Review: Marvel’s ‘LUKE CAGE’ Has Grander Ambitions Than Most

Brian and Manu talk the newest Marvel/Netflix series, Luke Cage. (Spoilers!)

BRIAN: One of the biggest criticisms of Netflix’s first two MCU series, Jessica Jones and Daredevil, was the sense of diminishing returns that seemed to strike about halfway through. What was envisioned as a single, serial story oftentimes resorted to contrivance and filler to pad out 13 hours of content. One of the most arresting things about Luke Cage is how immediately original it looks, sounds, and feels. From the first frame, this show is filmed differently, scored differently and most importantly cast differently than anything else under the Marvel banner.

It feels disingenuous to talk about Luke Cage without first mentioning its blackness. Almost every major character is black. This show, and more importantly the people behind this show (including showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker) have made a show focused on exploring blackness first and being about superheroes second. This hurts the show a little when Coker’s earnest attempts to include as much black culture as possible weighs down some segments (the musical performances, as wonderful as they are, sometimes result in what amounts to some very strange pacing for a show like this), but in the end it’s hard to fault Coker or anyone involved for being as inclusive and eclectic as they could be in a genre that still, despite some progress, has serious representation problems.

Mike Colter can wear the hell out of a suit.

MANU: But really, the blackness of the show permeates every element of filmcraft here. The show is a pastiche of black culture; Dolomite, Shaft, Wu-Tang Clan, and The Wire can all be found in Luke Cage‘s DNA while never backing away from his comic origins. And granted, a lot of “black pop culture,” especially in comic books, is white men creating black heroes and black society. Which is where Luke Cage is truly a victory. It’s a reclamation of all that culture; an amalgam of all that came before, repurposed and rebranded into something new, something black, and thus something uniquely successful.

Much ink will be spilled on the show’s music, and rightly so. But visually, Luke Cage views like an actual comic. The use of still camera, panning, and framing techniques brings the world to life in a way its predecessors never managed. While Daredevil and Jessica Jones were able to recreate iconic panels, Luke Cage flows from one panel to the next, creating a feel singular to reading an actual issue. And the camerawork keenly informs the narrative throughout. Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (played Avon Barksdale-style by Mahershala Ali) is often centered in still camera shots, framed by windows or his giant Biggie Smalls painting, to illustrate the mob boss’s myopia. Contrast this with his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) playing the political game, featured in upshots and wide angle shots to illustrate her reach and vision for Harlem. It’s that attention to detail that really helps keep the narrative rolling even through pacing issues that have been known to haunt Marvel’s Netflix slate.

Mike Colter, as the show’s titular character, had already made an impression with his role in Jessica Jones. And Theo Rossi is deviously wonderful, Littlefingering his way through the entire season, turning disaster into power plays effortlessly. But the revelation here is Simone Missick’s Detective Misty Knight, whose arc may be the most compelling. Knight is burdened with being a black woman and a cop in an embattled, predominantly minority community, navigating a highly politicized and crooked local government.  All the while, she wrestles with placing Luke Cage into her own ideal of justice. A nod to the writing here, too; while the show did shuffle in some police drama tropes (crooked colleagues, demanding chief), it never interjected a purely obstinate device to prolong or delay her work, and when challenges did arise, Knight overcame them with her own cunning. The series could have been titled after her with no loss to its impact.

Mahershala Ali can also wear the hell out of a suit. This is a very handsome show in more ways than one.

BRIAN: This show’s cast is perhaps its strongest attribute. Even in the other two Netflix shows, there’s been someone who felt ill-cast or just plain unenjoyable to watch. Not here. Every major character is excellently performed, and every major character has a different conception of what it means to be black. Take this show’s women of color. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), Misty Knight and Mariah Dillard are three of the show’s five major characters, and each of them goes through complex and varied character arcs that paint them as individual people. In a lesser show, where only one woman of color gets any major screentime, she would have to represent her demographic’s entire cultural experience. On Luke Cage, these three (and the myriad of WOC supporting characters, including both of Misty’s direct superiors) get to exist on their own terms, with their own storylines.

No discussion of this show’s cast would be complete without at least some mention of Erik LaRay Harvey’s incendiary performance as Willis Stryker, aka Diamondback. The former Boardwalk Empire supporting player has a very distinct look and energy on screen, one that this show uses to grand effect and he slowly emerges from the shadows and starts to obliterate everything Luke stands for.
At this point, I’d like to slap down a big ol SPOILER WARNING, because it’s hard to talk about Diamondback or Cottonmouth or even Mariah herself without discussing the gigantic shift that takes place about halfway through the season. So what was your reaction when Mariah killed Cottonmouth in a fit of rage, Manu? And how did you feel about the more heightened comic book tone Diamondback brought to the role of central villain?
Hope lies in the smoldering rubble of empires.

