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Luke Cage – Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? (Review)

Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? is largely shaped and defined by its central hall way fight sequence.

The hallway fight sequence was hyped in the first teaser trailer for Luke Cage, which set an abridged version of the scene to Shimmy Shimmy Ya by Dirty Ol’ Bastard. However, a scene like this seemed inevitable even before that trailer landed. After all, the extended one-take hallway fight sequence from Cut Man, the second episode of Daredevil, had been a watershed moment for the Marvel Netflix properties; that impressively choreographed centrepiece really demonstrated what the shows could accomplish from a technical and action-driven perspective.

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Indeed, the second season of Daredevil treated the hallway fight sequence as something approaching a holy artifact, offering two extended homages to the brawl. The multi-level fight sequence in New York’s Finest was a rather blatant (and awkward) attempt to maintain the one-take conceit while escalating the action to an absurd degree. The prison corridor brawl in Seven Minutes in Heaven shrewdly dropped the insistence on maintaining a single take while increasing the carnage exponentially. The hallway fight sequence is a sacred moment for the Netflix properties.

Jessica Jones notably avoid a tribute to the sequence, but that could be explained any number of ways; from the fact that Jessica Jones would have been in production before the response to the fight sequence hit through to Jessica Jones‘ reluctance to embrace the conventional and expected story beats from a superhero story. In contract, Luke Cage is very keen to deliver upon all these expectations. The extended corridor sequences in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? are a way for Luke Cage to embrace its superhero stylings, but on its own terms.

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For something that was inevitable, Luke Cage certainly took its time building to that brawling sequence. Although Moment of Truth closed with an action sequence of Luke taking on Cornell’s goons in Genghis Connie’s, and Code of the Streets featured Tone’s attack on the barbershop, the raid on the Crispus Attucks Building in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? is really the show’s first true glimpse of Luke in action. Although both the characters and the audience know that Luke is bulletproof, he never really cuts loose until this point.

More than that, Luke Cage understands that the story is building to this. The show teases the audience with the inevitability of the sequence in a way that seems almost playful. After all, the teaser of Code of the Streets opens with Luke standing in the park staring out at the Crispus Attucks Building, clearly planning something. However, the episode jumps back in time to explain how Luke reached that point, closing on Luke standing in the same spot having done nothing.

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The teaser to Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? even teases the audience with the possibility that the sequence might ultimately take place off-screen. The episode’s teaser unfolds from outside the building during Luke’s raid. There are hints of violence; machine gun fire, fleeing goons, a couch thrown through an upstairs window. The teaser closes with Luke victorious, walking out of the building carrying a duffel bag full of cash. It is a cheeky creative choice, one that almost suggests that this is all that the series will offer after teasing the sequence from the first trailer.

Naturally, the episode eventually gets around to that big fight sequence. After all, the production team were highly unlikely to have filmed all that material for a teaser trailer with no intention of using it. That is not television works. However, Luke Cage is quite careful to ensure that it arrives at the hallway sequence in its own time and on its own terms. It is a great example of how playful and comfortable Luke Cage is, a television show that moves at its own pace and never runs when it can strut.

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There is a surprisingly relaxed quality to the fight sequence. Whereas Matt Murdock and Frank Castle seemed exhausted by their own hallway fight sequences, Luke simply walks through it all. According to showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, that was very much a conscious choice:

Luke can’t really punch or kick the kind of ass that Daredevil does because with his strength, he would kill people. So what Matt Owens captured in the script and the rest of the team captured in that whole shoot, is what I call “Smack Fu.” So you’ll notice that when he’s putting people through walls, it’s almost like he’s picking up a toddler and putting them up on a counter or something. It’s like, “Here you go. Get out of my way. I need to get to here.” It’s that kind of thing. What’s great about Mike is that as soon as we explained “Smack Fu,” he was able to just coordinate his movement and make that look real. We saw it like, “Oh my god, there’s an energy to the way that he’s doing this.”

That’s kind of how the music works, too. Knowing that Luke is bulletproof, and knowing how this effort is going to be different than the Daredevil hallway fight, which was more about how relentless Matt Murdock is and how exhausted he is in that iconic second episode, my take on this thing was that this is gonna be Luke’s workout, and that’s why he’s wearing the headphones. He knows that he can’t be shot, so this is gonna be him working off steam while he basically has to put Cottonmouth temporarily out of business. A lot of that is him being, “Let me put my music on and I’m gonna smack my way down the hallway.”

