SPOILER WARNING: Major Spoilers Ahead for “Luke Cage” Season 1
Sweet Christmas, it felt good seeing “Luke Cage” on television! What a time to be alive, not to mention a Netflix subscriber… because between this, “Jessica Jones” and a couple seasons of “Daredevil”… what more could we ask for? Oh, that’s right. How about a dose of “Iron Fist,” a dash of “Punisher” and a healthy shot of “The Defenders” to come home to and get that adrenaline pumping? With “Doctor Strange” popping off in November and NYCC in overdrive, the geeks are indeed inheriting the earth.
All giddiness aside, while fans were treated to an updated adaptation of Power Man and dealt a Luke Cage MAX television series, it should be noted that this show may well top “Civil War,” not in terms of quality, but in terms of the statement it makes about black culture in 2016’s America. At the same time, it is also, at its heart, a comic book TV show. So the question is, did the 13-episode season strike the balance between real-world platform and Marvel superhero vehicle, or was that challenge always going to be insurmountable? CBR dissects, analyzes and assesses what really worked for the show, and a few things we felt were left wanting.
15. Worked: Social Commentary
The writers didn’t mince their words when it came to the issue of racism. Black Lives Matter was at the forefront throughout, especially with the less-than-subtle, yellow-tinged hoodie Cage wore, which became a symbol of resisting systematic oppression when the cops were unjustly hunting him; a clear tribute to Trayvon Martin. The nature of this show, be it through direct themes or indirect messages, spoke vociferously on the state of affairs in America, with Harlem used as a setting to amplify its voice. Even the literature placed so smartly throughout the sets acted as something more than just props. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” set this precedent from the start, a thread continued in several discussions later on in the finale with books that champion justice, equality, freedom and integrity. Method Man’s cameo said it best as the season closed: ‘”There’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and unafraid!”
14. Didn’t Work: Reva and Dr. Burstein
Reva Connors, Cage’s deceased wife, was introduced in “Jessica Jones” and her entire arc was shrouded in mystery, something we hoped would be revealed in his show. However, she proved to be a periphery character, a mere plot device as the counselor at Seagate Prison who sympathized with Cage and helped facilitate his powers, courtesy of Dr. Noah Burstein. Both characters, whether in flashbacks or in the present, appeared as little more than set pieces, with no real emotional connections. Reva got her big air-time in a moment of affection, but that was it; there was no indication about how they proceeded in their relationship after Cage escaped. As for Burstein, he just shows up when Cage needs patching. There’s nothing there that really added any dimension to Luke’s origins apart from being in the right place, right time. Burstein did, however get a sweet plug with a certain defeated villain at the end that’s sure to haunt Season 2; but other than that, these two characters weren’t fleshed out as comprehensively as we would’ve liked.
13. Worked: Kickass Soundtrack
From the musical performances (D-Nice and Faith Hill among many others) to the cameos and cyphers (Method Man in the climax of the series), the music gave this series a robust depth that proved beyond integral. Meth’s “Bulletproof Love” was released shortly after the premiere, and as a geek himself, you can tell how deeply he was invested in the show. The music throughout stood as a character itself, breathing life into the series when its development or pace faltered, speaking in a dialogue wrought from elegance and poise. The end result was more flair, personality and flavor to a show already dripping in a palpable presence. This rhythmic aspect really provided a shoulder to lean on in Cage’s journey, playing up the social relevance that was a huge part of the show’s DNA. It’s just a shame that we didn’t get more Gang Starr songs, despite each episode title being named after them and a few of his lyrics being subtly dropped in the dialogue. As cool as all of that was, if we had more performances, it would have uncaged things even further.
12. Didn’t Work: Colter’s Acting
Now, before you get all angry, let’s make something clear: Mike Colter as Luke Cage isn’t bad at all. However, in terms of being assertive and a powerhouse, we found him sometimes lacking. Maybe it’s due to his extensive television resume, but it felt like he was phoning it in at times and lacking the authority and impetus we wanted in a character also named Power Man. In his origin episode, he definitely upped all the antes, but he remained inconsistent throughout the other episodes, which often gave off a network television vibe. Both Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock and Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones melted into their characters and portrayed their most iconic aspects well. Colter, meanwhile, feels unnatural or like he’s trying too hard. He also came off a bit dry on his own, but when paired with Ritter’s Jones or Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple — a solid cast-member around him to riff off of — he shines. In the end, he did become Luke more and we’re certain that in time, he’ll own the character. He had a high standard to live up to with three solid shows preceding his, but we’re still betting that Colter will soon have his Cage on lock.
