Luke Cage (Season One Review): Harlem’s Hero Breaks Through with Statement

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John Stewart battling a colorful collage of meta-humans during reruns on Cartoon Network was my first introduction into the ideal of the black superhero. Cartoon Network’s Justice League and its successor, Justice League Unlimited, launched a display of numerous heroes of color into my cultural consciousness, spurring me to look further into their origins, their principles and deeper into other superheroes that shared my same shade of skin. Saturday morning cartoons eventually boiled over into Saturday morning comic book reading, sinking my intrigue into Jack Kirby’s 1977 run on the Black Panther series and more recently David Walker’s astonishing take on Power Man and Iron Fist. In a fictional landscape devoured in dime-a-dozen crime fighters, a black hero stands out, not only on physical appearance but culturally and how they resonant with readers in real life. I’d never before seen images of black men and women in fiction done in such a dynamic and heroic way, which hooked me right from the start. Within the medium of film and television, a renaissance of black shows and movies have begun to pour into the cultural zeitgeist, with a wide range of hits like Atlanta and Power representing the expanding hunger for more shows created and attuned to black sensibilities. Marvel, in collaboration with Netflix, aims to add to the growing renaissance with their own storied hero, Luke Cage, combining the wave of nuanced black television with superhuman heroics. But will Luke Cage be authentic in of itself, in the sense of capturing a people and a place within an important time period in the United States? Is this show just Marvel’s blatant grab at a popular trend? It only takes a trip to Harlem to find out.

Luke Cage, helmed by Cheo Hodari Coker, is the tale of an innocent convict following his escape from prison, after being subsequently experimented on and garnering superstrength and durability. Hiding out in the storied streets of Harlem, Luke Cage embraces his destiny to become a hero for the people. The show is the synthesis of neo-blaxploitation, hip-hop, haunting drama and superhero action, starring Mike Colter in the title role and surrounding him with a mixed bag of morally distinct characters. Supporting Cage in his fight against Harlem’s criminal underbelly, is Misty Knight, Clair Temple and Bobby Fish, respectively played by Simone Missick, Rosario Dawson and Ron Cephas Jones. Upholding the criminal element of the show is illegitimate businessman Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Willis “Diamondback” Stryker and Mariah Dillard, respectively played by Mahershala Ali, Erik LaRay Harvey and Alfre Woodard. Theo Rossi joins the cast of rogues as the mysterious character known as Shades, rounding out the first season cast.

Marvel’s first real foray into an actual nuanced look at a superhero of color is a breath of fresh air.

Luke Cage is unapologetically black; in its writing, characters and overall embodiment of its Harlem roots and black culture. Literary references namedropping Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are expertly intercut with musical performances from Jidenna and Faith Evans, serving as competent reminders that the writers and showrunner know what they’re talking about. Compared to other black shows Luke Cage is just as current and engaged in its cultural landscape as Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which is an excellent spot to share. Each episode, all named after Gang Starr track, is incredibly engaging, boasting an incredible range of great performances from the cast, wrapping the story and Harlem in an almost Wire-esque vibe.

Mike Colter is the show’s dynamo, flashing a Hollywood smile at the ladies and a bulletproof hide at his enemies. Simone Missick and Rosario Dawson are equally tough, blending beauty with street smart common sense and an enduring investigative appetite. As with every other Marvel Netflix show, the villains are the highlight here, with Luke Cage facing off against a trio of the neighborhoods ne’er-do-well’s. The show’s villains represent different tiers of the same nefarious ladder and the show kicks it off right near the top of it all with Cottonmouth. Mahershala Ali is deceptively smooth, knife like in his motions and monologues, with a brief scene featuring Biggie Smalls and some high levels of violence becoming a standout moment for him and his character. Cottonmouth borders the line between legitimate businessman and criminal overlord, with his cousin Black Mariah representing political dirtiness within the neighborhood and his sponsor Diamondback representing a much more personal threat to Luke Cage. Shades plays in-between the curtains of all these villains and it is an interesting potion of interplay between all of them. Alfre Woodard is poised and cracked with all her scenes with the slinky Theo Rossi, with these two holding a great deal of chemistry. Yet the highlight of all the villains has to be the big bad himself Diamondback, with Erik LaRay Harvey playing the character like a modern update of all those blaxploitation villains from back in the day. Every word he speaks holds you, playing very poetic and sometimes extremely cheesy but you’ll love every minute of it. His familiar hate and ensuing battles with Luke Cage are some of the best in the series.

A final highlight of the show is the subtext and the – at times – in your face, confrontational themes of the show. The show tackles current events and tragedies extremely well, seating the opinions and morals of a strong black man at the center of it all. This is Marvel’s first real foray into an actual nuanced look at a superhero of color, which, after all the appearances from War Machine and Falcon, is a breath of fresh air. Cage hits speeches of racial division, distrust of cops and the future of the community like a freight train and even the preachy nature of speeches doesn’t make them any less important.

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The largest trend that eclipsed all blaxploitation movies was lack of budget, more often than not shown through gaudy fight scenes and bad acting. Sadly, Luke Cage falls into this pit, despite having a reputable budget from Marvel, with most of the fight scenes only registering as Cage pushing around goons and wiping off bullets. There’s rarely any depth or tension in any of the fights, contrasting heavily to the brilliant fight sequences in the Daredevil series. In between the fights, some of the actors are stinking it up with terrible line delivery, which pulls you out of the scene and makes you wonder if this show belongs on the CW instead. A final knock at the show has to be the exposition heavy flashbacks towards the origin of Luke Cage. Yes, every superhero show eventually flips back to the origin story but compared to the other Netflix/Marvel shows, Luke Cage’s origins slow the show down, and serve only to stifle the show’s snowballing momentum.

With Black Panther’s debut film on the horizon, Storm being better cast in a new series of X-Men movies and Kid Flash making his first appearance as a person of color, black superheroes are hitting a decent stride. Luke Cage stands at the forefront, pioneering a wave of nuanced black characters in the same environment where Iron Man and Thor fought alien invaders.

With beautiful music, an entrancing story and an electrifying cast, Luke Cage is not only the must see show of the season, but perhaps of the year.

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