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Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage – Season 1 (Review)

Luke Cage is an exceptional black superhero show.

Those twin concepts cannot be divorced from one another. The thrill of Luke Cage is how skilfully and how cleverly executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker interweaves those two strands. Luke Cage is not simply a story about Harlem that happens to feature superpowers, nor is just a superhero story that happens to feature African American characters. Coker carefully crafts the show that those two parts of itself become inseparable and indivisible. Luke Cage relishes its superhero storybeats, and bringing them together in service of a different kind of protagonist.

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It feels entirely appropriate that Luke Cage should be the focus of this series, the first superhero story of the franchise age to focus on a black protagonist. (There are a number of earlier examples from Blade to Catwoman to Steel, but those largely predate the current shared-universe-driven popular consciousness.) Luke Cage was the first black comic book hero to have his own on-going monthly title, and one of the earliest high-profile examples of a black superhero character not to incorporate “black” into his name, like the Black Panther or Black Lightning.

Of course, it feels shameful that it took this long. Hawkeye has somehow managed to appear in four blockbuster feature films before Marvel Studios produced a franchise film with a black lead actor. Spider-Man has been rebooted three separate times, but Black Panther will not open until 2018. Guardians of the Galaxy came out of nowhere long before Marvel Studios or Warner Brothers opened a summer tentpole superhero film with a minority or female lead. Meanwhile, Marvel has an influx of blonde white guys named Chris.

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As such, Luke Cage is definitely overdue. And it keenly understands this. Every aspect of Luke Cage is filtered through an African American perspective that helps to give it a vibrance and energy that revitalises the format. In terms of plotting and structure, Luke Cage is perhaps the most traditional superhero story since Thor. However, the true beauty of the thirteen-episode miniseries lies in the improvisation around those beats and how the production team choose to hit the requisite notes. Luke Cage feels like an extended jazz album riffing on old standards.

However, as delayed as this appearance might be, it still feels perfectly attuned to the climate of late 2016. As Method Man reflects in and interview with the Sway Universe podcast in Soliloquy of Chaos, a great example of how keenly Luke Cage engages with black culture, “You know, here’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof, and not afraid.” That has never been more true.

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There are problems with Luke Cage. The Netflix model appears to be one of them. Streaming is a relatively new frontier for old media companies, and they are adapting at different paces. Online distribution typically allows for a great deal of freedom in terms of content and length. Without advertisers to satisfy or watchdogs to appease, the production team enjoy a lot of leeway in how they build their stories. The Netflix Marvel shows are a lot more graphic than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ever could be and are not rigidly confined to a forty-minute slot.

This freedom tends to manifest on an episode-to-episode basis, with episodes of Luke Cage running anything from forty-five minutes to an hour. Generally speaking, this is a good thing, meaning that vital scenes and dialogue are not trimmed in an attempt to make a square peg fit in a round hole. There are plenty of episodes of television that have suffered from the limitations of the format, dying in the editing booth to make room for an extra twenty seconds of commercials. (Glen Morgan and James Wong’s The Field Where I Died comes to mind.)

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However, the Marvel Netflix series do seem uncomfortably wed to the thirteen episode format. Netflix has demonstrated a willingness to produce shorter runs of content, as with Stranger Things. Audiences have shown a clear appetite for shows that have these shorter runs, like Game of Thrones. Given that these episodes are all released in one single shot, the thirteen episode season feels uncomfortably like a hold over from the broadcast television era where it represented a half-season order.

The only Netflix Marvel series that comes close to justifying the thirteen-episode season is the first season of Daredevil, and that is largely rooted in the decision to structure the superhero origin story as a thirteen-episode adaptation of Batman Begins. The other runs have suffered greatly. Even Matt Murdock’s second season devolved into a mess of ninja battles and nonsensical courtroom scenes and ever-expanding conspiracies to pad out the story to fill thirteen hours of content.

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Jessica Jones was a phenomenal eight-episode series that was extended out to a superior thirteen-episode run, with an incredibly strong core padded out by an extended introduction that focused on the villain’s top secret weakness to surgical anaesthetic and a conclusion that felt overly loose and drawn out. That same issue haunts Luke Cage, which feels very much like it has no idea how to fill thirteen episodes of story. Luke Cage compensates for the extended by pacing itself; it moves as slowly as possible and even wanders down various narrative cul-de-sacs.

