The thing with TV Series is, unlike movies, it requires commitment. You have to patiently wait every week for the newest episode or allocate dozens of hours to binge-watch the whole season. Which provide a procrastinator like me the perfect excuse not to watch them. But Luke Cage is the newest addition to Marvel’s ever expanding Cinematic Universe on Netflix, a collaboration that hasn’t disappoint so far. Well, emphasize on so far.
After the event in Jessica Jones, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) went back to Harlem. By day, he’s a sweeper at Pop’s (Frankie Faison) barber shop. By night, he’s a dishwasher at Harlem’s Paradise, a club owned by crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Honestly, he just wanted to lay low. But his plans got thrown out of the window when three of Pop’s “kids” rob the arms deal between Cottonmouth and Domingo Colon (Jacob Vargas).
Like a butterfly effect, though, that robbery brought about unforeseen consequences. NYPD detectives Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley) got involved. Cottonmouth’s supplier Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) send his right hand man – who also happened to be Luke’s ex-prison mate – Shades (Theo Rossi) to help out. While Harlem’s Councilwoman and Cottonmouth’s cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) just want everyone to clean up their mess.
So this time, Luke might have bit off more than he could chew.
There’s no denying that the deal between Marvel and Netflix resulted in some high quality TV series. It created a lot of buzz around each of its new release and sparked interests. Yet at the same time, a very high bar is set for each of its new series. And while Luke Cage does exceed expectations in some aspects and set precedence in others, it still suffers from that high standard. It’s a good series that deserves recognition, objectively. But compared to the three previous series from Netflix-MCU, well, it does feels like a let down.
I know balance is important for most, but it’s a feat not every movie and TV shows could achieved. So I normally gravitated towards either-or. Either you give me a character-oriented show with tight story development, or you keep me entertained with outstanding action spectacle – preferably with beautifully arranged gore and/or bloodshed. Unfortunately, Luke Cage failed on making it counts on both aspect. The story was coherent enough. It was grounded and it tapped nicely into Harlem and its culture. I didn’t see some of the turns coming, but it’s also predictable at times. There were quite a lot of issues and a handful of bad guys. It didn’t fragmented the focus, thanks to the nicely divided arcs. Yet I still question the need to bring forth Diamondback rather than keeping him to be Season 2’s Big Bad. It was also quite a shame that they kind of abandoned the politic issues at the end, after venturing there in the beginning through Marriah Dillard’s position as a Councilwoman.
However, Luke Cage’s main problem lies in the pacing. It can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a full blown fast-paced exploit with the occasional space to breathe, or a slow burn that takes its time in making your skin crawl with anticipation. It started out strong, plunging us headfirst into Harlem and all the problems it faced, but wound up feeling too rushed. Especially when the following episodes abandon that and settles for a more lax pace. This continues on until Luke Cage experienced the inevitable mid-season bore, making it hard to find a reason to go on and finish the series. Especially after a twist that, while understandable, still feels like it was done without too much thought in mind. Like, sure it gives room for other characters to grow and pave way for the rest of the season, but there should be other ways to do so. One that doesn’t involves wasting potential character(s). It’s really not until the last three-four episodes that Luke Cage finally became binge-worthy, creating tension and sparking curiosity that made quitting not an option.
Another part that doesn’t sit well with me was the characters. They are quite diverse, they have considerable depth with clear motivation and goals. Most of them even got flashback episode, building a cohesive background story and shaping emotional attachment. Well, some more than so. In line with my tradition to stray from the main character, it was Cornell and Mariah that caught my eye. Their backstory skillfully explained their current self, dig deeper into their dynamic, and ultimately serves as enlightenment for what unfolded after. It was well played. Thing is, even with them, I have no emotional investment. I found Mariah and Cornell fascinating, Shades both fascinating and attractive, Pop and Booby Fish admirable, and Luke Cage and Claire Temple sympathetic. But that’s that. My connection with them ended in the first layer.
And it’s not the fault of the actors and actresses. As per always, Marvel’s casting are on point. Mahershala Ali was simply awe inducing as Cottonmouth. He was volatile, cunning, prideful, intimidating, but at the same time still exude a certain softness and class that makes him alluring. He could’ve fell into the trap of Kingpin 2.0, given their similar position and line of work. But Mahershala Ali’s take and presentation, along with the writing, turned him into one mean crime lord for reasons that are different than Kingpin. He was brash, not as cool-headed and larger than life, but he was far more humane and relatable than Kingpin had ever been. The whole culmination of episode two, that rooftop scene and him sitting alone in his office, was his most memorable of the series. It’s a great character establishment that also effectively set the tone for the rest of the series.