In a way, this speaks the tone of Luke Cage as a television series. The character at the centre of the story is bulletproof, which creates an interesting and unconventional dynamic. It is very hard to generate tension for such a character. Luke Cage understands that this is the central conceit of the show, and so it doesn’t force the issue.

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Of course, the series eventually puts Luke Cage under threat. However, the show takes its time. The “Judas” bullet is first mentioned in Just to Get a Rep, but does not arrive until the closing scene of Manifest. Mariah runs through a number creative ways to kill Luke in Suckas Need Bodyguards, but the show never follows through on any of them. Even though Stryker hunts Luke with bullets that can kill him in Blowin’ Up the Spot and the police pursue him with variants of those bullets in Soliloquy of Chaos, the show still takes a long time to build that level of tension.

The result is a first season that takes a long time to get where it is going. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. A tighter and faster version of Luke Cage would likely have less time to flesh out supporting characters. Characters like Raphael Scarfe and “Shades” Alvarez are very much stock characters cast in a familiar mold, the corrupt cop and the gangster whisperer. However, because Luke Cage does not rush, it can flesh out these archetypes into more nuanced and complicated characters. Even characters like Pop and Cornell benefit from the slower pacing of Luke Cage.

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The writing staff are keenly aware of this. The characters even seem to comment upon it. Stopping by the barbershop for a shave in Code of the Streets, Cornell Stokes waxes lyrical about the lost art of taking the necessary time. “That’s that’s what’s missing nowadays, Pop,” Cornell reflects. “Attention to detail. Everyone wants things fast, quick. Me, I like to take my time.” It feels almost as though Cornell is offering a preemptive defense of the show’s pacing, arguing that it needs to be experiences as a superhero slow jam where the more casual pace is part of the appeal.

There is something to be said for the way that Luke Cage exploits a slow build, savouring the inevitability of various plot points. It is worth nothing the writing generally choose to take their time when building to inevitable events, developments that are so heavily signposted that any vaguely literate television viewer can see them coming. Pop is a dead man walking from the opening scene of Moment of Truth, cast in the role of Uncle Ben. Cornell’s private “Fort Knox” is ripe for the taking from the moment the show establishes its role and importance.

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However, Luke Cage seems to understand that its sharper twists arrive more quickly and brutally. For example, the death of Cornell Stokes comes quite sharply out of left-field in Manifest. The flashbacks in the episode only hint at the abuse suffered by Mariah before a revelation in the final flashback sequence that leads to Cornell teasing her that leads to Mariah brutally murdering her cousin with a mike stand. Indeed, that sequence works so effectively because it exists largely in contrast to the more relaxed pacing around the other more predictable plot beats.

Luke Cage also suffers from a lack of visual inventiveness. The Netflix Marvel shows are very visually conservative, which is very much in keeping with the visual aesthetic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a lot of clear and uncluttered shots that tend to avoid weird angles or striking compositions in favour of visual clarity. There are exceptions of course, including Floria Sigismondi’s work on Kinbaku, but generally speaking a lot of Daredevil and Jessica Jones and Luke Cage episodes look like they could have been produced during the nineties.

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This is particularly disappointing given the creative talent involved in these episodes. Moment of Truth and Code of the Streets were directed by Paul McGuigan, who directed the pilot of Sherlock. However neither episode has any of that energy, perhaps the closest overlap coming in McGuigan’s portrayal of text messaging in Code of the Streets. The following episodes have a similar pedigree, with Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? directed by Guillermo Navarro and Step in the Arena directed by Vincenzo Natali, both veterans of Hannibal.

Given the quality of directors working on the show, Luke Cage is visually disappointing. The lighting is uninspired. The blocking is very straightforward. The framing is generic. One of the most consistently disappointing aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a recurring reluctance to allow directors to put their own stamp on the material. Simply put, Captain America: Civil War is visually uninteresting. The overcrowded desaturated symbolism of Zack Snyder’s work on Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is more visually memorable.

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Luke Cage takes its time telling its central story, which is grand. The writing uses that extra space to delve into characters and motivations that might get lost in the shuffle of a more frantic television series. However, the show’s visuals largely fall flat. If Luke Cage is going to stretch out these plot beats, there is something to be said for visual experimentation and innovation. To borrow a quote from Roger Ebert, it has never been what the story is about as much as how it is about it. And Luke Cage goes about it bother very conventionally and very slowly.

