by: Josh Outred
Lackluster villains damage Marvel’s standalone outing with the bulletproof black man, Luke Cage.
WARNING: The entire first season of Luke Cage is discussed below and there are spoilers contained. Proceed at your own risk!
He’s not a lawyer, nor is he a billionaire businessman and genius weapons engineer, no; Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a man on the run, a man with unbreakable skin and super-human strength who is struggling to come to terms with his incredible abilities, unsure whether embracing them will do more harm than good.
Netflix and Marvel Television have managed to craft a thoughtful and extremely relevant series with Luke Cage, whose comic book debut came all the way back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire. Cage, formally known as Carl Lucas is a man on the run. Having escaped from his tormenting incarceration at Seagate (an island prison) after being wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit, Lucas changes his name to Luke Cage and begins a new life, trying to lay low and live a normal life. However, after the experimental rehabilitation he underwent turned him into a bulletproof machine, he struggles to live life on the sidelines, and is of two minds whether to use his unwanted abilities to help rid Harlem of organized crime or instead pretend that his super-human powers do not exist in order to live a “normal” life.
As with most stories the future hero always has a mentor, Luke’s mentor comes in the form of barbershop owner, Pop (Frankie Faison). Pop is a wise man, a man of Harlem, who as well as cutting hair instills wisdom into the black youth of the area, trying to guide them in the right direction. A loveable character from the get-go, Pop is also Luke Cage’s boss and Uncle of deceased wife, Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley). Pop is consistently telling Luke to get involved and use his powers to bring justice to Harlem. Eventually event’s bring our hero Luke to the forefront of the action, Pops’ death and last words propelling Cage to take action.
After Pops’ death we see Luke change as a person drastically. He goes from subdued to street-action-hero in the matter of an episode, immediately taking action against local nightclub owner and crime boss Cornel ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes, whose “ready to impress” goon carried out the killing. This “act of war” on Cottonmouth is what kick starts the story, bringing unwanted attention to the new hero of Harlem. After bringing Cornel’s business to it’s already weak knees, Cage is seen as a saviour, his speech at Pops’ funeral does nothing more than fuel that love. Though with the love comes hate, now that Cage is on Cottonmouth’s radar he, like Luke, wants revenge. After continuous back and forths, what seemed to be like a strong lead villain also meets his end, not at the hand of Luke, but to his own cousin, Black Mariah (Alfre Woodward).
This is where I feel the show falters greatly, we’re introduced to the scheming Mariah Dillard in the first episode along with Cottonmouth, she just never really seemed like a threat. To me it felt like both her and her cousin were consistently being set up for their next big move, something to which the creators never really resolved, with her eventual outburst on her cousin being the only act with a real evil motive. Aside from that, Councilwoman Dillard was just a political pushover, being the voice of the people and trying to take control of Harlem being her master plan that never got off the ground. Along with these two characters our attention is brought to another elusive figure, Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), who after half a season is set up as the main bad guy, by this point I was tired of constant introductions to so called villainous characters who never really stood up to the high bar set by Wilson Fisk in Daredevil season 1.
The poor execution of our villain’s motives made for a story that really came down to one thing, Luke Cage’s internal struggle. Dealing with the loss of his wife and a checkered past whilst at the same time deciding whether to embrace super powers forced unwillingly upon him became the main focus of the show. Mike Colter gives such a subtly cool and powerful performance that really anchors the show. That, alongside the relevant themes of being black and living in America, hit you hard. The live music also adds a nuance that makes this show the most real superhero adaptation put to screen yet.
Luke Cage unfortunately fell victim to the 13 episode conundrum that Marvel and Netflix have going on. Having these show’s chopped down to 10, even 8 episodes would really help tighten the story and rid the series of so much unwanted filler. I mean, Cage’s backstory was covered in one episode thanks to the perfect use of flashbacks, it just wasn’t necessary to drag the season out to 13 by reiterating the non existent motives of the villains, and spending an unusual amount of time with Luke on the run. This is an issue that I feel all the Netflix/Marvel ventures have had, an issue I hope they address in order to keep the stories and character motives as tight as possible.
All in all Luke Cage rounded out as an average adventure for me. With relevant themes and a strong lead being the biggest victories. The show had scenes that you could pull straight from a comic book page, (Cottonmouth’s rocket launcher scene being a perfect example). However, the show ultimately failed to give us a strong villain to latch onto, and I felt the story regularly going backwards, as if it was almost afraid to take that next big step.