What’s On? – Luke Cage (Part 1)
All right, I’ll start by saying one thing: This series came out at the perfect time. Historically, comics (and Marvel in particular) have always stayed relevant by reflecting goings-on in the real world at the time. With all the ever apparent racial tension going down in certain parts of the country, and the massive push for equal representation across multiple platforms, this show just picked a really good sweet spot of time to come out of the wood work. And what better property to pull from that one whose roots are in ye olde “Blacksploitation” films and media? But with that being said, how is it? Does it deliver, or is Netflix’s Luke Cage not quite as indestructible as its lead? Does it beat the message over our heads with all the force of a punch from the famed Hero for Hire? And, of course, the most important question, is Luke Cage On… or Off?
Spoiler Alert: It’s On. Okay. Now that that’s out of the way…
Actually, I enjoyed Luke Cage quite a lot. A comic fan and African-American individual though I may be, I’m not overly versed in the lore of the character. I know enough to get by, but really outside of the odd Power Man & Iron Fist comic, I never really got into the property. I was also weary, going in, because I can think of about a million and one ways to do this message hopelessly wrong. For example – portraying caucasian people as one-dimensional devils who just want to keep people down. Or making the African-American villains of the series stereotypically thuggish. What did I get? Decidedly nuanced villains with backgrounds that get into their reasonings for things. What this show ultimately does, probably without meaning to, is break the racial boundaries that it says are there. When it comes to bad guys, there is no black and white. People are people. Any person can be bad.
But let’s talk about the show’s roots in African-American culture. The show’s already got a reputation as being “unapologetically black”… whatever the heck that means. But I kid. Of course I know that the idea was to portray (a certain sect of) black culture and, tangentially, the culture of Harlem, which is very much a prolific part of black culture in America. And I think that show honestly paints this much less in a racial context, and far more in a community context. While the show does, of course, predominantly feature African-Americans in key roles, the show is overall incredibly ethnically diverse; a couple of Chinese characters, several prominent Hispanic characters, a few Caucasian men and women, the list goes on. And all of them get their time. A speech Cage, himself, gives near the end of the show’s first half summarizes what the show is ultimately about. Yes there are a number of ethnic influences in the show, and they’re very much welcome. But the show ultimate tells a message about disregarding all that in interest of working together to be a community that can shine. After all, that’s very much what Pop’s Barber Shop represents in the show. It’s a place where, regardless of their background, people can come for that sense of community. It’s sacred to the people of Harlem. Whatever happens outside of that shop, stays there. And the entire community, even the criminals (barring a few) recognize that.
All right, that one longwinded thematic analysis out of the way. Let’s talk about the actual story. And fret not – it’s spoiler free. For the most part. Suffice it to say the story, while not at all airtight, or even wholly original, gets the job done. It’s a slow burn, but that buildup is actually quite fascinating to watch. The villain of the first half is a pleasure to behold. He’s everything I like about gangsters like this, but with some added layers, based on his background and the perks of being tied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And despite taking place where it does and occasionally being a little grim, the series is surprisingly fun and witty. I’m not sure why that’s a surprise, having watching Daredevil, but it works remarkably well. This version of Luke is far more restrained and reflective than his comic book counterpart, which is a shame. I’d wanted to see him and his classic banter and witticism. It’s one of the few things from those comics I did read that I really latched onto. Even when he shows up in video games (Marvel Ultimate Alliance, for example), it’s a part of his portrayal. But at the same time, I can understand not having it for any number of reasons. The series makes up for it with an equally fun supporting cast. And Luke has his own moments.
The primary twist of the first half was also genuinely surprising. I won’t tell you what it is, but I actually didn’t expect it. And the resolution to that twist was actually pretty sad in the end.
Speaking of the end, yeah, let’s talk about that. The end of the first half, some have been claiming “tied things up too nicely.” But honestly… I didn’t mind that. It’s only the middle point of the series. It was a full story arc. And the next half of the season promises another one with some really interesting turns. But now let’s back up and talk about Luke’s origin story. As much as I enjoyed their telling of it, I’m not sure I quite understand why they went the route they did in telling it. Probably because there really wasn’t anywhere else to put it? At least, that’s what makes the most sense. It wasn’t a major gripe, but it was pretty irritating.
I appreciate all the obvious comic nods, but also the little nods to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, such as the plot point of Hammer-Tech, the association with what happened in the first Avengers film, and so-on. I thought it was all relatively clever and well executed.
Also: can I talk, for a minute, about Misty Knight? Because she was freakin’ awesome. But not only was she so great, she managed to do what generally tends to be pretty difficult for every other character in her shoes. She managed to come across as a perfectly reasonable “Pro-Registration” type. In the Cinematic Universe, of course, this would be Pro-Accords, but the point is that the woman made her case against vigilantism… and stopped at vigilantism. She made no case for the super crime stuff, likely because even someone on her side would have to acknowledge that when it comes to threats as big as Ultron or alien invasions, Government Red Tape and Police Training aren’t gonna mean a thing. But I can definitely see her side of the issue where it concerns lower level issues such as hostage situations, robberies, and (heaven forbid) shootings. So kudos, Misty, you managed to be the first person on your side of the fence who made their case without coming across as a self righteous moron. Kudos.
So, what’s the verdict on Luke Cage? Of course you’ll have to wait until later for my follow up on Part 2 of Season 1. But for these first 6 episodes, as I spoiler above, Luke Cage is most definitely…
Thanks for reading, guys. Keep up the awesome.