As such, this storytelling style lacks a sense of the urgency and momentum that drove Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In some ways, Luke Cage feels very much like a great eight-episode story extended out to thirteen episodes. There are any number of interesting comparisons to be made. Marvel’s cinematic output is heavily stylistically influenced by trends in comic book publishing since the turn of the millennium. This is particularly true of the Netflix output, which is heavily inspired by Brian Michael Bendis. Cheo Hodari Coker acknowledges that influence on Luke Cage.

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It could legitimately be argued that the Netflix shows have even imported the tendency towards decompressed storytelling that defines a lot of the “Ultimate” and “Marvel Knights” titles that are so influential on these adaptations. This is very much “writing for the trade”, structuring individual stories to run over six months or a year of publishing time. It is a bone of contention to certain kinds of comic book fans, as Brian Cronin argues:

Well, compressed storytelling takes as its central point the idea that a story needs to be told in 22 pages – the length of your average comic book. That is why it’s compressed, don’t you know. With the advent of longer books, more “literary” aspirations on the part of writers (who read too much Proust in college), and, especially, the arrival of the trade paperback format in earnest, decompressed writing has come into its own. Writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and J. Michael Straczynski said: “We don’t need to tell a story in 22 pages. That is an artificial construct.” So they (and many others, but this ain’t a list) began to write stuff that didn’t necessarily fit into 22 pages, or even 44. They began to write stuff that got resolved in 6 issues … or 8 … or 12.

Of course, the term “decompression” is prone to distortion, frequently used as a pejorative term with little regard for what it actually means. As much as Cronin singles out Grant Morrison as a writer fond of decompression, the most common criticisms of Morrison’s work (like Final Crisis or Multiversity) is that he actually moves too fast, ignoring a lot of the “connective tissue” that comic readers take for granted. Morrison is a compressed storyteller.

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It is worth noting that this trend in decompressed storytelling really kicked into gear at the dawn of the twenty-first century, around the time that figures like Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch really pushed for “widescreen” cinematic storytelling in comic books. “Widescreen” storytelling, so called because of its emphasis on long panels running the width of a page that evokes the aspect ratio, greatly reduced the number of panels on a given page so as to convey a sense of scale and spectacle rivalling that of blockbuster cinema.

Decompression emerged at around the same time that dialogue-driven film and television writers began to cross over from film and television into comic books, figures like Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon. In fact, Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men with John Cassaday serves as an excellent intersection of decompressed and widescreen storytelling within popular mainstream comic book storytelling. However, Brian Michael Bendis is perhaps the mainstream comic book writer most associated with decompression.

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This was perhaps most obvious with Bendis’ work on Ultimate Spider-Man, where it famously took three issues to put Peter Parker in the iconic costume and four issues to kill off Uncle Ben. These were plot points that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko hit within a single issue. Bendis is known for his bantering dialogue, inspired in no small way by playwrights like David Mamet. Although Bendis has never written the character of Luke Cage in a solo series, his influence on the character is quite evident in Luke Cage.

The thirteen-episode series adopts a style that very much evokes the writing style of Brian Michael Bendis. In particular, the time taken to reach an inevitable action sequence is a staple of Bendis’ comic book superhero writing. Perhaps the most notable example of this comes during his run on Daredevil, with Daredevil #46 closing on a cliffhanger whereby the villain Typhoid Mary sets Matt Murdock on fire, only for Daredevil #47 to flashback and reveal how this came about before building to the exact same cliffhanger.

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There are elements of that to the first season of Luke Cage, most notably in how Code of the Streets and Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? quit pointedly build to the attack on the Crispus Attucks Building almost cheekily slowly. It is quite clear that showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker is a big comic book fan. Luke Cage is a show that is proud of its place within the broader canvas of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a television series that thrives on intertextuality and connectivity.

Daredevil and Jessica Jones both maintained their distance from the shared universe. The events of The Avengers serves as the back drop of Daredevil, but largely served as a way to set back the clock on gentrification within Hell’s Kitchen. On Jessica Jones, the show could not even bring itself to identify iconic characters by name. Luke Cage referred to “the big green dude and his crew” in AKA It’s Called Whiskey, while Jessica Jones refers to “the flag-waver” in AKA 99 Friends. Indeed, Kilgrave seemed to exist in a world without S.H.I.E.L.D.

