Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is on a roll unprecedented and without equal as far as an amazing run of films goes with nary a complete stinker in the bunch, and if early positive reviews for Doctor Strange are any indication, their winning streak doesn’t look to be petering out any time soon. True, there’s been a hiccup or two. Some people don’t like the Thor movies, and most can agree that Age of Ultron had some severe problems. But overall Marvel’s filmic output has pretty much been like pizza, even when it’s not great, it’s still pretty good.
Marvel’s partnership with Netflix has been mostly similar. Aside from a few head scratch-y moments here and there, the two seasons of Daredevil and the first season of Jessica Jones were outstanding explorations into the street level Marvel heroes and lightyears ahead of any other superhero shows on TV. Luke Cage appeared to be heading in a similar direction. The character’s introduction in Jessica Jones was as perfect as any the creative team behind the Netflix series’ have pulled off, and he was left in a great spot to continue his further adventures (hopefully including a certain green garbed martial artist), but Cage’s solo series initially seems to regress that character development so severely that I was initially fooled into thinking it was a prequel to Jones.
When we’re introduced to Cage he’s splitting time between helping clean up longtime friend Pop’s barber shop and bartending at Harlem’s Paradise, a night club that just so happens to be owned by Harlem gangster numero uno Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, with no mention whatsoever of his seemingly successful past life as a Hell’s Kitchen bar owner. Sure, okay. Continuity snafus like this we’re one of the reasons I stopped reading Marvel’s weekly comics (Wolverine and Spider-Man are EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME. Don’t question it!) but I don’t think Netflix’s hero bench is quite deep enough to require this kind of suspension of disbelief. But overlooking that cognitive strangeness (and a few other things I’ll get to later), there’s a lot to like about Luke Cage.
Luke’s crusade breathes with the soul of the old school 70’s exploitation cinema that inspired the original comics, in no way more succinct than in its excellent soundtrack. Wu Tang Clan’s classic “Bring Da Ruckus” scores the series’ first (and arguably best) big action set piece, and Method Man himself even makes a hilarious cameo, so that’s a starting point to give you a good idea of the sonic ecosystem you’re about to inhabit, classic 70’s soul sampled with a lo fi, bass heavy low end, created and executed never better than by the Wu Tang’s immortal RZA. RZA himself wasn’t involved with this soundtrack, but the work Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad display here has plenty of his DNA, and syncs up with Cage’s one man war for Harlem justice as perfectly as possible.
Speaking of as perfect as possible, Mike Colter simply IS Luke Cage, or at least Luke Cage from Brian Bendis’ 2005 New Avengers comics reboot (though there is a fun call back to Cage’s tiara and silk shirt sporting 70’s incarnation), with a warmth that makes you fully believe that he cares so deeply about the safety of his community, but also a depth, mystery and intensity believable enough to sell the more shadowy and volatile aspects of the character. Unfortunately no one else is the cast is quite up to Colter’s level, aside from Rosario Dawson, returning as “Night Nurse” Claire Temple, of course, though her presence here causes even more of the aforementioned continuity headaches. Alfred Woodard is probably the biggest offender, chewing scenery left and right as Councilwoman Mariah Dillard, sister to the aforementioned “Cottonmouth” (portrayed effectively, though with not nearly enough to do, by Mahershala Ali).
The fact that Woodard is playing a different character here than she did in Captain America: Civil War confuses things even further. The creative teams behind these Netflix series’ want to mention “magic hammers” and “big green guys” every chance they get, but then they go and cast the same actors in disparate, different, albeit small though pivotal, roles, punishing viewers who actually pay attention to the small connective tissues (however tenuous) of their “shared universe”. You can’t have it both ways, gentlemen.
Simmone Missick fares better as Misty Knight, leaning a tad too far into the melodramatic for my tastes, but still great overall in the role, making me look forward to her delving more into the bionic armed badass that the comic character eventually becomes. Erik LaRay Harvey is a breakout here as well. Previously overshadowed by Michael K. Williams on Boardwalk Empire, here he attempts to tap into the same deranged mix of vulnerability and outrage that Vincent D’onofrio brought so effortlessly to his Kingpin. Harvey doesn’t stick the landing as gracefully as D’onofrio did, but it comes close, and (spoiler alert) I’m glad that he survives the finale.
Said finale does seem to take quite a while to get to, Luke Cage‘s pacing making a strong argument for why all of these Netflix Marvel series don’t necessarily NEED to last the full 13 episodes. With a character as rooted in pulp, camp and exploitation as Cage it may have been smarter for the creative team to gloss over the more fantastical elements of his origin, or at least try to tie things closer together with the super soldier serum that created Captain America (shared universe and all) as the more recent comics have. Instead the creators seem to double down of the sci-fi trappings that give Luke his abilities and allow him to maintain them, and the odd milieu of mad scientists and magic bullets clashes violently against the gritty, real world aesthetic previously established in the rapturously received Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Which isn’t to say that I hated Luke Cage, not even close. I just wished I liked it more, especially as a longtime fan of the character and a huge supporter of the previous Marvel Netflix output who thought the character was executed flawlessly in Jessica Jones. I’d probably put the Luke Cage series on par with Jones overall, though that series had the luxury of not debuting in the wake of the near-perfect Daredevil Season 2. To bring back my terrible pizza analogy, hopefully Iron Fist and the upcoming team up Defenders series can deftly mix the comic book fantasy and street level grit to be an “outstanding” large supreme, as opposed to Luke Cage’s “just okay” small plain. Again, good, but not great.