And it’s a sweet Christmas indeed! Hot off the trails of Marvel’s Netflix original series’ Daredevil Season’s 1 & 2 and Jessica Jones, comes the fourth installment in the Marvel Cinematic TV Universe, in the steel-hard grip of Luke Cage.
This article is based off half in the 13 episode run. It will discuss what to expect as far as the tonal qualities from the show as well as character performances and motivations. So basically its Spoiler free.
Like it’s predecessors, location is a central character in the all around tone and vibe the show emits. In Daredevil, Hell’s Kitchen’s gritty confines gave the show an immediate palpable danger. In Jessica Jones, we’re given a broader stroke of the New York landscape, traveling from Hell’s Kitchen to the Upper West Side and beyond. With Luke Cage, we’re given Harlem. Bathed in a familiar yellow colored light in almost every scene and second only to Cage himself, Harlem IS the main character of the show. From the very beginning, the pulse, the sounds and the soul of the city beat like an unending drum. Sometime’s the beats are slow, smooth and cool, other times furious and untamed. Harlem is ever present; its landscape feels small and intimate but the characters it’s bred are loud, large and dangerous.
It’s the battle for the very soul of Harlem that motivates the show’s various protagonists and antagonists. Whether it’s a reluctant hero trying to defend it, a vicious gangster trying to run it, a mercurial politician trying to mold it, or the law enforcement hoping to simply maintain it; it’s the hard-working citizens that are up for grabs and caught in the middle. They are at the expense of this war, and it’s their voices that dictate the journeys of those hoping to help or hurt Harlem.
Reprising his role from Jessica Jones is Mike Colter (Jessica Jones, The Good Wife) as the lead, Luke Cage. The Cage we saw in Jessica Jones may have wetted fanboy appetites, but it was nothing compared to the fully fleshed out and beautifully realized Luke Cage we see in this series. Colter IS Luke Cage; there’s a pathos and heart that he brings to his performance that should bring the character to new heights in a mainstream regard. The levels we see the character go through in just the first 5 episodes is wonderful, deep, and true. The character itself, a bulletproof black man in a hoodie is so much more important than perhaps first inclined to be. Colter knocks it out of the park.
When we first meet up with Luke, he’s a simple working man, spending his days sweeping up hair at the local Barber Shop run by beloved local Henry ‘Pop’ Hunter played wonderfully by Frankie Faison (Banshee, The Good Wife) and then working nights at Harlem’s Paradise nightclub washing dishes. Not really what you’d expect from a man who could take a shotgun to the face and kick all kinds of ass if so desired. In fact, it takes a series of tragic events to get the reluctant Cage to use his powers for the greater good. His reluctance is at first explained as Luke wanting to stay in the shadows for fear of his identity leaking out. We learn later just exactly why he needs to maintain this secret. Colter seamlessly balances his inner turmoil as both the reluctant hero and the man wanting to do right by his people and his neighborhood.
The pacing of the first two episodes is slow and may be hard for the explosion a second comic book movie fan to stomach, but hold on brother’s and sisters, it’s completely on purpose. This is Television and in Television the writer’s allowed to do this crazy thing called character development. Just think of most, of what have now become our favorite shows; some of those first episodes were pretty rough to get through, but oh when those character seeds blossomed, were you not hooked for life on that juicy fruit we call story? Cage is tasty. There are times watching that you forget he’s a superhero that could throw a guy twenty feet with a simple gesture, but it’s when he does just that, and when you least expect it that you can’t help but get out of your seat and cheer. Once you get through those first two episodes I promise you, you’re going to get exactly what you want. Episode 3 gives us the Luke Cage version of what has now become known as the Daredevil Hallway Scene. The one take, no cuts, beat down at the hands of the Devil. In Luke Cage we get our suped up version. There have been clips already released of Cage barreling through a tenement with a ripped off car door, kicking ass and taking names. Trust me when I say it’s nowhere near as cool as the full scene in the episode with a soundtrack by Wu-Tang Clan that absolutely destroys.
Music is such a crucial and integral part of the show, another character in and of itself. The various hip hop legends and soul singers sprayed throughout the episodes is such a complete bonus that delivers on so many occasions and then some. There’s a noir-esque jazzy score throughout the show mixed with a soundtrack filled with some of the best hip-hop tracks out there. What really makes the music of the show come alive though, is the various live performers seen on stage at the Paradise Club. Viewers will undoubtedly whip out their phones and Shazam the artist/music. Live performances by the likes of Rafael Saadiq, Charles Bradley and the super styling Jidenna to name a few completely kill it and add another vibrant layer to show. That Cottonmouth sure has some amazing taste in music!
