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Marvel’s cinematic universe expands further with the latest Netflix series, Luke Cage, which despite treading often familiar ground, does venture into new places for the live-action superhero genre. That said, having watched it I think it’s a series which failed to realise its full potential in some areas, and as a result must be considered as a bit of a missed opportunity, albeit an entertaining one with moments of utter brilliance.
Luke Cage is a Marvel character created at the height of the Blaxpoitlation craze in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita and George Tuska. Cage was, at best, a workmanlike superhero; never great, never really awful most of the time. Yet here was a black hero holding up his own title, which was somewhat of a feat in the 1970’s, and in 2016 the idea of a black superhero fronting their own solo film or TV series is still some way off from being where it should be. However, Marvel’s forthcoming Black Panther film show steps to even up the playing field, which until now has been dominated by white superheroes.
As a series, Luke Cage starts slowly picking up some months after the events of Jessica Jones. If you haven’t seen that series before diving into this, I advise that you do as Luke Cage follows on directly from it. It’s also worth being aware of Iron Man 2, The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War which Luke Cage draws heavily from in latter episodes as it deals with a fearful public concerned with the actions of superheroes. As the series starts though, Luke (Mike Colter) is working for Pop, a barber whose shop is a neutral territory for the various gangsters we’re introduced to over the length of the first episode.
The main villain is Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) who becomes Luke’s nemesis. But before we think we’re on the same ground as previous Netflix Marvel series where the hero squares off against a single, all-powerful foe, the series does a turn around halfway through and brings in the menace of Diamondback (Eric LaRay Harvey) who provides a physical threat for the super-strong, indestructible Cage, and Alfre Woodard’s corrupt local politician, Mariah Dillard. As the series progresses it’s Mariah whose origin we start seeing, as she switches from corrupt politician to gangster. Luke, along with his allies, Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and a returning Rosario Dawson as Claire (you really need to have seen Daredevil and Jessica Jones to get what they’re doing with Claire as a character) tries to keep Harlem clean, fight the bad guys and seek revenge for those friends who have been wronged or lost.
I wasn’t especially taken with the first few episodes. The pacing is often glacial and characters spend too much time standing, or sitting, around spouting big chunks of exposition. I think part of the problem is making the story stretch to 13 episodes. That seems to produce episodes which are flabby in places as this story really could be told in ten episodes and be better for it. But overall Luke Cage works when it tries to do something not seen so far in Marvel’s live-action output, which is to deal with black American identity politics. Luke Cage takes on subjects head on while at the same time, not quite going as far as it could. However, it is hard to think of any other American programme that has scenes of characters standing up to police intimidation by wearing hoodies ridden with fake bullet holes. In a 2016 America where headlines have been made regarding race and police brutality, Luke Cage needs to be praised for going there. It must also be commended for breaking type and creating a black central hero who’s well read, intelligent, decent and heroic.
Where Luke Cage falls down is from when it doesn’t go as far as it could. It could be braver. Mariah for example is hinted at being a racist (there’s a nice scene where she washes her hands after shaking the hand of a white school child) and there’s talk of her fight against gentrification which nearly goes somewhere before being discarded as a plot thread. There’s also a diversion where Luke and Claire go to track down the doctor that accidentally gave Luke his powers which ends up just being a massive piece of exposition and takes Luke out the drama going on in Harlem. The hints and setting up next year’s The Defenders also distracts at times too.
These though are niggles which don’t make the series unenjoyable, just frustrating sometimes. With just a few tweaks this could have been Marvel’s best Netflix series yet. A good solid cast is backed up by some great direction and a soundtrack which is spectacular. In fact the use of music as storytelling device in the series is at times, genius.
Luke Cage is a good, above average superhero drama that has a wee bit more going on between the ears than most TV superhero programmes and if you like your superhero fight scenes, there’s lots here for you to enjoy. Next up from Netflix in March is Iron Fist, another character born of a 1970’s craze, then it’s the aforementioned The Defenders teaming up all our Marvel Netflix heroes in a super-team. After that we have the highly anticipated The Punisher. There’s a lot more to come and I hope they maintain the overall quality of Luke Cage.