Review: Luke Cage by Jerry Whitworth
On September 30th, Netflix would release the first season of its third Defenders series in Luke Cage. The series comes after the release of two seasons of Daredevil and a single season of Jessica Jones (as Iron Fist and The Defenders will emerge next year with a third season of Daredevil, second season of Jessica Jones, and series order for The Punisher down the line). Following the events of Jessica Jones, the eponymous star of Luke Cage returns to Harlem to try and clear his head only to get pulled into a conflict with a local gangster. In the comics, Luke Cage was known as Power Man and was a “Hero for Hire” who worked the gritty streets of New York, notably Harlem, for a price (though, Cage still dispensed justice free of charge when there was a strong enough need). Formed from the popularity of Blaxploitation films of the time, when that fad died out, Cage’s adventures were paired with kung fu master Iron Fist who together became the Heroes for Hire. This arrangement emerged when Cage was coerced into kidnapping private detective Misty Knight (also born from the popularity of Blaxploitation) which saw him team with Knight and her boyfriend Iron Fist. Cage and Fist became perhaps the most iconic superhero duo in comics short of Batman and Robin becoming both partners and best friends. The following review of Luke Cage will contains SPOILERS.
In very much the same manner a review of Jessica Jones in many ways had to be measured against Daredevil, Luke Cage falls into the same predicament. In a way, Cage almost seems to fuse together elements of the two aforementioned Netflix series. For Daredevil, you had the overarching threat of the Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) while the hero had to deal with the Russians, Hand, and Chinese to get to the true enemy. For Jones, the protagonist had to tackle Nuke (Wil Traval), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and various others before getting to the Purple Man (David Tennant). In Cage, Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali), Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard), and Shades (Theo Rossi) lead up to Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey). Likely due to the nature of a short thirteen episode season dropped completely all at once, the phenomenon almost feels like the plot of a video game acted out in live action (rather than the usual nature of comics and TV series with longer episode orders which don’t have the luxury of relatively short packages of content). And as the second season of Daredevil almost felt like it was setting up series for the Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Elektra (Elodie Yung) and Jessica Jones was setting up interest for Luke Cage and Hellcat (Rachael Taylor), Cage felt like it spent a lot of time setting up something for Misty Knight (Simone Cook) down the line (it’s a blessing Finn Jones didn’t appear as Iron Fist to set-up his series).
While Daredevil felt wondrous and new (arguably one of the best comic books adapted for television), at some point Netflix’s Defenders series are beginning to feel like slightly altered versions of each other. Something similar emerged in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which the Defenders exist in the same continuity along with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) where the films ranged from the antagonist wanting something the protagonist possessed or revenge against the protagonist for some wrong or a group of heroes combating some invasion. By Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios course corrected to make each film more unique (Winter Soldier a spy thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy a space opera, Ant-Man a heist picture, and so on). Hopefully with the upcoming Iron Fist, viewers will get something different than the protagonist combating several kung fu masters to reach some high level kung fu master all the while establishing some heroic sidekick. This being said, Luke Cage was another home run for Marvel and Netflix.
In the current age of technology and the internet, never in American history has the plight of African-Americans been so readily and openly put on display. Any given day, news emerges of police brutality and the killing of unarmed people of color (or, the use of deadly force in instances where non-lethal measures have proven to work time and again). Where the days of open racism and the targeting of black men and women was thought long done, videos, social media posts, e-mails, text messages, and tweets emerge of vile hate-speak seemingly aroused by the ascension of a demagogue (though, the question if the undercurrent of evil lifted this demagogue up or if the demagogue created a safe zone for this hatred is debatable). Luke Cage tackles this head-on. There is the philosophical debate between Cottonmouth and his cousin Mariah over the growth of power for blacks from crime versus the fight against gentrification and, to a much lesser degree, cultural appropriation while turning a blind eye to crime (as perhaps a necessary evil, controllable variable, byproduct of change, or a matter that will simply diminish in the face of new opportunities). There is the belief of Pop (Frankie Faison) that keeping children off the street prevents them from being corrupted by its influence. And there is Luke Cage himself who goes through a metamorphosis as someone who wishes to keep his head down, his nose out of the business of others, but whose inaction ultimately leads to the death of Chico (Brian ‘Sene’ Marc). However, when he does involve himself in Harlem’s underbelly, it results in the deaths of dozens including his father figure Pop (though, Pop’s death was the catalyst for Cage to become a hero as Pop and Chico in some manner almost seem like stand-ins for Uncle Ben and the Burglar in Spider-Man’s origin). Of course, when Cage becomes a target of the police, his trademark hoodie becomes a symbol of unity and resistance for Harlem against both its criminals and the authorities (who wreaked havoc in their struggle to apprehend Cage).
