Marvel Studios keeps raising the bar with their Netflix collaborations. Their debut project Daredevil heralded a new sophistication for television superheroes, while the follow-up Jessica Jones proved itself even richer. The second season of Daredevil might not have quite hit the heights of Jessica Jones, but it was still a thrilling experience full of well-drawn characters. Next on future Defenders rooster is Luke Cage, graduating from his reoccurring role on Jones to series lead. Based on the first four episodes, actor Mike Colter is more than capable of anchoring a show which also possesses the same strong ensemble work and high production values which fans have come to expect from the Marvel Studios/Netflix projects. These initial installments indicate that Marvel/Netflix have another triumph on their hands.
The series opens with the everyday social life of Pops’ Barbershop. Following the events of Jessica Jones, which included Cage losing his bar and livelihood, Cage is laying low. Being a wanted fugitive living under an assumed name does not leave him with many occupational options. He works two menial jobs, earning lower wages than if he were not being paid under the table, which leaves him scraping together rent for his apartment above the neighborhood Chinese place. The first of these jobs is maintenance at Pops’ Barbershop. Pops is a protective spirit in the area. Once of the streets himself, he served his time and now simply wants to provide some refuge for the next generation. This belief in second chances allowed him to see the good in Cage, though, not all his causes are successes. Chico, one of his employees, holds up an illegal gun deal, which quickly goes south and sends out ripple’s which sets much of the larger plot in motion.
The guns were being sold by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, a rising power player in Harlem. He rose from the streets to establish a thriving nightclub, Harlem Paradise, yet, still keeps his hands in various illicit streams of income. Harlem Paradise is Cage’s other source of income, where he works as a dishwasher. Fate places him behind the bar one night where he meets an attractive, charming young woman. Unknown to him, she is NYPD Detective Misty Knight, whose interest in the club is strictly professional. Her interest in Cage, though, once it is off-hours, is another matter entirely.
From this sketch of the first episode (written by series creator Cheo Hodari Coker) unfold the themes of the series. Cage begins the show as the reluctant hero viewers remember from Jessica Jones. In that series, he advised Jones to remember “being a hero paints a target on your back,” a philosophy he continues adhering to when Pops asks for assistance in keeping Chico safe. However, as often happens, outside forces cannot be kept at bay and Cage witnesses the tragic toll of staying on the sidelines. Colter does an excellent job of conveying these shifts in Cage’s character, bringing alive the fullness of his personality. The viewer both understands and feels the conflicts brewing inside him. These same strengths are on view in Episode 4 which focuses on flashbacks to Cage’s time at Seagate Prison. Again Colter is able to make clear his character’s evolution without losing any of the complexity.
While the neighborhood is different, Luke Cage evokes similar issues touched on in Daredevil. One of the core motifs of both seasons of Daredevil, but especially the first, is the idea of defining the city. The conflict between Daredevil and Wilson Fisk in many ways boiled down to a disagreement over who controlled Hell’s Kitchen, which in turn raised issues of gentrification. In the wake of devastation from “The Event” in Avengers, Fisk believed it was his duty to remake the neighborhood in his vision of sleek luxury, while Matt Murdock was more concerned with the ordinary people trying to live day to day. In Luke Cage, this debate moves to the forefront. Stokes is allied with his cousin Mariah Dillard. Dillard is a local councilwoman whose message is based around the appeal of “keeping Harlem black” and “continuing the Harlem Renaissance.” She sees her partnership with Stokes as a temporary compromise in which she takes dirty money and uses it to fund her dream: The Crispus Attucks Community Center. She berates Stokes for not abandoning his illegal activities. Stokes simply laughs off what he perceives as her naïveté. Where she sees a Community Center to strengthen cultural life, he simply sees another location for money laundering. In his eyes, there is no point in wasting time trying to go legit, when the whole game is crocked. Money is colorblind, buying respect, regardless of where the funds originated. Power is what will elevate their community, not bleeding heart symbolism. Stokes’ moral is simple: “everyone wants to be the king.”
As portrayed by Mahershala Ali, Stokes is a captivating villain. From his first appearance presiding over his club from a luxurious balcony, the character oozes with charisma. He is a sweet talking, dapper gentleman as willing to flash a smile as a fist. Yet, he is no stranger to violence either, viscously beating an adversary to death. Despite all these shows of strength, Ali reveals hints in Stokes’ armor. The events of the first episode leaves Stokes not ascendant but frustrated. In the wake of the heisted gun deal, various sources are calling on Stokes for explanations. As the pressure increases, Stokes grows more flustered, issuing optimistic promises that the viewer is unsure if even Stokes believes. Stokes is not giving up without a fight, though, even if the vultures, in the form of local hood Alvarez “Shades”, are already circling Paradise.
