TV Review: Luke Cage
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Mike Colter returns as Luke Cage, the stoic bartender we first met in Jessica Jones. Following the events of that show, Luke has retreated to Harlem, where his late wife’s last living relative, a barbershop proprietor known as Pop (Frankie Faison), has given Luke a job sweeping up in the barbershop. To make ends meet, Luke is also washing dishes at a Cotton Club-type establishment, the Harlem Paradise. And, in a great, understated continuity stroke, Luke wears earbuds everywhere he goes. That’s a fantastic character point building off his experience in Jessica Jones.
The greatest joy of Luke Cage isn’t in the fight scenes or name-dropping Avengers or introducing new villains, it’s how steeped in black culture and the culture of Harlem this show is. Lainey mentioned the “empathy gap” created by this show, exposing white audiences’ difficulty in relating to non-white protagonists, and just days after the show premiered, Kathleen and I were emailing about this very thing. I had a sense from early on that the unapologetic blackness of Luke Cage would challenge some people, and indeed it has, but it’s also the show’s greatest strength. Like Jessica Jones, Luke Cage benefits from focusing on the specific experiences of a specific community.
I hate it when people say “the city is like another character” because that’s a f*cking stupid way of saying, “We did our jobs and clearly established our setting”, but in Luke Cage Harlem does exist as a kind of character. The way people talk about it and the way the community and its rules shape interactions all give Harlem a sort of personified gravitas, like there is an actual spirit of Harlem that is owed a certain deference and consideration. This spirit of Harlem lends Luke Cage a richness and vitality unique in the superhero genre.
Nowhere is this more on display than with the music. Marvel scores generally suck, but the score for Luke Cage is the first one to feel not only unique but essential to storytelling. Composed by Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the score is a mix of symphonic notes and hip-hop beats and it’s the first Marvel score really worth buying (Mondo Tees has a cool vinyl edition).
And the soundtrack is PHENOMENAL, featuring everything from Mahalia Jackson and John Lee Hooker to Wu Tang and Faith Evans. It’s like capsule history of black music in America. And several soundtrack contributors, like Raphael Saadiq and D-Nice, appear on the show, performing at the Harlem Paradise, and Method Man cameos to freestyle about Luke Cage, the hero of Harlem.
All of this richness and vitality existing within the world of the show makes it so goddamn frustrating that the show itself isn’t better. Don’t get me wrong—I like Luke Cage better than either season of Daredevil. But it’s not a great show overall, brought down by some story issues that have plagued all of the Marvel/Netflix output to date. The biggest problem is that thirteen episodes is simply too much, and all of these shows struggle to fill time. Even Jessica Jones, the thematically strongest and most character-driven show, spins its wheels a little to pad out thirteen episodes.
But it’s egregious in Luke Cage, which after a strong start hits the wall at episode seven and grinds to a halt completely by episode nine. There is a spike of energy in the late episodes when Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) shows up, and though Dawson has great chemistry with Colter, it is so frustrating that the only thing the writers can think to do with Claire is have her fall for a superhero (we’ve already done this dance with Daredevil). But that aside, Claire is pretty great, and Claire and Luke working together makes for some fun scenes late in the show.
Though he proclaims that he “isn’t a hero”, Luke can’t stay out of trouble and quickly finds himself at odds with Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight), the proprietor of the Harlem Paradise and also a gun runner and generally shady dude. Ali is fantastic as Stokes, capturing both the flash of a crime boss and the regret and bitterness of a man whose legitimate musical talent was sidelined by his shady family’s expectations that he would take over their criminal enterprise. Stokes, aka Cottonmouth, is the kind of slick, charming villain that makes superhero stories fun, but he’s gone by episode eight and the villain plot shifts to his cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard).
Woodard is predictably great, but Mariah is not a terribly compelling villain, because she has no real fight with Luke until the very end. They straighten it out a bit toward the end by making Mariah more of a problem for Harlem detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), but by then the damage is done and Luke Cage has lost all its momentum.
The season’s real big bad is Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey, Boardwalk Empire), a mysterious shot-caller operating behind the scenes, using Cottonmouth to do his dirty work. The build up to Diamondback is solid, but the reveal is terrible and Diamondback emerges as the worst single element of the show. He’s TERRIBLE, hands down the worst Netflix villain. The show completely derails when he shows up. And it’s no fault of Harvey’s—it’s entirely the writing.
For reasons that smack of respectability politics, Luke’s backstory has been changed from Harlem tough-guy to Georgia-born preacher’s son. Originally, Luke grew up with Willis Stryker on the streets of Harlem, joining a gang together before Luke left the life and eventually went on to become a super-powered private investigator. Stryker, however, became a gang leader and earned the moniker Diamondback, and he made it his mission to ruin Luke’s stable, post-gang life.
The show preserves the idea of Luke as a framed ex-con, but because they drop the Harlem/gang background, they need a new reason for Stryker to resent Luke, which becomes the old standby Daddy Issues. It does not work at all. The “too many villains” problem results in short-changing Diamondback’s origin story so the pain of an illegitimate child forced to live in the shadows is completely unfelt. Instead, Diamondback comes across as unforgivably whiny, which makes him dumb AND unimposing in a way the show can’t overcome.
Luke Cage would have been fine if it was simply Luke versus Cottonmouth for the soul of Harlem. You can still set up Mariah, but there’s no need to rush into making explicit her corruption. Simply present her as Cottonmouth’s cousin who seems to have left their shady family behind, and let us wonder whether or not she’s really corrupt. Likewise, we should not have met Diamondback this season at all. But Luke Cage tries to do all this at once, and it still isn’t enough story to fill thirteen hours. The result is that for as rich and compelling as the show can be in short bursts, overall Luke Cage is just another lukewarm origin story.