'Marvel's Luke Cage': TV Review

Marvel's Luke Cage Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Netflix

Mike Colter in Luke Cage.

TV's most topical comic book adaptation.

Netflix's latest drama may not be a great superhero series, but it's searingly relevant and entertaining.

Not to launch a conversation about linguistic appropriation or anything, but "woke" is a piece of activist argot that I don't feel wholly comfortable using. It's a word that refers to awareness of social injustice and societal conditions, but "woke" has been co-opted by hipsters and websites hungry for clickbait headlines, and whatever urgency and immediacy it possessed in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement have become diluted. So, I don't want to devalue the word even more by applying it to a superhero TV show. Still, if you take "woke" at its origin and at its most positive and aspirational, then surely it is appropriate for Netflix's Marvel's Luke Cage.

Premiering on Friday, Sept. 30, Luke Cage is vital and alive and of-the-moment. It sings with the rhythms and swagger of Harlem and it's a genre show that wears its intellectual curiosities like a badge. It's so satisfying as badass street poetry and muscular urban renewal parable that after watching the seven episodes made available for critics, I barely cared that as a superhero show, Luke Cage is often repetitive and a little underwhelming. It's the logical extension of Marvel's niche-y approach to its Netflix offerings, a specificity that has yielded shows that are far more provocative, but far less universally accessible than the company's blockbuster movies.

The Marvel movies try to tick every box, but staying true to Netflix's general business model, their comic book shows have just gone after one or two boxes aggressively. Jessica Jones used a snarky heroine and a mind-controlling bad guy to craft a story about consent and the power of sisterhood. Before Daredevil stumbled into a "too many ninjas" abyss in the second half of its second season, it was using blindness and the darkness of Hell's Kitchen as a platform for a story of Catholic guilt and challenged faith. Run by Cheo Hodari Coker, Luke Cage is the Harlem Renaissance intersecting with the comic book renaissance, a confrontational act of all-too-real wish fulfillment imagining a young black male as bulletproof.

Mike Colter's Luke Cage was introduced in Jessica Jones as a haunted love interest for the main character, where we learned about his powers, basically being super-strong and impervious to bullets (or pretty much anything that might pierce/penetrate/crush his skin). We pick up with Luke sweeping the floors at the neighborhood barbershop run by Frankie Faison's Pop. It's the sort of community institution where people sit around all day debating the coaching styles of Pat Riley and Phil Jackson or whether Easy Rawlins or Kenyatta was the better urban fiction hero. By night, he works as a dishwasher at Harlem's Paradise, a nightclub with a tremendous talent booker and operated by mobster Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali), cousin of local politician Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). Immediately, we see a harsh contrast between the greedy capitalist renewal espoused by Cottonmouth and Dillard and the grassroots Harlem that Luke Cage wants to be a part of and wants to elevate. Naturally, conflict is a-brewing between the two Harlems.

Like Wilson Fisk in Daredevil, a show that suffered horribly in the absence of a central bad guy in its second season, Cottonmouth is a vicious, remorseless killer, but he's also got a somewhat noble sense of how what he's doing is good for the borough he grew up in. Cottonmouth's ties are to family and also to the idea of legacy and the protection of a renowned family name, key details that Coker and his writers hit hard.

The Marvel movies rely on outsized special effects to capture their heightened take on reality, but the Netflix shows don't have the budget for that, so they opt for outsized thematics instead. Like Jessica Jones before it, Luke Cage is aggressively unsubtle, but it's also aggressively smart. Sure, having Luke Cage wandering around, wearing a hoodie as an act of defiance, reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man feels a bit on the nose, but once you throw in the references to Walter Mosley and Donald Goines and Ta-Nehisi Coates, it becomes clear that this show doubles as a superlative summer reading list, which has value beyond computer-generated scenes of mass destruction or a really cool mocap villain.