11. Worked: Cottonmouth and Black Mariah
Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Alfre Woodard as “Black Mariah” Dillard stole the show for us. The duality of their gangster-meets-politics facade, their transitions, evolutions, origins, rants and raves were all top-class, which should come as no surprise given the acting pedigree of both performers. The balance they struck together as a team — their grime and polished sheen — was a spectacle to behold, delivered as it was with conviction. Both performances were right up there with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin and David Tennant’s Purple Man. As Woodard descended more into the Black Mariah persona, she really began to absorb the audience and make up for a Cottonmouth taken too soon. Together, though, they were unbeatable. The way they tiptoed, often stumblingly, across the ethical scale, sometimes with truly well-meaning intentions, made for not just an interesting dynamic, but a fascinating character study. This was particularly powerful when juxtaposed against their foils in Cage and Misty.
10. Didn’t Work: Diamondback
Diamondback didn’t work; not until the finale, anyway. But apart from the geek-love he got for his costume and super-suit, he was just a thug who had no depth. Whatever characterization writers tried to create in the end just felt inorganic and fell way short of the mark. He was shoved down our throats too soon and wasn’t given any room to connect with Cottonmouth and Mariah. Willis Stryker seemed to be shoehorned in and really took away from the Cottonmouth momentum at a point where it was so high. Stryker just didn’t resonate, and having him as the architect of Cage’s pain felt like a cop out; not to mention that out-of-the-blue half-brother ploy that had minimal effect and failed to elicit any real sympathy. Maybe they should have tied him to Reva like the source material, or kept him for Season 2. Either way, this pimp Stormtrooper didn’t know if he wanted to be the Joker or Suge Knight.
9. Worked: No More Superhumans
Black Mariah leveraging a protest against superhumans to try to rile supporters of Luke Cage and transform discontent into political gains was deceptively brilliant. It’s your typical political maneuver, painting an opponent (political or otherwise) as dangerous, and harkens back to what we have seen in “Civil War,” “BvS” and in many of the X-Men comics/movies. In these examples, and throughout many years of comics, the reputations of super-powered individuals are often sullied in order to paint them as threats, even though they’re just trying to add a sense of justice to the world. The way Mariah played the media, which bit her back at times, and tried to dog-pile on Cage was clever, especially in the last few episodes when she really pushed his buttons. The stance she took against Cage brought a lot of public attention and heat, and capitalized on a world that saw heroes save them but also cost them loved ones as acceptable casualties and collateral damage. It was a great angle to play and a wicked checkmate to call.
8. Didn’t Work: Interconnected Villains
The writers dropped the ball here as all the villains were forced to tie in with each other, from Shades as a tormentor of Cage in prison to the rapport that Cottonmouth and Mariah had with other gangsters to Diamondback’s connections to just about everyone and everything. Seriously? Can’t villains just be random anymore? At the same time, on top of forcing a villainous web between each other, they really crammed most of the baddies into Cage’s past as well. Some villains don’t need a rhyme or reason to do what they do. The old adage, as spoken by Michael Caine in “The Dark Knight,” still applies: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Having Cage discover and explore the connections that aren’t from the past is part of the fun; kind of like Daredevil and Kingpin. It seemed that they wanted to go the Jessica Jones-Kilgrave route, but in doing this, it led to Cottonmouth being eliminated for someone to enter the fray, who ended up feeling like a rushed pawn on the board instead of a king.
7. Worked: It’s Hammer-time!
Justin Hammer’s tech is still a big player and we’re up for more. The Judas Bullets — aka Chitauri rounds — were the only things that could penetrate the impenetrable Cage, so to see something so sneakily emerge from left-field is a curve-ball we loved to watch twist through the plot. It also puts Hammer back into play and shows that despite being incarcerated, a villain can still deal. Makes you wonder what Kingpin’s up to, doesn’t it? This also nods to Hammer being locked up at Seagate, which adds a new layer to the population there. The prospect of Hammer shelling out more than just bullets or power suits is also one that leaves us salivating for more of his inclusion in series and films to come. We hope to see more of Sam Rockwell’s charisma and goofiness from “Iron Man 2” someday; to see him alive and well as an arms-dealer bodes well for the street-level heroes that Netflix will be focusing on in the near future.
6. Didn’t Work: 13 Episodes Is Too Long
Cage’s story could have easily been condensed into seven episodes with tighter beats. They gave a lot of air-time to folks who could have been omitted (a certain corrupt cop, for example). Thirteen episodes draw out for far too long and stretch beats way too thin. This is how we would have spaced it out: (Episode 1) – Cage goes on vigilante duty after Pop’s death and is found out by Misty. (Episode 2) – His origins end with Cottonmouth blackmailing him. (Episode 3) – He takes out Stokes’ rivals only to be framed for his murder. (Episode 4) – Diamondback enters into a new alliance with Mariah, dealing Judas shells while Cage is on the run. (Episode 5) – Cage meets Claire, who helps hide him, Misty investigates Mariah and her family’s past. (Episode 6) – Diamondback’s gangs start taxing more to lure out Cage while Misty bugs Mariah’s club. (Episode 7) – Cage finally confronts a powered-up Diamondback and defeats him as Misty arrests Mariah, who outs Cage. We would end on Claire contacting Matt as Cage is taken to jail. There are, of course, other ways to do it; but without all the filler, we feel it would have been a much tighter show.