MANU: The shift fell necessary, yet effective.  Looking at both Daredevil and Jessica Jones is instructive here. Both of their inaugural seasons opened with the heroes and villains orbiting each other, with each villain being slotted to be the antagonist through the entire season . Because of that, the middle act becomes sloppy and incoherent, necessarily delaying the final showdown to fill 13 hours. In Luke Cage, Luke and Cottonmouth are in each other’s face from the outset, so having their conflict extend beyond the midway point would ultimately neuter Cornell with his repeated failures. All that bluster and scene chewing can only stand up for so long.

The emergence of “Black Mariah” seemed inevitable from the pilot. Being one of Cage’s more popular adversaries, her transition from dirty politician to full on Harlem Kingpin felt both organic and unique. Though she needed some coaxing from Shades, the writing of her full heel turn stayed true to her character. Through the very last episode, Mariah is using her political acumen and knowledge of media to spin the events of the climax into her favor. Alfre Woodard really owns the role here, offering subtlety and restraint compared to Cottonmouth and Diamondback’s bombast. And yet her rise is marked with both humanity and fear at what she’s becoming. Her performance when Diamondback kills the other mob bosses grounds the entire scene, not letting the tone stray too far from the desired grit.

And yet, the tone did have to shift to move from street-level gang war to a superhero battle. Mariah’s betrayal created a vacuum for Stryker, who comes in armed with “Judas” bullets which can penetrate Luke’s unbreakable skin. Harvey’s singular purpose and charisma is not unlike Ali’s, but his intensity is simply arresting as both an actor and character (even Misty is overwhelmed by his presence). Their encounter in the empty theater stands out as particularly wonderful (and gorgeous), and the revelation that they are half brothers brings an added narrative weight that Cornell and Mariah can’t bring.

I did have some reservations, though. While it held up in the middle better than its Marvel cousins, the season still felt a bit long for me. I’m not sure if we needed 5-6 episodes of Diamondback as opposed to 2-3, and the episodic quality of the show falls apart and feels like one really long movie (which, admittedly, may just be a trapping of the format). Also, Luke’s relationship with his father and half-brother are introduced quite late in the season, which dampened that reveal for me. And though I understand why the sojourn to Atlanta had to happen (to bring Dr. Burstein, Luke’s creator, into the narrative), it did feel like hitting the pause button for two episodes. Lastly, while I loved Harvey’s performance, his actualized superhero outfit fell a flat to me; a bit too campy when his opposite number was in a hoodie and jeans.

I don’t think these flaws are damning, and I think the previously noted visual and musical aspects help pick up the slack in spots where the story might be weaker. For example, I absolutely adored the Method Man cameo, especially his in-universe jam “Bulletproof Love.” Allowing the soundtrack to have its own arc of sorts, and have actual narrative impact, was fitting and tells me the showrunners were not arbitrary in their homage to hip hop. A great flourish near the end of the season.

Brian: Do you think the pacing held up throughout the season, or did it suffer like its predecessors? And do you have any thoughts on the bittersweet nature of the ending and where we go from here as we gear up for Iron Fist and The Defenders?

I honestly could not tell you what decade this is supposed to be set in without context.

BRIAN: I think Harvey’s Diamondback was at his most interesting during his first full episode, #8, which might have been the best of the season. Or at least the most visually arresting. Over the course of the next few episodes, he sort of devolves into a more traditional comic book villain, spouting monologues at every opportunity. Sure, they’re great monologues, but there are times when he seems like a character from an entirely different show who got lost on his way to the set.

This disconnect is felt perhaps most sharply in the finale, which begins with the climactic Luke/Diamondback fight, and ends more than 40 minutes later after Diamondback hasn’t been seen for half an hour. He’s an afterthought in the finale of the show he’s supposed to be the main antagonist of. To make things worse, this final climactic fight happens in Pop’s barber shop, a place Stryker had never been and had no connection to. If the show could have tied the shooting at Pop’s to Shades more, or made it clearer that Diamondback was pulling the strings (how did he frame Luke in the first place?), it might have felt a little less disjointed. It didn’t help that his costume looked terrible. There’s some clunkiness, is what I mean, which is par for the course for these series to this point.

Still, this is a gorgeous, well-wrought show with some excellent performances (Alfre Woodard is particularly good) and an important role in both the Marvel canon and superhero adaptation as a whole. It might be more admirable than good, but it’s very admirable and it’s pretty good.

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