Luke Cage also offers a superlative playlist, speaking to Coker's background as a music journalist. Coming close on the heels of The Get Down, Luke Cage has many of the same sonic influences and may in fact outdo Baz Luhrmann's expensive hip-hop drama. Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest veteran Ali Shaheed Muhammad contribute an original score that blurs brassy '70s blaxploitation attitude with more modern rap cuts. It calls to mind a lusher, more orchestral version of what RZA did for Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a movie that can be viewed as an interesting companion text, with its blend of New Wave and samurai influences. Music permeates every aspect of the show, especially at Harlem's Paradise, which instantly takes its place as one of the great onscreen clubs you wish you could drink at, with Faith Evans, Raphael Saadiq, Charles Bradley and Jidenna appearing in early episodes. On the soundtrack, every needle drop is perfect including cuts from Nina Simone and the show's defining action sequence, which is set to Wu-Tang Clan's "Bring da Ruckus." That's before you get to the little baked-in details like episode titles from Gang Starr songs and the centrality of Barron Claiborne's famous "King of New York" portrait of Biggie in a crown, which hangs in Cottonmouth's office, but at times seems to be everywhere, offering a hovering crown for each aspiring ruler of the city.

The early episodes are so charmingly brainy and move with such a light step — Paul McGuigan of Sherlock and Scandal knows his way around a flashy pilot — and the cinematography is so stylish — not surprisingly, everybody loves photographing Mike Colter — that you only sometimes realize that the things you expect to get out of a superhero show are largely missing. Luke Cage is, to his great detriment, initially much too powerful, and while he's certainly a reluctant hero, when he actually goes to work on the bad guys, it's pointless to try stopping him. The "Ruckus" set piece in the third episode stands out because nothing else even comes close in scope or action execution. Of the seven episodes, the one that was least successful for me, and by a wide margin, was the most comic book-y, an origin-story fourth episode that hews reasonably closely to Luke's '70s Marvel origins. It's fitting that Luke would want to debate pulp and elevated pulp-fiction African-American heroes, because that's the tradition Luke Cage operates best in, which is great if that's what you're looking for the show to be, but perhaps less great if you're looking for Harlem's Captain America, a comparison at least one character makes. Jessica Jones, with its combination of superpowered hero and enhanced villain probably operated better within its genre and plenty of viewers felt like that series also undersold its comic roots.

Ali makes great use of a classic villain cackle, and he gives Cottonmouth a coiled, psychotic rage and disarming glimpses of reasonableness. Woodard's Mariah is Cottonmouth's opposite, all superficial gentility and then undercurrents of something unhinged that become more frequent. Faison and Ron Cephas Jones, as a barbershop chess wiz named (or nicknamed) Bobby Fish, offer grounded decency, and I'm enjoying what Theo Rossi is doing, skulking around the edges, as a criminal intermediary dubbed Shades. Simone Missick's Misty Knight and Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple are there half as proactive female leads, half as potential love interests for Luke, but sometimes are confusing reminders that Luke was mighty hung up on a deceased ex — and then on Jessica Jones — just one TV show ago and they feel like they ought to be mentioned.

Colter, sometimes filmed surrounded by an almost literal aura of charisma, makes what Luke Cage does seem effortless, which is both a perfect embodiment of one side of the character, but also a slight limiting factor. Colter's smoothness limits the wonder when Luke shows off his power, but also doesn't make room for the takes-a-licking vulnerability that a pulp vigilante needs to have. Also, Luke Cage is a costumeless hero, at least so far, and the odds of anybody watching Mike Colter operate and not recognize him feel low and yet it keeps happening. Quibbles, I know. That's what I have. Quibbles.

Just as Colter moves with purpose, Luke Cage moves with purpose, even if that purpose isn't the same as what Civil War or Age of Ultron have led audiences to anticipate from Marvel. It's a series infused by the conversations we're having about race and gender and the American urban space in 2016, and it's a series built to inspire additional conversations about black masculinity and representations of heroism in an age in which the news is too often focused on the tragic disposability of black masculinity. Look, I don't feel comfortable calling it "woke," but if you do, I'll do my best to nod along in an understanding way.

Cast: Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Frank Whaley
Based on the character created by: Archie Goodwin, John Romita Sr. and George Tuska
Developed for TV by: Cheo Hodari Coker