Another show has been spawned from the marriage of Netflix and Marvel. Let the geeks rejoice!
Those who are up-to-date on the growing family of heroes who will one day make up the Defenders will recognize the title character from his role as kinda-sorta-love-interest on Jessica Jones. After all the unfortunate things that went down on that show, he has moved back to his old neighborhood in Harlem and is laying low, working in a barbershop by day and a nightclub by…well, night. But he quickly learns that it’s hard to lie low when you have superpowers, an urge to help others, and a bunch of gangsters terrorising your hometown. It takes some prodding–and some especially evil actions by said gangsters–but Luke gradually comes to embrace his unwanted super strength and become the hero Harlem needs.
I can’t talk about this show without comparing it to Daredevil and Jessica Jones. As someone who is in love with the former and was disappointed by the latter, I rank Luke Cage somewhere between them.
Let’s start by looking on the bright side. This show has two big advantages over both its predecessors. One is the music. A good chunk of the action takes place in and around a nightclub, which gives the writers an excuse to bring in lots of great jazz, soul and hip-hop performances. DD and JJ don’t have super memorable soundtracks apart from their theme songs, but here the soundtrack is one of the best parts of the whole show.
Secondly, this show has SO MUCH CLAIRE TEMPLE. I have loved Claire from the moment she arrived in Daredevil, but she never got enough screen time on that show, and she only showed up for one episode of Jessica Jones. Here she finally gets the spotlight she deserves, as she joins Luke on his quest to clean up the city and embraces her own destiny as a superhero medic. The only down side is that she’s also presented as a love interest here, and as a die-hard Clairedevil shipper, I can’t condone that. Luke’s a nice guy and all, but Claire belongs with Matt Murdock. Why must you keep knocking holes in my ships, writers??
The show introduces lots of fun new characters as well. My favourites were Misty Knight, a super-smart detective who helps Luke uncover the injustice in his town, and Shades, a smug yet effective villain who I loved to hate.
Speaking of villains, though, they’re not one of this show’s greatest strengths. Instead of one Big Bad, like DD and JJ faced in their first seasons, Luke has a whole posse of them, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Cottonmouth, the first crime boss introduced on the show, indulges in his evil laugh a few too many times, but is otherwise a convincing threat with nicely complicated motives. His cousin/accomplice, Mariah Dillard, is pretty much your basic corrupt politician, and she gets increasingly annoying as the season goes on. The show’s other major crime boss, Diamondback, is just…utterly ridiculous. What with the random Bible verses and pop culture references he spouts at every turn, his stupid outfits, and his weird backstory with Luke that pops up out of nowhere, I couldn’t take him very seriously.
The biggest problem I had with this show, though, was the pacing. I think this first season would have been better if it were a couple episodes shorter, or if each episode was cut down to 30 minutes. The story is a lot simpler and more straightforward than JJ’s or (especially) DD’s, so it doesn’t quite fill out the 13-hour run time. As a result, everything moves veeerrryyyy slooowwwlly. Especially by superhero standards. There are relatively few action scenes and lots of boring speeches and conversations that seem only to serve as filler. And I think it’s these filler conversations that give rise to the second biggest problem with this show.
Let me preface this criticism by saying I applaud Luke Cage’s writers for being willing to take on some difficult issues surrounding race in America. And, you know, just for making a superhero show with an almost entirely non-white cast in the first place. I think this might be the first time that’s been done, and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last. With the current U.S. political climate being what it is, the arrival of a black street-level superhero feels incredibly timely.
The thing is…I could have figured all that out on my own. But this show insists on spelling out for me, repeatedly, in every episode, just how awesomely symbolic it is to have a bulletproof black man in a hoodie fighting crime. There are so many speeches to that effect (one even comes in song form!) that it starts to feel like major overkill by the end of the season. And it’s a shame, because this is one superhero show that actually has a lot of important things to say. I just think it would be more effective if it tried to say them with a bit of subtlety.
I don’t want to end on a negative note, because I did enjoy a lot of things about Luke Cage. So let’s talk about Luke himself. Unlike DD and JJ (I’m really liking those nicknames, can you tell?), he doesn’t have a lot of emotional and ethical baggage to carry around. Sure, he’s a little angsty about his powers, which is kind of understandable since he got them by way of an evil science experiment, but for the most part he’s a nice guy who genuinely wants to help his neighbors out. For that reason, this is easily the most light-hearted of the Defenders shows so far, even though it comes with its fair share of violence and gore. When Luke does get around to fighting crime (which doesn’t happen nearly often enough), it’s a lot of fun to watch. If he didn’t have those moments of self-doubt that seem to be built into every superhero’s contract these days, I almost think he could be Marvel’s version of the Flash–an upbeat, optimistic good guy to act as a foil to all the dark anti-heroes. It’ll be interesting to see how he works with Daredevil, that’s for sure.
Overall, Luke Cage is a good introduction to a likable character. It doesn’t come close to reaching the standard set by Daredevil, but at least it’s more fun than the despair-fest that was Jessica Jones. And I have hopes that Luke may still rise to his full potential in future instalments. I’m also hoping for even more Claire, because she is seriously the best.
As everyone with a Netflix account should know by now, this is not the kind of Marvel show you watch with kids. There’s quite a bit of violence and swearing (including copious use of the n-word), and a couple NSFW scenes at the beginning. But for any adults who are interested in following the Defenders to their inevitable team-up, it’s a must-see.