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Marvel's Luke Cage season 1 review: This isn’t just about a bulletproof black man. It’s also a story about the fragility of black life.

Luke Cage is the boldest thing Marvel has ever done.

The show — the third Netflix series to center on a character from the entertainment juggernaut’s vault of comic book heroes — isn’t perfect. At times it’s messy and bloated, in need of another edit. And it’s not especially different in structure from its predecessors, Jessica Jones and Daredevil.

Rating


4

But in the moments when Luke Cage clicks, it delivers a story with a complex social commentary, on a topic that it doesn’t normally touch: blackness. The titular protagonist is, of course, a black superhero. But the series explores the vulnerability of black lives to make an important point about its extraordinary man with indestructible skin.

Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker is unapologetic and electrifying in the images he chooses, the characters he swirls into the show’s mix, and the world of Harlem he builds. Luke Cage has a sharp texture, and the series has an unmistakable style. It’s a wildly ambitious show, and in the end, its ambition seems to be the only thing holding it back.

Luke Cage suffers from trying to be too many different things at once

The series’ best episodes are in the belly of its 13-episode season. Getting to them is a little tough. The first couple of hours lope along, weighed down by long, exposition-filled windups and character introductions.

Nightclub owner Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali) is a viper in a tailored suit, violence pressed in elegance. His cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) is a councilwoman, a volatile monstress hiding behind impassioned speeches about community, families, and neighborhoods. The two control Harlem, and Luke Cage (Mike Colter), our hero, is a seemingly regular man just trying to lay low by taking a job at a barbershop.

When Cage appeared on Marvel’s Jessica Jones last season, we learned about his powers: indestructible skin and super strength. Cage fled Hell’s Kitchen after an attack from the supervillain known as Kilgrave, and Luke Cage picks up a few months later.

Initially, Cage isn’t looking to fight crime. But Stokes’s evil influence weasels its way into Cage’s barbershop and threatens the people close to Cage. That leads him to take matters into his own hands, taking out the threats one by one.

For as scheming as Cottonmouth and Dillard can be, they employ some surprisingly entry-level, mindless goons. And it isn't long before some of them introduce their faces to Cage’s fists and draw the attention of Misty Knight (Simone Missick), a detective hoping to protect Harlem and crack down on Cottonmouth and Dillard.

Cage can’t help but protect the people close to him. Cottonmouth and Dillard thirst for more power, money, and influence in Harlem. Knight is trying her best to figure out the pieces of this crime puzzle. And all three of these forces cross paths.

As Luke Cage shifts focus between each of these characters, the show is stretched in many directions, and can feel like a few different shows smashed into one.

Sometimes it’s an origin story of Luke Cage. Other times, it’s a cop procedural about Misty. At still other times, it’s a political drama, tracing the professional relationship between Cottonmouth and Dillard when the spirit moves it.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Occasionally, it’s a family drama between Cottonmouth and Dillard. Then there’s the superhero bruiser aspect of the series, which relies heavily on corruption within the NYPD.

Some of these "shows" work better than others, but they don’t feel cohesive.

As much as Missick knocks it out of the park as Misty (more on this in a bit), Luke Cage can’t really operate as a cop procedural because there’s no tension or mystery to hold our attention — we see who killed whom, every time. Cage’s origin story is one of the more successful portions of the show, a series of flashbacks that show how he spent time in prison and how he acquired his powers.

Eventually, the show streamlines its various storylines into one coherent narrative: the battle over whether Luke Cage is seen as a menace or a hero.

By episode four, the series gains serious focus. It manages to get its cadre of talented actors on the same plane. It begins to piece its plot threads together in a way that fits, without feeling crowded. By episode seven, it’s absolutely addicting.

Unfortunately Luke Cage does little to sustain its momentum in the last third of the season. There are a few annoying plot holes that require viewers to ignore common logic. The last couple of episodes in particular are peppered with weak, almost metallic writing. The dialogue begins to fall into a pattern, sounding more and more like a script than a natural conversation between characters.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that there isn’t much variation to the show’s sets either — it feels like there are only four locations in all 13 episodes. Oftentimes, a feeling of redundancy takes over.

