At this point, it feels like an understatement to suggest that the bar is set pretty high for every new chapter added to Marvel’s rapidly growing cinematic universe on Netflix.
With two wildly successful first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones already in the bank, and proof – in the form of the equally popular second season of Daredevil – that the shows have staying power with audiences, the new series Luke Cage arrives on the scene with big shoes to fill.
Fortunately, as he points out on several occasions during the show’s first season, Marvel’s hero of Harlem is a size XXL.
Led by showrunner and head writer Cheo Hodari Coker (Notorious, Southland), Luke Cage brings back actor Mike Colter as the steel-skinned superhero Luke Cage, who made his debut in the first season of Jessica Jones. The series is set just after the events of Jessica Jones, and picks up where that series left off: with Luke putting Hell’s Kitchen in his rearview mirror and heading north to Harlem.
Although he tries to keep a low profile, Luke’s efforts to stay under the radar are complicated by the machinations of local crime boss Cornell Stokes (played by House of Cards actor Mahershala Ali), and he’s forced to come out of the shadows in order to protect the neighborhood from the sinister forces – both outside the law and within it – that threaten to tear it down.
Marvel has done an impressive job so far with handling the first seasons of its small-screen superheroes’ adventures. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones have been introduced in story arcs that weave the obligatory origin stories into the seams of the season-long narrative and bring the audience into the immediate action without spending too much time dwelling in the past.
Luke Cage takes a similar approach to getting you familiar with its titular hero, but spends noticeably more time exploring the character’s life before he got superhuman powers than any of the previous series spent with their super-powered protagonists. The reasons behind the show’s emphasis on Luke’s history become clear as the season unfolds, and the slow burn is handled well by Coker, who expertly paces the expansion of what we know about Colter’s character.
As for Colter, the former The Good Wife and The Following actor handles the transition from supporting character to series lead well, and proves that he is indeed capable of carrying his own show – something that critics and fans both wondered after seeing him play a secondary role in Jessica Jones. With the exception of a few scenes in which he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with Coker’s comics-inspired dialogue or extended, philosophical monologues, Colter does a fine job of selling his character’s super-powered evolution and everything that goes along with it.
The series also benefits from a great group of actresses in supporting roles.
Simone Missick (The Road to Sundance) holds her own as police detective – and popular Marvel Comics character – Misty Knight, who becomes an instant addition to the list of characters you’ll want to see more of in future series. Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard (Cross Creek) also seems to revel in her role as a powerful councilwoman with more than a few skeletons in her closet.
Mike Colter proves that he is indeed capable of carrying his own show.
Still, while Colter successfully follows in the footsteps of previous, well-received Marvel series leads Charlie Cox (Daredevil) and Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), Luke Cage suffers a bit for lack of a similarly memorable villain.
The first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones featured some of the most impressive small-screen villains in recent history, with Vincent D’Onofrio’s crime boss Wilson Fisk and David Tennant’s mind-controlling killer Kilgrave stealing the spotlight in their respective roles. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that those first seasons were defined as much by their villains as their heroes, and owe quite a bit of their success to their brilliant bad guys.
Unfortunately, Luke Cage opts to go for a host of mediocre antagonists instead of one standout villain, with Ali never quite mustering much of a threat to Luke Cage, and the eventual emergence of another, more powerful villain offering too little, too late. Crafting a worthwhile antagonist for a character with bulletproof skin and super strength can’t be easy, but anyone familiar with the two previous Marvel series will likely feel like something big – and bad – is missing from Luke Cage.
The differences between Luke Cage and the two earlier Marvel series aren’t all negative, though.
Coker and the series’ creative team clearly intended to make the setting of Luke Cage a character in and of itself, and they do a fantastic job of bringing Harlem alive on the screen and forging a connection between the neighborhood and the show’s audience. The series’ cast of characters are prone to waxing philosophical about the importance of Harlem and its role in both the history of America and that of the African-American experience in the U.S., and the series conveys that vision of the famous neighborhood with surprising effectiveness. It’s difficult to watch Luke Cage and not feel some sort of strong emotion about Harlem, even if you’ve never set foot in New York.
Coker also uses the music in Luke Cage in a way unlike any of the previous Marvel shows.
Early reports about the series had hinted that Coker intended to pay special attention to the musical component of the show, and it becomes clear early on that this is indeed the case – and only becomes more apparent as the season unfolds. Whether the audience watches Luke take down a building filled with criminals against the backdrop of the Wu-Tang Clan track playing through Luke’s headphones or simply having the tone of the episode set by extended takes of the performers in Cornell Stokes’ club, music often does as much to define the series’ narrative as the actors’ performances and the dialogue. The music of Luke Cage is its own character, and it plays a key role in each and every episode.
Although the first season of Luke Cage doesn’t quite match the all-around success of its Marvel peers on Netflix, it still manages to be one of the best new, original series to premiere this year. The series’ fresh, innovative use of music and the way it makes its setting an integral part of the story are unlike anything done in the previous Marvel shows, and it’s encouraging to see the studio’s willingness to try new things in its small-screen universe and break the existing mold – particularly when it’s a mold that Marvel itself created.
Like the incident that gave the show’s title character his powers, Luke Cage is a risky experiment – but it’s one that pays off in the end.
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