“And with my unique skills, nah, you can’t compare me”- Guru of Gang Starr from Mass Appeal
In the Netflix series Luke Cage, Marvel introduces their third hero to be given their own series via the streaming service. Much of the show’s structure is similar to the series that have proceeded it but Luke Cage distinguishes itself in it’s voice while stretching out it’s dramatic moments. Like in past Marvel Netflix series, the middle section is where the show really picks up the plot of the series while throwing in a couple curve balls and red herrings to keep viewers on their toes. Luke Cage is another success for Marvel and Netflix, yet it’s greatest strengths come from it’s subtle differences.
Episodes five through eight represent the meat of the TV series as it makes the most story advances, completely reconfigures the dynamic for the protagonist’s against his adversaries while fleshing out the backstory of it’s supporting cast. By the time these group of episodes finish; Cage’s standing in the community has taken two complete 180’s, the series main villain’s backstory get’s told before the show fakes out the character being taken off the board and then is actually taken off the board later on, a new villan is introduced that further complicates Luke Cage’s back story and we get a deconstruction of the Misty Knight character through a therapy session that is stretched out for an entire episode, and that’s just the big stuff; it doesn’t even touch on Misty’s near death experience, Luke’s standoff with Diamondback, council women Mariah Dillards political downfall, Luke Cage’s identity getting leaked or the ascension of Shades. But episodes five through eight don’t feel like they’re moving nearly as fast as those events would indicate and that’s because of Luke Cage’s stylistic choices. Luke Cage tell’s you it’s perspective immediately from the first scene and it rarely let’s up, that perspective being generation x black male.
Sometimes, that can telegraph itself to the point of absurdity (“Lemonade is a popular drink and it still is” the Notorious B.I.G poster, a Ghostface Killah song being played over a scene where Shades is establishing his dominance to Cottonmouth’s former employee’s with a hook going “Who’s the King of New York” repeatedly) but when it’s right, it feels effortlessly engaging and natural. Conversations and dialogue get’s stretched out but it often works because it feel’s real while it’s cast has a depth of character that is well mined without coming at the expense of one another or the show’s overall storyline. Luke Cage is very clearly being informed by 1970’s cinema and African American literature of the 20th century, two subsections of pop culture that had a profound effect on the artistic visions of black men of that generation from Spike Lee’s first films to rap music from the 1990’s to the current writings of Ta-Nehishi Coates. Luke Cage share’s it measured tone and deep convictions of purpose with those influences and it ends up being the shows best and most distinguishing attribute. That is a testament to the range of talent that Luke Cage has working on the show on almost every level.
The acting of Simone Missick as Misty Knight, Alfre Woodard as Marian Dillard and Rosario Dawson reprising her role as Claire Temple are especially strong in these episodes for their versatility and range. Dawson nearly steals the show as her character takes on her most active role to date and it pays off in some of the episodes best moments. Missick’s performance continues to add nuance and layers to the Misty Knight character while Woodard is nearly flawless in her portrayal of the increasingly erratic Mariah Dilllard. Writer and show runner Cheo Hodari Coker feel’s as if he’s putting everything he has into his writing here and while the more personal aspects at times feels as if they might overshadow the primary narrative, he has a lazer like focus on plot, character’s and world building in equal measure and ultimately, his strength’s power the series on a fundamental level. Directors Mike Jobst, Sam Miller, Andy Godard and Magnus Martens have an excellent eye for detail while presenting a pretty authentic vision of New York City. Even the score from A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhhamad and frequent Ghostface Killah collaborator Adrian Younge bring a unique soundscape that fit’s perfectly within the shows overall voice. With such strong work from so many involved in the series production, it’s little suprise that these episodes of the highest quality for it’s genre and narrative constructs.
While Luke Cage doesn’t announce itself with the same bombast as Daredevil or Jessica Jones, it manages to do a lot of the same things as it’s predecessors, but in a voice that is completely singular. While it’s perspective isn’t new for American popular art, it’s the first time we’ve seen it in a live superhero adaptation and it’s that which set’s the series apart. These episodes are far from flawless and don’t feel as visceral as the middle sections of Daredevil’s two seasons or Jessica Jones, but it’s no less engaging and enjoyable for all the things that make it unique from it’s predecessors. Episodes five through eight have a lot of plot movement and lot’s of information but what sticks out about these installments is the lens from which they’re viewed and ultimately, it’s all the work used to give life to that vision which makes Luke Cage worth watching.