Luke Cage is a Brilliant Multi-Generational Exploration

Review By Mike Malpiedi

(Spoiler Alert: I have watched the entire first season of the show and make some references to plot points from the various episodes in this review. If you have not seen the show, I highly recommend that you stop right now and go watch it. Luke Cage is brilliant and it is worth your time. For those of you that have watched a few episodes or more, please feel free to read on.)

Marvel and Netflix hit it out of the park again with the fantastic first season of Luke Cage. I might even go out on a limb and say that out of all the Marvel shows thus far, this one is my favorite. While each of Marvel’s television series have been pretty stellar (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Agents of Shield & Agent Carter), Luke Cage is a game changer for comic-book television. Not only does Luke Cage tell a wonderful superhero origin story, it also presents a multi-generational tale of Harlem, its people, and black history. Everything about this show from the music and character interactions to the cinematography and conflicts oozes a beautiful sense of place both historical and fictional. Luke Cage contains layers and depth that no other comic-book television series has shown yet. The series is also the first comic book television series to feature a completely black leading cast which is a necessary change of pace given the current social climate of the country.

Speaking of the cast, lets get into the review…

Acting

Wow did the cast bring their A-game for this series. Everyone’s performance this season is pretty on point and I couldn’t really ask for more. Mike Colter is the perfect Luke Cage and I appreciate the mindful, humble, and loyal nature he brings to the character. He also does an excellent job of display Luke’s vulnerabilities in several poignant scenes throughout the season. The show, thankfully, steers clear of the characters blaxploitation roots and embraces the characters race wholeheartedly.  The show is elevated even further by great performances from almost every supporting character. Simone Missick does a superb job as Misty Knight and it is going to be a pleasure watching the character grow as the show progresses. Missick brings the perfect blend of cleverness, persistence, and righteousness to the character.

It is always wonderful to see Rosario Dawson in anything, so it is a pleasure to have her back as Claire Temple and continuing to connect the Marvel-Netflix series. Dawson does a fantastic job and kicks some serious ass in this season. She is finally coming into her own as the Night Nurse. My only compliant about Claire’s appearance in the show is that she once again becomes a love interest and that didn’t feel necessary. There are a number of ways the series could have taken its more intimate relationships and I wish it had gone in a slightly different direction.

Once again Marvel television series get the best villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  Mahershala AliAlfre Woodard, Theo Rossi, and Erik LaRay Harvey provide antagonists that are each cunning, ruthless, and unpredictable in their own way. Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes rules with a more jazzy and bluesy sense of class when compared to the likes of Wilson Fisk. Stokes may not be as enigmatic as Fisk or as mind-bending as Kilgrave, but he possesses a street level of cunning and brutality that keeps Luke on his toes. There is a particularly great scene in one of the first few episodes where Stokes shows Turk Barret (the gun seller from Daredevil) “where he can pick up his money.” It is a prime example of how brutal and unpredictable his nature can be. As fierce as his character is, there is a level of sympathy attributed to him as well that is examined through his connection to music. It is also apparent that Ali had a lot of fun playing Stokes and he steals many of the scenes that he is in.

Woodard’s “Black” Mariah is interesting characters to watch develop over the course of this season. She seems softer compared to her cousin, Cornell, in the beginning of the season, but she is THE Black Mariah and quickly reveals herself to be just as serious a threat for Luke Cage. Woodard plays Mariah with equal parts insecurity and determination, but as the story progresses she gives the character a haunting sense of darkness and finesse. The only issue I take with this portrayal of the character is that the writers used rape as part of her backstory which is then used to vilify her. It is unfortunately that this is what had to be the catalyst for the characters transformation since it is not a piece from her original backstory. Then again, neither is most of this interpretation of the character, but still I think a different path could have been taken.

Rossi, while a little more of a generic gangster and a bit over-the-top, gives a solid performance as Hernan “Shades” Alvarez. He definitely embodies the role of the crooked, right-hand man well and oozes the appropriate amount of cockiness and cool. Harvey imbues Diamondback with a level of ferocity and intensity that makes him terrifying to watch. That being said, Diamondback is the closet thing to a blaxploitation character on the show. He presents a very urban macho, bit outrageous (once you get to the end you will see what I mean), and aggressive one-note character. His character arc even falls a bit flat toward the end because of it, but we will cover that a bit more in the next section.

