TV Review - Luke Cage

Spawn (1997) was the first film to feature an African-American as a major, comic-book superhero. Michael Jai White was the star then. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and other movie franchises have introduced other African-American or black superheroes. There were Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998), Halle Berry in X-Men (2000) and Catwoman (2004), Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 (2010), as well as Anthony Mackie in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Chadwick Boseman in the forthcoming Black Panther (2018). Superheroes on TV have only become a thing within the past five years or so. Currently, Franz Drameh in Legends of Tomorrow is the only black representation. Yet, on TV, black superheroes are never the lead. There really hasn't been a superhero series on TV with a black protagonist and a predominantly black cast. Therefore, I appreciate that a TV series like this exists more than I actually enjoyed it.

Mike Colter (Ringer and The Good Wife) stars as Luke Cage, a falsely convicted man who becomes the subject of scientific experiments and is given the power of super strength and invincibility. He can punch through concrete and lift a car with his bare hands. His skin is also bulletproof. He's also invulnerable to bombs or anything else.

The character was introduced last year in the Netflix series Jessica Jones where Luke was the owner of a bar in Hell's Kitchen. That bar was destroyed, so now as this series opens, he has two jobs. He works as a janitor in Pop's Barber Shop and he's also a dishwasher in Paradise nightclub, both places in Harlem. Despite having super powers, Luke doesn't want to be a super hero, so he's basically in hiding.

The series references Jessica Jones. Like that former series as well as the other Netflix shows, set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, this show references the destruction of New York City in the final sequence of The Avengers (2012), which introduced the most important, superheroes, including Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye. Like with those Netflix series in the MCU, this show doesn't actually want to interact with those people and seek their help, which is a hindrance that hurt the Jessica Jones narrative more than this one.

The problem is that Jessica Jones' villain was a fellow super-powered person. She claimed in the episode "AKA 99 Friends" to be not opposed to seeking help from those like Iron Man. Yet, she never does. Here, Luke Cage's villain doesn't have any super powers. It eliminates the reliance on the MCU, but it presents another problem. It lowers the stakes.

If there isn't a villain who poses a real threat, or when the protagonist walks into a situation and he's never in any danger, then things are boring. For more than half this series, for eight episodes in fact, this series is boring. Luke Cage faces no real threat or any real danger. It isn't until Episode 8 that the series introduces someone who can go toe-to-toe or take down Luke Cage. Up until then, the series is stale and by then it's too late to justify the eight hours of dragging us through this show's hackneyed plot.

Mahershala Ali (The 4400 and House of Cards) co-stars as Cornell Stokes aka Cottonmouth. He was an aspiring piano prodigy whose criminal family pulled him into criminality. He's now the head of this gang in Harlem that runs guns secretly. He's also the owner of a nightclub that features R&B and Hip Hop music artists. He's also in league with his cousin to rebuild Harlem in their image.

Alfre Woodard (St. Elsewhere and Desperate Housewives) also co-stars as Mariah Dillard, the city councilwoman representing Harlem. She's Cornell's older cousin who comes from the same, criminal family and helps Cornell in his illegal activities. Her political career is very important to her though and she doesn't want Cornell's pursuits to interfere with her position and her goals.

Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy and When the Bough Breaks) plays Hernan Alvarez aka Shades, a cool, slick and ruthless operative who becomes a kind of criminal whisperer. It's clear that if he wanted, he could be the one in control fully but he prefers to be the second-in-command. He's smooth and very sly.

The problem is that the crime drama here is really nothing new. It's not even new this year. Take away the superhero element. This series boils down to a female politician and her relationship with gang activity, money illegally moved for political reasons. This is the exact story of Saints & Sinners on Bounce TV, which aired earlier this year. