Netflix’s Marvel original series are the closest thing we’ll ever see to an R rated Marvel property. After the wildly successful launches of the first seasons of “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” Marvel unveiled its first major African American superhero (before Black Panther) with Harlem’s bulletproof bad man; “Luke Cage.” After two major hit series and being the first prominently featured African American Marvel character, this show had a lot to live up to and I admit I had a bit of a hard time getting into this series when it first came out. But with the second season just being released days ago, it got me inspired to take a look back at the original season and refresh myself and others about why it worked so well.
Our titular hero (Mike Colter) is a fugitive on the run after a sabotaged experiment gave him superhuman strength and unbreakable skin. Now he’s living in Harlem, working to clean up crime from the streets and protect the people he cares about from villains (Mahershala Ali) and crooks (Alfre Woodard) alike. But to keep his city safe, Luke will have to confront a past he long thought was buried and avoid being caught by Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) in order to set things right in a city that’s full of wrongs.
The first thing I thought when I saw this show was that it looked and felt like a flashback to the Blaxploitation films in the days of old. The intro music takes you back in time and perfectly sets the feel and tone of the series before the first episode even begins. I say this because it’s important to note that this series, much like “Jessica Jones”, doesn’t play out like your typical superhero shows. “Luke Cage” is a slow build show and relies on one super powered character dealing with typical Blaxploitation film tropes and racial elements that feel more relevant in today’s age more so than ever. Much of the action and topical issues follow the gun violence and how it can tear the best people and their livelihoods apart.
The series has a very strong sense of flavor, a specific audience it’s heavily aimed towards and sprinkles in some Marvel hero action stuff to keep those curious enough to stick with it and get used to its distinctive style. What I admire about the show is its ability to brazenly step into the dark side of reality and doesn’t shy away from the brutality of bullets and bloodied fists. The super powered element comes more as a side element rather than the focus, which may be a turn off for some but allows the story to truly develop its rock solid cast. They feel real, their conflicts and flaws real painstakingly real and keeps you invested in every character; major and minor.
Mike Colter really makes the character his own after his brief appearances in “Jessica Jones.” He gives the role a sense of honor, boldness but also simplicity and a passion for justice that works well with the narrative and the ever escalating conflict to save Harlem’s soul from crime and corruption. Colter’s chemistry with Simone Missick and Netflix Marvel “regular” Rosario Dawson clicks in all the right places; no one feel wasted and everyone gives some level of depth and importance to the overall story. If there’s one standout star worth gloating about, it’s easily the film’s initial villain; Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes played masterfully by Mahershala Ali. Like all Netflix Marvel series, the villain steals the show with style and finesse.
Ali is such an engaging actor, he makes every scene he’s in worth watching; bringing a devilish sense of realism and intensity that just can’t be beat. Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear as much as I thought he would and the additional villain that appears is an interesting breed of bad guy, but his arrival leads to my biggest criticism with the series: the finale. The first season’s finale just ends up looking…goofy, even for a comic book program; it’s hard to explain without giving it all away. The tone gets thrown off course and feels grossly out of place from the dark drama that cemented the series core so well in the first half of the series. In a lot of ways, “Luke Cage” suffers from the same issues the second season of “Daredevil” went through.
Overall, “Luke Cage” is not everyone’s cup of tea and it’s brewed and scored towards a specific audience and focus that not everyone can easily get behind. It’s probably the most grounded, realistic series in Marvel’s Netflix arsenal and the use of super powered elements is minimal at best. However, the stellar performances from the amazing cast and their well-structured balance of chemistry, drama and emotional strength shine through brilliantly with each new episode. This series is not going to work for everyone but it does have excellence in it that everyone can enjoy on one level or another. It’s no “Black Panther” but it does a good job of doing its own thing regardless and is worth a look.