It’s been three years since Netflix and Marvel initially connected, striking a deal that netted Netflix four separate full-run series as well as one crossover miniseries, all featuring select heroes from the storied history of Marvel Comics.
It wasn’t until April 2015 that the first series, Daredevil, finally saw its debut. Daredevil was an incredible open to the Netflix-side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it set the bar extremely high for what came next. Unfortunately, it was followed by the decidedly faltering Jessica Jones, as well as a second season of Daredevil that had its fair share of good moments, but struggled to juggle too many storylines, overall resulting in a markedly muddled and disappointing season.
The third and most recent series, Luke Cage, premiered on the streaming platform just a couple weeks back. Akin to Daredevil and Jessica Jones before it, Luke Cage is a 13-episode season centered around its titular character, who in this case, originally dates back to the early 1970s as Marvel’s response to a then-burgeoning genre of Blaxploitation film in the US.
Luke Cage (Mike Colter) showed up as a minor character in last year’s Jessica Jones, but he finally gets his chance to shine here. And for the most part, he does. Luke is an ex-convict who, after a freak accident, receives superhuman powers that include super-strength and bulletproof skin, more or less making him invincible. It’s hard to not immediately like Luke, and Colter’s portrayal of him is charming and convincing.
Unlike his superhero peers, Luke would rather stay out of the limelight. Instead of fighting crime on a daily basis, Luke holds two regular jobs in Harlem; one at a local barbershop, the other at a prestigious nightclub.
Luke’s boss and mentor at the barbershop, Pop (Frankie Faison), attempts at inspiring him into helping those in need in the community, but he doesn’t budge. It isn’t until a confrontation with Harlem crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) that Luke decides to begin using the powers he’s been given.
Similar to what made that first season of Daredevil so exceptional, Luke Cage displays a lot of strength in its main villain. Cottonmouth is an intimidating dude, and Ali’s portrayal of the character is outstanding. And like Kingpin was in Daredevil before him, Cottonmouth is more than just a bland villain; there’s considerable depth to this character. He carries his own afflictions and shows emotional vulnerability, but can just as much be the most menacing guy in a room.
It’s too bad that the latter half of Luke Cage pales in comparison to its first half — a first half that I truly believe is every bit as good as anything that’s come out of this Netflix/Marvel deal so far. Cottonmouth eventually becomes less of a centerpiece and the show stumbles as it attempts to manage numerous underdeveloped villains who struggle to rise up and become a decisive enemy to Luke.
Alfre Woodard plays Cottonmouth’s cousin, Mariah, a local, corrupt politician. And while Woodard plays her part well, her character is fairly one-note throughout. The same can be said for Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), a late-addition who proves to be the best fight against Luke, but unfortunately receives little in the way of meaningful character development.
Fortunately, Luke’s friends typically fare better in character development than his enemies. Harlem Police Detective Misty Knight (Simone Cook) continually investigates Luke and the seemingly impossible things he does over the course of the season, showing off a likable persona. Rosario Dawson, who has appeared in each Netflix-produced Marvel show so far, again shows up in Luke Cage as her fan-favorite character Claire Temple. And it’s no surprise why they keep inserting her into each of these shows, as she’s entirely engaging and enjoyable in the role here as well.
And although the acting is fairly good across the board, perhaps the best, most consistent aspect of the show is found in its wonderful soundtrack. Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad produce a fantastic mix of originally composed, hip-hop-centric music as well as utilize many licensed R&B and soul tracks from the 70s that perfectly fit the show’s atmosphere.
Luke Cage attempts at telling a politically-driven, poignant, and culturally-relevant story and is legitimately successful in doing so for the most part, but the show is ultimately bogged down by a second half that almost entirely comes off as filler-material. The last two episodes especially feel weightless and inconsequential, with the final fight scene genuinely being awful.
I wish it hadn’t come to this, but I was incredibly disappointed by Luke Cage, largely due to the mediocre taste it left in my mouth in the final stretch. I would have been ready to recommend this show to everyone I knew through my viewing of its magnificent first seven episodes, but its lackluster second half has had me rethinking that sentiment.
I’m actually worried moving forward about the quality in the upcoming Netflix-produced Marvel shows after three consecutive disappointing outings, but hopefully Iron Fist can turn things around when it debuts next March.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor