WARNING – Review is mostly spoiler-free but y’know, I can’t promise anything.
What? Did you think I spent this weekend watching Crisis In Six Scenes? No, (though I did watch episode one and I can’t say I’m bothered to get round to number two any time soon) where Amazon’s anointed Great White Hope is an Octogenarian with a worrying attitude towards younger female co-stars, I have chosen to spend my time with another symbol of hope but this one is quite definitely not white and his romantic interests are more age appropriate. In case you’ve got this far into the article without reading the title, I’m talking about Luke Cage, Netflix’s third piece in its Defenders puzzle (we still have Iron Fist to come) and for my money, the strongest offering from the TV wing of the MCU thus far. See Daredevil had some wonderfully staged fight scenes and some of the best cinematography on television and Jessica Jones managed to find a new way to tell a superhero story by allowing its characters to fail but neither truly achieved the one thing that seems to have been placed beyond the grasp of Superhero television: justifying its extended running time. Till now? Well, you have to read on to find out.
So Luke Cage? You’ve seen him already in Jessica Jones and you probably think you know his deal: super-strength, bulletproof skin, ridiculous levels of hunk (he’s a damn hunk, admit it) but even though we know he had a life (and a wife) before Jessica but for all those hints of inner life, we were always seeing him through Jessica’s lens, now he’s got his own series, Jessica’s in prison and life goes on huh? At the beginning of the series, Luke finds himself out of Hells Kitchen and now in Harlem, his time split between two jobs: sweeping the floors of neighbourhood institution Pop’s (a wonderful, warm Frankie Faison) Barbershop and washing dishes in the kitchen of Harlem’s Paradise, a nightclub owned by Cornel ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali, between this and House of Cards, proving to be Netflix’s secret weapon).
The first thing that needs to be said is that the Harlem of this series feels more alive and human than Hells Kitchen was ever allowed to be. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker said he wanted the series to have the feel of The Wire but at times it has equal amounts of David Simon’s other great project Treme as the place that the series truly shines is in the music. As well as a soundtrack by Adrian Younge and Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Sheed Muhammed, it features performances by Raphael Saadiq, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, The Delphonics, Charles Bradley, Jidenna and a certain legendary Clan member turns up for an extended cameo/freestyle. You can see music journalist Coker’s roots in a soundtrack that hums of a city alive with its own sound in a way that no Marvel series has managed (and little other TV this year apart from the debatably similar sonically, The Get Down). The neo-soul sounds combined with the mild grain in the cinematography combine to create a coherent visual language of managing to hark back to blaxploitation classics more than the ‘house-style’ creation of Iron Man and cohorts. But it’s not just a throwback, this is superheroics at its most modern, polemic and allegoric. In a scene featuring the aforementioned cameo that some may find too-cute by half, they talk about the symbolic power of seeing a ‘black man that’s bulletproof’. It may be condescending or reductive to say that Luke Cage is positioned as a superhero for the Black Lives Matter movement but it would also be ignoring the show’s strengths to not address it; how many other comics adaptations have you seen that involve a conversation between four women of colour, let alone one in which they are in positions of power? It’s a series that isn’t afraid to confront its character’s contradictions, as others have acknowledged, it’s a series that can depict exploitation but isn’t exploitative. It’s a series that can show good cops and still talk about police violence towards young, black males. It’s a series in which its lead villains are people of colour in positions of power. It’s a series in which probably it’s most underwritten characters are almost all uniformly white, which is a refreshing change of pace to say the least, especially when the characters of colour in Daredevil and Jessica Jones are mostly either one-note villains or dead.
Cage is not a character who’s easily physically hurt, the series realises this doesn’t leave much in the way of visceral fight scenes, instead preferring to put its characters psychologically through the ringer. It’s fair share of fist and bullets fly but the real joy is in the performances. We knew from Devil and Jones that Rosario Dawson and Mike Colter had the goods, though I could talk for hours about the near-perfection of Mike Colter at nailing the near-portentous superheroics but also being handy with a corny quip (my favourite being shouting to get the attention of a pair of hoodlums by hollering ‘Hey Plug One and Two’. It’s a De La Soul thing). Frankie Faison, Frank Whaley, Ron Cephas Jones and the inimitable Alfré Woodard contribute excellently to the overall landscape and Erik LaRay Harvey & Theo Rossi take material that feels like they could have been iconic if given more time (or when they get it with Season 2. Netflix, you listening?) and still manage to imbue it with life, Rossi’s Shades coming across as far more political than the standard heavy trappings around him. But as much as this is Colter’s show, he must share top billing with Simone Missick and Mahershala Ali who as Detective Missy Knight and Cottonmouth represent reasonably complex portrayals of twists upon classic archetypes. We’ve known before badass detectives and noble gangsters but Ali especially, finds ways to twist scenes to bring new meanings to them as well as bringing a smooth line in keyboard solos and a malicious streak a mile wide (said malicious streak starts to hit god tier levels of villainy by the episode three). Missick’s detective character brings on an almost antagonistic quality as she understands that Cage doesn’t mean wrong but knows (possibly because she’s seen any other superhero material) that bullets bounce off him but they hit Harlem. Most importantly, Turk’s back. You don’t remember Turk from Daredevil? Well clearly you weren’t watching closely enough.
It is with great sadness I admit that while the first seven episodes of the season are superb, it yes, starts to fall apart. Luckily it manages to recover a certain amount in the last handful of episodes but while I start to feel like a broken record with my complaints, they could have condensed it down to ten episodes comfortably (For the record: Jessica Jones could have been eight episodes, Season One of Daredevil about the same and Season Two, a six episode mini about Punisher) especially as the sudden introduction of new characters half-way through is not treated organically and definitely doesn’t feel so. But it manages to recover nicely, with episode eleven being a particularly tense sequence that actually for once benefits from being dragged out, making every second a hint more tense. The important thing is that even if the plot falters, the character’s rarely get lost, it’s very rarely an uninteresting show and is certainly the most consistent and joyously surprising of the Netflix-Marvel collaborations so far (not least for the cameo that…it’s Method Man OK? I couldn’t hold it in. That said I did a better job than Netflix who released his freestyle on Spotify before the show was even out) and I’m going to go ahead and say the best thing Marvel Studios have released that doesn’t have the words ‘Captain America’ in the title. Maybe, at this rate, if there’s a second season, ever better. I know, shocking right? Sweet Christmas, indeed.
You can find Jozef on Twitter at @NotJozefRaczka