The hoodie worn by Luke Cage was an allusion to Trayvon Martin who died following an altercation with George Zimmerman in 2012. Martin, an African-American teenager wearing a hoodie and walking home from a convenience store, was followed by Zimmerman who allegedly thought the young man looked suspicious. Following a confrontation, Zimmerman shot and killed the youth which gained national attention. The teenager would be mentioned by name in the show’s song “Bulletproof Love” featuring Method Man with the line, “…Give up my life for Trayvon to have one…” Luke Cage certainly walked a tightrope to try and tell a story about race in America without being overt or unfair. While Mariah pushed for a black Harlem, she didn’t outright speak out against non-blacks. When police hunted for Cage, the officer who beat an innocent black child for information was himself African-American. As a white man led the team to apprehend Cage, he didn’t say anything racist, thinly-veiled or otherwise. Even Albert Rackham (Chance Kelly), who was overtly racist in the comics, instead road an undercurrent of racism as seemed to be the theme for the series. As was repeatedly mentioned in some manner in the series, a bulletproof black man in and of itself is a powerful message. In this, Cage became a symbol for black pride and overcoming oppression. Beyond the underlining message of the series, the show was also rich in art.
While Jessica Jones made ample use of ambient lighting and color in its first few episodes to make Kilgrave an ever present entity, Luke Cage borrowed from this in part for several episodes where the use of light in Harlem’s Paradise helped set the mood and specifically the color of red painted the players to overstimulate viewers during its bloodier scenes (where speckles of blood instead washed over the actors making the violence that much more palpable). The deaths of Shameek Smith (Jermel Howard) and Cottonmouth in particular were made almost more gruesome by the use of red lighting. Another location that also made admirable use of color was Crispus Attucks, what Cottonmouth called his Fort Knox where he stashed his gang’s wealth, which happened to be painted yellow (both the color of gold and fear) and where Cage became the Harlem underworld’s boogeyman. At times, the series seemed to take a note from grindhouse films of old in its staging, framing, and cuts (even musical cues) which is likely a throwback to Blaxploitation pictures which was the inspiration for Luke Cage and Misty Knight’s creation. What maybe Luke Cage‘s main note of inspiration is the soundtrack.
Considered a love letter to Harlem, from the ’70s inspired opening credits to the multiple artists (John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone, Delfonics, Sharon Jones, Wu-Tang Clan, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, and Jidenna to name a few) to contribute to the score, Luke Cage‘s use of music is a revelation. With few exceptions, the songs selected for scenes within the show reflect elements of the plot which not only help reveal details of the story but also set mood in a masterstroke. Even a scene where Cage is tearing a barn apart, a ’70s Incredible Hulk inspired theme can be heard instantly setting the intended tone of the sequence (while paying homage to Marvel’s past). While it maybe argumentative that music within recent films like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Django Unchained (2012) were as crucial as the story and its actors, Luke Cage has lifted itself up to be counted among such discussion. While black culture has offered many several elements to the fabric of the world, its rich history of music is one of the most easily identifiable attributes that can be simply injected into a piece of motion picture art to help offer subtext and elicit feeling covertly. The soundtrack and its use in Luke Cage was simply brilliant.
While many Marvel Cinematic Universe projects align moderately closely to base comic book continuity with a modern twist, Luke Cage changed things up in a manner that, when examined, make aspects of the plot a bit odd. Originally, Carl Lucas (the real name of Luke Cage), Willis Stryker, “Shades” Alvarez, and Comanche were close friends and members of the Harlem street gang the Rivals only for Lucas to abandon crime and was joined by Stryker’s girlfriend Reva Connors. Stryker, in order to get revenge for Connors leaving him, stole drugs from druglord Cornell Cottonmouth, planted them in Lucas’ home, and framed him for possession. Connors would die in a botched assassination attempt on Stryker while Lucas was incarcerated in Seagate Prison as Lucas signed up for an experiment (based on the super soldier treatment that created Captain America) that gave him super powers when racist prison guard Billy Bob Rackham tried to kill him. Lucas would escape and become Luke Cage as later Shades and Comanche were sent to that same prison where they were abused by Rackham. In Harlem, Cage would befriend Dr. Claire Temple who worked for Dr. Noah Burstein, the man who experimented on Cage, at a medical clinic. Cage would find Stryker, who had taken the name Diamondback, whom accidentally killed himself in a confrontation with Cage. Rackham would lose his job but was enlisted by reporter Phil Fox to blackmail Cage about his past while Shades and Comanche broke out of jail to get Rackham. Eventually, Shades and Comanche became the Hoodlums for Hire (playing on Cage and Iron Fist’s Heroes for Hire) working for Ward Meachum, the man who killed Iron Fist’s father. For Luke Cage, the story was twisted around in many different ways.
