Luke Cage, Netflix’s latest Marvel adaptation, succeeds by rising above its comic book roots
Luke Cage, the latest Netflix/Marvel streaming series, wins on two fronts. First, it offers an engaging and realistic vision of what amounts to be a comic book superhero. Even in the origin episode, nothing feels overtly ridiculous or improbable… to an extent, of course. This is a super hero series after all. Above that, Luke Cage boasts a fascinating portrait of black culture consolidated within a compelling vision of Harlem. It’s a subtle, intriguing, and unexpected celebration of decades of black history. For that, Luke Cage feels deeper and richer than its Netflix/Marvel predecessors and, as a result, compellingly binge-worthy.
Developed by Cheo Hodari Coker (Southland), Luke Cage picks up sometime after the events of Jessica Jones and Daredevil Season 2. Cage (Mike Colter, all steely exterior with currents of gentleness running beneath) works two jobs and keeps a low profile. He sweeps up hair at Pops’s (Frankie Faison) local barbershop, the “Switzerland” of Harlem. He also washes dishes at Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, owned by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali of House of Cards fame). The initial proceedings take on a leisurely pace as we acclimate into the world Coker and team carefully constructed. Things start moving into a higher gear once the underhanded political dealings of Stokes and cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) cause conflict within this near-hermetically sealed Harlem world. That brings in detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) to investigate some criminal activity and the mysterious Mr. Cage.
The series feels constructed to resemble less a standard Marvel property and more a Harlem-centric take on The Wire. You get equal amounts super hero head busting and complex political discourse, which makes the property sail for a viewer like me. I learned more about black culture from the casual name-dropping in this show than I ever did in formal education. And that’s a great thing. Luke Cage has a confident, easy-going feel about it, meaning that it always feels assured of where’s it taking the series in between the head-smacking.
The acting is also strong across the board. Colter isn’t a “great actor” in the role, but he brings an intensity to the role that oscillates between scary and sweet with equal measure. My favorites are Ali and Woodard in the villainous roles. On House of Cards, Ali never received much opportunity to move beyond the cool and collected exterior of his character. Here, though, he erupts into volcanic furies that feel genuinely frightening. This role serves as something of a breakout role for Alfre Woodard, funny given her decades in the industry. She’s never been this bad, and I would argue that her initial shadings of guilt coupled with later plot twists make this one of her greatest performances to date. Emmy should pay close attention.
Luke Cage was a great surprise to me as I wasn’t completely sure I wanted 13 episodes of a Jessica Jones supporting character. The choice to push the material beyond its more straightforward superhero roots and embrace the original comic’s social commentary was a brilliant one. It may not be everyone’s favorite. For me, Luke Cage is more than a worthy addition to the Netflix/Marvel canon. It may prove to be the best one yet.
Luke Cage premieres Friday, September 30, on Netflix.