Following “Daredevil,” and “Jessica Jones”, Marvel is now 3 for 3 when it comes to their Netflix presence with this past weekend’s release of “Marvel’s Luke Cage”- and it might be their best release yet on the streaming service. “Luke Cage” has all the street-smart grit of it’s predecessors, but adds the cultural significance of it’s setting, Harlem, almost as though the uptown Manhattan neighborhood is a character within the show itself. The character of Cage (played by Mike Colter), a man with unbreakable skin and super-human strength, is one that has been on the verge of being adapted on-screen for decades (came close in the 90’s by Quentin Tarantino) , and this version did not disappoint. With “Luke Cage,” Marvel did what it usually does best- tell a genre story, in this case a classic, street-level redemption story, that just happens to have a super-powered character in it.
The show takes place several months after Cage’s appearance in “Jessica Jones,” and sees his relocation uptown in Harlem, laying low and working in a local barbershop and at a popular Harlem nightclub, which is run by local gangster, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, played by Mahershala Ali. Cottonmouth’s cousin also happens to be Harlem councilwoman, Mariah Dillard, played by Alfre Woodard, who uses Cottonmouth’s resources in an effort to “restore Harlem.” When Cottonmouth’s criminal activity hits close to home, it forces Cage to decide whether to remain in the shadows, like he’s always done, or to use his abilities to make a difference in the neighborhood.
The show establishes early on that the battle isn’t against similarly super-powered foes, but against the politics and corruption in the streets of Harlem, which is a common theme that really makes Marvel’s Netflix properties so appealing. Cage isn’t trying to save the world, and his superpowers don’t define his personality. “Luke Cage” is a personal story about a man who takes to defending his neighborhood against a corrupted system, in the same vein of such classics as “Walking Tall” and “First Blood.” That premise begs the question, “how does the opposition gain the upper hand against someone who has bulletproof skin and super-strength?” The easy answer is to target those that our hero cares about, and while the show definitely uses that angle, it also takes advantage of the fact that Luke Cage is one of the only superheroes that presents himself as an average man- no costume, no mask, walks around in public as a normal person- giving his foes the opportunity to effectively sway public opinion against him. While there are other plot developments that give Cage a legitimate physical threat , it’s the standout performances of Ali, Woodard, and “Sons of Anarchy” actor, Theo Rossi, who plays the ultimate opportunist gangster, “Shades,” that convinces you that Cage is truly fighting an uphill battle.
In an effort to keep the story fresh and keep viewers on their toes, the first 7 episodes are very different than the second half of the season, as the story and character development take a sharp turn at that juncture. We are treated to developments that would usually constitute a second season, as new characters and reveals give Cage more invested motivations. But the biggest recipient of the mid-season pivot is Woodard’s Mariah Dillard, whose character goes from being a slightly unethical politician, to complete villainess, who uses the power of political persuasion as a weapon. Cottonmouth and Shades both thrive as catalysts for this change, as the 7th episode reveals both characters’ overall significance in the big picture.
The second half also brings about a much appreciated flashback origin episode, providing a humorous take on Cage’s original Power Man outfit from the 70’s, silver tiara and all, while another episode even provides the science behind the power of bulletproof skin. Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, the common holdover through all 3 Netflix shows, seems to fit into this story even more so than “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” as her character is finally given a significant role and relationship to the protagonist. She thrives as a full-on partner to Cage, displaying her chops not only as a skilled nurse, but also as one of the heroes who physically puts herself in the middle of the conflict.
The biggest standout of the show, by far, is the music, and the part it plays in the storytelling. Cottonmouth’s nightclub, “Harlem’s Paradise,” features an episodic live performance of different R&B and Hip Hop artists, soulfully capturing the vibe of Harlem’s musical culture. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, who named every episode after a Gang Starr song, explains, “I wanted the 13 episodes to feel like an album. Like when Prince put out an album, you would shut things out and listen to the whole thing. But now, with TV, you binge watch. This show is made to binge. The music helps, but it is all about the pace.” With Harlem having a long, rich culture in music, the musical selection and score aims at getting the viewers to feel like they’re right in the setting, using not just Hip Hop, but with jazz and blues at it’s core as well.
“Marvel’s Luke Cage” does a great job taking a character familiar to us as a supporting role in “Jessica Jones,” and gives him his own personal struggle in a setting that, while just uptown from the MCU’s most commonly shown Midtown Manhattan, establishes itself as a completely different world. In a very racially volatile time in our society, “Luke Cage” comes at a perfect time to give us a story and character all viewers can get behind.