TV Review: Luke Cage Season 1 (2016)

I’ve finally finished watching Marvel’s newest Netflix series and all I can say is… SWEET CHRISTMAS!

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The slew of Marvel superhero shows that have been hitting Netflix since last year have been HOT! If you have not watched Seasons 1 or 2 of Daredevil, or Jessica Jones, you are seriously missing out on great television. These aren’t just great super hero TV shows, these are great shows.

Period.

Luke Cage continues the trend of superb characterization, writing, villains, and story, and (probably most importantly) introduces one of Marvel’s foremost Black heroes to the limelight. The result is a wonderful show in a rich setting with fascinating characters and a compelling story.

The Villains You Love To Hate

Daredevil set us off on the right foot with the villain Wilson Fisk. He was big. He was bad. And he was downright villainous. Luke Cage continues by introducing not just one great villain, but a whole host of immoral baddies that make Luke Cage’s life a living Hell. But all these characters are introduced and woven into the story in such a way that one never detracts from the other. They all provide plenty of trouble for Mr. Cage and by the end of the series, I honestly don’t know which villain caused more trouble in his life.

screen-shot-2016-08-09-at-122436pngThe primary villain (at least for the first half of the show) Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes was probably my favorite part of the show. Played by Mahershala Ali, the character demanded attention when he was in the scene. His posture, his voice, and everything about the character was so utterly villainous. I found myself sometimes cheering for Cottonmouth.

I couldn’t help myself.

He was so masterfully written and so perfectly delivered that I could just hang on every line he spoke.

erik-laray-harvey-diamondback-in-netflix-luke-cageWhen Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) joined the scene, I was a little underwhelmed. After having such a superb villain as Cottonmouth on the show, the disparately unhinged Diamondback disappointed me. But then I watched the next episode.

I cannot praise the writers of this show enough. Diamondback’s every line was so wonderfully crafted and so clever. Diamondback’s misguided understanding of the Bible and his twisted mindset made him especially volatile. 
I also cannot go without mentioning Councilwoman Mariah Dilliard, played by Alfre Woodard. To my knowledge (don’t quote me on this) Councilwoman Dillard is the first female villain we have had in any form of Marvel cinematic production (be it TV or movie). She was a compelling character to watch grow as she went from being little more than a political puppet for Cottonmouth to being her own, independent, and decidedly dangerous woman. And Hernan “Shades” Cortes (played by Theo Rossi) was such a smooth talker and his smile so disarming.

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They may not have been named as such in the show, but this “Serpent Society” was a den full of vipers and the cause of many headaches for Luke Cage. And they were all so intricately interwoven and placed at odds with both one another and with Luke Cage that I honestly cannot tell you who the “main villain” of Luke Cage was.

Deep In The Heart of Harlem

Allow me to state the obvious: Luke Cage is a show about a Black superhero. In a medium oversaturated with predominantly White characters, the inclusion of a Black super hero is especially poignant. Certainly, the various incarnations of James Rhodes in the Iron Man movies have been nice, but I am excited to see some other Black characters getting the lead in their own show or movie (namely Luke Cage and Black Panther).

The show is set deep in the streets of Harlem, a city with a rich music and artistic history, and a strong Black history. The show plays into that and brings out Black culture in beautiful ways.

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I especially loved the focus on Black art in the show. It seemed in every episode a new musician was featured on the stage of Harlem’s Paradise.

It was just interesting. It was done very differently from other super hero shows, where the audience would probably hear an overarching soundtrack (probably of horns, violins, and pianos) over their heroic scenes. Instead, Luke Cage further sets itself apart from the super hero medium by featuring soulful music of today and yesterday.

Now, I am a White guy who grew up in rural Texas. I am far removed from inner city or even Black culture. Yet, this show made me feel as if I were part of Harlem. I felt as if I could walk the streets of Harlem and be part of this community where everyone seemingly knows everyone. It was a rich setting. And while my feelings of “I’m part of Harlem now” may seem borderline bandwagon or even childishly foolish, that just goes to show you how well-written this show is.

