Always Forward –
Luke Cage: The Verdict

It’s been a while since I’ve done a review, hasn’t it? Well, happily Luke Cage launched on Netflix this past week, so let’s take a look. As in previous reviews, I’ll keep this relatively spoiler-free. If even that’s a risky proposition, then the big picture goes something like this: Cage has an excellent run of eleven well-crafted and dynamic episodes, bookended by a couple of sub-par entries that bring the series down. Nevertheless, it’s easily Netflix’s best superhero offering to date. Stop reading now, or scroll down and risk teeny, tiny spoilers.

The biggest takeaway from Luke Cage is just how far Netflix have come in a few short years. Daredevil had visual flair, but a thin (and uninspiring) lead character and a first year plot more interested in Wilson Fisk than the titular hero. Jessica Jones had a strong central cast and conflict, but struggled to maintain momentum. With Luke Cage, there are definite signs of The Defenders franchise growing into something special.

Take Luke himself (Mike Colter). Not only is he a faithful iteration of the Marvel Comics character, but he’s given enough depth and inner conflict to make him sympathetic (without becoming the mopey so-and-so that characterises so many of Daredevil’s 26 episodes). His journey more or less picks up from the end of Jessica Jones (though if you’ve not see that series, it’s not required viewing to understand what’s going on), and presses forward with just enough twists and turns to keep the overarching story fresh. Always forward, never backward is the show’s mantra in more ways than one.

Characterisation is solid across the season. Gone are the head-scratching move-the-plot-along dumb decisions that kept Jessica and Matt closing out their story arcs two or three episodes earlier (Hi, Jeri!). Yes, characters sometimes do stupid things, but the rationale is always set up in plenty of time and never comes out of left field. I never once felt cheated as a viewer, never had that moment where I wanted to slap some sense into one of the characters. Like I said, people make stupid choices all the time, but it always feels that the plot is following their actions, rather than the other way around. It’s what separates good stories from mediocre, and it’s wonderful to see that lesson learned here.

Gone too is the reliance on a single big bad to keep the pressure mounting. Entertaining as Kilgrave and Fisk both were, the scope of their threat dipped mid-season as the big stuff was saved for the finales. Cage’s writers solve that problem by having an array of antagonists ebb and flow, bringing the titular character fresh woes as the politics of Harlem shift back and forth. Characters (friend and foe) arrive when pertinent, and fade into the background when they’re not needed. It’s smart, efficient writing and helps make Luke Cage feel a lot more grown up than the rest of its superhero peers (including the array of CW shows and ABC’s Marvel output).

And the actors? There’s not a bad one in the bunch. Not one. The ensemble breathes life into already tightly-written characters, blurring the line between the saints and sinners, and ensuring you’ll feel the loss if and when they die.

I confess, I was a bit worried about Misty Knight (Simone Missick) to begin with. An assertive black woman has a tendency to bring out knuckle-chewing stereotypes – given some of the comic iterations of the character, I had visions of Austin Powers’ Foxy Cleopatra strutting her stuff in Harlem. I should have had more faith. Misty’s easily the highlight of the series, with a compelling character arc and plenty of character flaws to keep her interesting. I love the visuals of her detective process, and her conflicts leap off the screen.

As for Luke’s Harlem stomping ground? Well, I can’t speak to how authentic it is: I’m not American, I’m not black, and I don’t live in Harlem. However, it feels like a living, breathing setting (they even film a lot of it during the day, shock/horror!) and the sections that touch on real world issues, especially about race and policing, wallow in shades of grey, as they should – well, apart from maybe one bit. A difficult line to walk, but it’s done well here.

So Luke Cage is good, but it’s not perfect. The first episode largely feels like it was crafted from the off-cuts of episode two (which is as weird as it sounds). There are only one or two scenes that have any bearing on what’s to come, and Luke’s journey over the course of the episode is promptly undone at the start of the next. Oh, it’s well enough shot and acted (especially in how it introduces Mahershala Ali’s Cottenmouth and Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard) but the structure is all over the place – it’s a visual mood board, not an episode, and especially baffling given how stellar the following episodes are. It smells of last minute re-write.

Likewise, the final episode is… okay. It’s not bad, but it is a bit underwhelming. I’ve seen reviews criticising it for dumping backstory into the mix far too late (you’ll see why when you get there). Personally, I think it couldn’t have been any other way without spoiling the odd reveal, so I’m okay with that. My concern lies more with the pacing, which sees Luke leave our screens at a crawl, rather than a triumphant sprint. Sure, it’s fine to take a breather and let the finale blossom, but it felt disappointing all the same.

Back to the good stuff, Luke Cage finally does something I was begging Netflix for throughout both its superhero offerings, and House of Cards: self-contained episodes. Too many Netflix instalments rely on the binge watch, and lack the discipline to tell discretely packaged stories that build to a larger narrative. As a result, a lot of episodes don’t end, they just fade to the credits. Luke Cage breaks this ugly habit. Sure, you can binge watch it (we did it in three sessions), but you could watch this week in/week out if you wanted, without feeling you have to press on in order to corner that elusive satisfaction.

And finally, one thing I really loved about the show was the fact that it unashamedly placed itself in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Watching Jessica Jones and Daredevil, I never really got the sense that this was the same New York that got devastated by the chitaurii, or thrilled to Tony Stark’s wisecracks. Hell, aside from the presence of Rosario Dawson’s Clare Temple (yes, she’s in this too) I never felt like they were in the same setting as each other. Luke Cage drops enough in to fix this, not only with fleeting references to ‘the incident’, Tony Stark, Thor, etc. but also more obscure nods (remember Justin Hammer, anyone?), and cameos from other Netflix characters (Trish Walker, Blake Tower). It never distracts, but it helps the worldbuilding along beautifully.

All in all, do I recommend Luke Cage? Sweet Christmas, do you even need to ask? Let’s put it another way: out of all the Netflix shows to date, this is the only one I think I want to own, rather than rent. Finally, Netflix’s superhero offering is as sophisticated and grown up as it has always claimed to be.

Roll on Season Two.

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