Luke Cage Season 1 Review: Marvel Runs Lukewarm This Time

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There are two constants in this world. First, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Second, the Marvel machine will keep chugging along until every nook and cranny of the comics has been adapted to live-action. Most of what we’ve seen are larger than life superheroes. Thor is protecting of all of Asgard, and Earth by choice. The Guardians of the Galaxy literally guard the galaxy. But Luke Cage’s jurisdiction is just his neighborhood, Harlem. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker gives one of Manhattan’s famous neighborhood’s associated with crime a lively and vibrant voice. Harlem is the best thing about Luke Cage, both as a series and an independent hero. This is a show where a bulletproof superhero who’s costume is no more than a hoodie walks up and down Malcolm X Boulevard and listens to the cries for help from the everyday people on the street. The concept is empowering. This is, after all, a black superhero bullets, from cops or otherwise, won’t work on (a point the show clumsily explores late in the season). Cage is as relevant in 2016 as he was when he was created in 1972, but it’s the evolution of the character in the comics that led to an adaptation as savvily aware of the current racial climate as it is. Appropriately, Luke Cage isn’t about a superhero that happens to be black, it’s about a black superhero and why that’s important and something to be proud of.

With this stage, the show should have been a knockout victory for Marvel. It isn’t. As with both seasons of Daredevil, 13 hours is too much, with that fat needing to be trimmed (for Luke Cage, the first four episodes are a slow slog that could easily be condensed). As with most Marvel properties that aren’t Jessica Jones or involve Loki, the show has a villain problem. However, unlike most Marvel properties, Luke Cage also has a hero problem.

Mike Colter is a major factor in holding back the season from greatness. The actor just lacks the screen presence and chemistry to carry the series on his shoulders. He overacts in would-be emotional moments, yet delivers his purposefully cheesy, ’70s blaxploitation dialogue with a self-seriousness that kills so many scenes. Colter just seems to be on the wrong wavelength with the rest of the series, with its energetic disco score wasted on scenes where Cage’s one-liners rip the energy right out of the room.

Luckily, the supporting cast is mostly up to snuff to keep us emotionally invested. The show’s breakout character will most definitely be Misty Knight (Simone Missick), an NYPD detective that is incredibly badass without the script sacrificing any of her femininity. It’s typically either she or Marvel’s Netflix regular Claire Temple (the still somehow underrated Rosario Dawson) paired with Cage, keeping at least one likable character on screen when the main hero doesn’t carry his weight. The rest of season one’s regulars are the show’s villains, and there are many. We’re first introduced to Cottonmouth (the also underrated Mahershala Ali), a Harlem gangster that in many ways embodies the class and unpredictability of Michael Corleone, and local politician Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), Cottonmouth’s cousin who is desperately trying to save Harlem’s face to the public through the media. Their chemistry and family dynamics carry the drama through the first half of the season, as both figures are less tied to Cage himself and more to the neighborhood. But then the second half of the season strong-arms Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) as the main villain, and we lose a significant piece of what made the show fun.

Still, Luke Cage manages to always have some entertainment value. It’s only when Diamondback takes center stage that Misty and Claire are given their best material. Season one may feel like two very separate seasons, but they’re both about equal in quality, even though the different pieces are a little more volatile. Even so, Luke Cage isn’t even close to quality that Jessica Jones dished out to us last fall. It’s much closer to Daredevil, but still maybe a notch below thanks to the spotty writing and acting. That doesn’t stop the show from being significant in the overall superhero TV landscape, however. It’s in-world acknowledgment of race is not only important for Marvel, but audiences as well. Race will hopefully eventually not play such a big deal for superheroes, but for now, Luke Cage needs to exist. The show itself could be better, but I’m still glad for the voices Luke Cage incorporates into this ever-expanding Marvel landscape. Grade: B

Some More Spoiler-y Points:

  • So Cottonmouth’s big death was the best and the worst. Mariah’s power plays in the finale justified it, but there was a long while where Diamondback just wasn’t carrying the villain weight at all.
  • Seriously, no Jessica Jones cameo? Isn’t Marvel known for this kind of stuff?
  • For the most part, the action left a little to be desired, but I did love the scene in an early episode where Cage used a sofa as a weapon.
  • I know this is long shot, but can we turn season two into Luke Cage and Misty Knight, a la Ant-Man and the Wasp?
  • I really wish this show’s tone was a little more in line with The Get Down, which also had a superhero of sorts. But I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

By Matt Dougherty

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