After watching the first seven episodes of the Luke Cage Netflix series, I can confidently say that that its lead character doesn’t always feel like the Power Man who’s shown up in decades of Marvel comics. But, as this spoiler-free review will show, I like him anyway. This Luke Cage is still an everyman superhero that works as a conduit to a multiplicity of black experiences.
The glimpses of Luke Cage that viewers saw in Jessica Jones last year showed a man with a haunted past. In his own series, which debuts on Netflix on September 30, we see Luke weigh the cost of what it means to become someone who fights for people on the fringes. He’s keeping his head down when the show starts, working off the books in Harlem. Despite the main character’s attempts at staying off the radar, the show isn’t coy with its premise or secrets. Early on, viewers see that Luke’s special abilities are going to make him a larger-than-life figure, and the questions of what he’ll do in the spotlight and why he needs to hide at all are what drives the show’s narrative.
Luke Cage takes the raw ore of superhero source material and works it into an alloy meant to stand strong against the pressure of fickle high expectations. It feels like a show that has to put a whole culture on its back. Several of them, actually — it has to withstand the withering gaze of superhero comic fans who likely know the title character’s history backwards and forwards, along with the attention of hip-hop heads and curious newcomers.
The first half that I’ve watched won me over with canny invocations of brownstone-stoop candour, Harlem Renaissance literary history and winks at the sociopolitical machinery that hustlers and strivers used to fund businesses and political campaigns when banks wouldn’t lend them money. But the real key to enjoying Luke Cage is the realisation that it’s a grown-and-sexy update of the character’s blaxploitation roots. This version of Cage isn’t a hot-tempered, jive-talking hero-for-hire, but the Harlem he moves through is powered by hustle nonetheless. Like the Hell’s Kitchen shown in Daredevil, the uptown neighbourhood where Luke Cage takes place is an artist’s rendering of a real place, shot through with exaggeration and melodrama. There’s a core of truth in the middle of that creative licence, though. The normal folks Luke interacts with are trying to hang on to what little they have while others are trying to climb the rungs of society, even if it means stepping on the backs of others.
Cage’s existential struggle centres on figuring out the responsibilities a man with his talents has to a community like Harlem and balancing the answer to against his own happiness. Bullets may bounce off his skin but he’s still suffered enough loss to make him wary of playing the hero, especially in a place where he’s an outsider. That dialectic is an old saw in superhero fiction but showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker and the writing staff get extra mileage from the power/responsibility engine by anchoring the idea in the specificity of historical black experience. Both Cage and his main nemeses are cast as symbols of potentiality, opposite poles of what powerful black people can achieve in ignored or exploited communities.
Jessica Jones deftly layered in subtext about the crippling effects of omnipresent male gaze and female objectification, creating a psychological thriller about people with special abilities. In similar fashion, Luke Cage is a show about a historically important neighbourhood fighting for its soul. The action takes place in a Harlem where gentrification has been slowly squeezing out the black population that gave the neighbourhood its unique character.
The fight choreography in Luke Cage does a great job of making you believe that this is how a man with bulletproof skin would fight. Luke isn’t choreographed or careful; he doesn’t need to be. He plows through walls and nonchalantly swats away thugs like dirt off his shoulder. Colter oozes sly charm and a simmering edge in his portrayal of Cage. He doesn’t come across like a dude who ran the streets but his performance does enough to show that he’s familiar with their rhythms. Mahershala Ali is his polar opposite, infusing nightclub owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes with brash charisma and explosive menace while also portraying a surprising emotional turbulence roiling underneath all this slickness and swagger. Alfre Woodard is amazing as Stokes’ cousin Mariah Dillard, a councilwoman who uses Cottonmouth’s money for her re-election and real estate development campaign that’s supposed to “keep Harlem black”. Woodard spits platitudes and venom with energetic sincerity, making it hard for viewers to think that she doesn’t still believe in the ideals she talks up. As the actress playing Misty Knight, Simone Missick has one of the show’s toughest jobs, portraying a cop working in a time where they’re not blindly trusted any more. She nails the role by making Misty seem smarter and cooler than anybody else in the precinct house.
The show’s writing self-consciously tethers Luke Cage to a legacy of black pulp heroism. Moreover, Luke Cage takes the exaggerated, over-affected mannerisms of 1970s blaxploitation movies and 1990s hood flicks, and brings them forward, pulling threads from the sharkskin suits of New Jack City, New York Undercover, American Gangster, The Wire and kinfolk melanin-heavy melodramas like Empire. The show occasionally teeters on the edge of overly earnest message-movie corniness but, even then, it feels like it’s doing so intentionally.
The mix of tonalities make it feel richer than first impressions might suggest. It moves from barbershop shit-talking to considerations of Harlem’s singular history or visual nostalgia for old-school rap videos without inducing whiplash. There’s a self-awareness at play here that pulled me in. Luke Cage takes its themes and performances seriously but not at the expense of having fun in the kitchen.
The super-ness of this show isn’t in its fiction; it’s in its purpose. Coker and crew are trying to tie a passel of disparate influences together to create a whole that celebrates black pop cultural production across the 20th and 21st centuries. When Luke Cage debuted in the Marvel Comics of the 1970s, black people were shouting out that they were beautiful in defiance of an institutionalised system that worked to dehumanise them. This show does the same thing.
Luke Cage feels like many different swatches of blackness all at once. It has humour, pathos and rhythm that are distinct from the other Netflix Marvel shows. It’s funkier and pulpier than either Daredevil or Jessica Jones. It has to be, because Luke Cage sketches out a sense of an entire community, one that’s a symbol of how black people have thrived in a centuries-old cycle that’s had them exoticised and disenfranchised. Once he starts shaking things up uptown, all eyes are on Luke Cage. That’s OK because, if the second half of the season is as strong as the first, he’s definitely worth watching.