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Story

The first season of Luke Cage provides a prime origin story while also offering an exploration of Harlem and black culture. It honestly cannot be understated how important this show is right now given the current political climate. Series creator, Cheo Hodari Coker, utilizes the fact that Luke Cage is a black superhero who is bulletproof as a pitch-perfect allegory for the issues that black communities face with police brutality. It is done powerfully through poignant scenes of officers stopping black men wearing copies of Luke’s bullet-hole ridden hoodie while Method Man’s “Bulletproof Love” plays in the background (that song in particular was made for the show). It is scenes like this that help elevate the legacy of Luke Cage from his original origins.

This speaks to the shows refreshing sense of community as well. Out of all the Netflix series so far, I feel that Luke Cage does the best job of connecting to its setting and the greater MCU. There is rarely a moment where the community isn’t involved in Luke’s progression. Whether it is talks of basketball in Pop’s barbershop or all of Harlem pounding Luke to save them from Stokes, the people of Harlem are intrinsic to how he takes shape as a hero. It is also compelling to see how much history is given to each and every single character in this show. Everyone from Pops to characters like Aisha Axton have a deep connection to Harlem. Specifically with Pops, it is incredible to see how well his character is applied throughout the season both in the present and in flashbacks. This is a testament to the multi-generational nature of this show and how it is able to subtle display the evolution of not only its characters, but the evolution of Harlem itself through their development.

The history of Harlem plays a large role with many historical figures, such as Crispus Attucks, being referenced and examined throughout the season. I also loved that the barbershop is used as the beacon for the community, a mini Switzerland. The writers of Luke Cage were meticulous with creating the right image of Harlem and its people. As I was watching the show, it truly felt as if each and every character had such a rich backstory even if they were only given brief moments of screen time. Aisha Axton’s story-line about her father’s baseball ring and preserving his legacy is a perfect example. What is so potent is that all of these characters, whether fictional or historical, have something to say about what makes Harlem the place that it is. Central to this is black music, especially hip-hop, funk, and R&B. These genres are heavily used to help tell the story of Luke Cage‘s Harlem and its characters. The music, in fact, is one of the best aspects of this show and I’ll touch on it a bit more later.

On top of creating strong connections to its setting, Luke Cage plants the most references to the greater MCU than any other Marvel show or film before it. Rarely does an episode go by without several subtle references to characters such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, or Fisk. The use of Trish Walker’s radio show made me especially giddy! Using Hammer weapons is a smart choice too and helps to emphasize Luke Cage‘s connection to Marvel’s Iron Man films. It also makes logically sense since Justin Hammer was arrested at the end of Iron Man 2 and something must have happened to his company and its weapons.

The show, again thankfully, provides Luke with significant obstacles in the form of Cottonmouth, Black Mariah, Shades, and Diamondback. Out of all the antagonists this season I have to say that I enjoy Cottonmouth’s story progression the most. I feel the show does his character a lot more justice than the other villains. I think this has to do with the show’s pacing when it comes to developing and introducing these characters. Cottonmouth is given the benefit of being the big bad from episode one, so more time is given to fleshing out his character before it fully gets around to working with the other three. That being said, Cottonmouth’s arc is a joy to watch unfold and presents an unsettling journey of a man who had a happy and creative life taken from him.

You can argue that Mariah gets about as much development as Cottonmouth since she is utilized in most of the flashbacks he is in, and she is present in many scenes with him in general, but the majority of these scenes put Cottonmouth front and center as the focus. Mariah is still given a healthy amount of development this season and it is clear that she will be much more dominant as we go into season two. We see Mariah’s development and internal conflict through subtle scenes like when she is examining her mother’s photo, the cruel Mama Mabel, and then herself in the vanity mirror. You can see the darker side of Mariah in her eyes well in this scene and sets up her transformation later on. Speaking of transformations, as I mentioned earlier the show decides to use rape as a part of Mariah’s background. It is ultimately a callback to this incident by Cottonmouth that stirs the ruthless side of Mariah. As I said before, I think this is an unfortunate choice because they could have easily used a snide comment about her abilities as a politician or her being like Mama Mabel to stir up the same effect. I feel that something like this would have been a better catalyst than leaning on the trauma of rape as the point of interest which often seems to be the case for many female characters. Rape is not the only type of trauma or conflict that can cause a woman to seek power for herself.

Overall though, I am glad the story this season paves the way for a fully unleashed Black Mariah and we get a nice taste of what is to come at the end of the season. I also thought it was a smart choice to ground Mariah’s story in politics as opposed to her Rat Pack origin from the comics. It meshes much better with Cottonmouth and Diamondback’s stories and pursuits. I didn’t necessarily find Shades progression all that compelling when compared to his counterparts. His motives and story-line are pretty predictable, but thankfully Rossi’s performance made Shades a fun character to watch. His character is also a great way of establishing a connection to Luke’s past.

