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TV Review: Luke Cage, Season 1

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★★★

Marvel’s Luke Cage is the latest endeavour from the Marvel/Netflix team up that have previously brought us Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Set in the same universe, Luke Cage returns us to modern day Harlem - where we previously met him in the aforementioned Krysten Ritter-led superhero drama.

Carrying on from the events of Jessica Jones, the series begins with Luke having settled down in Harlem, attempting to find redemption and peace. He works two jobs and is struggling for money, whilst also trying to recover from the dark and inescapable pain of his past.

 

Through a few incidents that occur during the first episodes, a strong conflict between Luke and criminal overlord Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) is ignited. Acting as a hero of the people and trying to rid Harlem of corruption and greed, Luke starts a feud with the criminal organisations. Alongside Cottonmouth, Mayor Mariah and the conspicuously named Shades (who has a mysterious connection to Luke) fight to try and stop Luke from uncovering and defeating the crime that Harlem is buried beneath. 

The series of shows that have been previously created in the same universe have all had terrific performances and Luke Cage doesn’t falter on that front. Mike Colter brings humanity and pain to the character, as well as making Cage an unstoppable force when it comes to punching the bad people. This is definitely a well-developed addition to the already mesmerising appearance he had in Jessica Jones

Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth is an unpredictable monster - going from completely calm to brutally murdering one of his henchman is a reoccurring event. Cottonmouth also has one of the best arcs throughout the series, which explores his tragic backstory alongside the conflict and power struggle with his cousin and Mayor, Mariah Dilard. 

A strong female cast is also present: Simone Missick plays Misty Knight, the detective who leads the police investigations involving the criminal events and develops a personal relationship with Luke. Misty takes the role of the morally adjusted cop, who has a strong belief in Luke Cage and understands what he is fighting for. Misty has a rather odd ‘superpower’ of being able to unravel crime scenes in her head by looking at evidence, almost like Will Graham in Hannibal. However, this talent proves unusual here and never happens to add any dimension to her character. 

Joining Luke for the second half of the series is Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the loveable recurring doctor from Daredevil and Jessica Jones. The two become allies and Claire becomes a reliable friend for Luke through the prosecution and conflict that he encounters in the latter half of the series. Claire is charming and provides a sweet and effective chemistry alongside Luke.

The invincible Luke Cage doesn’t become boring however; the evil characters at play manipulate Luke’s small number of invulnerabilities, torturing him emotionally and cleverly coming up with ways that could actually physically harm him. 

“Who would’ve thought a black man in a hoodie would be a hero?” says a young lady being interviewed about Luke during the season finale. There is a strong racial commentary throughout the series, starting with Pop (Frankie Faison) who mentors and protects young men on the streets of Harlem from the seemingly attractive crime style that so many have already been drawn to. Pop uses his barbershop as a place for youngsters to work and relax, eventually becoming a beloved father figure of Harlem. The core message is exemplified within the narrative: Harlem’s youth on a few occasions are drawn into street and organised crime, which never turns out in their favour.

Black culture is also strongly emphasised, with a particular focus on music. The euphoric smooth jazz and soul performances at Cottonmouth’s club, ‘Harlem’s Paradise’ feel mystical and beautiful throughout. Fans of the Wu-Tang Clan will get all goosebumpy as ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ plays while Luke prepares to take out some bad guys. Along with a surprise appearance from Method Men, who then reappears to rap about the situation involving Luke Cage - again, fans of rap will appreciate the effort - Gang Starr listeners may notice that each episode is named after one of his songs. Luke Cage is definitely a love-letter to the culture and embraces that with subtlety and passion. 

Luke Cage is far from perfect, however. Within the story, there is a power struggle with the balance of plot alongside strong structural flaws. From the first few episodes, it is unclear where the show is headed - the progression tends to play off a small event that seems insignificant and uninteresting from what happens in the first episode. This is lingered on for sometime and plot doesn't really gain the much-needed momentum until a few episodes in. 

An episode that takes a look at Luke’s time in prison feels out of place and poorly introduced into the overall plot. Though entertaining and vaguely interesting, it doesn’t embellish much of any previous or upcoming situations. There are also some over-focused plot points that are very dull and uninteresting and don’t add much in terms of captivating audience attention.

The script struggles sometimes too, with many instances that feel overplayed and exaggerated and a bit too out of place for the gritty, socio-realist tone the series strives for. Of course this could be drawing on the original Luke Cage comics, which were fun and cheesy, but if so, it feels poorly integrated. 

The conclusion feels concise and rewarding, whilst leaving a few unfinished threads that will no doubt be picked up in later seasons. The show finds its feet as a gritty crime drama, losing its identity as a purely superhero piece. This does work, as it has with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and as it should with Iron Fist and The Defenders, in bringing all of the Marvel Netflix guys together.

Aside from the story problems, Luke Cage is still very enjoyable and well worth a watch if you have even the slightest interest in comic book adaptations and the ongoing and ever-growing Marvel universe.

The first season of Luke Cage is available in full on Netflix now. 

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