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Josh Reviews Netflix’s Luke Cage!

Season one of Netflix’s Daredevil was a revelation.  I was blown away by that gritty, intense, adult take on Marvel’s blind super-hero.  Season one of Jessica Jones was just as good if not better: a riveting take on a character whose life was torn apart by a trauma and a chronicle of her achingly slow, step-by-step effort to put her life back together.  I also quite enjoyed the second season of Daredevil, with its great take on the Punisher (presented as he should be: not as the hero of his own story but as the complicated villain of Daredevil’s story), though they dropped the ball somewhat with the season’s ending.  So I was pumped to watch Luke Cage, Netflix’s third super-hero show and fourth super-hero season.

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There is a lot to like about Luke Cage.  I love the atmosphere of this show, the characters, the music, the idiosyncratic camerawork.  I love that this show, about a proud, strong African-American super-hero, has so many African-Americans involved creatively, both in the cast and behind the scenes.  This gives Luke Cage a strikingly different look and feel from the other three Netflix super-hero seasons we’ve seen so far, and I love that.

The problem is that the story-telling here in this first season of Luke Cage is extremely weak.  Character-arcs are disjointed and disconnected, and plot twists are either head-scratching obvious or so out of left-field as to be equally frustrating.  This show makes the narrative stalling of Lost seem incredibly fast-paced; shockingly little actually happens over the course of these thirteen episodes.

The result is that while I certainly enjoyed watching this season of Luke Cage, this was unquestionably the weakest of the Marvel Netflix shows so far.

Let’s circle back to what’s good.  The cast is phenomenal.  Mike Colter was immediately amazing and iconic as Luke Cage when he appeared in Jessica Jones, and he easily shoulders the burden of being the lead now in his own series.  I love Mr. Colter’s performance as Luke, he absolutely nails this character.  He is noble and courageous while never losing the reality of what it would be like to be this man, gifted with bulletproof skin but who doesn’t consider himself a hero.

I have been a fan of Mahershala Ali ever since he appeared in the short-lived sci-fi series The 4400.  (Back then he was credited by the even longer and more amazing name of Mahershalalhashbaz Ali.)  He was phenomenal back on that show, probably the best thing about it, and I have enjoyed his work in the years since in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Predators, and the Hunger Games sequels.  He’s terrific here as the villain Cornell Stokes (Cottonmouth), intense and dangerous.  Mr. Ali brings great dignity to this bad-guy role; any scene he was in was a lively one, even if it was one of the (way too many) scenes of him looking out the circular window down on his Harlem’s Paradise club.

The great Alfre Woodard was also a fantastic addition to the show in the role of Cornell’s cousin, Mariah.  Like Cornell, this was unfortunately a role that was written in far too one-dimensional a manner, but Ms. Woodard was able to bring the character to life, and she had great chemistry with Mr. Ali as Cornell.

The show’s biggest revelation for me was Simone Missick as Misty Knight.  She doesn’t have a lot of TV or film credits, but wow was Ms. Missick spectacular as Misty.  First of all, I have to say how pumped I was to see Misty Knight brought to life on-screen.  I have adored this character from the comic books for decades.  I fell in love with Misty back when Chris Claremont wrote her as an occasional supporting character in The X-Men back in the seventies and eighties.  But since then, I’ve usually felt that, when the character appeared in other titles by other writers, she wasn’t done justice.  To see her brought to life in live-action was very exciting, but it also made me nervous.  Thankfully, I think Misty is the best thing about this season of Luke Cage.  She’s hugely central to the story, which I was so happy to see, and I loved how competent and noble this character was presented.  Ms. Missick is beautiful, and she brings a fierce intelligence to the role.  Misty is smarter than almost anyone else on the show, and she can also kick almost any other character’s ass.  I love that so much.  Misty is for sure my favorite character on the show.

Frankie Faison was also spectacular as Pop, the elderly mentor under whose wing we see Luke hiding out in the early going of the show.  I love Mr. Faison, and I was thrilled that this show gave him such a great spotlight and such a juicy part.  I wish Pop had been in more of the show.

Luke Cage is overseen by show-runner Cheo Hodari Coker.  I love that he put together a predominantly African-American behind-the-scenes team to create the show.  This wonderful spotlight from Time gives more information on the team behind Luke Cage.

I love the show’s focus on Harlem.  The season rarely leaves the boundaries of that neighborhood.  In that Time piece, Mr. Coker describes his ambition for the show as being an exploration of Harlem, “like what The Wire did for Baltimore.”  While Luke Cage is by no means The Wire (possibly the greatest TV show ever made), this focus on Harlem is strongly felt.  Luke gives a wonderful speech in the final episode about what Harlem could be, what it should be.