And then there is Diamondback…

Diamondback’s story is a whole other beast and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it all. On the hand, he is an excellent character to bring into the show because he does have a strong relation to Luke in the comics, but Harvey’s particular story and its execution leaves a little to be desired. It doesn’t seem like Diamondback’s story was as thoroughly planned as the other villains. In some scenes it is even downright sloppy like the hostage situation that takes place toward the end of the season. His motivations are quite childish and it is hard to understand why he continues to create convoluted schemes after convoluted scheme to beat Luke; none of which would work remotely in real life. To Harvey’s credit, he does bring a lot of fury and menace to the character, but it all feels very Shaft-esque. On that note, I think I will skip talking about the suit because I think we are all understand that the level of goofiness is over 9000.  Let’s just say that it was cool that Hammer weapons were referenced again.

I’d also like to give a nod to the Misty Knight, Scarfe, and Cottonmouth story-line that takes place during the beginning of the season. I think that Frank Whaley’s Scarfe and Missick’s Misty possess solid chemistry as partners and it was great to see how Misty’s confidence is tested when Scarfe’s morals come into question. I am also hopping that a certain injury that Misty’s sustains is a precursor to her getting her signature metal arm from the comics. Even if that is not the case, Luke Cage sets up Misty to be a strong partner for Luke and an indispensable asset for the Defenders once that mini-series premieres next year.

Claire’s story-line with Luke is fun to watch as well in the later half of the season, but I am disappointed that once again they steered her into love interest land. The Night Nurse doesn’t have to be in love with all her super-powered patients, she just needs to kick ass and heal people (which she does do a lot of this season). I think it would have made a lot more sense to primarily work with the “will they-won’t they” dynamic that Misty and Luke had during the beginning of the season. And I also just feel that Rosario is a goddess and her character shouldn’t have to keep throwing herself at all the super-powered men. Then there is a particular scene with Claire involving a subtle Iron Fist reference at the end of the season that seems off given Misty’s relation to the referenced character in the comics.

Aesthetics

Ok, this last bit should actually be named music since that is mainly what I will be focusing on here, but I do want to say that the cinematography and production on this show are top notch. The scene of Cottonmouth standing in front of the Biggie portrait and walking forward until the crown of the portrait just fits his head… Brilliant. And I really enjoyed the action scenes in Luke Cage since they steered away from well-choreographed martial arts bouts and went for all out urban brawls. Luke is not a graceful fighter by any means, but he doesn’t have to be.

Which brings us to the music, when Luke busts into that gang stronghold bumping Wu Tang Clan’s “Bring the Ruckus,” I nearly fainted from joy. The music direction on this show is Triple A perfection and is without a doubt on of the greatest aspects of Luke Cage. Each song emphasizes not only the emotions and themes of each episode, but also present the magnetic creativity of black music and art. Coker also add an extra special connection to music by naming each episode after a Gang Starr song. I really appreciate how well utilized music is on this show and the fact that the show-runners got actual musicians to perform during different episodes. In fact, the show now has me addicted to Jidenna’s song, “Long Live the Chief,” which is used at the beginning of episode five. Have a listen:

Beginning of episode five still gives me chills, but that is attributed to how potent the music is on Luke Cage. Then there is, of course, Method Man’s cameo and the rad track “Bulletproof Love.”

But of course hip hop is not the only genre to take center stage in Luke Cage as R&B artists such as Faith Evans and Raphael Saadiq featured in Stokes’ Harlem Paradise as well. And how can I forget to mention the opening of the first episode accompanied by “Dap Walk” by Ernie Vincent & The Top Notes, it creates the right introduction to Pops’ Barbershop. Each piece of music is an example of the potency of black music whether it be new-age hip hop, 90s R&B, or 70s funk. I can only hope going forward that the other Marvel television series use music half as well.

All in all, Luke Cage is a welcomed step in the right direction for comic book television. The first season of the show provides both a compelling superhero origin and an exquisite examination of black culture. The multi-generational storytelling through music, dialogue, and character development is a delicious change of pace from other superhero offerings. And despite the latter half with Diamondback, Luke Cage still excels at taking Luke out of his stereotypical roots and presents a hero that Harlem can be proud of. Black Panther may have gotten to the screen first, but this is the black superhero story we have been waiting for. After this season, Luke Cage now sits at the top of my most anticipated shows for next year. If you are looking for a great comic book show, or show in general, to binge this fall then look no further.

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