And just who is Cottonmouth? Well, you can’t have a sympathetic hero if you don’t have an equally nefarious villain. To date the Marvel Netflix Universe has had some of the most cerebral and vicious villains to grace the small screen. Whether its Vincent d’Onofrio’s Kingpin with his subtle danger that turns to a boiling rage on a dime, or David Tennant’s Kilgrave and his devilish man-child throwing tantrums with his unbelievable power; the small screen villains have been anything but. We can now add Mahershala Ali (Alphas, House of Cards) to that amazing list. Ali’s portrayal of Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes is so well crafted he fits his monicker of a Cottonmouth snake aptly. From his serpentine appearance to his snake-like grin he is truly terrifying and imposing as the criminal mastermind of Harlem. Ali is not all venom and bite though; there is a vulnerability much like his villainous predecessors that gets the audience invested in his machinations no matter how devious. Cottonmouth can be seen serenading a lovely lady with some beautiful keyboard playing one moment and in the next scene beating a man to death with his bare hands. He is truly something to behold.
Other side characters with equal importance include local Harlem politician Mariah Dillard, know in the comics as Black Mariah, played by veteran actress Alfre Woodard (Captain America: Civil War, 12 Years A Slave). The Mariah of the comics was a straight out villain for Cage, whereas Woodard’s portrayal is that of a locally respected politician of sorts but working very closely with her cousin Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes. So it’s only a matter of time before we see her darker side which is very much alluded to. Woodard’s Mariah has her own agenda and makes no bones about using her criminal cousin to attain just that. It’s an interesting dichotomy to watch the interactions between the two. The only difference between them are the titles they choose to give themselves. Cottonmouth is content with his role as Gangster Supreme, whereas Mariah feels she can attain much more with her cover of a concerned politician.
Another mainstay comic character that makes her first on-screen appearance is Detective Misty Knight played by Simone Missick (Wayward Pines). Knight originally debuted in the comics in the pages of the Iron Fist series which according to her IMDB page she will be in the upcoming Netflix show of the same name as well. It’s in the great marvel Netflix fashion that they would introduce a character that has potential to play a larger part in a future show down the line. Misty is accompanied by her partner Detective Rafael Scarfe played by the never-aging character actor Frank Whaley (The Doors, Pulp Fiction). Seriously, though, this guy looks the same he did twenty years ago! Anyway, the relationship between\ Knight and Scarfe is almost textbook detective drama and, in their first couple scenes, was not strong However, their respective roles and relationship goes from zero to sixty by episode 3. Hang in there. It’s all worth it.
Honorable mention should also go to Son’s of Anarchy’s Theo Rossi who plays Hernan ‘Shades’ Alvarez. Shades, another character ripped right from the original Luke Cage comics is working for the even bigger baddie, Diamondback. Diamondback as of episode 5 has not been revealed but the mere mention of his name sends chills down even the cold-blooded Cottonmouth’s spine. We can only imagine how deadly he will be. Rossi portrays Shades more than just an emissary of Diamondback, he’s also a link to Luke Cage’s past which we learn about in great detail in episode 4. Everything in this universe connects.
Speaking of a connected universe, Luke Cage, more than the other shows prior, goes out of its way to connect itself to not only the other Marvel Netflix shows,but to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. Mentions of the “Incident” which we now know to be the alien invasion from the first Avengers film are mentioned several times, as well as references to a certain long-haired Thunder God. The appearance of Claire Temple played by Rosario Dawson (Daredevil, Jessica Jones) who has been the only character to weave through all three shows fully solidifies the true connectedness of the universe. It’s also worth noting that Temple seems to finally be settling into her role as the Night Nurse which will only further engrain her into the fabric of the MCU.
What really sets Luke Cage apart from the other shows is its heart and real respect for the diehard fans. The amount of Easter Eggs in the first five episodes alone are astounding. With references to Cage’s former titles, Power-Man and Luke Cage Hero For Hire, even genre authors such as Richard Price and Chester Himes; the latter according to the late great Dwayne McDuffie is where the catch phrase “Sweet Christmas” came from, makes it glaringly obvious that everyone who worked on this show has a true love and affinity with the character. Oh and they wouldn’t show Luke Cage’s original gaudy (awesome) costume would they? I guess you’ll just have to watch and see.
In closing, and on a very serious real note, the importance of this show and its implications cannot be stressed enough. With the various and what seem to be never-ending police shootings of unarmed, innocent black people, the constant barrage of filmed police brutalities we’re seeing on a daily basis and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, a show with an African-American hero is desperately needed. It is time for the African-American community to have a mainstream hero who can proudly represent them. It is time for America to see an African American in a heroically invincible light. It is time for a bulletproof black man in a hoodie that can’t be put down by the rising tide of racism and injustice. It is time for Luke Cage.
All 13 episodes of Luke Cage are streaming now on Netflix.