Marvel’s new Netflix series has arrived. But is it as unbeatable as its bullet-proof hero?
The most street-level superhero series yet, Luke Cage‘s creator Cheo Hodari Coker has described it as a “hip-hop western”, which really is a perfect way to summarise it. Luke himself is a terrific lead character. Like a classic western hero, he’s a stranger wandering into town and reluctantly taking it upon himself to clear it up. However, he’s an urban cowboy as Harlem is the second main character of the show, with lots of hip-hop music per episode demonstrating its culture.
Like Jessica Jones before it, what really gives Luke Cage an edge is that it has some important real-world themes beneath the superhero stuff. The series doesn’t shy away from the current problems between law enforcement and black people in the US by focusing on an African-American man who is wrongly thought of a criminal. Luke is also often seen wearing a dark hoodie, deliberately circumventing the usual image that a black man in such clothing is out to cause trouble.
Likewise, the show has two awesome female supporting characters, neither of whom are pigeonholed into the ‘damsel-in-distress’ role. Simone Missick is terrific as Misty Knight, a talented detective who finds herself conflicted between doing her job and her gut feeling that Cage isn’t the bad guy. Likewise, Rosario Dawson – previously of Daredevil and Jessica Jones – gets her best role yet as Luke’s rock throughout the second half of the series (her chemistry with Colter easily beats her and Charlie Cox).
On the other hand, after Fisk and Kilgrave trumped pretty much every Marvel movie bad guy, finding a villain to match them is perhaps the one area where Luke Cage doesn’t quite measure up (though Daredevil season two suffered from the same thing). Despite Mahershala Ali giving it his all, Cottonmouth’s brand of mob bossery is too close to Kingpin to completely hit the sweet spot. Fortunately, his cousin Mariah Dillard is more fascinating. A corrupt politician, Mariah wants to go straight but cannot escape the same path as the rest of her criminal family. Unfortunately, she is sidelined for most of the season – I really hope to see more of her in season two.
There is also a clear divide between the first and second halves of the season and while no single episode drops the ball, certain character and story beats of latter episodes strike dangerously close to cliche. Spoilers: In particular, Diamondback is so eagerly set up as Luke’s nemesis that every supervillain trope in the book is thrown at him (he’s Luke’s best friend gone bad and his secret evil brother?). As a result, he ends up being a sadly underwhelming big bad.
It is easy to get past that, though, as everything else about Luke Cage is so well done. The cast is brilliant (Mike Colter naturally steals it) and the writing brilliantly blends superhero shenanigans and social commentary. There are a couple of missed hits, then, but Luke Cage definitely packs a powerful punch.