But the show-stealing performance came from Alfre Woodard. She had the best character development, to be fair, but Alfre Woodard’s performance made her simply impossible to ignore. She appeared meek at first, like she wasn’t cut from the same cloth as Cottonmouth. But then she disinfected her hands after shaking hands and touching the kids of Harlem, and you realized there’s a steel underneath her appearance. And that steel only grows colder and harder as time passes, along with her cunning. Theo Rossi was also remarkable. Shades’ cool and calculative nature was apparent in every scene. Sure he’s such a corny asshole at times, but he does so in ways that somehow is still appealing. And you can feel his presence even in the company of Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, and Erik LaRay Harvey. Whom, by the way, managed to save Diamondback’s archetypal character. Like, almost everything about Diamondback was good. He was so damn cheesy and such a large ham, with appropriate emotional outburst and enough sadistic penchant. And Erik LaRay delivered him in such enthusiasm. But his origin story and his ties to Luke is just… overused. In the words of a
n adopted brother of mine, “It’s as if you have this sick rad waiter who serves your food in a shiny silver plate while wearing rollerskates, and yet it’s still a McDonald’s burger.”
The same case also befall Mike Colter. Luke Cage, in a way, is a test to see whether or not he could shine as much as he did during his appearances in Jessica Jones. It’ll be even better if he could outshine that. And while Mike Colter was still as good, something just felt off in this series. He was far too…unbreakable. Like, I understand he had unbreakable skin and he’s the type that gets the job done while coolly shrugging everything off. But it wouldn’t hurt to see something more than that cool and suaveness, you know. Personally, I think Mike Colter’s Luke shines best when he have a partner who are more laid back or more frank with their emotional outburst. Be it Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones, Frankie Faison’s fatherly and ruggedly affectionate Pop, Ron Chepas Jones’ somehow charming Bobby Fish, or any of his three female partners: Parisa Fitz-Henley’s Reva Connors, Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, and Simone Missick’s Misty Knight.
After her brief appearances in Jessica Jones, Parisa Fitz-Henley return as Reva Connors. Through she didn’t showed up a lot, she was vital in Luke’s prison story. It was through her I got to see Luke’s soft side and raw emotions. She was sweet, a ray of hope in Luke’s bleak world, and Fitz-Henley portrayed her as such. On the other side of the spectrum is Simone Missick’s Misty Knight. She was tough, relentless, bitchy and annoying at times, but mostly naive. And while I personally don’t like how Misty Knight was written, it was only a matter of preferences. It doesn’t change the fact that Simone Missick kicks so much ass in this series. Her character development throughout the series made her the most spotlighted after Luke, and she paid it off with interest. It took her a bit too long for my taste, but it set her up nicely as a character that would be vital in the seasons to come. Rosario Dawson, however, was a blend of both. She was at home as Claire, which isn’t surprising since she’s reprising her role for the fourth time. She was resilient and sassy, resourceful and loyal, yet feminine and coy at times. Luke Cage wouldn’t be as enjoyable without her.
But awesome casts would only go so much without robust dynamic. I know, I know the dynamics between Colter-Dawson, Colter-Missick, and Woodard-Rossi was solid and compelling. But they’re not, for the lack of better words, special. Colter-Dawson is a typical dynamic of friendship laced with attractions. Colter-Missick is distrust and contrast turns begrudging respect and partnership. Woodard-Rossi fared better, though still fall under the umbrella of evil team up with a bit creepily romantic vibe on the side. Luke Cage just doesn’t have a special dynamic that makes the other Marvel-Netflix’s production beats, like Matt-Foggy and Jess-Trish or Matt-Kingpin, Matt-Frank, and Jess-Kilgrave. Luke-Pop and Luke-Bobby Fish could’ve been one that the others doesn’t have, but it was wasted or wasn’t explored enough. Luke Cage, for me, lacks heart and is far too cold.
In a way, Luke Cage is a “such a shame” case. It’s a good series with coherent story and diversely well built characters, but it wasn’t exactly special. It’s good, but not that good. It also got stellar casts and cohesive characters, but none of them stick. Partly because it didn’t strike the right chords in my heart. I found it hard to relate to the series, and it was the least enthusiastic I’ve ever been with a Marvel-Netflix’s production. Despite the smartly placed and chill inducing soundtrack, the whole Harlem vibe, those fucking gracious and achingly beautiful cinematic shots, Luke Cage still could’ve been better had it invested more in feelings and not just style.
Creator: Cheo Hodari Choker. Released on: 30 September 2016. Casts: Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Theo Rossi, Erik LaRay Harvey, Rosario Dawson, Simone Missick, Parisa Fitz-Henley.