(Full spoilers for Luke Cage season 1 from here on in)
Luke Cage has been making waves all weekend since dropping all 13 first season episodes Friday, up to and including temporarily breaking Netflix. We already talked about how the show's existence is cause for celebration. Now that the much-hyped first MCU project led by a black superhero faces scrutiny, how does it hold up?
For all his strength, turns out there are some storytelling devices not even Power Man can avoid.
The first seven episodes were distributed to critics, including our own, and formed the basis of the early reviews. As we now know, it was a particularly torturous place to leave off. I knew the twist at the end of the seventh episode would change the game considerably, but the back six feel like a very different, more disjointed show. The heightened urban crime drama faded to generic incoherence at points, largely due to the death of Cottonmouth and emergence of Diamondback, a loss of character motivation and and some seriously questionable plotting.
And yet, it always carried a tonal flame, a spark that could bring alive a given scene when utilized. It is the spackle that held together the ramshackle plot. Colter is excellent. "Bulletproof Love" by Method Man was amazing. The supporting cast is diverse and invested, elevating lesser material (much like Suicide Squad). The show stood out it felt vibrant and new yet familiar and within the confines of the broader MCU.
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- Powerful tone and message
- Actors, characters resonated
- Felt new and a part of the MCU at the same time
What didn't work:
Powerful tone and message
Right off the bat, the first episode of Luke Cage lays out everything that makes it unique. There's the casual talk in Pop's Barbershop matched with serious ideas about sons raised by guns instead of fathers. Frankie Faison is a great foil for Colter as former gangster-turned-community pillar Henry "Pop" Hunter, his deep voice and lined face adding as much context to the show as the excellent Paul McGuigan directing, who was inspired by many famous Harlem photographers.
At the start, Woodard is tangential to the proceedings but her character also helps to establish the series backdrop, as a politician campaigning for city council on rhetoric like "Keep Harlem Black," a "New Harlem Renaissance" and of course name-dropping #BlackLivesMatter.
What Cheo Hodari Coker loses in terms of plot holes, he often makes up for with the consistent attitude and tone of the piece, so that even at its most ridiculous and half-baked, you can go with it.
Actors, characters resonated
Colter is just the right guy in the right place, charismatically inhabiting a quieter sort of hero. Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard and Rosario Dawson form a triumvirate of strong women of color among the series regulars. The supporting cast is almost uniformly great, providing valuable texture that informs everything on screen.
The Big Bad Duumvirate from the start is Cottonmouth and Mariah Dillard. Woodard mostly does her own thing in the background during the first seven episodes before suddenly being "activated" by Cottonmouth's taunting, leading to his death. The camera worships in particular Ali, who is graced with several amazing close-ups throughout the series and whose laugh slowly becomes iconic. I was sad to lose him but to do it in such a dramatic way (plus serve as a defining moment for Dillard) is irresistible I'll admit. Now that I think about it, the show doesn't quite approach that dramatic height again.
Rossi made up for his loss somewhat, comparing Shades to Littlefinger and its an accurate description. His character adds not only an air of unpredictability, but also reps (in a Saruman-Sauron kind of way Scott Derrickson would appreciate) a bigger villain that even Cottonmouth answers to: Diamondback (more on this . . . interesting character ahead).
Felt new and a part of the MCU at the same time
The MCU references are sprinkled throughout, with most of them relating to the Netflix shows. There's the consequences of Kingpin's arrest (which is appropriate as the episode very clearly sets up Cage and Cottonmouth much like Daredevil season 1 set up Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, a hero and villain with equal nuance and equally-interesting, intersecting storylines), talk of Jessica's murder of Kilgrave and a cool Easter egg for Iron Fist at the end of the finale (pic above).
More broadly, there's videos of "the Incident" (aka The Avengers) on sale, references to Hammer Tech and Seagate (where Justin Hammer and fake Mandarin Trevor Slattery were incarcerated at points). The series seems to occur in pre-Civil War chronology, as tension builds throughout the season about the emergence of powered individuals like Cage and how communities react to them, with the debate swinging from one direction to another.
Another more subtle reference occurs at the end of episode 4, which is essentially the "Luke Cage Begins" origin story. Cage is surrounded by cameras while leaving the scene of one of his amazing feats. He considers answering their questions, turns and says plainly "I'm Luke Cage." Deliberate shades of "I am Iron Man" There's also Pop openly comparing Luke to the Marvel big guns while casually dropping his comic name of Power Man, something Claire picks up on later. There's even a brief, loving mockery of Cage's 70s blaxpoitation costume a la the treatment Jessica Jones gave her comic outfit.
What this series did arguably the best of the three Netflix/Marvel series to premiere was establish itself firmly in the MCU while forging its own distinct identity that feels fresh and new.
Now for what didn't work . . .
Nonsensical plot and choices
As I said, the last six episodes are very different from the first seven and a majority of the narrative decay comes with the character of Diamondback. Set up as an all-powerful crime figure, his personal grudge against as Cage's long-lost best friend/half-brother should be momentous. Instead, it is hazily and lazily sketched. Firing the bullet that finally pierces the bulletproof man is an amazing introduction - if it wasn't followed by episode after episode of his dumb, scattershot approach to villainy, to the point that you wonder how Willis Stryker managed to become Diamondback in the first place. He fails to kill Cage repeatedly when he has the chance, monologues at length at the most inopportune times for his goals, (his personal confession to a side character is both random and ultimately meaningless) as the character is portrayed as so much over-the-top evil, any nuance is blunted. I actually don't blame Erik LaRay Harvey for this, as his hammy embrace of absurdity is the only thing making Diamondback entertaining, if not intelligible.
Why did he bail Shades out of jail only to immediately try to assassinate him? Why did this master of the shadow literally start gang wars he couldn't finish? How did he ever maintain loyalty if all we ever see is his constant abuse of underlings? At least with Cottonmouth, you saw him slipping, losing control of his empire and lashing out. You understood why he was evil. Diamondback? His dad liked Cage more than him (ironically enough, even that wasn't true). Even if Cage's appearance is supposed to somehow knocked him off his all-powerful game, Harvey's foot is on the crazy gas from the get-go; there's nowhere to go but even further at that point.
Too long and drawn-out
The photo above from the finale brawl between Cage and Diamondback is a good microcosm of this problem, perhaps inherent to Netflix shows: scenes and seasons go on way too long. It's been said plenty, but particularly for Marvel shows, 13 episodes is too many. To sustain the heightened level of conflict over that many hours strains credulity and, inevitably, plot holes and "trapped by mountain lions" moments pile up.
One example is the finale fight, which isn't very interestingly choreographed and drags on for a good 10 minutes, compounded by the fact that the rage the two characters use as fuel to fight wasn't given proper weight. Another example is when Claire takes Luke to Dr. Burstein to recover from being shot with Judas bullets. Burstein literally tells the audience what he's going to do (go to the car, check on Cage) and the next scene depicts exactly that, with no new information shared, other than a barely-funny quip from Cage. Why did that exist? No idea, but I bet it's because they have no editing restrictions. Sounds great, but in practice, it leads to overindulgence which dilutes the product. Shakespeare said, "brevity is the soul of wit" and writers train to say what they want to say with as few words as possibl. The same should be true on screen.
That's all I got for Luke Cage! Now that we've all had the weekend to digest the season at length, what are your thoughts? Let's hear them in the comments!