Luke Cage: Not Quite Bulletproof

dylyn-petersonBY DYLYN PETERSON
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong

Luke Cage is the best Marvel show, on Netflix or otherwise. It’s got enough of the classic elements to satisfy comics fans, quality writing and production to bring in and hold new viewers, and, most notably, the best soundtrack a superhero, well, anything, has had since the Tim Burton Batman movies (although, I suppose, an argument can be made for Guardians of the Galaxy, but Luke Cage has superior original music). This isn’t to say that the show is flawless, though. It is just much better than its flaws.

The premise of the show is that the titular Luke Cage, formerly Carl Lucas, was wrongfully convicted of a felony a few years back and, thanks to illegal scientific experimentation, escaped from prison with superstrength and (nigh-)unbreakable skin. After the events we see in Jessica Jones, he finds himself in conflict with Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, a nightclub owner/criminal mastermind half as scary as Daredevil’s Kingpin, but twice as lovable. Both of them are antagonized by Misty Knight, a police officer who dips perhaps too often into the visual language of Sherlock.

Luke Cage is pretty different from the comics source material. There is no punching Doctor Doom in the face, screaming, “Where’s my money, honey?” At one point, Luke’s offered money for his superhero services, and he explicitly says, “I’m not for hire.” This is in direct contrast to the comics, where he was literally subtitled, “Hero for Hire.” His costume, too, is usually a hoodie (supposedly as a nod to Trayvon Martin), instead of the v-neck, tiara, and chains of the seventies classics, or the yellow t-shirt and jeans of the modern comics. I was disappointed by the lack of an Iron Fist cameo, as well, but I guess we’ll get to see my favorite duo in fiction together for The Defenders, so it’s not too bad. Tonally, too, the show’s much more serious than the often campy comics. It does keep an air of Blaxploitation to it, though, but is notably more respectful than its source material.

The show opens on what is easily its best episode from a technical standpoint. The colors are bright, and the cinematography impressive. The characters are introduced in fairly standard, but interesting ways. It’s pretty slow-burn as far as the Netflix shows are concerned, taking a lot longer to have Luke do anything with his superpowers, which is refreshing, because it uses all of that time to develop the characters. These people are memorable and interesting by the fifteen minute mark, at the latest, especially Luke’s father figure Pop, and Cottonmouth, who I will discuss at length.

Luke Cage proudly carries on the Netflix Marvel tradition of incredible villains, this time giving us a character who, honestly…I’d watch a show starring him, especially after the backstory given in episode seven. Stokes is definitely the highlight of the show, lovable and hateable in equal measure, oddly charming, and very unpredictable. I’ll just say that he owns a rocket launcher, and leave it there. Anybody who’s figured out the Netflix Marvel formula for introducing villains, though, will probably suspect something’s up, as Cottonmouth is introduced about ten minutes into the first episode.

The most interesting characters, though, are the settings. In brief: this show has a Chinese restaurant named Genghis Connie’s. It doesn’t get better than that. Still need more? Really? Alright… Cottonmouth’s club, Harlem’s Paradise, is sort of like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s The Bronze, except with more consistently good music. The atmosphere of the place is wonderful, and, honestly, I want to go there. Harlem itself is arguably the main character of the show, and its history and influence on pop culture is the show’s main source of inspiration. Unfortunately, for some, the long speeches on the nature of Harlem, and its future, are occasionally out of place, and numerous, sometimes two or three in an episode.

Another major issue is one we’ve come to expect with the Netflix Marvel shows: pacing. While Jessica Jones seemed like it should’ve ended four episodes before it did, and Daredevil season two felt like a Punisher miniseries followed by a short season involving Elektra, Luke Cage doesn’t really know how to put its narrative elements together. For example, the backstory episode for Luke is the fourth episode of the series (and definitely the best for fans of the comics, for reasons I refuse to spoil), when there isn’t really much of a reason to wait that long. Due to a major mix-up in episode seven, the show is very noticeably split into two halves, the second featuring a number of abrupt status quo changes, and uncomfortable exposition. I can’t explain why, as it’s a major spoiler, but the second half of the show is generally weaker than the first.

Despite that, though, Luke Cage is still great. It’s everything the fans were hoping it could be, and somehow even more. I definitely recommend it, even to people who aren’t really into superhero stories; from an aesthetic standpoint, this show is a major accomplishment, the first episode especially. It may be difficult to believe, but the awesome moments from the trailer (ripping off a car door to use as a shield, bending it around a guy to incapacitate him, that wonderful line, “I’m getting real sick of always having to buy new clothes”) are actually some of the less impressive action scenes, and they’re somehow better in context (the breaking-into-the-building scene is set to “Bring da Ruckus” by Wu-Tang Clan[!!!], although it is, sadly, the censored version). I give it six-and-a-half silver tiaras out of seven.

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