Luke Cage: A Critque
Alright, let's talk about Netflix's new original series. It's edgy, it's fun, it's a refreshing bit of diversity, and it's not entirely a polished piece of work. Spoilers abound, so read on with caution. Let me begin by saying that I am a relatively recent fan of the character, so I am by no means an authority on his history or the original intentions of his creators. That said, I feel like this particular representation of Luke Cage is a good one, and that there is something in this series for true believers and newcomers alike. It showcases some phenomenal performances, quality special effects, and Marvel's signature use of Easter Eggs, which is always a delight for those of us 'in the know'. I don't see myself ever getting tired of their use of said Easter Eggs, as they're a love letter to the fans and I often liken them to George Reeve's signature wink to the camera in his role as Superman. They're just fun, guys. Pure, perfect, fun. And Marvel even went as far as having Method Man cameo as himself in what is easily my favorite scene, which shows a remarkable amount of cultural awareness for them. Still, there is something to be desired from the series.
Like all superhero shows, every episode has something slightly off that briefly takes you out of the narrative. Sometimes snippets of the dialogue sound like they're from a comic book in the worst possible way. Characters quip in a manner that's not at all natural and leaves you wondering if anyone actually listened to the dialogue before filming took place. Stryker's actor tends to chew the scenery, and I still haven't gotten over the ridiculousness factor of Cottonmouth launching a damn bazooka at the restaurant Luke Cage was eating in. Not to mention that the occasional bad cut or bit of poor editing makes some special effects seem obvious. But the biggest problem Luke Cage faces is its pace.
Yes, it is re-goddamn-freshing to see some ethnic diversity in the superhero genre. Yes, the story explores a handful of themes that hit close to home for a lot of ethnic minorities (the search for family, the sins of the father, classism). And yes, it's a gritty/realistic look at what a black superhero is liable to go through. But it's also a slow build up, that never really amounts to more than a half-measure of an ending. It's also a little disoriented in regards to who or what Luke is really fighting against. And it's also guilty of focusing a little too much on violence and not enough on Luke putting his refined intellect to use. I would have loved it if he made more references to historical figures or quoted more influential thinkers. I would have loved it if he had convinced Cottonmouth to drop crime and pursue his music, only to have Mariah kill Cottonmouth in a fit of rage over no longer having the funds for her political career.
I'm getting a little ahead of myself, though. I don't want to focus solely on the negatives, so let's celebrate more of the positives. For starters, the cast and the characters are all pretty damn great. Mike Colter is amazing as the pensive and heartfelt hero. Rosario Dawson as Claire was her usual, wonderful self. Theo Rossi was incredibly emotive despite having his face covered up for most of the show... But while I enjoyed just about everyone's performance, I particularly liked Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth. He did a great job portraying the crime boss as an ominous and complex villain. His cadence, his facial expressions going from cold to jovial to murderous from moment to moment really drove home the intensity of the character and man did I want more of him than what we got. Cottonmouth was a more compelling villain than Willis Stryker, and more of a tangible threat than the obnoxiously political Mariah Dillard.
Which brings me to my biggest gripe with the series. They weren't sure how to make things challenging for the hero. I hate that their solution to "how do we raise the stakes for a bulletproof hero?" was to give the bad guy, and even the police, special bullets. Not how you do it, guys. Luke Cage is indestructible, but the people he cares about aren't. You up the stakes by making the bad guy subtly and even overtly ruin the lives of everyone Luke knows. Heck, make it technically legal, a la gentrification or wal-mart level prices ruining small businesses. Then you make it harder on Luke by having the bad guy have some sort of legal immunity or premature death contingency plan. In other words, Luke is literally bulletproof so his villain should be figuratively bulletproof. Make it so he can't muscle his way out of the problem, or so that he has to really think about how to take advantage of his powers. But no, instead we got Judas bullets and a power suit that mimicked Luke's powers. Whoo.
See, the annoying trend in Marvel is that the bad guy simply has the same abilities as the hero, and they fell into that same pattern here. What's more, Harlem is in no way better off by the end of the series as Mariah and Shades are now in control, it's implied that even though Stryker is seriously injured he'll get super powers, and Luke is being carted off to Georgia to finish his sentence. Like I said, a half-measure of an ending.
I understand that they're world building for a Defenders series, but that seems like a copout for not giving a lesser known hero the attention he deserved. It's frustrating feeling like the series amounted to what's essentially just a fun filler arc. All that said, I think it's worth watching for a couple of episodes to see if you can enjoy it. I am looking forward to Iron Fist now, and really hope that The Defenders is a nice pay off for the rest of these shows.