Most notably, the first seven episodes devote considerable time and effort to having Cornell Stokes go through an abridged version of Wilson Fisk’s arc on Daredevil, before pivoting away to reveal that Cornell was a narrative red herring. His cousin Mariah Dillard proves to be the villainous thread who holds the season together, although the entire season ultimately plays as something of an origin story for the character rather than a story actually featuring the character. Similarly, the season’s primary antagonist Diamondback only appears at the very end of Manifest.

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Given the way that these particular story threads wrap up, the time devoted to them can feel misdirected. Luke Cage and Willis Stryker ultimately throw down in the streets of Harlem at the start of You Know My Steez, so why not square off when they come face-to-face in the street in Blowin’ Up the Spot? Cornell’s story feels like a mean-spirited shaggy dog story. It is a clever twist to have Manifest expand upon his origin before closing on Mariah smashing his skull, but the fact it takes seven episodes to reach that point makes the cleverness seem passive aggressive.

Similarly, Luke himself can often feel disconnected from the plot as it unfolds. This is particularly true following Stryker’s attack on him at the end of Manifest, wherein he spends the next three episodes healing up and exploring his history in a way that feels very unrelated to anything happening to the majority of the cast in Harlem. What might have been a forgivable secondary plot diversion across a single episode ends up eating almost a quarter of the season. This is not the only example. Luke often feels like a passenger in his own television series.

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To be fair, these are not fatal flaws. In fact, a lot of the show’s strengths are explicitly tied to these weakness. The extended runtime means that the plot spends a lot of time spinning its wheels, but that time is generally filled with a charming cast exchanging witty dialogue. It would have been easy to move Pops’ death from the end of Code of the Streets back to the start of Moment of Truth, which would have tightened the pace of the series a great deal, but that also would have meant fewer extended conversations in the barber shop and less time with Frankie R. Faison.

Similarly, the amount of time spent with Cornell Stokes never feels entirely wasted. The character is a much more satisfying antagonist that Willis Stryker, if only because he feels like he belongs in a larger narrative and because Mahershala Ali is a pleasure for every moment that he is on screen. It might have been possible to condense the character’s arc down to three or four episodes and preserve a lot of the same plot beats, but a lot of the ambient texture would have been lost in the rush. (Such as his address to the congregation in Just to Get a Rep.)

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Texture is perhaps the key word here. Luke Cage is a show that thrives on texture and ambiance. A lot of that is down to the brilliant musical design of Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who help to give Luke Cage a unique soundscape that feels like an intersection between Ennio Morricone and blaxploitation cinema. There are several nice extended passages of the show that are nothing by characters sitting or stand or watching or driving, but scored to some fantastic music.

Luke Cage allots considerable space to its musics. There are a number of high-profile musical guest stars who appear over the course of the show, whether at Cornell and Mariah’s “Harlem Paradise” or in other capacities. Luke Cage always finds time for an effective montage set over a smooth soundtrack, whether it’s Raphael Saadiq singing over a botched robbery in Moment of Truth or Method Man dropping an improvised rap over the manhunt for Luke Cage in Soliloquy of Chaos. As extended as Luke Cage might be, it luxuriates in the freedom that this affords.

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Music is just a part of it. Luke Cage gleefully exists at a point of intersection between African American culture and comic book continuity, the production team tying them together seamlessly. A cameo from Dapper Dan in Just to Get a Rep gets the same fanfare as a guest appearance from Blake Tower in Now You’re Mine. While Luke is listening to Trish Talk from Jessica Jones in the extended opening to Suckas Need Bodyguards, Method Man stops by the Sway Universe podcast in Soliloquy of Chaos. This is all cause for celebration.

Luke Cage exists at the intersection of black culture and superhero storytelling, never feeling that it has to choose between the two. Luke Cage has deservedly attracted a lot of praise for its willingness to tell a story rooted in an African American perspective, but it does so while adhering to all the structural elements and storybeats that one expects from a comic book superhero story. Luke Cage is very much a traditional superhero story in a manner that recalls the Richard Donner Superman films.

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This seems to be a conscious choice. In a manner that recalls various big screen interpretations of Superman, including Man of Steel, Luke makes a point to hold himself accountable to the authorities at the end of You Know My Steez. It is a choice that recalls Christopher Reeve volunteering for an interview or Henry Cavill handing himself over to military custody. At one point in Now You’re Mine, Misty even jokingly asks whether Luke used to be a boy scout. For all that Luke carries a lot of angst, he is a much more traditional hero than Matt Murdock or Jessica Jones.

