When discussing the super-powered collaborations between Netflix and Marvel Studios, it’s inevitable that each new output will draw comparisons with its sibling shows. Both seasons of Daredevil set an incredibly high benchmark, which last year’s Jessica Jones matched, albeit for very different reasons. The latest addition to Marvel’s Defenders roster Luke Cage, is unfortunately the runt of the litter.
Although Mike Colter wears the role of the ex-con with unbreakable skin just as well as he did in Jessica Jones, it is the writing that lets the show down, and to some degree, the supporting cast. Given the quality of the Netflix shows thus far, this may sound like sacrilege but stick with us, this review gets better, we promise.
Luke Cage has a smaller main cast than its sibling shows, which means it has somewhat of a narrower focus and less of a broad landscape to play with, and although each cast member does a great job, it suffers from the same issue that Jessica Jones had – the supporting cast aren’t interesting enough to hold your attention when you’re away from the main character. Remember how invested you were in Karen and Foggy handling the legal stuff in Daredevil? You didn’t need Matt Murdock on screen to create interesting drama.
The strongest supporting player in Luke Cage is Simone Missick’s police detective Misty Knight. Sexy, capable, complex and insecure over her own unique abilities, Missick excels in every scene and her inclusion in next years Defenders miniseries is most welcome. However she is the unfortunate bearer of a line of dialogue that plagued Jessica Jones – in that she has trouble believing in a powered individual. Yet again…this is a world inhabited by The Avengers where aliens falling from the sky is frequently referenced. Seriously, just get over it. He’s bulletproof. Don’t question it.
Mahershala Ali’s antagonist Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes is also worth a praiseworthy mention, Ali is fantastic in the role and has created a character equally as complex and conflicted as the hero, but when your villain is another well intentioned but violent criminal businessman it’s hard not to watch and be underwhelmed as, well, he’s just not Wilson Fisk.
Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard also starts weak, an unblinking and oddly put together performance that seems overtly artificial throughout the first half.
Like the other Marvel Netflix shows , Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, once again at times feels forced into the narrative, showing up at convenient moments when the protagonist needs some extra assistance, however, here she ends up very essential. Theo Rossi’s ‘Shades’ Alvarez is an irksome presence that really doesn’t come to the fore until the midway point, and poses too many distracting questions.
It’s the first four episodes of Luke Cage that are the main issue, although the Netflix model is designed for bingeing, meaning a show can take its time to explore its characters and world, Luke Cage stumbles from the off. The first three episodes in particular are a hard slog, with no immediate or dramatic hook or cliff hanger to ensure you continue watching, meaning that by the time you get to Luke’s long awaited origin in episode four you’re somewhat burned out and non-interested as a viewer, which is most definitely not where you want to be when being immersed in your hero’s backstory. Worryingly it’s the first two episodes, written by showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker himself, that are the weakest – which a series just can’t afford to be in it’s first two hours – especially given the significant event in episode two that sets off the main narrative. In addition, a show about a near indestructible guy who doesn’t want to fight means the action lacks any memorable benchmark set pieces.
That being said, tonally Luke Cage achieves what it sets out to do immediately. It arrives with its stylistic identity fully formed. Whereas Daredevil was a Batman-esque legal drama, Jessica Jones a noir tale exploring sexual assault, Luke Cage is a 70’s influenced, urban drama firmly embracing the characters Blaxploitation-era roots (including a sly wink to the original comic-book costume). Music forms a large part of the shows identity, and Coker (a former music journalist) immerses Cage, and the audience in the cultural miasma of modern day Harlem, with each episode a mini hip-hop/urban album within a much larger series record – even the episode titles are songs from various hip hop and grime artists. Out of all the Marvel/Netflix series so far, Luke Cage distinguishes itself in a fresh and culturally unique way.
Thankfully the series picks up the pace in its fifth episode leading to a very unexpected mid-season twist that is both a huge but very welcome narrative risk, and introduces a fantastic addition to the Marvel canon, but also leaves you wondering why the show took so long to get going only to have it turn around so quickly. However, it becomes much more enjoyable and engaging once the initial fat has been trimmed. We are 10 episodes in at the time of writing and to say much more would start to ruin what is now shaping up to be a solid season ender and overall a competent, well formed debut arc that although doesn’t quite match the previous output, still maintains the depth and quality that audiences have come to expect from the darker corner of the MCU. If we have one recommendation it’s not to binge this one, just digest it in bite size chunks one or two at a time, at least until the back half, you’ll appreciate it a lot more.