Marvel’s Luke Cage quickly gets to the major idea behind the entire series: A black man in a hoodie can be a hero. Crooked cops, powerful gangsters, personal vendettas and corrupt politicians litter Harlem, and the so-called “Bulletproof Man” finds himself caught in the middle of all of them. Luke Cage is an entirely different creature from Marvel’s other Netflix endeavors, proving itself a wholly unique take on a superhero show. And it does so with great success, despite ultimately being weaker than its sibling shows, Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Luke Cage has changed a bit since we last saw him in Jessica Jones last year, having fled Hell’s Kitchen for the relative calm of Harlem (Luke Cage takes place simultaneously with the events of Season 2 of Daredevil). We initially find him sweeping up hair at a local barbershop owned by a friend of his deceased wife. As the series starts to unfold, we see that this role is just the beginning for Cage, as he quickly gets swept up (the puns begin) in an intricate power struggle happening in Harlem just as he arrives.
It seems only fitting to start with Cage himself. Mike Colter delivered a powerful (pun intended) performance in Jessica Jones, feeding off of the exceptional Krysten Ritter in the lead of that show. Now the headliner, Colter’s performance is still admirable and satisfying to watch but is ultimately flawed in the delivery. Cage, as I know him, has a little more of a twinkle in his eye, a little more levity than Colter truly presents.
Much to his credit, though, Colter carries the social burdens and symbolic meanings of Cage to perfection. He never falls into the downtrodden black-man trope, and he never gives in to that formulaic understanding of the genre. Colter plays Cage at his strongest and at his weakest, and he does so convincingly and entertainingly.
The message of the series is multifaceted, carrying the obvious expectation of dealing with the racial tensions that not only populate such a gentrified area while also providing viewers with their first black-led superhero series. This isn’t Blade; this isn’t Black Panther; this is Luke Cage. He’s lives at the level of the everyman, struggling right at their side. He just happens to have superpowers.
He’s recognizable to a wide audience for a variety of different reasons, and, as such, he makes a very profound and political statement. It’s because of this that Luke Cage is an excellent show, but it’s also because of this that it doesn’t quite achieve the quality of either Jessica Jones or Daredevil.
There is little in the way of subtlety when dealing with these issues. In one episode, a cop beats up a young boy because the boy won’t disclose Cage’s location. Cage is accosted by cops in the same episode, the recurring symbol of his hoodie marking him as a possible subject. Political antagonist Mariah Dillard (played by Alfre Woodard) struggles to run on a platform of both change as a community and solidarity in their blackness. There is a poignant struggle here between the optimism of hope and a realistic cynicism, but these disparate themes don’t inhabit specific characters; rather, they can be found in each character to varying degrees.
And the fact that Cage wears hoodies and is black is brought up multiple times, often to show that he isn’t a criminal, and that there isn’t a dress code to be one. The show is rich in symbolism, utilizing a portrait of Biggie Smalls to show the shifting power dynamic between villains Cottonmouth (played by Mahershala Ali) and Dillard. This, accompanied by excellent camera work and lighting, makes Luke Cage visually striking. Certain recurring images hammer home the themes that the show is trying to convey.
To call Luke Cage a hit-or-miss would deny it credit for everything it gets right. The acting is superb, the story and design are compelling, and the characters pop with vibrancy, courtesy of the aforementioned acting talent and a skilled writers room. There is even a loving reference to the Cage of yore: A brief moment in Episode 4 shows him donning an open, yellow shirt whilst sporting the tiara and bracelets that defined Power Man in his debut in 1972.
Despite that, however, there is one place that the show is decidedly hit-or-miss: the music. The show strives to recall the 70s heyday of its titular character, layering each scene with the jive music of the decade. In some scenes, such as Cottonmouth’s temper tantrums—or really any scene that takes place in the notably dated Harlem’s Paradise nightclub—the music brings to life that sense of a bygone era when overdressed gangsters went toe-to-toe with macho, mustachioed heroes. But, at other times, the music sounds like hokey Halloween music, quickly slapped onto a scene in a post-production edit.
The story is solid with each character getting to contribute their piece to the story with no one feeling truly wasted. There are also plenty of cameos with characters visiting from the other Netflix Marvel shows. Of these, Rosario Dawson’s Claire grabs the most screen time, proving to be the truly unifying influence among these as yet disparate programs.
Regardless, the eventual conflict between Cage and the true villain of the series, Diamondback (played by Erik LaRay Harvey), was given enough time to develop but never felt like it had the same sting as previous villain-hero pairings. Jones had a deeply personal, painful relationship with her antagonist, fighting him over the course of her entire season and ultimately triumphing. Luke Cage can’t seem to make up its mind about where it wants to go, shifting targets until finally finding its groove.
Part of this has to do with Cage himself. Luke’s decision to suddenly change his mind from running to stepping up and being a hero seemed a bit rushed, especially considering the dramatic change of heart that must have occurred. Diamondback’s identity would have proved a convincing catalyst for him to make such a monumental decision, but this information is withheld from the audience until later in the season.
Luke Cage ends on a strong note, giving Cage new purpose and setting up more than a few villains for him to face in either subsequent series or as a part of the new team-up series, The Defenders. With three of the four heroes slated to appear in that series now active in New York, the stage is just about set for Marvel’s street-level heroes to finally come together.
To sum it all up in one brief statement, I’d have to quote one of the most poignant lines from the show: “Never backwards, always forward.” For all its faults, Luke Cage is an exceptional piece of television, daring to say what few other shows will. It directly confronts the systemic racism that exists in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our hearts. It isn’t afraid to break its characters down, to make you see the good in the worst of people, to invert the audience’s understanding of what it means to be a hero.
So, while Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the best of the Marvel series, it is by far the bravest. And, in that, it definitively leads the MCU “always forward.”