Starring Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Erik LaRay Harvey, Alfre Woodard and more
Directed by Paul McGuigan
Written by Cheo Hodari Coker
Music by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad
The hype has been real, ever since the powerful appearance of Luke Cage in Netflix other great Marvel series Jessica Jones. Mike Colter was a bolt from the blue – powerful and dangerous, yet brittle and gentle – if an American were to be put up for the role of Bond, Idris Elba would have some serious competition.
Now the full series is here, the test would be as to how far Marvel would take the intent of Cage’s original creation in the comics. He was intended to be the leading man in a way that sidekicks like Falcon and Black Panther couldn’t be. He was a man of the city, living down on the hard streets where ordinary folks needed strength and kindness, not green monsters smashing through their homes.
If this preamble is heavy on feeling, then it would be fitting for this series. Marvel’s Luke Cage is a glass of whiskey on ice with stacks of warm vinyl, while comparing dry books of American history to the clammy news cycle of today. It is the downbeat delivering diatribes for the tribes of downtrodden men and women of the nation, and you’ll feel it’s pulse in your senses.
We meet Luke sweeping hair at Pops barbers shop in Harlem, New York City. After engaging in a little banter over basketball in the shop, we get a taste of his difficult history with having superpowers. Old Pops asserts that he let go of that past and give Harlem the help it needs. During a weapons deal orchestrated by shady club owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, some of his own crew arrive in masks to kill both sides and take the money. Here we learn many things, that Harlem councilwoman Mariah Dillard is closely tied to Stokes by blood and donations (mainly from extortion practices), Luke’s second bar/kitchen job to pay high New York rents usefully puts him in Stokes’ club, and that sly detective Misty Knight is watching the place for signs of the criminal activity she suspects Stokes of. After the bloody consequences of the inside job start to unleash more violence, and the cousin’s embezzling of public funds for club refurbishment require an escalated ‘funding drive’ around Harlem’s businesses.
The setup is direct, but the cinematography, lighting and sounds are all so lushly produced and interwoven that this becomes the street justice drama that Shaft wishes it could have been. Rather than exploitative and distorting, we see a hero emerge who is very human and wary of his power, but cannot stand to see others abuse theirs to the cost of Harlem’s people. This is first and foremost a slow and building character drama, punctuated by moments of brutality that seem all the more vicious for the quiet menace before those particular storms.
It is to Netflix and Marvel’s credit that in an age of hoodie-wearing kids being gunned down by police, that we see a good man with power go hooded. The intent is clear in all aspects of the production too – as a ’70s feel with ’90s hip hop pulsing through the Gangstarr song titled episodes and the modern viewpoint on minority history would seem to make this relevant for anyone watching, and all the more poignant that viewers across generations can feel the same way about it.
That isn’t to say that it’s all socio-political talking points, as there are great moments of levity and quiet. Small asides as to what a dumb young man would do with a stolen bag containing a million dollars are funny, though tragic in context, a small shot of main villain Cottonmouth playing music while musing over the torrent of rage and fear within is surprising as it is welcome.
Equally surprising is some of the critique around Stokes as a character. Like Fisk in Daredevil or Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, Marvel’s villains seem to be given their due on TV. A decent bad guy is always complicated and needs a good amount of screen time to adequately develop – which seems to be an impossibility given the time constraints of a movie running time, but is far easier to accomplish over 13 hours of series. Even in the first hour, Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth gets far more of a range and emotional depth than Lee Pace was ever afforded in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Again, more critical voices would lament the show’s flow as languid or for the purpose of plot-stretching. What they misinterpret was clearly signposted by two minor characters referring to gangster movies in this episode. The shared aspect here is the slowed roll of the story, space to allow details and atmosphere to seep into you – like the aforementioned whiskey. No action scene or dialogue goes too fast for you to drink in properly, and characters are just allowed to talk, and while it may be a little hammy in places we really get to know these people as they get to know each other. You may feel closer to Cage than Steve Rogers for that.
A special mention goes to the score, which truly dictates our mood and represents a true marriage of sound to the story. From jazz to soul to breaks and funk, even a touted appearance by Method Man should illustrate how pivotal these tones are to the tone. Often scenes look edited perfectly to hit certain emotional moments just as songs swell and squall, with the tempo carrying tension in scenes with added melody and soul – a far cry indeed from the kinds of monochromatic stings and noise called into play during similar scenes in regular procedurals and crime dramas.
You should watch Luke Cage. In a world of overhype and expensive divisive comic-related films and shows, it’s easy to start hearing praise and becoming suspicious. But this is different, with class dripping from every pore and a lot of chatter about in places that don’t normally concern themselves greatly with entertainment – this is actually an affirmation of a changing country and a certain worldview in flux. As a TV show, it is better than great. As a point in entertainment history, it is going to be damned important. If the doors of the world don’t open to it’s cast, particularly Mike Colter, then they will be on the losing side of time.
Luke Cage “Moment of Truth” gets 9 bullet holes in a hoodie out of 10.