Indeed, Luke Cage relishes having the chance to play with all the superheroic iconography. It is packed with references to the expanded Marvel Universe, with countless nods towards “the Incident” and “Hammer Industries.” Whereas Jessica Jones seemed content to deconstruct standard superhero storytelling, Luke Cage embraces these conventions. In fact, Luke and Claire escape to a small farm in rural Georgia to explore Luke’s origins further in DWYCK, a rather blatant nod to the Superman mythos.

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Luke Cage is excited to be playing with these toys that it even seems happy to riff on X-Men: Origins – Wolverine. Much like Logan in that misbegotten origin story, Luke discovers the true extent of his new powers in a bathroom while on the run. Repeatedly, Luke is submerged in a tank that evokes the experiments conducted on Wolverine more than the superhero origin of Captain America. It says a lot that Luke Cage happily borrows imagery from one of the most maligned superhero films of the past decade. Luke Cage loves being a superhero story.

Coker understands that those black culture and superhero storytelling do not exist at odds with one another, but instead in a weird unison. Part of this comes baked into the premise. The character of Luke Cage was famously inspired by blaxpoitation cinema, and Step in the Arena acknowledges this by combining the character’s comic book origin as the subject of an illegal and immoral experiment with the illegal fighting associated with movies like Mandingo or Django Unchained.

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The production team even lovingly recreate Luke Cage’s original costume for that origin episode, with the tiara and the bracelets. However, the show also recognises that the imagery strongly evokes the iconography of black slavery in the United States, a black fugitive cover in metal on his arms and on his head. “Couldn’t go runnin’ around Georgia lookin’ like I was a runaway slave,” Luke jokes to Claire at the end of Manifest. It is a nice acknowledgement of how it is impossible not to code Luke’s character and experiences through his status as an African American hero.

After all, Luke’s power literally derives from his skin. The opening credits sequence of the series underscores this, projecting images of Harlem over the character’s body. Luke Cage is a black superhero. He is not only black and he is not exclusively black, but that is very much a part of his identity and character. Luke Cage plays to that by finding an intersection of the traditional superhero storybeats tailored to the African American experience. It does this so masterfully and so skilfully that the show never feels like it is pandering or excluding.

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After all, Luke Cage revisits the familiar daddy issues that inform so much of the superhero genre, from Thor to Daredevil. However, it handles these themes in a way that feels tied to broader debates about fatherhood in African American communities. It goes without saying that popular depictions of black fatherhood can often be reduced to racist clichés and stereotypes, often with little or no basis in reality. As such, it is worthwhile to see Cheo Hodari Coker using this familiar template to tell a story very much anchored in African American popular consciousness.

Fatherhood is an important recurring theme across the first season. “Everyone has a gun,” Luke reflects in Moment of Truth. “No one has a father.” Eddie Axton reflects on the breakdown of community spirit in terms directly related to fatherhood in Just to Get a Rep. “Baseball is a game passed from father to son. That’s why you don’t see any n******s playin’ the game no more. Because all them fathers are gone.” Naturally, Misty was indirectly encouraged to learn basketball through Pops, who took it upon himself to become a surrogate father for the neighbourhood.

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Over the course of the season, Luke comes to reconcile himself with a collection of flawed fathers; the Georgian minister who cheated on his wife and the Harlem barber who atoned for his own failings as a father by trying to build a safe place for other children. Even the show’s antagonists, from Cornell to Mariah to Stryker, are defined by their flawed and broken relationships with their guardians. Indeed, a large part of Luke’s arc is in learning to stand up and recognise his role as an inspirational figure to a generation of young black men.

In a similar manner, the show is informed by a culture of intimidation and incarceration; the statistical evidence demonstrating that young black men are proportionately more likely to be targeted by the police and proportionately more likely to be sent to prison. Early in Moment of Truth, Luke is confirmed to be a former convict. However, while the comic book character always maintained his innocence, the television iteration is more ambivalent. He may not have committed the crime for which he was imprisoned, but he considers himself to be guilty.

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Luke Cage positions itself as a story of redemption, in the classic superhero mold. After all, Peter Parker redeems himself following the death of Uncle Ben by becoming a superhero. Luke Cage finds a way to make things better by effectively stepping up and acknowledging the responsibility placed upon his shoulders. Pops offers Luke a variation of the “with great responsibility…” speech early in Moment of Truth before going the way of Uncle Ben in Code of the Streets, and it is clear that accepting his role as a superhero and inspirational figure is Luke’s responsibility.