The show has a terrific theme-song and a spectacular soundtrack.  Many real-life African-American musicians perform in the show’s fictional Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, and the show often would pause its story-telling to allow us to enjoy those different musical acts.  I was reminded of the way The Larry Sanders Show would often include generously-long takes of the real-life musical groups performing on the show’s fictional talk-show.  I included a quote from Mr. Coker about The Wire in that last paragraph, but perhaps he was also inspired by another of David Simon’s TV shows, Treme, that also reveled in the atmosphere and the music of the neighborhood in which the show was set.  In the early-going of Luke Cage, I loved how integral the music felt to the over-all vibe of the show.  (As the season progressed, I will admit that my attention started to waver somewhat with the long scenes of music in the club.)  In one of the later episodes of the season, there is a great scene in which Luke bumps into Method Man, playing himself, and later in that episode Method Man raps a powerful anthem for the show’s hero.  In Cornell Stokes’ lair above the nightclub hangs an enormous portrait of The Notorious B.I.G. (about whom, it just so happens, Cheo Hodari Coker directed a film, Notorious.)  By the way, continuing on this topic of the show’s focus on music, I was intrigued to read on-line that every episode of this first season is named after a Gang Starr song.  (That explains all the weird episode titles that I’d been puzzling over!!)

Luke Cage’s story-telling wades right into modern social issues, which I appreciated.  While this wasn’t the case on Jessica Jones, here in the Luke Cage show Luke’s signature outfit is a hoodie, a clear nod to Trayvon Martin.  The show tackles the complex relationship between the black residents of Harlem and the police (be they black or white).  All of this gives Luke Cage a depth that is enjoyable to watch along with the super-hero fun.

The story-telling in Luke Cage is extremely leisurely.  At first, I enjoyed that, relishing in the different feel that Luke Cage had relative to the other Marvel Netflix shows.  This was a show that seemed less concerned with plot than it was with atmosphere and characters.  But as the season progressed, I began to lose my patience and I grew more irritated by the show’s many problematic story-telling choices.  It often felt that not nearly enough attention was paid to the smooth development of the character-arcs and the narrative.  Characters seemed all over the place and often-times plot developments made little sense.  I can give some examples:

* In the very first episode, early on, we see the pretty young mom of a boy getting his hair cut in Pop’s barber shop flirting with Luke.  She gives Luke her phone number, but it’s clear he’s not interested.  He’s hiding out from life, and I also assumed he still had feelings for Jessica Jones.  But later in the episode, when he meets Misty Knight, who is undercover at the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, Luke immediately begins flirting heavily with her and then the two have sex later that night.  Okay, I thought, that seemed like a somewhat surprising development, coming right after the earlier scenes in the barbershop.  Then later on in the episode we see Luke staring mournfully at a photo of Riva, his dead wife.  That again threw me — wait, was it not Jessica who Luke was hung up on, but in fact Riva?  I’d thought we’d seen him take his first steps to get over Riva back in Jessica Jones, so again this surprised me.  And this scene of him mourning his wife was weird coming right after he had casual sex with Misty, sex that he initiated, without any apparent guilt or hesitation. So this scene mourning Riva would have made more sense to me coming earlier in the episode, after he turned down the date with the pretty mom.

* Alfre Woodard’s Mariah is presented as a somewhat crooked politician being funded by her criminal cousin Cornell.  Very early on in the show, Luke raids Mariah’s headquarters and exposes to the public that Mariah had bags of cash stored there, cash that was almost certainly obtained criminally.  And yet, this seems to prompt little reaction and no criminal investigation.  Then later, about half-way through the season, Mariah sits down for what she thinks will be a friendly interview in her home, only the reporter shows her footage of photos on display in her home, linking her with criminals like Cornell, and attacks Mariah as being a criminal herself.  Mariah flips her lid and angrily ends the interview, and that scene leads to her sliding more deeply into the criminal world now that she has been “exposed”.  But nothing about that scene makes any sense.  Why would Mariah be angered or upset about seeing video images of photos that she had openly displayed in her home?  How was it any sort of secret who her family was?  Even if any of that represented any sort of “gotcha” surprise for her, the way Mariah crumbled like a baby was surprising — this was supposed to be a ruthless politician?

* In the second half of the season, we meet Willis Stryker (Diamondback), who apparently has bullets made from alien metal that can pierce Luke’s bulletproof skin.  He has a plan to replicate them and sell them to the police to use.  But then later in the season there’s this whole big deal made out of Diamondback’s only having one of the “magic” bullets left.  But that doesn’t make sense, if he was able to replicate them to sell to the police, why wouldn’t he have an unlimited supply??  (Or, if not an unlimited supply, at least more than ONE bullet!)

* After getting shot by Diamondback, Luke and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) go off to investigate Luke’s origins and find the doctor who can perhaps cure him.  Meanwhile, we see total hell breaking loose in Harlem, which Luke and Claire blissfully ignore.  Are we supposed to believe they have no idea what’s going on?  Don’t they have phones?  Don’t they occasionally see a news report or read a newspaper headline?

* Don’t even get me started on the makes-no-sense way that the doctor (Michale Kostroff, from The Wire) is able to heal Luke.  Or how the bullet that exploded inside Luke seems to only have three fragments — not the HUNDRED you’d expect — when Claire goes to take out the shards.  Or how the show totally forgets that Luke was shot at least TWICE by Diamondback (if not actually THREE times, I was a little unclear on that, but definitely at least once during the first battle and then again when Luke falls back into the dumpster), even though Claire only deals with one bullet wound.  Guess the other one magically healed on its own?

