TV: Luke Cage (Season 1)

November 20, 2016

luke-cageNetflix’s corner of the Marvel universe continues to expand in Luke Cage, its latest Defenders run-up that ties into the worlds of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. I wish I had better things to say about the first season of this stylish but ultimately underwhelming show, which, while not without its assets, doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors.

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a good and decent man, trying to live life on the up-and-up with modest, low-paying jobs in Harlem at a barber shop and a music club. But Luke is also a man with a troubled past, one that both caused and made him reluctant to use his unlikely powers: super strength and bullet-proof skin. Luke’s attempts to blend into the background are destined to fail, however. His boss at the club, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), is tied into Harlem’s underworld, a criminal enterprise Stokes’ scheming cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) clandestinely works to legitimize from her position on the city council. When Cottonmouth’s criminal activity coincidentally starts following Luke around, Luke becomes a potential suspect for sharp Harlem detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who sees him as a key figure to unraveling the neighborhood’s criminal mysteries. Trapped between the good guys and the bad, Luke is finally forced to choose a side and make use of his abilities.

There aren’t enough superlatives to convey how much I loved Luke Cage’s audio-visual style, which launches the series with confidence and energy. There’s an effective retro 1970s vibe permeating the soundtrack, anchored by a superb Lalo Schifrinesque theme song, which lends the show an infectiously stylized ambience. Marvel’s recent Hollywood fare isn’t known for its racial or gender diversity, but Luke Cage bucks that trend with a refreshing focus on African-American characters, many of them female, and at times speaks powerfully to their experience in an increasingly hostile political environment. Especially in the early episodes, the characters are well drawn, with Ali’s Cottonmouth, Missick’s Misty Knight, Frank Whaley’s Detective Scarf, and Theo Rossi’s criminal thug Shades making the strongest impressions. Later, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) shows up, improving on her Daredevil and Jessica Jones appearances to prove herself as the essential glue of Netflix’s “MTU.”

Unfortunately, the show’s early sure-handedness eventually starts to sputter. Like the other series, it starts to feel flabby and padded in its middle episodes, but unlike those shows it fails to regain its magic down the home stretch, leading to a clumsy, unsatisfying conclusion. Colter is tremendous physical casting and does a good job with what he’s given, but Cage’s origin story isn’t terribly inspired, and in the end he feels like a hole in the middle compared to the more present and proactive Misty and Claire, whose more organic heroism is ultimately sidelined. The show also relies on a trio of villains to carry its narrative power, and only one of them — Ali’s impressive Cottonmouth — truly holds up his end. Woodard’s Mariah Dillard simply isn’t interesting or formidable enough, but even less inspired is Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), easily the weakest Netflix villain both in affect and backstory. The story hangs a lot of its story-telling hopes on Diamondback, and it doesn’t pay off.

That said, the show’s drawbacks aren’t so dire as to put me off the sequence entirely. I’m still invested in seeing how the world develops, and how the various solo sequences weave together into a team project. And oh, that fantastic style! But hopefully, having dispensed with its origin-story formalities, Luke Cage can up its storytelling game in its next season.