Luke Cage’s main characters are the best of those on any Marvel show

If Marvel were to hold a draft featuring all of its television characters, Luke Cage’s core ensemble — Cage, Cottonmouth, Misty, and Dillard — and the actors and actresses who play them would all be early picks.

Colter’s Cage is quietly intimidating. Cage is a man who’s holding back a storm of rage and pain beneath ropes of muscle and a stern scowl. Colter gives him dignity and humanity. The tiny glimmers of humor his character is allowed, particularly with Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple (who debuted on Daredevil and really deserves to be a regular on all of Marvel’s Netflix shows), are some of the best parts of the show.

Ali’s Cottonmouth and Woodard’s Dillard are given spools of scenery to chew through. When it comes to scheming scammers, Cottonmouth is in the same vein as Ali’s House of Cards character, Remy Danton. But Ali gets to be a little flashier here, and it’s a pleasure to watch. Woodard’s Dillard is an iron-jawed force of malevolence, and at times is delightfully psychotic.

But the real gem in this jewel box of a show is Missick’s Misty Knight. As Misty, Missick gets some of the most satisfying scenes, but they’re not necessarily the splashiest ones. She’s a detective without the luxury of a superpower, making her more fragile in the face of the danger that surrounds her. She’s also a character who must come to terms with her own obsolescence as a detective, because the rise of superpowered heroes like Cage and seemingly untouchable villains like Cottonmouth and Dillard has made old-fashioned crime solving seem somewhat useless.

Misty’s lack of superpowers also makes her more vulnerable than Cage, which gives the series some much-needed tension. It really feels like anything could happen to her.

I mentioned above that Luke Cage occasionally flirts with the idea of being a police procedural, but it lacks the tension and mystery to make a procedural work because we always see who commits the crimes Misty is trying to solve. That’s a shame, because the show puts a lot of care and effort into depicting Misty’s thorough detective work and analysis. But if Marvel wanted to give Misty (as played by Missick) her own show that was just a procedural and nothing else, I’d be its biggest fan.

Luke Cage thrives in showing us the American fear of a black hero

Luke Cage’s first season and all of its various components — the blaxploitation genre it twists, the Western feel in its bones, the mobster flicks it idolizes — coalesce around one idea: the question of what it will take for a black hero to survive in a system that wishes he would disappear.

Even in its mildest moments, the world that Luke Cage lives in is extraordinarily brutal.

There’s a clawing sense of helplessness, a sinking feeling that no matter what good Cage does in Harlem, if he arouses even one blush of suspicion, New York City’s entire police force will be determined to kill him. Cage has more legitimate alibis than Marvel has superheroes, but he’s always a suspect.

It becomes clear to everyone that Cage is bulletproof, but that doesn’t stop cops, or anyone really, from trying to shoot him — they even seek out special bullets to hurt him.

The series’ harsher moments contain searing flashes of inescapable imagery. Cage’s bullet-riddled hoodie calls to mind real-world deaths like that of Trayvon Martin. A mysterious Tuskegee-like experiment in prison is what gave Cage his powers, an experiment he signed up for but had no idea what it entailed.

And this strangling world isn’t just cruel to its titular hero.

Misty is almost always the smartest person in the room, but she’s rendered powerless by a corrupt system. Cottonmouth and Dillard, high on the myth of their legendary crime boss family, seek to rule Harlem, but the show cuts right through their visions of grandeur by showing us how easily the neighborhood is brought its knees by a racist police force. And there are people who are quick to take advantage of Cage’s image of black power — the police, the villains, the media — and manipulate the narrative of his heroism, with some like Dillard warping it and taking advantage of the fear they’ve stoked.

The miracle at the show’s center isn’t that Cage is an indestructible black hero. It’s that despite all the awfulness he’s seen, he still wants to be one.

It’s impossible to look at Cage and the hoodie he wears and not think of the disturbingly frequent killings of unarmed black men and boys that continue to dominate real-world headlines. This world is designed to consume black life, spit it out, and create villains like Cottonmouth and Dillard who have seen the odds stacked against them and whose only way to achieve power is to circumvent the law and bend the system.

Luke Cage is a story about a superhero with indestructible black skin. That’s what helps him survive. But the series’ most thorough point, and what makes Cage a hero isn't his ability or superpowers but his resilience.

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