* Luke and Claire visit the run-down church where Luke grew up, and as he walks through the church we see a few flash-backs to Luke’s childhood.  Just by standing in the church Luke seems to magically put all the pieces of his life together, and understand that Diamondback is his half-brother Willis who was the product of an affair that Luke’s preacher father had with his secretary.  How is it that just by standing in the church — and not actually seeing or discovering any new piece of evidence — that Luke is able to put this all together, and why didn’t he already know all of that before?

*  Towards the end of the season, there’s a hostage stand-off in Harlem’s paradise.  It’s intended by Diamondback as a way to frame Luke, but it makes no sense as there are scores of witnesses who can all attest to the fact that the criminals were taking them hostage and Luke wasn’t involved.  But somehow the bad-guys don’t care, and neither do any of the Luke-hating cops.  Huh?  Also, we see Claire get the young woman Candace to fake a fainting spell so that she (Claire) can sneak off and find Luke, but then Claire and the show totally forgets about Candace.  How long did she lie there on the floor pretend-passed-out?  Wouldn’t the bad guys have been super-pissed at Candace, after a few minutes, when Claire didn’t return?

* I yelped with glee when Misty gets grievously wounded in the arm during that hostage situation, because as a good comic-book nerd I know that she has a mechanical arm in the comics, and I was delighted the show was going there.  But one episode later Misty’s arm seems fully healed and she seems to have total use of the arm again, using a gun and writing with a pen — when I think not more than a single day had passed.  Forget about my disappointment that she didn’t get a Stark mechanical arm — it’s just bad storytelling that such a terrible wound would magically heal so quickly.

* Can anyone explain all the Luke-Willis boxing flashbacks in the finale episode?  What did any of that have to do with anything??

These are just a few examples of the myriad plot-holes and story-telling problems that ran throughout the season, problems that escalated as the season progressed.  The latter half of the season was also significantly weakened by the replacement of Mahershala Ali’s Cottomouth as the main villain by the crazy Diamondback.  I felt Diamondback was a far inferior villain to Cottonmouth.  He was just a boring, one-dimensional crazy-person.  He couldn’t carry the show, and suddenly this exposed a lot of the show’s other story-telling weaknesses.

Other comments:

* I enjoyed seeing Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple in the show.  She’s been the common thread trying together all of the Marvel Netflix show; she has appeared in all four seasons.  But while she only had a small role in Jessica Jones, I was surprised by how major a character Claire became here in Luke Cage’s second half.  She had great chemistry with Mike Colter as Luke.

* That being said, I didn’t love the development of a romantic relationship between Luke and Claire.  As a fan of the great Jessica Jones TV show, and of everything that writer Brian Michael Bendis has done with the characters of Luke and Jessica in the comic books for the past decade-and-a-half, I am deeply invested in the Luke-Jessica relationship.  So I was disappointed and a bit surprised that Jessica was barely mentioned at all in this show.  (The lack of Jessica references had me wondering, in the first few episodes of Luke Cage, whether this show was meant to be set BEFORE the events of Jessica Jones.)  Putting aside the events of Jessica Jones and just judging this season of Luke Cage as its own thing, the early episodes got me hooked into the idea of a Luke-Misty relationship.  Sparks flew between them when they met and hooked up in the first episode, and while they quickly found themselves at odds, I was rooting all season long for them to reconnect.  So when the Luke-Claire relationship became a thing in the final few episodes, that threw me for a loop.  Why did the show decide to go there?  And if that was where they were heading, why set up that Luke-Misty stuff at the beginning?

* I loved seeing Turk (the low-level con who continually runs afoul of Daredevil in the comics, and who appeared in the Daredevil show) pop up again, and it was cool to hear Jessica Jones’ Trish Walker’s voice, when at one point we hear Luke listening to her talk-show.

* It’s clear that show-runner Cheo Hodari Coker loves The Wire.  I already mentioned Michael Kostroff, who played the lawyer Maurice Levy on The Wire and appeared here as the doctor involved in giving Luke superpowers.  And this show also featured Sonja Sohn, who played Kima on The Wire, as Misty’s supervisor in the NYPD.  Nice!

* Yeesh that final super-suit they gave Diamondback in the final episode was terrible.  (When he opened up that case and we saw that ominous red glow, I’d expected something really awesome!!)  Overall, Luke Cage was pretty poor in terms of staging fight scenes, which surprised me considering how amazing the fight scenes were in both seasons of Daredevil, and in Jessica Jones too.

So, Netflix’s Luke Cage was something of a mixed bag for me.  I certainly had a fun time watching the show.  It was very entertaining.  The terrific cast goes a long way in carrying the show, and as I have repeatedly stated, I really dug the show’s unique atmosphere.  I just wish the scripts had been stronger, the narrative more focused.  The ingredients were all here for a truly spectacular show, but it didn’t quite come together.  Still, I’d love to see another season with this great cast.  In the short term, I hope some of these characters pop up in Iron Fist and The Defenders.  I am very much looking forward to both those shows.  (And also to, hopefully someday, a second season of Jessica Jones!  Come on, Netflix, let’s make that happen!  Please and thank you.)

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