5. Worked: The Finale
Things got a nice bookend. Arcs were wrapped pretty nicely to circumvent the episodes preceding them, which sometimes felt either dragged-out or rushed. It was also awesome seeing the hero not riding off into the sunset. Watching Cage own up and going back to clear his name is a breath of fresh air. It also steps him away from vigilantism and towards the legality of “Heroes For Hire,” while setting up potential threads for Murdock and Foggy bailing him out. The audience is left pondering things like “The Defenders” or even if he has a potential “Thunderbolts” future at The Raft. Misty, who was impressive throughout, is also left armed and dressed in a better spot that Marvel fans would enjoy, with Diamondback and Burstein finding a common ground for experimentation in sharing Cage’s DNA. Most of all, Black Mariah wins (to an extent) and takes a firmer grip on Harlem, which is in stark contrast to Murdock/Kingpin and Jessica/Purple Man. There’s no clear winner or loser and this ambiguity makes room for great writing down the line.
4. Didn’t Work: The Romance Beat
These notes beat empty for us. A one-night-stand with Misty just dissipating into the atmosphere? A budding romance with Claire? Couple that with his relationship with Jessica Jones and yeah, Cage is all about being the ladies-man. Do we really need him to be the ultimate dispenser of sexual healing, though? His relationships should be more relatable and believable, especially for someone who lost the love of his life the way he did. And do we really need a CW-level love rectangle? The chemistry with Claire is remarkable; but hey writers, you don’t always have to take things to a romantic level. Platonic relationships work just fine as a motivating factor; sex isn’t always necessary, as much as we are told it sells. Is Claire the Black Widow of Marvel’s ground level? Why not have her do the stitching she’s there for? If anything, this further hypes theories that her death could be the Coulson to their Defenders. Either way, sometimes impulsive writing isn’t the best bet.
3. Worked: Easter Eggs
Damn, there were a lot. Claire speaks numerous times about her lawyer friends. We heard Trish Talk on the radio as a nod to “Jessica Jones” at the start of episode six. Then there was that Stan Lee poster in the penultimate episode and the Colleen Wing ad as Claire pondered taking some martial arts lessons in the finale. There were also numerous references to the Chitauri incident, Cage talking about what’s transpiring in Hell’s Kitchen, the Puerto Ricans hinting that Gao is still cooking, lawyers and gangsters name-dropping things like The Punisher and a John Blaze, thugs that Murdock put away coming over to Harlem… the list goes on and on. Seriously, the shout-outs (even Captain America got one) were too much, too real and way too damn fun. They also set up a lot of what’s to come with Marvel and Netflix, while at the same time covering quite a bit of ground on what came before. What was our favorite little shout-out? Why, the yellow top and tiara of course!
2. Didn’t Work: Tempo and Tone
The series did struggle a lot to find both. You could see this evidenced by how often and when they used strong language. They wanted to be R-rated at times and semi-dark like Hell’s Kitchen at others. Then, some pop-art style atmosphere was evoked from “Jessica Jones” in a few random, purple-tinged moments. But when the “Law & Order” and “NCIS” vibe got in the way, you could tell that things had to be dialed back, because it’s still a Disney property at the end of the day. In time, we think they’ll get this right — it must have been a challenge for the writers to establish a specific tone for a series taking place in an already established corner of the Marvel Universe. The show had a definitive voice, but it got lost at times when it tries to speak too loudly. It had potential to be “Empire,” but it remains tethered to Marvel’s street-level stories. As such, it must not have been easy to nail a flow of its own, even if the writers wanted to.
1. Worked: Ties to the MCU
This was never going to be an easy piece of the puzzle piece to fit into the whole, but the writing and overall direction did a decent enough job tying it into the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most importantly, it compounded the plan for the street-level heroes on Netflix. The nods to the big capes and the connective tissue to the other films and shows definitely open doors for stuff like “Moon Knight,” and with the supernatural elements that are currently being conjured elsewhere. Flaws aside,”Luke Cage” smartly taps into the foundation of what came through in “The Avengers” and then piles the potential high for Marvel’s numerous other properties. With this series ending on such a cliffhanger and teasing the way forward with other shows, it’s safe to say that “Luke Cage” has found its place in the MCU, especially at a time when America needs its voices to be fearless and its hope to be bulletproof.
What were your favorite (and least favorite) parts of “Luke Cage” on Netflix? Let us know in the comments!