The Black Superman

I came to a realization while watching this show: Luke Cage is the Black Superman.

luke-cage-netflix-copertinaNot just in that they are both super strong and near invincible, but just as Superman represents “American values”, Luke Cage represents Black values. Luke Cage is this invincible super hero, this bulletproof ex-con who (despite a legal system that seems out to get him) continues to do good and save people. As Superman represents “truth, justice, and the American way,” Luke Cage represents community, strength, and moving forward despite horrific legacies.

In a country full of politicians, media, and self-admiring pundits that seem intent on furthering the segregation of the ingredients that make up America’s melding pot rather than stirring them in together, the cultural significance of a Black super hero working to save people of all color and creed is not lost on me.

Misty Knight

simone-cookas-misty-knight-in-luke-cageI would be amiss not to also mention the introduction of another character of some import on this show: Misty Knight (played by Simone Missick). Not only is Misty Black, but she is also a female. A undeniably strong female character. The creators of Luke Cage really hit the nail on the head with introducing us to some great characters to admire and cosplay and look up to.

PS – I didn’t miss that Colleen Wing teaser in the final episode. I see you, Marvel!

Fan Service

Maybe more so than any other Marvel Netflix show, Luke Cage played into some serious fan service. From giving Luke Cage a very brief cameo in his original, goofy costume, to having him repeatedly say his corny one-liner “Sweet Christmas!”, and even to subtle props and costumes that nodded to the comic book versions of the characters (most noticeably Diamondback’s costume in the final episode is a undeniable callback to his comic book appearance).

A Long Goodbye

As great as the show was, the final episode seemed to drag on forever. Rather than having a typical montage to show a quick wrap-up, the show took nearly an entire episode for the resolution of its plot.

Which is good in one way because it keeps the show from tying things up in a hasty, tidy bow, but also not good in that it was a very slow and boring end to a show that had been pretty stellar up until then.

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And I’m still not sure I even like how the first season ended…

The Acting

As was mentioned before, Marvel and Netflix have been spot on with their casting so far. The villains and Misty Knight were great additions and were superbly played. Rosario Dawson reprising her role as “the Night Nurse” was also enjoyable, and Frankie Faison’s portrayal of Doc at the beginning of the show stole my heart. Unfortunately, in a show with such a great cast of actors, I came away feeling like the show’s lead was the weakest link in the chain. Mike Colter certainly looks the part of Luke Cage, but I feel he stretched his acting chops more in Jessica Jones than he did in his own show. Maybe this is the writer’s fault. Maybe not.

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The Music

Luke Cage used a certain “street vibe” in its soundtrack. When the audience was not being serenaded by the soulful tunes coming out of Harlem’s Paradise, they were given some dissonant almost-techno like tracks to play over the scenes. The album of Luke Cage (as it were) rather than the soundtrack was where the strength of Luke Cage’s music came from.

The Kids

Is this show appropriate for children? No.

There is plenty of sexual scenes, graphic violence, lewd terms, racist slurs, and rampant cussing. Marvel’s Netflix shows portray a darker side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Consider it the MCU’s Marvel Knights if you will. This is not a show you should watch with your kids.

The Grade

Luke Cage continues what has been a pleasing tradition of great shows on Netflix. Stellar writing, a solid setting, and a well-cast group of villains are this show’s strongest points. It may not debunk Daredevil Season 1 as my favorite show in this “pre-Defenders” line-up, but it is certainly close.

I give Luke Cage a grade of…

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If you have not seen Luke Cage yet, I strongly recommend you watch all thirteen, one-hour long episodes. You won’t regret it. Do you have some thoughts of your own on Luke Cage? How excited are you for Iron Fist to get the Marvel Netflix treatment? I know I am! Let’s talk in the comments below.

Keep it nerdy, y’all.

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