October 19, 2016

Netflix’s Luke Cage is Good… At First

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Luke Cage is a good show… for a bit. The first seven of thirteen episodes are a delight. Marvel’s new entry into its online-exclusive Defenders series (comprised of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the upcoming Iron Fist) will get its fans all the more hyped up for when the four eventually convene. Creator Cheo Hodari Coker and lead actor Mike Colter do brilliant jobs in what is another solid entry to the already-great Netflix universe. Luke Cage provides an enthralling look into a gritty Harlem still reeling from the extraterrestrial incident of Joss Whedon’s Avengers (2012). Bolstered by the strength of the setting, the show’s characters are well developed and cast (with the exception of one — discussed later). Preemptive TL:DR: Odds are if you’re a fan of Marvel’s other Netflix series, Luke Cage is already on your radar. If you haven’t seen Daredevil or Jessica Jones, Colter’s depiction of Power Man might just suck you into the universe. In my opinion, season one remains a worthwhile watch despite its late flaws.

pg-14-arts-luke-2The first thing about Luke Cage that merits discussion is its characters. As supported by  quotes from Colter’s character strewn throughout the season, this show is about the people — not the setting, not the action. And that’s not to say the setting and action aren’t great, but we’ll discuss those later. Our main character isn’t like the Iron Mans and Thors of Marvel’s Olympus. Much of the show’s early conflict is internal on Luke’s part. Cage got his powers in a sabotaged medical experiment during his time at Seagate Prison. Not only were his powers unwanted but before a dramatic event early in the show, Luke wants nothing to do with the man he could be if he used his powers. He seeks only an honest, normal life. But as Pop, Luke’s pseudo-father figure and employer, says, “that would be a waste.” Luke’s reluctance to step up is much of what makes his character so intriguing. As he develops throughout the season, we get brief glimpses into the hero’s muddled past. Despite his seemingly dark background, Luke is likeable to the viewer from the start, largely thanks to Pop’s guidance. Everything from Luke’s aversion to cursing to his embracing of the old man’s motto — “forward always” — endear Luke to the audience. Pop, in his brief appearances on the show, is a highlight as well. Pop has been around the block — the barber has a past rooted in childhood crime — but in the present tries to make a positive difference for the kids of his neighborhood. Pop’s barbershop is an asylum from the dangerous streets for any who want it. It’s also reasonable to view Pop’s character itself as an asylum from the craziness of the rest of the show. Pop is a solid rock of wisdom for Luke, and is a surefire audience favorite. Misty Knight is Luke’s Detective Gordon. She struggles to choose between the merits of a vigilante unbound by police bureaucracy and strictly adhering to the letter of the law. Misty develops a tendency to come unhinged and lose control of her usually regimented self as the events of the plot thicken. Her weakness entices a viewer to relate with her, as it seems only right that someone having their world turned upside down would react as Knight does. Rafael Scarfe, Knight’s cynical partner, adds another surprise (no spoilers yet) element to the dualistic view of the police department on the streets of Harlem. Cottonmouth (played by Mahershala Ali), Luke’s first adversary, is a spectacularly developed villain. A talented piano player as a child, he was forced into crime at an early age by his mobster parents. Cottonmouth blossoms into an empire-building crime lord while still keeping contact with his fragmented roots. He and Luke’s “War for Harlem” is an enthralling tale only amplified by Cottonmouth’s political involvement with his cousin councilwoman Mariah Dillard. Mariah, played by Alfre Woodard, has a brilliant character arc — starting the show as an only-slightly corrupt politician fighting for what she thinks is good for Harlem and spiraling into her cousin’s world of crime. Woodard does a fantastic job of portraying the emotional decay of her character as the season progresses. Shades, played by Theo Rossi, is another villainous triumph. Shades is the smart money in this show, constantly switching his allegiance and actions to back whoever he thinks will come out on top. Both the writing and casting of all of these characters are what makes Luke Cage such a fun watch. As a viewer, you’ll find it hard to not relate to, like and hate the characters as the showrunner’s intended.

The show also has some central themes that will intrigue its audience. The first of these is Luke’s internal conflict, as mentioned earlier. The biggest theme that will be immediately recognized by any viewer is the city of Harlem itself. Luke Cage’s Harlem is a setting that does more than look pretty in the background — the city permeates every part of the show. The characters are molded by it, their actions are affected by it and at times it feels as if the city is more influential on the plot than any one character. The attention to detail given to the setting is a refreshing change of pace from the locales of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where settings are often afraid to take away even an ounce of a viewer’s attention from the action. The showrunners try to encapsulate every part of the city: its history, its music and most poignantly its issues with crime and police relations. Somewhat surprisingly, Marvel’s newest work doesn’t shy away from the current issues with race relations and police action that are so prevalent in our society. In fact, for a while Luke becomes a sort of anti-police symbol to the people of Harlem. This conflict, by itself, is an interesting fictional look into a very real problem.

pg-14-arts-luke-3Luke Cage also does its viewers some serious fan-service without feeling like it’s pandering. The series repeatedly references both Daredevil, Jessica Jones and its comic book basis, Power Man. Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson, is a solid crossover character from both of Marvel’s other Netflix series and her continued involvement in Luke Cage only serves to strengthen the eventual transition to The Defenders. Small nods to the original comic are sure to give its readers a little extra enjoyment. A particularly humorous instance of this tackles the comic book character’s wardrobe. After his escape from Seagate, Luke finds himself without proper clothes and steals some from a clothesline. Looking at himself in a car window, it’s revealed he is wearing almost exactly Power Man’s outfit. Instead of embracing the look, he utters “you look like a damn fool” and settles on the hoodie look he’ll rock for the remainder of the season. This is just one example of a throwback with a twist that makes this new show both reminiscent and strong in its own right.

All of this sounds great right? It is! If you’re on the fence about watching the show, please watch it! And if you’re going to watch the show, STOP READING HERE. There is no way to discuss the shows flaws without getting into MAJOR SPOILERS.

You were warned. After Luke puts Cottonmouth in prison, the season’s first act comes to a close. Here begins the issue — Diamondback. Luke’s second adversary, and the show’s main second-half antagonist, is a major weak link in an otherwise strong showing from Marvel. Cliche-filled and driven by eye-rolling motivation, Diamondback serves almost solely to prolong the plot after Cottonmouth’s curtain call. Additionally, the casting of Erik LaRay Harvey seemed all wrong. Whenever he was shown, I just had a weird taste in mouth about the character. His repeated Biblical allusions also make his character reveal (which could have been a real strength) nauseatingly obvious. Not only that, but to put him on an equal footing with Luke in a fight, the showrunners had to seemingly conjure weapons out of thin air, such as Diamondback’s “magic” bullets and power suit (which, by the way, looks like an off-brand Iron Man costume from a dollar store). In my opinion, had the show stuck with Cottonmouth, or even Shades, for the long haul it could have eased its only flaw.

But honestly that’s it. Other than what I consider to be a serious misstep in Diamondback’s character arc, this show is seriously fun. A bold look into Luke Cage’s Harlem provides a welcome change from what we as viewers have come to expect from Marvel. The new show will please fans of the comics, fans of the new-age Netflix universe and could serve as a jumping-on point for new viewers.

Nicholas Smith is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].