Powerful, Relevant Themes Weighed Down by Boring Storytelling
After his debut in 2015’s Netflix series Jessica Jones, iconic Marvel Comics hero Luke Cage stars in his own eponymous show from the streaming service. With a more relevant than ever focus on black lives and community violence, Luke Cage finds itself empowered by resonant themes and simultaneously hampered by some poor storytelling choices.
Set in Harlem, New York, and following the life of Luke Cage (Mike Colter) – a bulletproof and super strong African American man who is trying to make sense of his life and powers – Netflix’s Luke Cage is just as much about one man trying to do what is right as it is about a community being pulled between good and evil. And into this struggle come crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), arms dealer Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), and NYPD detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick).
As a whole, Luke Cage is strongest in its themes and characters and often weakest in its narrative and action. From the get go, the series hones in on its most powerful ideas, many of which are encapsulated in the character of Luke himself. From stunning tragedies early on in the show to powerful speeches concerning the value of black lives (Colter’s speech at the end of episode 2 concerning Crispus Attucks is incredibly moving and is possibly the emotional highpoint of the entire season), it’s clear that Luke Cage and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker have many important things to say about today’s society. However, these themes slowly move to the background as the season progresses, switching focus to the main storyline and its action sequences, neither of which are strong enough to suitably replace the powerful metaphors found at the series’ beginning.
As he’d already proved during his time as a supporting character on Jessica Jones, Colter is dynamic and gripping as Cage. He has a firm grasp on the character and understands how to make him both sensationally iconic and vulnerably human. Those dual aspects make Cage into an exciting lead character and one that can properly shoulder the burden of the many relevant themes tackled by the show, despite not having much in terms of a true story arc. Even when Luke Cage the show begins to falter in its focus and strengths, Colter never does as Luke Cage the man. And Marvel should be thankful that they found a leading man this captivating to empower their show and hopefully many more stories that feature the character.
The idea of a bullet-proof black man is powerful in and of itself and possibly the most societally important foundation for a protagonist to come along in a very long time. From striking images of Cage striding head first into a hail of bullets to the hero shielding loved ones from violence with his own body, the imagery is profound and clear. It’s unfortunate that those threads get lost further into the season, as issues of police brutality become muddled in the overly simplistic revenge plot that fuels the second half. However, a late season appearance and rap by Method Man reenergizes the show for a few minutes, reminding the viewer of the core truths at play here.
Luke Cage is also propelled by phenomenal musical choices, including both its ’70s flavored blaxploitation style score and its numerous musical guest appearances, which root the show even deeper into the culture that it represents. The music of the show is part of its lifeblood from start to finish and is inextricably part of what makes it come alive. Not only that, but there are numerous striking images from the season’s first half. Everything from Luke’s bullet-riddled hoodie to Cottonmouth standing in front of a portrait of Biggie to the sight of Luke being reborn into his superpowers are sights to behold. These artistic choices add a bold and unforgettable flavor to the show in ways that many modern superhero TV shows and films have been unable to capture. They heighten the characters and message in organic and crucial ways for a powerful viewing experience in the show’s first half.
It’s unfortunate that a show that starts as strong as Luke Cage fails as much as it does in the second half of the season. Without revealing any details, there is a hard shift that occurs in the narrative during episodes 7 and 8. This change shifts the show from being a powerful allegory that comments on many current crucial social issues to a more personal and fairly standard story of action and revenge.
While that second story is executed competently enough, it feels like a massive comedown after the emotional and resonant first half. Commentary on modern black culture is traded in for shootouts. Metaphors concerning societal oppression of African Americans are swapped out with generic super-powered punch-ups. The nuance of race relations in a modern fractured society gives way to rote crime drama.
The decision to split the first season of Luke Cage into two fairly distinct yet still connected stories may have helped to prevent the fatigue felt at times in the massive stories told in Daredevil season 1 or Jessica Jones season 1, but it feels uneven in ways similar to Daredevil season 2. It also doesn’t help that the season is split between two mismatched villains, with Cottonmouth being the center of the first half and Diamondback becoming the main antagonist of the second half. Put simply, Cottonmouth is a far superior character and one that makes Diamondback look boring in comparison.
Ali’s Cottonmouth is exquisitely complex, with the character having tantalizing humanity beneath his killer exterior, which is slowly explored across the episodes. He’s a man whose ambitions and ideals represent so much more than himself and an antagonist who plays off the moralistic and self-sacrificing ideals of Cage to quickly deepen the message of the show. But Harvey’s Diamondback is a scenery-chewing cartoon fit for a comic book or one of the countless blaxploitation films that inspired the creation of Luke Cage in the first place. While that may not seem like an issue in theory, he’s a flat and boring physical threat who throws off the entire balance of the show, shifting it from stylistically powerful social commentary to stereotypical action heroics.
It certainly doesn’t help that his climactic battle with Cage isn’t just a disappointment in the show, but is easily the worst climax in any of the Marvel Netflix shows so far. Which is such a damn shame, because a show with this much to say at first deserves an ending that is so much better than this. Overall, the fights in Luke Cage don’t thrill like Daredevil, but are far more integral to the plot than Jessica Jones. You can only see Luke take dozens of rounds unfazed before knocking his enemies out in a single slap before it becomes tired.
Outside the main players, Woodard’s Mariah makes for an interesting enough secondary antagonist, albeit one whose character arc is strangely thrown into neutral for the series’ second half for no particular reason, causing her to become flat and uninteresting. But supporting players like Missick’s Misty Knight, Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, Theo Rossi’s Shades, and Frankie Faison’s “Pop” Hunter breathe a lot more life into the show from start to finish.
For a show and a character with this much to potentially say, it feels like so many opportunities were strangely missed. By the time Luke Cage ends, you’ll still love its dynamic and interesting characters, but you’ll be left wondering where the emotionally raw and societally relevant show from the first six episodes went.