TV - Luke Cage

Harlem's Hero comes to the small screen. But not without a few bumps and bruises along the way. Our own superhero for hire, Reece Morris-Jones writes things about Marvel's Luke Cage...

Luke Cage wants to be about Things. Police violence. Black on Black crime. Institutionalised racism. Class issues. Responsibility. The changing face of New York. The role of the traditional male in today's world. It also wants to be both a free-wheeling blaxploitation superhero show and deadly serious all at once. If my description feels like a mess of contradictory information, you would be right.

When Luke Cage gets things right, it's a great show. But too often it collapses under the weight of trying to be everything to everyone, leaving a show that flags narratively and fails to coalesce into anything substantial.

Let's start with the positive; Marvel have yet to produce a soundtrack this good for anything they have created so far. Be it soul legends crooning over shots of Harlem or Method Man himself popping up to rap Bulletproof Love, it excels at creating an atmosphere that is completely its own.

Harlem also feels like a real community. In times where the media want us looking over our shoulders and doubting even our next-door-neighbours, to see a vibrant community that is its own character in the show is refreshing. I've see enough desaturated city street shots to last a lifetime – Luke Cage's warm interiors (when allowed to show) are a welcome relief.

It wouldn't be right for me to carry on without talking about Mahershala Ali's take on Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. Delivering a performance that is both menacing and sympathetic, Ali's portrayal of what could have been a bit-part villain instead evolved into one of the best parts of the show.

Now for the bad; there is a lot I could talk about here, but it is best summed up as 'tone'. People don't tend to give enough credit to the ability to convey different story threads and plot details in a manner that feels cohesive. Even as the show changes from an arc taking a stab at Harlem and its communities' problems, to one where a man called Diamondback acts like a cartoon character, the correct tone would be able to balance these two disparate elements so they form a whole. Jessica Jones is a perfect example of tone being able to overcome problems that would normally drag down a series. Given the kickstart to the titular character of Cage that JJ provided, you would expect Luke Cage would hit the ground running.

Instead, we get what feels like two different shows that are completely at odds with one another for the entire running time. Cottonmouth gets killed to be replaced by two characters, one that chews scenery in the most boring way possible and a failed attempt at the kind of complexity Cottonmouth perfected. The show goes from one false confrontation to another – all designed to make the audience think something is happening, whilst narrative movement actually remains inert (cheers for popularising that trick J.J Abrams).

These issues perfectly crystallise in the character of Luke Cage. What was a freewheeling, charismatic and charming man in Jessica Jones is now someone who hates the idea of having to use his superpowers. Except when he doesn't. He's a man whose all about community. Except when he isn't. Mike Colter is one of the most effortlessly charming men around, yet as scripted, his Cage is relentlessly dour and downbeat, to the point he's a drag to be around.

This sums up my whole experience with Luke Cage.

Netflix Marvel offerings have all suffered from being longer than needed, but at least its other shows have had enough going on that it isn't too much of a problem. But when Luke Cage has periods wherein nothing actually happens for two episodes, even a serial binge watcher like myself can start getting antsy.

I don't regret watching Luke Cage. But I do hope that come the Defenders team up, the Marvel Netflix Universe is less afraid of being super. That it practises brevity. That it knows what it wants to be.

And maybe, just for once, one of our heroes can actually enjoy what they do.

Image - Netflix