showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker cast Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Frank Whaley
Plot Luke Cage (Colter) is living a quiet life in Harlem, trying to lie low so as not to reveal his superpowers. However, the actions of criminal Cottonmouth (Ali) hit Cage very close to home and force him to step up to become the hero he’s not entirely sure he wants to be.
THE THIRD OF Netflix’s Marvel superhero shows, following Daredevil and Jessica Jones, is barely superhero-y at all. Special abilities rarely figure for more than a few minutes per episode, but it’s powerful in other ways. Its strength is in the ‘real’ stuff.
If you watched Jessica Jones you will have met Luke Cage (Colter) already, rattling the leading lady’s bedposts and bruising her heart before disappearing into the night. His solo series picks up several months later, with Cage now working in a barbershop in Harlem, where he’s trying not to let the local community know that he possesses super-strength and skin you couldn’t pierce with a rocket launcher. As is the way with the super-powered, he is not permitted to keep his secret for long, as the actions of a local gangster threaten the community. Whether he likes it or not, Cage is going to become a saviour.
This is a series less about its hero than the place he lives and his effect on it. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker’s Harlem is a district striding towards prosperity and trying to shake off those who want to drag it back to a criminal playground. It needs a figurehead to define its identity and there are three contenders. There is Cage, who believes working hard and doing the right thing will get you where you deserve to be. There’s Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Ali), a mid-level gangster with ambitions, who lives by the credo that if you show people you’re in power, either with money or violence, that power will become yours. Lastly, there’s Mariah (Woodard), a politician who lies somewhere between the two. She believes Harlem is a place to be proud of and is working to make it better, but in order to get what she wants for the people she’s prepared to compromise her morals, usually by dealing with her cousin, Stokes. Mariah is the most intriguing of the three, with her House Of
Cards-ish ethical flip-flopping, but sadly gets the least screentime. But unlike the two other Marvel series, Luke Cage has little interest in supervillains or ancient supernatural sects with overly elaborate schemes. The moral murk of humanity gives it plenty to work with.
Luke Cage is Marvel’s first property centred on a black character (Black Panther will become the second, and the first movie, in 2018). That is worth mentioning not just as a milestone, but because race is central to its identity. As the show lays out the pieces of the battle for power in this fictional world, Coker repeatedly references real-world black history, name-checking icons and how they defined their legacy, be it Crispus Attucks, a figurehead of the anti-slavery movement and the first man to die in the War Of Independence, or rapper Biggie Smalls, his massive portrait gazing stoically from Stokes’ wall, whose life became defined by gang war. Coker doesn’t make the obvious choice to frame his examination of the black experience in relation to white people and oppression. There is no white antagonist or supporting hero. He’s made this about African Americans defining themselves, rather than being assigned a definition, and looking back on their history to shape their future. It allows the show to explore black America in a way not many others do.
The world created for Luke Cage is endlessly complex and fascinating to discover. Cage himself less so. Not through any fault of Colter, who has more than enough charisma, but because Cage is not that complicated a hero. He suffers a little from the same problem that makes both the Hulk and Superman difficult characters around which to build a movie: he is nigh-on indestructible. As Cage states when yet another face-off has littered a room with unconscious henchmen, but left him with barely a crease in his suit, “You can’t kill me.” From an action perspective, that’s not interesting to watch. His fights are just tests of how many things, and how many people, he can break. His loner status also gives him little to lose personally. The series’ main struggle is finding a plot that puts Cage in any real jeopardy. Part of the nature of the model Netflix has created is that TV series are now built for binge-watching, so they need to compel you to watch the next episode immediately. Luke
Cage moves slowly and a lot of its story beats are clichéd, from the characters picked for death to the one thing that might hurt Cage. Halfway through the first series it still feels like it’s just setting things up. Its characters are rich and its world full of potential — now what it needs is a plot worthy of them.
verdict more ambitious than netflix’s other marvel series, relying more on character than comic conventions, there are the bones of a great series if it can conjure a better story.