The Defenders is coming soon! (I’m hoping it abruptly switches from them teaming up to thwart The Hand to Patsy getting married to Daimon Hellstrom.) Thanks to a temporary Netflix (the company that wants both the TV & movie awards for technically being either) account, I finally got around to fulfilling my promise of watching Luke Cage. Anybody still need an overview of that? (Let’s see if this obsolete review is more popular than timely reviews of Atomic Blonde & Valerian. Surely it’s got to do better than my S-M: TOTD critique.) My review gets a bit spoilery, but maybe that’s not such a big deal since it’s been out so long.
I wasn’t too excited about watching this since Luke Cage was pretty dull in the mostly great Jessica Jones. Daredevil season 2 left a bad taste in my mouth too. I liked Luke Cage, however, more than I expected. It helped that I didn’t have to marathon the whole thing in a single day, though the Netflix bastards kept shrinking the credits on me. Fortunately Mike Colter can make Luke a likeable character when he’s the lead. Showing how afraid he is of being sent back to prison for a nebulous crime he didn’t commit (or breaking out, which is a crime he did do) explains why he was so low key in Jessica Jones. Despite all his rage, he is still just a Luke in a cage … of his own trauma. Cage does grow into an inspirational hero though. He even does a riff on a timely Captain America speech where he explains that Harlem is only great if it has great denizens. He also frequently exclaims “Sweet Christmas!”
As with the other MCU Netflix shows (this one actually namedrops Captain America, Iron Man, & Justin Hammer), the supporting cast often outshines the lead. Detective Misty Knight is awesome! I love Night Nurse Claire doing mad science in a barn! (I’m less keen on the original mad scientist being shamed for giving Luke superpowers without side effects & not wanting to keep this tremendous medical breakthrough a one-off fluke.)
Even with a superhuman running around, the show’s Harlem has verisimilitude instead of being a Blaxploitation pastiche. Since the cast is ninety-five percent black & there’s plenty of screentime to go around, nobody feels like a token. Even the cops aren’t a monolithic entity. Nuance is used to show that neither police nor vigilantes are ideal at thwarting crime & protecting citizens. There’s also a good variety of music.
Mahershala Ali portrays Cottonmouth (not to be confused with the one in the Serpent Society) more charmingly than he’s written. Too bad he didn’t have a mouth full of fangs like his comics counterpart. Despite his hair trigger temper, he’s smart enough to realize a rocket launcher is more effective against Cage than a semi-automatic. It’s tragic that he was forced into a life of crime instead of music because Ma Mabel didn’t realize he could do both. He & Mariah’s plot to funnel gun running proceeds to uphold Harlem’s legacy feels more personal than Kingpin’s gentrification scheme.
Corrupt politician Mariah Dillard’s contempt for “carpetbaggers” was a nice character trait. Weirdly Ma Mabel in flashbacks feels more like an adaptation of Black Mariah than her. Mariah kills Cottonmouth as soon as the audience finds out she was sexually abused as a teen. It’s not foreshadowed well, so it feels like it came out of nowhere. They could’ve picked anything for her motivation, so it this choice just seems cheaply exploitative rather than fleshing her out. It would’ve worked just as well if they’d made her the same character Alfre Woodard played in Captain America: Civil War, misplacing her fury over her son’s death. I was expecting her to become the main antagonist after that, but then Diamondback usurps that role. The finale sets her (& Shades, who’s more levelheaded than Cottonmouth & Diamondback combined) up for that role next season, but I don’t think her character progression needed to be that slow.
Despite being grounded to the point of being nearly generic, the other villains are more interesting than Diamondback (also not to be confused with the one in the Serpent Society) a.k.a. Willis Stryker (not to be confused with William Stryker). Hypothetically I should like Diamondback: He’s theatrical, wears colors, & dons a costume. In execution, however, I found him grating. His motivation, dialogue, & plot function is a convenient grab bag of cliches. I resent that he’s the one enemy that they decided not to tone down. Diamondback’s comic costume isn’t much to work with, but Netflix somehow managed to make it even uglier. Shades became way more sympathetic the moment he realized this bozo took over after he did all the legwork. Unfortunately the final episode hints that he’ll be getting the same superpowers as Luke. Ugh! Nobody wants to see this jerk become substitute Tombstone when we could have the real deal! (If Marvel was bigger into nominative determinism, his secret identity would be Thomas B. Stone.) I guess they’ll be merging him with Bushmaster, who is once again not a member of the Serpent Society. (Why does it always have to be non-union snakes?)
The introduction of Judas bullets were a great way to put Luke into physical danger. They seem like the kind of alien weaponry gangs would be more interested in buying than Vulture’s sci-fi armaments. It is surprising that Luke was still that active after having two bullets drill into him & explode. I was expecting one of them to blow off Misty’s arm. They foreshadow her losing a limb to conventional bullets, but then it’s fine? What was the point of that fake-out? Fingers crossed he finally gets a golden robot arm in The Defenders.
Aside from the Judas bullets, the show is terrible at putting Luke in physical danger. It’s fun seeing him plow through terrified mooks at first, but maybe not for thirteen episodes in a row. Seeing him try to protect others is more thrilling, but even that has its limits. Since Cage is superstrong in addition to nigh-invulnerable, it doesn’t make sense that Diamondback could escape by dishing out some fancy flip-kicks. Cage could’ve ended the season early had he just snapped Diamondback’s leg so he couldn’t run off to bedevil him later. Even when he put on the power armor, Luke could’ve easily just torn off the obvious battery on his back. The climactic punchfest was boring. (It was also public enough that SHIELD ought to step in.) So next season they need to level the playing field by giving Shades laser-sunglasses. Also have Mr. Fish (probably no relation to Bobby Fish) try to drown Luke for laughing at him.
Unlike Jessica Jones, Luke actually wears his Power Man costume! It’s a brief scene, but it injects some color & humor into the serious show. Luke’s classic costume may have looked doofy, but give me doofy over boring street clothes any day! Meanwhile all the normal clothes he wears later get riddled with bullet holes. This is why he needs to invest in a durable costume, although it’s not as egregious as Daredevil waiting a whole season to don armor. (Luke Cage is a pseudonym anyway, so it’s not as if he must eschew a superhero costume for symbolic honesty.) At least the show turned the holey hoodies into a political fashion statement.
While I enjoyed Luke Cage, I’m not sure if a second season centered on just him is the way to go. Now that his origin is out of the way, I want a double buddy team-up show for Heroes For Hire & Daughters of the Dragon. The defunct barbershop is primed for becoming Heroes For Hire’s HQ, although this version of Luke doesn’t seem like he’d become a small businessman. Regardless I have a feeling it’ll still be superior to Iron Fist (the best recommendation I’ve heard is it’s not quite as terrible as I’ve been told) & Inhumans, which doesn’t even give Auran her giant adorable ears! (Why’d Marvel give both of those to the same showrunner?) The big question now is: Am I masochistic enough to subject myself to thirteen hours of Ironic Fisting? Enh … maybe I’ll just watch GLOW again instead.