In Luke Cage, Carl Lucas was the son of a preacher in Georgia who became best friends with Willis Stryker, who unbeknownst to him is in fact his half-brother. Lucas and Stryker would steal a car but Lucas, who was the respectable son of a preacher, was allowed to serve his sentence in the Marine Corps, where the seemingly fatherless Stryker went to jail. Lucas excelled as a member of the special forces and returned home to become a sheriff only for Stryker to frame him for some crime. In jail, Lucas would be selected by his therapist Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and medical physician Noah Burstein (Michael Kostroff) for an experiment to induce accelerated healing (which apparently in some manner is connected to the science that gave Kilgrave his powers) which necessitated Lucas to be coerced into a fight club run by prison guard Albert Rackham. Prisoner underlings for Rackham named Shades and Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones) acted as enforcers to ensure Lucas’ involvement. When Lucas tries to expose Rackham, the guard had his underlings try to kill Lucas but Connors convinced Burstein to attempt to save his life. When Rackham learns of the experiment being performed on Lucas, he tries to sabotage it but instead dies in the fallout as Lucas gains superpowers and escapes. Connors helps create a new identity for Lucas in Luke Cage and brings him to New York (Connors would subsequently be killed by Kilgrave via Jessica Jones when she retrieves data about Cage’s experiments). Cage more-or-less escapes his past until Shades emerges in Harlem where it turns out he grew up in New York working for the gangster Cottonmouth until going to prison and returned to the city working for a new player in Diamondback who became an ally to Cottonmouth. Furthermore, it’s more-or-less alluded to Diamondback has in some manner an arrangement with Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) because not only does he sells his guns (with access to alien “Judas” bullets), he happens to have an experimental suit of body armor that makes him a match for Cage in the somewhat design of a snake. Shades would eventually recognize Cage and tell Diamondback who tries to kill his half-brother. It’s all rather… convoluted, to say the least.
Despite the plot holes that can become somewhat maddening when you think about them (why is the connection between New York and Georgia so prevalent?) and the degree of time spent on establishing Misty Knight in the series (the police aspect was important to establish for the story being told, but Knight at times outshone Cage in a manner like the Punisher did in Daredevil), the actors made the season interesting and compelling. Mahershala Ali, in particular, was a pleasure to see in the part of Cottonmouth who really brought viewers on a journey seeing his anger, sadness, and joy as the worst of the worst criminal but also honor-bound and a devoted family man to his cousin. In much the same way it hurt when Vondie Curtis-Hall died in Daredevil in the role of Ben Urich, the loss of Ali in Cage was crushing. In a very real way, the show lost something special with the death of his character that it didn’t recuperate by season’s end. Mike Colter was truly inspiring and inspirational for his part as Luke Cage. The actor took quite well to the part of performing as a hero, not just in the action sequences but in how he spoke and related to others (having almost a Superman-like quality to his approach). If the actor had any real stumbling block, it was trying to act under a mountain of hair in his prison scenes where it became slightly ridiculous to try and even see his eyes through all of that mess. Erik LaRay Harvey performed an admirable job as Diamondback, seeming almost like a cross between the Joker and Kraven the Hunter. It should be noted, not only did the cast have a pronounced presence of strong African-American actors, but also strong female actresses (either accomplishment on its own could lean toward historic). Simone Missick, Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, Karen Pittman as Inspector Priscilla Ridley, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Mama Mabel offered strong performances. While Alfre Woodard provided great work in her role, an unfortunate aspect of her character was a seemingly endless line of men manipulating her in different ways (Cottonmouth, Shades, John Clarence Stewart as Alex, and Diamondback, specifically) that hopefully course corrects if a second season emerges.
Luke Cage plants a number of seeds for the future. With Cage returning to prison when his secret identity is made public, Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) uncovers a folder that can seemingly demonstrate his innocence (Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones could emerge to lend a hand). Further, Claire Temple alludes to hiring Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) to defend Cage. In all likelihood, however, if The Defenders needs to air by the end of next year, chances are Cage will be free well before his possible second season could emerge. Temple was shown checking out a martial arts class taught by Colleen Wing (who partners with Misty Knight in the comics to form Knightwing Restorations detective agency, aka the Daughters of the Dragon in reference to their relationship to Iron Fist). The connection between Temple and Wing could very well lead into Iron Fist as details of that series are yet known (Temple, thus far, has appeared in every Defenders series). Diamondback was shown in the care of Dr. Burstein (which likely indicates why Stryker was re-imagined as Cage’s half-brother because Burstein believes Cage’s DNA was one of the keys for his transformation). In the comics, Burstein would transform the crime boss Bushmaster using the same process as on Cage. Shades has essentially become the puppet master for Mariah Dillard as she assumes Cottonmouth’s role in the series (possible inheriting the territory of several gangs taken out or diminished this season). As an aside, as Daredevil took out the Russians, Japanese, Chinese (to a degree), and Italians and the Punisher eliminated the bikers, Irish, and Mexicans, in Luke Cage, the Jamaican, Haitian, Dominican, Korean, Puerto Rican, and African-American gangs all took major hits, it’s any wonder if any ethnic gangs will remain by the time the next Netflix series hits. The absence of Comanche in the present day was noticeable in the series where perhaps there’s a story there and maybe he could return for the second season to reveal where he’s been.