Note: Due to the nature of the streaming of this show, not everyone may have finished Luke Cage at the time of viewing this review. It is as close to spoiler-free as possible, but there are inevitably going to be context clues. You’ve been warned. Time for the drop.
Luke Cage is the fourth installment of the Marvel/Netflix team. We already know that they are pushing boundaries in every direction. We know that they won’t shy away from controversy. We know that a dark, personal take on street-level heroes is exactly what we are going to get when you open Netflix, and choose to watch a Marvel property. It stands to reason that when I pressed play at 12:01AM on September 30, that I would know exactly what I was going to see in Luke Cage. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t have been further from reason. Luke Cage manages to be completely original while maintaining a long arc of honest, insightful, and unpredictable storytelling.
The season follows a very logical path. It picks up immediately following the events of Jessica Jones. Luke Cage has gone completely off-the-grid and headed to Harlem. The show quickly sets the tone with a protagonist, Cage, who has no interest in going the way of the hero. He doesn’t want anything except a simple life and an under the radar paycheck or two. The early story explores his current state, relationships, and outlook. There’s no rushing. You’re immediately familiar with who he is and how he feels about his life in a real and emotional way. The stage for this series was set early and once it was in place, it didn’t budge for the entire season.
Then, enter the villain: Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. He is a classic villain. He’s not interested in taking over the world. He has very specific self-interest. All he wants is to build his legacy in Harlem and it is so perfectly executed that you immediately enjoy his presence. He’s smooth, violent, and confident. He doesn’t want to influence people or change things and it is very obvious that his interest is purely in self-preservation. He’s found himself at the top and he wants to stay there. While the MCU struggles with holding great villains on the big screen, the reign of incredible villainous performances in the Netflix corner of the universe carries on strongly.
The show has an interesting character that played not the role of antagonist or protagonist, but a rugged neutral party: Harlem. Throughout every moment of this show, there is an unwavering presence that Harlem holds. This story couldn’t have worked anywhere else. The people, the politics, the way the people behave in their regular lives. The story bounces off of its environment in a way that the environment fights back. It feels like a modern personification of the ‘survival of the fittest’ law except it isn’t among the people, but between the characters and Harlem itself. What’s more is that every part of you feels like this is not a fantasy backdrop to a superhero story, but a real place with real people. It’s like a painting that represents reality in an honest and parallel manner.
The characters were fantastic, major and minor, throughout the entire series. That is the most fundamental idea behind this show and this review. However, this is a spoiler free review, so I won’t be discussing character storylines now that I’ve established their brilliance. What I’ll do instead is discuss what this show did well and things that it didn’t do so well.
Firstly, this show was completely original. There was never a moment throughout this show when I felt I could predict what was going to happen next. The larger arc of the season has twists and turns that I would never have predicted. In the same light, there were times when I tried to predict a twist or turn, and it went straight. Even so, the story never felt forced. It never felt like surprise for the sake of surprise. They develop the characters in a way that you believe in the decisions they make. It’s completely logical in its progression.
The cultural acknowledgement was perfect to me. Throughout the entire season you feel an intimacy with the culture on display. They address really hard topics like black crime, police bias and brutality, political corruption, and black-market profiteering. They confront these issues and it’s as important to the characters and the story as it is in real life. These things have serious consequences and you feel the damage that they cost on a personal level. Culturally, we needed this. These are extremely relevant in real life and Luke Cage highlights them in a way that will undoubtedly bring them to the surface in real-life conversations.
It would be an injustice to not mention how well this ties into the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are countless easter eggs to the events of the movies, The Avengers, Hells Kitchen, and more. There are brilliant call-backs to the comics. Keep in mind that Luke Cage came out in a very different era and coming into this show, I was certain that there were things they couldn’t find a way to include. It shouldn’t surprise me by now but they made them all work and they did it without taking themselves too seriously. Sweet Christmas, they do it better than anyone else and they delivered again.
There are, of course, some things that they could have improved upon. There were a few times throughout the season that felt completely out-of-place. Some things that seemed to have been shot specifically for promotional material were forced into the show; things that didn’t move the plot forward much.
Also, Luke Cage is kind of annoying at times. There are many times that, though you can see his perspective, he feels like he’s just being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn. At times it genuinely seems like he could have (literally) squashed the whole situation.
The romance in the show is sort of an unbalanced mess. It seems unnecessary for a lot of the show and the carryover from Jessica Jones felt like something they had to deal with more than a behavior-driver or a tool for character-development.
My very biggest issue with the show contains spoilers so this will remain vague. There is an course-change about half way through the show that contained a massive plot-hole. This course-change came very late in the game and, while the intentions were certainly believable, they seemed to be way late and only a real motivator when the arc had room for them. This should have been introduced much, much earlier in the season.
All-in-all, this show is extremely impactful. There was clearly an unmeasurable amount of passion poured into Luke Cage. The story was intimate and believable. It was the clear next step in the television corner of the MCU and the quality of the show was exceptional; easily on par with Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Will Iron Fist, The Defenders, and The Punisher hold course? Only time will tell, but one thing is overwhelmingly certain: Luke Cage is an instant hit and will be regarded as an icon for its African-American title hero, its sincerity to black culture, and honesty to a part of society that is not understood by everyone. The reign of honest diversity on-screen begins with Luke Cage as much as the need for subtextual racial bias dies with it. Well done.