One of the greatest strengths of both Daredevil and Jessica Jones was their outstanding acting ensembles. In addition to Colter and Ali, another standout performer form Luke Cage is Simone Missick as Misty Knight. First seen sipping cosmopolitans at the Harlem Paradise, Missick immediately strikes an alluring pose which also conveys a quick intelligence. As the series progresses, Missick continually deepens the character, adding levels of humor and seriousness. Knight is a tough detective who more importantly cares about the people of her precinct. This conviction is vividly expressed through a stylistic flourish which places Knight in the midst of an unfolding crime scene. First used by director Paul McGuigan in Episode #2, Knight is shown in the center of the gun deal. The camera smoothly sweeps the scene as the detective pieces together the evidence at her disposal. She wants to do her job, the proper way, which leads her to distrusts the more colorful vigilantes working outside the law. For her the system works, if only people have the patience see it through to completion. Justice is possible. At the same time, she is far from the dour no-nonsense type. She is always ready for a joke or quip, easily conveying a charming personality. Missick lends all of these traits a human voice, creating one of the most appealing characters on the show.
Meanwhile, Alfre Woodward ably balances the conflicting halves of Dillard’s personality, believably alternating between a desire for plausible deniability and a deep-seated need for more of Stokes ill-begotten resources. As mentioned above, the whole cast is strong and sadly there is not enough room to single out all the primary players. However, it should be noted that Episode #2 features an appearance by a minor figure from Daredevil, who proves once again how utterly slimy he is regardless of circumstances.
As with the previous Netflix/Marvel shows, the city itself is one of the most prominent characters in the story. This stands in opposition too many other series, even those shot in New York, where a few namechecked local landmarks cannot avert a generic ambiance. As discussed above, the identity of Harlem is a central motif of Luke Cage. However, the creative team does more than discuss the flavor of the city, they depict it. From the laid back conversation of the barbershop to the glitzy nightlife of Harlem Paradise (bonus points to whoever booked the fabulous Charles Bradley for Episode #3), Luke Cage’s expert use of location shooting and set design crafts an authentic vibe of urban life. This attention to technical detail extends to all aspects of the show. So far the action sequences have been mostly brief but effective. (The one exception was an overreliance on slow-motion in Episode #2). The sole extended set piece so far comes in Episode #3 when Cage raids Stokes “bank.” Directed by Guillermo Navarro (Oscar winning cinematographer of Pan’s Labyrinth), the sequence has a smooth flowing, energetic quality reminiscent of the visceral hallways fights from Daredevil. Yet, where Daredevil’s technique is centered on speed and agility, Cage is more focused reliant on brute force and momentum. As such, Navarro presents Cage’s battle differently, emphasizing the character’s forward progression, as he barely slows to bat away a legion of hired goons. At the same time, the directors also know when to sit back and let the actors do their work. The character beat scenes unwind without distracting flourishes, allowing the personality dynamics to take center stage.
As stated above, the fourth episode is largely taken up with flashbacks to Cage’s time in Seagate prison. The creative team of this episode does a great job of handling the various threads of these sequences (Cage’s internal struggles, his initial interactions with his future wife, racist guards) without it feeling as though any element is rushed or shoehorned into the narrative. The contours follow the essence of the comic book origin with some intriguing exceptions. The show paints a grim view of prison life though not a hopeless one. There are some good souls among the inmates and staff. They might be a small minority yet they are there. Finally the creators cleverly slip in a few nods to Luke Cage’s mythos. In fact, throughout these episodes, the creators do an excellent job of tipping their hat to Cage’s early days. One of the more subtle examples of this is the use of Charles Bradley’s “Ain’t It a Sin.” Navarro crosscuts between Bradley performing at the Paradise and Cage taking his initial steps against the Stokes. Both the song’s lyrics pleading for another chance and Bradley’s infectious retro James Brown sound make a perfect counterpoint for the segment. Just as effective though is the use of Wu-Tang Clan in the raiding of Stokes’ bank. This natural blend of musical styles mirrors how the character of Cage himself can bridge the generations of taste.
All in all, these are four excellent episodes. If the rest of the series maintains this high level of quality, Netflix/Marvel will have little trouble maintaining the crown (tiara?) of superhero television.