Empire (UK) - - ON SCREEN - olly richards

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.

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