Luke Cage might just be the most divisive Marvel offering yet. Buoyed by the success of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the third instalment in Netflix’s Defenders series bravely pushes into territory never before trodden by the genre, exploring challenging social divisions with a boldness so rarely seen on TV (or film, for that matter). While that does mean it lacks the propulsive edge of its predecessors, stick with it and you may just find the rewards are far more plentiful.
Cheo Hodari Coker has undoubtedly created a show that feels unlike any other. Like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage has its own unique identity and tone, shifting the action to a hustling, bustling Harlem that’s shrouded by a dangerous atmosphere of racial tension and of a tight-knit community that’s just one slip away from tearing itself apart at the seams. Yet Coker’s desire to establish Cage in a space of his own leads to a glut of meandering exposition and a plot that leans too heavily on familiar archetypes, which threatens to derail the project before it really gets moving.
Having effortlessly established himself as a firm fan favourite in Jessica Jones, this new series finds Mike Coulter’s indestructible hero in a very different place. Looking to rebuild his life once again, Cage moves back to Harlem and tries to keep a low-profile while working two jobs just to pay his rent. But a TV series about a retired superhero who lives a quiet life shooting the breeze with the fellas at his local barbershop just wouldn’t do. And sure enough, it’s not long before Cage is dragged back into the seedy world of bad men when his friend gets the wrong side of Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes, a shady businessman who plans to buy his way into the big leagues with a high-stakes arms deal.
In keeping with Marvel’s intentions to modernise its heroes, our Luke Cage is not the bombastic, blaxploitation-era cartoon of the comic books. The yellow disco shirt and metal head band, cheesy catchphrases and Hero for Hire arc have been erased – though all are subtly referenced throughout. In their place is an intelligent, introspective, emotionally bruised Cage, who feels frustrated by his underwhelming circumstances but is held back all the same by a fear of getting hurt again despite his impenetrable exterior.
Coulter is again fantastic in the role – believably powerful and imposing when he needs to be but otherwise a gentle, honourable everyman. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the characterisation doesn’t make the most of his talents. Cage may find himself in a unique setting, but his arc still boils down to that of a broken, self-isolating man conflicted over how to use his powers to help his fellowman. It’s the exact same story we’ve seen played out in countless superhero shows before – Matt Murdock, being the most damaging example.
It’s the same story with primary antagonist, Cottonmouth. Again, Mahershala Ali is superb – all vicious intensity barely concealed by a thin veneer of charm and good humour. But isn’t he just Harlem’s answer to Wilson Fisk? The only difference between the two characters is the scale of their ambitions; while the latter plotted to destroy an entire borough of New York City, the former is merely content with making a quick buck by flogging some gear his stole from Justin Hammer. As far as the superhero elements of this series go, Luke Cage is poorly lacking in original ideas.
In fact, you’d be forgiven for forgetting this was a superhero show at all. Cage’s powers remain entirely out of sight until the end of the first episode, and then don’t re-emerge again until the latter half of episode two. Cage may not be able to boast the brutal punch-ups of Daredevil or the psychological intensity of Jessica Jones, but by playing down Cage’s abilities and focusing on his human-side, Coker saps much of the energy out of the piece. Without it, we’re left with endless reels of sprawling exposition as Cage explores his life problems. For a show that talks a lot about moving “always forward” it spends a heck of a long time not going anywhere.
Give it enough time, though, and the seeds of Coker’s slow-burn storytelling begin to bear fruit. From all those long, talky scenes emerges a sense of a thriving, multi-layered community that – along with a funky soundtrack steeped in the borough’s rich cultural history – helps to establish a gritty, atmospheric Harlem that feels tangible and real. Seemingly taking its lead from The Wire, Luke Cage offers an uncompromising portrayal of its place, exploring not only the inner-workings of its criminal gangs, but also the under-fire cops, corrupt politicians and the young people who see guns and drugs as their only hope of escape.
And like David Simon’s hard-hitting drama, Luke Cage willingly tackles many diverse, complicated issues surrounding race head on. Black Lives Matter, Keep Harlem Black and Trayvon Martin are all referenced in the first few episodes, while the trigger that spurs Cage back into action is the gunning down of a young black man. But like all the best superhero stories of our time, Luke Cage rises above our grim reality to offers a message of hope. The battle between Cottonmouth and Cage presents a stark choice for how to react to inequality: you can either let it drag you into the gutter with it, or you can step up and fight to make a difference.
In that way, Luke Cage’s real superpower may just be the ability to inspire an entire generation to be better. And that’s a feat far more impressive than simply pummelling the bad guys.