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More than that, Jessica Jones rejected many of the conventions of superhero storytelling. Her experimentation with heroism in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me was treated as a punchline, her origin story removed from the normal trappings of costumes and superpowers. When the show did explain her superpowers in AKA I’ve Got the Blues, it was quite dismissive. There was nothing akin to the thirteen-episode origin that ran through the first season of Daredevil or the ninja secret war mythology that ran through the second season of Daredevil.

In contrast, Luke Cage relishes these little touches. Early in Moment of Truth, Luke Cage crosses paths with a young man selling bootleg blu rays of “The Incident.” The kid boasts, “You can’t get better raw footage of the incident than right here!” Although there are no explicit references to the Harlem showdown between Bruce Banner and Emil Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk, this version of Harlem very clearly and very firmly exists in the context of the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. Cornell even describes Luke as “Harlem’s Captain America” in Manifest.

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When Shades introduces Cornell to “the Judas” in Just to Get a Rep, Cornell is practically giddy when he finds out that the weapon was constructed from material thrown to earth at the climax of The Avengers. He asks, “What kinda metal does that?” Shades cryptically responds, “Nothing from this earth.” However, that is not explicit enough. So Cornell presses. “The Incident?” Shades confirms, “That’s what I hear.” There is a sense that the series is delighted at the prospect that it exists within the same storytelling world as those gods and monsters and aliens.

Characters crossover from other shows, with Claire appearing as a regular from Just to Get a Rep onwards, while Turk guest stars in Code of the Streets and Soliloquy of Chaos while Blake Tower makes an appearance in Now You’re Mine. Other characters are referenced as part of the texture of this world. “You saw what happened to Fisk,” Mariah warns Cornell in Moment of Truth. In Take it Personal, Mariah explicitly references the events of AKA Smile, warning about “that woman over in Hell’s Kitchen snapped a man’s neck because he was ‘mindcontrolling’ her.”

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Although a Chinese Wall has long separated Marvel’s film and television divisions, Luke Cage gleeful builds entire ideas around characters and concepts established in the films. Sam Rockwell played the corrupt industrialist Justin Hammer in Iron Man II, and was largely wasted within the shared universe barring a small cameo in Seagate in All Hail the King. Not only does Luke Cage actually visit Seagate in Step in the Arena, the characters repeatedly and explicitly use “some Justin Hammer sh!t” as part of their illegal arms deals.

This embrace of superhero genre conventions makes a lot of the storytelling on Luke Cage easier, particularly when things get progressively absurd towards the climax. In a more grounded show, Willis Stryker’s transformation in Soliloquy of Chaos would break the story. However, the fact that Luke Cage has been son consciously and proudly wearing its comic book elements on its sleeve help to sell that particular moment. You Know My Steez could never have worked as the finale to a series as distant from the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Jessica Jones.

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This emphasis on genre storytelling makes other elements of Luke Cage easier to swallow. Even beyond the superhero genre, Luke Cage is rooted in the rich tradition of pulpy genre narratives. The season is structured as something of a western. Cheo Hodari Coker acknowledges as much:

I don’t consider Luke Cage to be as much a blaxploitation epic as a modern-day hip-hop western. A mysterious “man with no name”, who has a past he’s trying to run away from… Coming out of the shadows puts him in a direct line with the saloon owner – in this case, Harlem’s Paradise is that saloon. Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes is basically our Gene Hackman character [like in Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western Unforgiven]. So when you have the showdown, Malcolm X Boulevard becomes that long stretch.

Indeed, a lot of the shots and framing are designed to evoke western iconography; the lone stranger coming to town, wandering into chaos and walking away unscathed. This is quite clear during the action sequences in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, with Mike Colter carrying the same effortless cool associated with icons like Clint Eastwood.

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As with a lot of the show’s core themes and concepts, this creative direction is reflected in the soundtrack. The hiphop and R’n’B influence on Luke Cage has been discussed and explored, but music supervisor Adrian Younge also cites classic western composer Ennio Morricone as a major influence:

“From a musical perspective, Ali and I look at this as we’re creating 13 albums, know what I’m saying? It’s 13 episodes like 13 albums. We have music that is inspired by A Tribe Called Quest but at the same time inspired by Wu, and Ennio Morricone, and we all came together and said that we all wanted to make something great. Not just for black people or minorities, just something great, that just happens to be based on our culture. It was one of those things where I was like yo, we have a chance to make history here.”

