Marvel’s “Luke Cage” is Netflix’s next installment in their Marvel superhero series. Each show — “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and now “Luke Cage” — firmly and proudly resides in New York City, and each show has its own distinctive style.
While “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” took very dark paths in regard to storytelling, “Luke Cage” manages to tell a similar story but with an element of soul that the other two weren’t able express. Due to that, “Luke Cage” stands out as one of the more interesting and distinct superhero shows on the air today.
“Luke Cage” tells the story of the titular character, Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a man who has unbreakable skin and super strength. By unbreakable skin, it is in the literal sense as bullets, knives and even rocket launchers have absolutely no effect on him.
Luke resides in the New York neighborhood of Harlem, and the crime and corruption sprawling throughout the neighborhood eventually lead Luke to take a stand and fight for the people.
One of the more interesting facets of this show is its pacing. “Luke Cage” may very well be the slowest-paced superhero show of all time. The creative team takes its time in advancing the plot, and it takes a few episodes before the audience gets a significant action scene.
The pacing, juxtaposed with a character that is immune to any form of physical attack, seems like an odd choice at first, but the creators of the show are able to flip traditional storytelling on its head and present a story that is engaging and thought provoking.
The show has the ability to present us a character that could literally bring the house down with every episode, but the character of Luke Cage, much like the pacing of the story he’s contained within, is calm, measured and reluctant to display his powers. That is what makes this story so fascinating: the audience’s expectations are subverted in order to tell a story that isn’t at all familiar.
Part of the unconventional storytelling stems from the characters. They are deep, nuanced and flawed people. Even Luke, the man who can’t be physically broken, has his weaknesses. He is a man tormented by his past and struggles with confidence issues. He has a strong moral center but sometimes lacks the initiative to display it. The villains in this show are as intersectional as Luke as well.
The main villain is Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a kingpin who is strong and confident but ill-equipped to handle someone of the scale and ability of Luke Cage. Much of what drives this character is his pride, and that leads him to great successes, but it also leads him to spiral into failures of his own creation.
Another villain is Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a New York City councilperson and Cornell Stokes’ cousin. Dillard is a character with a purpose: the restoration of Harlem. Her goals are indeed noble, but her methods are anything but. She will stop at nothing to see her neighborhood prosper and, much like her cousin, the depths she will descend to in order see her goals accomplished only grow deeper as the season progresses.
The characters in the show are varied and dynamic, but none of them, with exemption of Luke Cage, is as dynamic as Harlem itself. Harlem is a character of its own, a flowing, vibrant and cultured character. “Luke Cage” lives and breathes Harlem, probably more so than any show does with its host city, besides “Tremé.” The show pays respect to Harlem by representing both its positive and negative traits.
One gets the feeling one is a part of the community by watching the show. The main character is an outsider to the neighborhood as much as the audience is, so his story of discovering and experiencing Harlem is relatable to us as well. This is part of the unique form of storytelling that “Luke Cage” will be known for.
One last positive point I want to express is the show’s soundtrack. The music in “Luke Cage” is fundamental to the experience of the series. It is soulful and reflects the setting of the show. From jazz to Wu Teng Clan, “Luke Cage” possesses a soundtrack that is as distinct yet varied as the characters who reside in the show. This show is as much about culture as it is superheroes.
As for negatives of the show, I really only have one and that is the use of villains. They are great villains, and the audience comes to know them really well, but I don’t feel the show’s runners gave the villains enough time to work through their plans. So much time was spent developing the villains as complex characters that less time was left for watching them execute their strategies against Luke Cage.
I would have liked to see a more sustained focus on the villains in action. They were so complex and dynamic that they deserved more time on screen actually being the bad guys.
In the end, “Luke Cage” is a new kind of superhero story, one that truly lives in its location and breathes in the surrounding culture. The villains are dynamic yet slightly underused, and the titular hero is relatable yet fantastical. It takes a while for the action to pick up, but the story is so good that it doesn’t seem to detract from the experience.
“Luke Cage” won’t be a show for everyone, even among superhero fans, but for those who find pleasure in the narrative and immersion in culture, it will be a story that will stand out for a long time to come.
I give Luke Cage season one 8 out of 10.