Hero for Hire
Luke Cage is the third Marvel character to receive a show on Netflix (there are two seasons each of Daredevil and one of Jessica Jones already available). The programs are all connected, mirroring the universe-building style of the Avengers films – but with a bit more grit here.
The titular character first appeared in his own comic – Luke Cage, Hero for Hire – in June of 1972. The character appears as a direct result of the influence of Blaxploitation cinema, which came to prominence several years prior to his comic debut. Over time, the individual appeal of Luke Cage fizzled out, and he ended up in a pair together with Iron Fist (AKA Danny Rand). Marvel Studios is already in production on Iron Fist’s solo Netflix outing; their live action team up is something fans have been waiting years to see.
Those familiar with the Jessica Jones series will recognize Mike Colter’s Cage from the scenes he and the super heroine shared together. Now, back in action and even more bone-crunching, we see Colter leading his own program. His performance here undoubtedly carries the show from an acting perspective through the first seven episodes; he demonstrates great emotional depth in several key scenes, and although his exterior is tough, he’s not afraid to allow the character to grow and to gradually discover himself. Colter is accompanied by Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick and veteran actor Frankie Faison. Ali and Woodard play Harlem villains and cousins, one deep in the criminal underworld and the other a budding politician on the rise. Simone Missick plays comic book character Misty Knight, and Faison plays Cage’s mentor Pop. Standout performances by Woodard and Faison, with many other supporting actors offering rich performances, even if only for a scene. The show takes heavy influence from HBO’s The Wire: it seems to freely invite the comparison by way of similar casting, thematic material and individual story arcs. Luke Cage attempts to blur the ethical lines of criminal justice in a way reminiscent of The Wire, but unlike this revered predecessor, it often fails to develop a world which feels representative of reality.
Luke Cage is the newest streaming show of the Marvel Universe, and while it is far from revolutionary, it might turn out to be Marvel’s most accomplished small screen adaptation to date.
While it is difficult to watch Luke Cage and not see a somewhat tired Marvel formula recycled for yet another character, this derivativeness is not distracting enough to detract from the interest manufactured by the plot alone. A more glaring issue with the show is how self-censored and reserved it can be. On the one hand, a more restrained and palatable superhero story makes sense from a marketing standpoint. But on the other hand, it can’t help but feel forced and incongruous to enter a censored Wu-Tang Clan track into the equation. The show does succeed however with its breezy and subtle score, produced in part by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest.
As previously alluded to, Luke Cage is plot-centric (in a good way). The first seven episodes waste no time in developing multiple thorough storylines. What at first appear to be surface plot points eventually foreshadow deeper developments. It’s difficult to predict what the remaining first-season episodes will offer in terms of story and character development. While Luke Cage initially hints at a tendency to create more morally ambiguous character choices, there remains a nagging suspicion that there will not be significant change in terms of the overly moralistic tradition of the Marvel Universe. If nothing else, Luke Cage represents – in its racial inclusiveness and occasional creative risk-taking – the most entertaining new superhero narrative in a while (for Marvel heads and casual fans alike).
Title: Luke Cage (2016)
No. of episodes: 13.
Created by: Cheo Hodari Coker
Based on: Luke Cage by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas and John Romita Sr.
Composer: Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Starring: Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Erik LaRay Harvey, Rosario Dawson, Alfre Woodard.