Again, this influence is quite clear in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? The influence of Morricone upon the soundtrack can be felt at various points, most notably towards the end of the teaser and during the sequence where Scarfe murders Chico. There is literally a bell tolling at that point.

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This western influence in many ways dovetails into the superhero fascination. After all, cowboys and superheroes are arguably just different expressions of the same core American ideal, the expression of individual exceptionalism and the taming of a chaotic world. There is a reason that superhero films are arguably the new western, likely because they speak to the same core sensibilities. Superheroes just happen to be the more popular expression of this core idea at the moment.

Many modern superhero stories wrestle with big questions about lawful authority and vigilantism. In recent years, it seems like audiences have been asked to approach heroes from a position of skepticism; this question of authority informs everything from Daredevil to Batman vs. Superman to Civil War. After all, asking the audience to believe in men with superpowers who can enforce their will upon the world opens all sorts of uncomfortable philosophical questions beyond blockbuster spectacle.

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How can audiences in a democratic society root for superheroes? It is a tough question, and Luke Cage offers a surprisingly candid and convincing answer by framing the show in terms of a western. While audiences might be uncomfortable with superheroes bypassing the democratic forces of law and order, they are more comfortable with the figure of the lone cowboy outlaw standing against injustice. By positioning Luke in that context, Luke Cage bypasses a lot of the handwringing that bogs down many modern superhero adaptations.

More than that, Raphael Scarfe makes a compelling argument in favour of Luke Cage. More than that, he makes several compelling arguments in favour of Luke Cage. About halfway through the episode, Raphael Scarfe gets involved in a heated debate about Luke Cage with Misty Knight. It begins as something very similar to the whole “what authority do they have?” moral handwringing that bogged down most of the second season of Daredevil, but evolves into something more nuanced.

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Part of this is through Luke Cage‘s willingness to embrace the shared universe, and understand that normal logic cannot possible apply to this situation. “I saw the Incident, up close,” Scarfe states, simply. “What we can do as cops, what we can’t do. Unless this sidearm I’m carrying turns into some kind of magic hammer… this whole job is irrelevant.” Misty tries to dismiss Scarfe, “You are a credit to the badge, Scar.” However, what Scarfe is saying makes a certain amount of sense.

Debating superheroism cannot be the same as debating vigilantism, because the fundamental assumptions are different. That short scene between Misty and Scarfe is fascinating because it takes the ridiculousness of comic book storytelling at face value and plays it out to its logical alternative. Luke Cage cannot be Bernie Goetz, because nobody like Bernie Goetz ever managed to stop an alien invasion of Manhattan led by a god of lies. It is a great scene, an example of the cast and crew playing with a ridiculous concept in a manner that helps make it tangible.

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Of course, Scarfe goes on to demonstrate another justification for acting outside the system. Scarfe is a white cop who kills a black kid. Of course, Scarfe is corrupt. The act is very clearly premeditated murder rather than a decision made in the heat of the moment. Nevertheless, the image of Scarfe brutally strangling and murdering Chico is a striking reminder of the context in which Luke Cage has been released. This is a world in which there are constant stories about young black men killed by the authorities that are sworn to protect them.

This is all the more striking because Scarfe is the most prominent white member of the cast. However, Scarfe is not the only reason why the people inhabiting the world of Luke Cage should be wary of the authorities. A police officer beats a suspect in Take it Personal. In that same episode, white police officers show no respect for the local community in their pursuit of Luke Cage. Cage finds himself fleeing a “shoot to kill” order and literal exploding bullets in Soliloquy of Chaos.

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In that same episode, it is clear that Harlem is looking for some moral authority beyond conventional law enforcement. Appearing on the Sway Universe podcast, Method Man answers the question of why Luke Cage would flee the authorities if he were innocent. “Bulletproof always gonna come second to bein’ black,” Method Man explains, which is perhaps the perfect statement for why Luke Cage is the perfect comic book superhero for 2016. The fact that Luke Cage operates outside the authorities is not a handicap; it is a virtue.

All of this explains why Luke Cage is so proud of its superhero trappings, why the series never blushes away from the conventions of the genre or the ridiculousness of the medium. There is no room for irony or detachment, no call for polite distance or compromised vision. Now, more than ever, the world needs a bulletproof black superhero.

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

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