically self-aware enough to pull it off. That might make it sound like I’m blaming Mike Colter for his work, but nothing could be farther from the truth as I think he’s nearly perfectly cast and he clearly has the right kind of charisma for the role, but what Colter is doing here is playing the present-day version of the character, a character I like and a character that works, in a story that calls for the jive-talking Luke Cage from the ’70s.
Though not everyone on Luke Cage has the same type of problems fitting in with the show’s style, there are very few I can point to that don’t suffer from their own consistency issues. Cottonmouth was cool but mostly a cartoon character and the story throws in a last-minute, hail-mary attempt to humanize him that doesn’t work because it clashes so strongly with everything else he does in the series, Misty Knight is really, really awesome at first as a streetwise detective, but that breaks down later in a way I found unconvincing and patronizing, Scarfe actually reminded me a lot of Chang from Community, which is hilarious but often at odds with the rest of the story, and [Black] Mariah? She’s probably Luke Cage’s version of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin from Daredevil in that she’s played by a respected actor (Alfre Woodard) and will probably get attention for her performance but is also a character I found to be excruciating. As a politician she’s got a really boring, one-note platform in trying to improve Harlem, and as a person she’s more transparent than Donald Trump but with none of his conviction. Every character on this show has value, but they just don’t all fit together, and the show doesn’t know how to service them well or have their actions match who it wants them to be.
Beyond the characters, there are some major pacing problems as well, particularly with Luke’s inciting incident as it cuts off the development of an important character far too early for that person to have the effect on the story that they seem to, another character’s betrayal doesn’t hit very hard since we hardly know them by that point, and there’s even a bad guy swap at a point in the series that makes it hard to get behind or feel anything about either of the big bads Luke has to face. Some of the plot points are really clumsy too, such as how easily the police are turned against Luke at one point in the series, there’s a tendency for speechifying that seems heavy handed and unrealistic, and a lot of the live music acts from artists like Raphael Saadiq, Charles Bradley, and Jidenna run right up against each other when they’re compacted too close together rather than being given the space they need to shine across multiple episodes and moments. On the one hand, I would blame some of these problems on the show’s 13-episode run which I think has proven to be too much for every one of Marvel’s Netflix shows so far, but on the other it’s just a lot of stuff that feels unconvincing or affected rather than natural or smooth.
So should I see it?
I guess I really don’t understand where people are coming from with the Marvel Netflix shows and maybe even the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. I thought Daredevil season 2 was easily the best of these shows, Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of my favourites of the movies, and I really didn’t like Luke Cage all that much, and it seems like the popular sentiment is precisely the opposite of every one of those points.
I think everything about Luke Cage was stacked heavily in its favour, from the cast to the premise to the political climate it’s debuted in, but so much of it didn’t work for me that I have to call it out. To be clear, it’s not directly a bad show in the way, say, the Michael-Bay-directed Transformers franchise is disdainful and directly insulting to its fans and audiences (and people in general), but it’s really sloppy and disjointed in some very significant ways. I’ll acknowledge that there are moments and sequences that are almost impossible not to like —
— but those moments are too far in between and they don’t form the fabric of the show as it weaves together elements that don’t fit together, confuse and/or exaggerate its characters, and generally wears out its welcome.
To be honest, and I say this without a hint of intended racism, I think I liked Luke Cage best when he was surrounded by white people. In Jessica Jones he was a strong contrast and a firm, intelligent, and considerate person regardless of what he does or doesn’t represent as a black man (bulletproof or otherwise), but in his own show he too often seems slow and reactive in a setting that wants him to be dynamic and assertive. Luke doesn’t fit, the bad guys are undercooked, the story’s all over the place, and if not for its comicbook roots and the fun the show occasionally allows itself to have, I don’t think Luke Cage is a show I would have finished.
Thom’s Luke Cage Season 1 final score:
On the Edge
- Luke Cage uses a Samsung phone? I guess a man with bulletproof skin doesn’t have anything to fear from explosions.
- Twenty-five dollars for a damn shave? A shave he didn’t even need?
- “I’m going back to Hell’s Kitchen where it’s safe.”
- This fool’s carrying around fun-size Milky Ways in his jacket pocket? And how they staying so crisp in there?
- “Pop’s Barbershop, who dis? No, we don’t do haircuts anymore.”
- Feels like Scarfe was almost ready to give Cottonmouth a foot massage.
- Didn’t you learn anything from Lethal Weapon 2, Cottonmouth? Lay down some plastic before shooting henchmen in your office.
- You’re gonna puncture his mucous membrane with that needle you found on the ground? Is it sterile?
- Are scalpels really that brittle? Do they really just snap when they’re pushed against a hard surface?
- Call me crazy, but I don’t see this version of Misty Knight ever hooking up with this version of Danny Rand. Skinny white boy.
- Is it just me, or was it weird waiting for Black Mariah to put in her headphones before answering her phone? If the actor didn’t want to have to hold her phone to her ear, they could’ve achieved the same effect by just having her go speaker phone.
- Diamondback with his double Walther PPKs
- I get the whole hoodie thing, but man they should’ve given Luke something to wear that cuts a more dashing figure than a loose-fitting sweater.
- Shades sure wears his sunglasses in some very dark places