Indeed, this inspiration is a two-way street. As much as Luke Cage figures out a way to use superhero tropes to tell a story about contemporary black America, it also finds a way to freshen up the familiar superhero story beats by examining them through the prism of African American experience. This year, superhero films like Batman vs. Superman and Captain America: Civil War have grappled with the question of superhero authority, wondering what gives these characters the right to act outside existing law structures.

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Luke Cage finds a convincing answer by exploring the issue from the perspective of a population historically victimised and undermined by these existing power structures. Luke Cage understands the importance of a figure willing to step outside such a system in order to enact justice, and recognises that this is an idea that makes the superhero as relevant as ever. Luke summarises the argument in You Know My Steez, “Call it or a vigilante or a superhero. Call it what you will. But, like it or not, I finally accepted that that someone had to be me.”

Luke Cage tacitly understands the importance and significance of having a black superhero, but it also understands the importance in crafting that story as a reflection of the African American experience rather than crass exploitation. “For black lives to matter, black history and black ownership must also matter,” Mariah argues early in Moment of Truth, a line that reflects at once the modern relevance of the story being told and the seriousness with which the production team take their responsibility.

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Luke Cage is the story of a black superhero starring a predominantly black cast with a predominantly black writing staff. It is authentic, in that regard. More than that, it understands the importance of being authentic. Repeatedly over the course of the first three episodes, characters discuss the use of the n-word with Mariah dismissing it in Moment of Truth and Luke more forcefully rejecting it in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? This is a series that is not going to waste an opportunity that was so long coming.

After all, Luke Cage is in many ways the perfect hero for 2016. He is a black superhero whose superpower is his skin. He is bullet proof. His costume is a hoody. There is a mythic quality to that, in a way that speaks to the power of superheroes to explore contemporary culture through metaphor and allegory. As the series nears its end in Soliloquy of Chaos, Bobby Fish warns Luke that there are “negroes writing Luke Cage ballads and sh!t.” We even get hear one from Method Man.

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What is most striking about Luke Cage is the way that it takes all the suffering and tragedy heaped upon its hero without missing a step. Luke Cage is just as grim and violent as Jessica Jones or Daredevil, but it refuses to be defined by that darkness. There are points at which the series seems downright triumphant. In some ways, this justifies the extended running time, assuring viewers that there is something between the stock beats of an action-driven superhero story.

The story of Luke Cage could be greatly condensed, but that would likely mean sacrificing the atmosphere and tone of the series. As it stands, Luke Cage is a highly enjoyable extended superhero saga, with much of that enjoyment stemming from the opportunities afforded by its imperfections.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Luke Cage:

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4 Responses

  1. Great review. I love how you put it all in context. To be honest, I enjoyed the first 7 episodes quite a bit, but found my interest waning after Mariah killed Cornell and Stryker comes in as the big bad. As you said, Cornell was far more interesting than Stryker, a one-dimensional sociopath. The cops also came across as hopelessly incompetent. Misty Knight tells Priscilla Ridley several times that Luke Cage is innocent, that he has an alibi, and that there’s another killer on the loose, but Priscilla simply ignores her. I actually expected a twist revealing that Priscilla was in the pocket of Mariah. All that said, the relationship between Luke and Claire Temple turned into one of the better parts of the latter half of the show. The characters (save Stryker) all work well, so I’m looking forward to seeing them in the future.

    • Thanks Dom!

      Yeah, Cornell was much more interesting than Stryker in concept and execution. Although I understand the transition. Luke Cage wanted to be a superhero show rather than an urban crime drama with superpowers, so replacing Cornell with Stryker is trading up from a Wire-or-Boardwalk-Empire-style crime boss to a straight-up super villain. (And Stryker is very obviously a super villain, to the point that it’s hard to imagine him running a half-effective gun smuggling operation.)

  2. Is this easier to get into than Daredevil? I couldn’t get past the first the first ten minutes of Daredevil because of the Violence and melodramatic opening.

    • Well, the melodrama is very much a feature of the genre. Luke Cage is a lot lighter in terms of tone, even though it deals with a lot of the same subject matter. There’s never anything quite as brutal as that opening beat down in Daredevil, although various bad guys come close to delivering a couple. (One of them is in the first episode, so it is indicative in those terms.)

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