Warning: some spoilers for the first season of “Luke Cage” follow.
I’ve been a big fan of how the Marvel Netflix shows each have distinct feels so far. Far too often superhero stories fall into the same basic storyline: hero starts as not hero, confronts flaws in character, becomes hero, throws bad guy through a building or two (wait I think I made that joke already). The Netflix shows may not stray too far from that formula, but they manage to explore their characters in ways that are far more intriguing than any we’ve seen on the movie screen thus far.
And going into “Luke Cage”, I was fascinated to see a modern superhero story actually deal with the character’s race.
“Luke Cage” is set within the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, which is well-known for its largely African-American population. It is considered a huge center for black culture within the city as well, and that is displayed prominently in the first season of “Luke Cage”. Famous musicians from R&B, rap, and other genres even show up on the show as themselves and play their songs. Their music is often used to underscore a montage of action within the show as well.
It’s an impressive display of culture from a genre that typically doesn’t get much deeper than “good guy fight bad guy…overcome shortcomings”.
The first half of the season is great. It centers around Luke Cage and a club owner known only by the name Cottonmouth. Cottonmouth is a lot like Wilson Fisk from “Daredevil”, in that he is a complex character who isn’t totally evil. Early on in the show a respected member of the Harlem community is killed and Cottonmouth is visibly shaken by it, due to the fact that it happened as an indirect result of his actions. He didn’t want it to happen, but it did. And that’s what makes him a great character. He’s not outright malevolent. He’s obsessed with his reputation sure, but he’s not at all someone who just wants to destroy things or kill the hero. In fact, when the season begins, Luke Cage actually works for Cottonmouth as a dishwasher before things hit the fan.
And speaking of the Harlem community, that’s another aspect of the show I liked. Compared to the other shows, “Luke Cage” has a very good sense of place. It attempts to capture the look and feel of Harlem and make that an integral part of the show’s plot. In the end, the battle between Luke and Cottonmouth is essentially a battle for the future of Harlem. This is reflected in the title sequence as well, with various icons of Harlem being overlaid over Luke’s body.
Luke himself is a very quiet character. He doesn’t say much, and when he does, it’s short and to the point. He’s stoic, but intimidating. His abilities are two-fold: superhuman strength and unbreakable skin, which leads to an impressive sequence early on where he storms a criminal headquarters and strolls through a hail of gunfire like it’s nothing.
The first half of the season does a great job balancing action with character drama that feels nuanced and believable. Unfortunately, “Luke Cage” starts to fall apart during the second half.
At around the halfway point in the season, Cottonmouth is removed from the picture and we are introduced to a new villain. With no foreshadowing, we are suddenly cued in to the fact that Luke somehow knows him. And, in a move similar to Blofeld in the James Bond movie “Spectre”, he proclaims that he is the mastermind behind the bad times in Luke’s life. Luke going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit? All him. Cottonmouth? Also all him. If there was a bit more setup to the character and his introduction, I might be more willing to buy into the whole business. But as it stands, you can’t just shove a new character into my face and pretend he’s some kind of mad genius.
More to the point, he’s a boring villain and a terrible replacement for Cottonmouth. All he wants is revenge on Luke for some vague, past transgression that we don’t get much information on until near the end of the season. And even then, all it really amounts to is “daddy issues” (which brings “Spectre” to mind all over again). Instead of actual character depth, he just walks around spouting Bible quotes to give the illusion of depth.
A villain who feels vindicated in his actions by religious belief? Gee…how original.
The show starts to suffer from some pacing issues as well later on. Right before Cottonmouth leaves the scene, we have an episode that ends in what would appear to be a major triumph for our heroes. But then it’s all undone within the first ten minutes of the next episode, which makes it pointless and a waste of the viewer’s time.
And then there’s the climax, which commits one of the worst sins a superhero story can commit. Out of nowhere, the villain dons a suit that gives him the exact same powers of Luke Cage. There’s no lead up to this. There’s no hint at it ever happening. It just…happens. He just opens a crate, mutters a Bible verse, and then later on he confronts Luke with his goofy new attire. Instead of actually having a tense standoff between the two characters, the show cheats and gives us a bog standard fist fight.
Speaking of the ending, I enjoyed that “Luke Cage” tried to go with a not-so-happy, unresolved ending that showcased a more grim attitude towards things. But at the same time, with “The Defenders” releasing in just a couple of months, it makes me wonder how this is going to stand the test of time. It’s obvious that they’ll have to resolve the cliffhanger-ish ending of the season in “The Defenders”. What’s going to happen if someone five years from now sits down and watches the first season of “Luke Cage” and thinks “man…I want to know how what happens next”. Are they going to start up season two and be utterly confused as to why everything already seems to be resolved? That’s the problem with these massively interconnected universes…unless you research the chronology you’re likely to get confused. Because the shows don’t really offer much of a hint as to which one takes place. Even looking at the year on Netflix isn’t really going to help because of how much content Marvel generates.
But that’s a topic for another time. Overall, I would say “Luke Cage” was solid to good. The supporting characters were all well done, and I liked the inclusion of Claire, the nurse (you’ll remember her from “Daredevil” seasons one and two as well as her brief appearance in the first season of “Jessica Jones”). The culture and the setting were all interwoven with the plot and the character to create a unique show that, despite being a superhero tale, also manages to deal with topical issues relating to race. Even though the season falls apart in the second half, I never felt like I wanted to shut it off entirely. There were still parts of the show that were interesting to watch.
All in all, still worth a watch in spite of the problems.
Thanks for reading! Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.