It took me a week, but I finally got around to binge-watching Luke Cage. It takes me a while to sort out my feelings usually, but…I loved it. Mike Colter as Cage is one of many stars in this exceptional cast of color. The dialogue is occasionally corny, which the show itself acknowledges. If it has one big problem, it’s trying to fit the wide array of Harlem culture in a mere thirteen episodes.
The characters of Luke Cage are complicated, often morally grey people trying to figure out where they stand in a changing social climate. References are still made to the Battle of New York (AKA “The Incident”), but more focus is on people with abilities, given the events of Jessica Jones and season two of Daredevil.
I have to admit that, early in the season, I felt a little lost during a couple of the barber shop conversations. The first time I chalked up to sports, but the second time, I started to feel like I was missing something important. Usually I can parse things out from context, but not so with this exchange between Luke and neighborhood patriarch Pops:
LC: “But Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos? Boom.”
Pops: “I bet you’re into Richard Price.”
LC: “I dig Price. Dennis Lehane too.”
Pops: “What about Chester Himes?”
LC: “Without question. My biggest beef with Donald Goines is that he wrote about criminals and he died like one.”
Pops: “You don’t have to get all Fox News About it. Goines invented Kenyatta, the best black hero this side of Shaft.”
Color, culture, and identity are very important themes throughout Luke Cage. You can argue they’re cleverly interwoven if you want, but I’m of the mind that those themes are pretty much foundational to the story. Which is why I felt out of place when Luke and Pops were discussing the above authors: crime writers and men of color, sometimes both. As a white girl from suburban Massachusetts, they were never part of the Eurocentric education I received.
If you hadn’t put it together by now, Luke Cage is an unapologetically black series. Harlem is so strongly tied to the events taking place, that it starts to feel like a character of its own. The people of Harlem take to calling Luke “one of ours,” and even the opening credits employ a visual that implies that he is a man of the people, from the streets.
Except that he’s technically not. In fact, his journey through the thirteen episodes is a push-pull between his past and his future. Luke gets caught in a political battle for the soul of Harlem, where he’s laying low after the events of Jessica Jones. Over the course of the season we learn more about what Luke’s background: his parents, where he grew up, how he met Reva and how he got his powers. He’s not a native New Yorker, and he wasn’t even born Luke Cage. His name is his mask, and his typical crime-fighting outfit is a hoodie.
Rap, hip-hop, R&B, and jazz can all be found on the exceptional soundtrack, and I adored the way music was integrated into the show. Mahershala Ali’s villain, Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes owns a nightclub called Harlem’s Paradise. Real performers like Faith Evans and Jidenna appear, their songs cleverly overlaid with events of the episode. In episode 1×05 “Just to Get a Rep,” Luke and Cottonmouth collect themselves after their last encounter, and Claire Temple gets the most BAMF entrance:
I do have two qualms about the narrative, though. This series illuminated how Luke met Reva, whose death was a key event in Jessica Jones. However, the more we learned about Reva, the more it felt like the writers were trying to retcon what information JJ offered. For a universe where “everything is connected,” it’s not great when Reva on JJ and Reva on LC start to feel like two different versions of the same woman.
My other issue is the split-season arcs in regards to the villain/antagonist. Although name-dropped plenty of times in the first half of the season to imply a powerful and spooky reputation, Diamondback’s actual introduction for the latter half of the season was sub-par. We’re supposed to believe he’s this great mastermind with a need for vengeance, but his verbose nature just lends to him telling the audience a lot of stuff, rather than actually showing us.
Still, the show is great fun and hits a lot of issues face-on without being too preachy. And there’s always the Marvel references and easter eggs. By now we know to expect them: the Avengers are referenced periodically, though in a sad reflection of real-life media representation, it’s never Black Widow or Hawkeye. There’s a very exciting cameo (of sorts) from a Jessica Jones character in episode six, and a hilarious flashback in episode four is a nod to Luke Cage’s original costume from the comics. Blake Tower and Turk Barrett from Daredevil also appear. And of course there’s a Stan Lee cameo, but much like the other Netflix Original series, you’ve gotta be eagle-eyed since it’s in photo form.
Even though the latter half of the show made some narrative fumbles, the finale was a perfect set-up for season two. Ultimately, I’d give Luke Cage a solid A-. It’s a new level for Marvel, one that they haven’t really dared to explore in their films yet (though I do have hope for Black Panther.) Still, until then, Luke Cage is the kind of show we need.