Thursday, October 27, 2016

TV Binge Review - Luke Cage


Luke Cage is the latest Marvel Comics adaption by Netflix

  Luke Cage is Netflix’s newest series featuring characters from the Marvel Universe. I watched this 13 episode series over the past week in bursts of three of four episodes at a time. Cage was previously featured in last year’s Jessica Jones series where he had a romance with Jones until he found out that Jones had killed the love of his life (Reva) while under the mind-control powers of Killgrave. After succumbing to Killgrave’s powers himself, Cage forgives Jones and moves on to begin his new adventure in his own television series.

  The new series finds Cage working as a dishwasher in a Harlem nightclub and a sweeper in a Harlem barber shop instead of using his super-strength and steel-hard skin to find more profitable employment. No one except Pop the barber shop owner knows of Cage’s powers and Cage is happy just getting by. In the middle of the first episode he gets pressed into duty to be a bartender in the nightclub and has a one-night stand with a seeming accountant but is actually detective Misty Knight who is featured in the PowerMan/Iron Fist comic books. In the comics Luke is known as Power Man but that phrase is only used by Posp as a playful nickname when he tries to persuade Luke to use his abilities to take a more active role in the community

Everybody's hero...

  The action heats up right away as some of the troubled youth who hang around the barbershop get wind of a gun deal being brokered by nightclub owner Cornell Stokes (aka Cottonmouth) and steals the money, earning the enmity of Cottonmouth. Luke is asked by Pop to round up one of the youngsters, which involves Luke in a season long conflict with Cottonmouth, his cousin and Harlem councilwoman Mariah Dillard, street smart con-man Shades, and the ultimate villain of the piece Diamondback. Luke’s allies are Misty (after a rough beginning) and Claire Temple, the one character that has been in all four Netflix/Marvel series as the nurse to the super-heroes.

  Luke Cage is the best of all the Netflix/Marvel collaborations to date. Previously my favorite was the first Daredevil series because of the stellar performance of Vincent D’onofrio as the Kingpin. While Luke Cage doesn’t contain a performance of that stature, Erik LaRay Harvey comes extremely close in his portrayal of Diamondback as a villainous arms dealer with a personal grudge against Cage. Diamond back can thoughtfully quote bible verses and savagely murder policemen and criminal rivals with the same ease. What I liked best about this series was the showrunners willingness to delve deep into the psyches of the villains. Dillard and Cottonmouth are brought up in the home of Mama Mabel, their grandmother who runs a prostitution and drug ring in Harlem. We get to see Cottonmouth as a young talented musician who is turned to the dark side by Mama Mabel when he is ordered to kill his uncle while Mariah watches. I got the sense that while Cottonmouth and Mariah are villainous characters they barely seem to have a choice in the matter based on how they were raised. Diamondback had more of a choice yet still chose the dark side which qualifies him to be the baddest of the bad guys in the series. I liked the choice of the writers to give long-term glimpses into the villain’s motivations instead of continually showing the angst of the heroes.

A taste of the scenery and adversaries in Luke Cage...

  Also setting Luke Cage apart from the rest of the Netflix/Marvel shows is the scenery and sounds. While Daredevil and Jessica Jones are primarily set in dark streets and rooftops or dingy apartments and offices, Luke Cage has a lot of the action set in the Harlem Paradise nightclub and daytime scenes in well-lit streets with classic architecture. Each episode set in the nightclub also features bands performing anything from classic soul to hip-hop music while Cottonmouth, Mariah, and Diamondback plot their plans to take over Harlem and put an end to Cage while overlooking the stage.

  The story line left Cage’s origin until the fourth episode which gave me plenty of time to get engrossed in the main story. There was a slight detour in the second half of the season where two episodes were spent getting Cage reacquainted with the scientist whose awry experiment gave him his powers. This break was effectively used to delve deeper into Mariah, Diamondback, and Misty’s psyche and plans. Since the show was set in Harlem and featured a largely African-American cast there was a nod to current events as Cage has confrontations with the police but there was a lighthearted tone to some profile when the community responds to a police search for a black man wearing a hoodie riddled with bullet holes with bullet hole riddled hoodies becoming an instant fashion trend worn by most of the residents.

  The writing had a lot of character development but not at the expense of action while there was enough twists and turns to make me look forward to every episode. There was enough sudden violence to keep me on the edge of my seat expecting a sudden outbreak at any time The acting was top-notch. Mike Colter was the epitome of cool as Luke Cage, playing the character as a reluctant hero who can matter-of-factly stand in the way of gunfire but struggles to deal with the maneuverings of Mariah, Shades, Diamondback, all the while trying to figure out which cops can be trusted and which are on the take. Cage seems a lot like what I would imagine a real super-powered person would be like except for working as a dishwasher and floor sweeper in a barber shop. Erik LaRay Harvey was epic as Diamondback. His slow delivery and soft voice gave him an air of menace and psycho-ness that rivaled the Joker. My favorite performance was Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard who progresses during the course of the series from a well-meaning councilwoman over her head in a money laundering scheme with her cousin to a Kingpin-esque figure that can manipulate the media and police to secure her hold of Harlem’s criminal empire.

  Luke Cage was the best television I’ve seen all year – even better than The Walking Dead although my opinion may change as TWD’s seventh season gets in full gear. The only thing I didn’t like about the series was the ending which left way too many loose ends for my taste. I expect this was done in order to set the stage for next year’s Iron Fist series since the martial arts expert teams with Cage in the comics and may be able to reprise that relationship on television by resolving the many incomplete plotlines. At this point a second season of Luke Cage has not been ordered by Netflix. I think this may be to fold all the Netflix/Marvel characters into the upcoming ‘Defenders’ super-team series. I think the show is too good not to renew.

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