Premiere Date: Friday, September 30, Netflix — Episodes 1 – 13
Thank Stan for Method Man.
Amid the hours of injustice and bad puns and unlikely coincidence and MCU name dropping and just truly evil people getting away with stuff inflicted on us by Luke Cage, one of the few bright spots is the music permeating the series, and especially the rhymes spun by the Wu-Tang Clan legend, live on radio, in his song “Bulletproof Love,” an ode to Luke Cage’s folk hero status in Harlem, where we lay our scene.
Of course, in a world — in an America — where there is a movement entitled Black Lives Matter, as though such a thing should ever have been in doubt, the show’s nihilism is not only understandable, but to be applauded. It starts out pretty corny, dour and gangsterfied, all blaxploitation-y and this-time-it’s-personal. But as the body count ratchets up, as Luke Cage (Mike Colter) really dons the Power Man mantle to protect the people of Harlem with his strength and general imperviousness, there is a tonal shift and we find ourselves in an important, but very pointed, allegory. The show takes about five episodes to start hitting us with it, but by the time Method Man is asked why, if innocent, Cage is on the run (he’s on the run a lot) and he replies: “Bulletproof is always gonna come second to being black,” everyone is taking pains to make sure we Get It. The subtext rapidly becomes text, as it were.
Which is the main reason why you should not be terribly surprised when you spend much of the series’ runtime simmering with impotent rage over wrongs constantly perpetrated against the innocent, and smiling, smug villains shamelessly shifting the blame for their manifold misdeeds. (Then again, its hardly all sunshine and rainbows over in the relatively whitewashed worlds of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, either.)
To say Luke Cage ups the diversity factor in the MCU is a massive understatement — moreover, it ups the gender equality factor admirably, as well, with powerful women just matter-of-factly all over the place. There’s a lot to be said for the show, its intent and its message. I just wish I could say I enjoyed it more.
Instead, I feel entirely wrung out. Depleted. And just really cross.
Marvel’s Luke Cage, for those of you who have not been following Netflix’s other “Marvel’s” shows, is Jessica Jones’s former fling and Matt Murdock’s future client, apparently. While he was a prominent presence in Jessica Jones, they sensibly saved his origin story for this solo effort, so it is here we learn that his super strength and near-impenetrable skin comes from experiments performed on him while an inmate at a sinister private prison in Georgia. (Our man is innocent of the crime he was convicted for, of course.) He later escaped and has been living a shadow existence ever since, his superpowers largely unused until the similarly broken Jessica got him embroiled with her arch-nemesis. He has since moved uptown to Harlem, working at menial jobs and struggling to make rent, until he is drawn into the web of crime kingpin Cottonmouth Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and his cousin, the annoyingly persuasive Mariah (Alfre Woodard), who is pretty bulletproof herself, it turns out.
There is a lot going on here. Mad science and wise mentors and corrupt police (of course — it’s a Netflix Marvel show) and, hey there, Claire! Yep, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) makes her appearance on a third one of these shows, again as a love interest — what’s next? She dumps Luke for Iron Fist? — and her arrival is pretty much the saving grace of the back end of the season, as her sassy, selfless, superhero helpmeet presence is exactly what this show required to lift it out of the doldrums of its… well, its all of it.
If Bates Motel and Hannibal had a baby it would be Luke Cage.
The club Stokes owns, however, is amazing and I want to go there immediately. (Without all the hostage taking and murder, ideally.)
So, does Luke Cage clean up this alternate universe version of what is, in reality, a gentrified and multi-cultural community that would laugh at anyone campaigning to “Keep Harlem Black” while they sipped their cold filter ristrettos? Well, that would be telling. Suffice it to say, he won’t be bored throughout the eventual Season 2 — although hopefully the folks of Harlem don’t have to wait until after he teams up with Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist for The Defenders in 2017. (They’ll have to wait, won’t they?)
And should you watch it? Well, it’s certainly a worthy endeavor, when all is said and done. There are moments to relish, and the performances are all uniformly solid-to-stunning, with special praise going to Dawson, Woodard and Simone Missick as Detective Misty Knight, who never misses a single beat. There’s also a twisted, Puddin-style romance for anyone into that kind of thing, and even the odd inspirational speech to bring a tear to the eye.
But it’s not especially fun, so if that is what you look for in your comic book television, then head on over to the CW for those ludicrous but amusing Legends of Tomorrow. If you look for something more, something different, something entirely unique, however, then this show is your spirit animal. Again, let’s check in with Method Man:
Lord, who to call when no one obeys the law
And there ain’t no Iron Man that can come and save us all?
Power to the people and Luke Cage the cause
And the cops got it wrong, we don’t think Cage involved
Look, dog, a hero, never had one
Already took Malcolm and Martin, this is the last one
I beg your pardon, somebody pulling a fast one
Now we got a hero for hire and he a black one
And bullet-hole hoodies is the fashion
We in Harlem’s Paradise, tell the Captain
That I’m about to trade the mic for a Magnum
Give up my life for Trayvon to have one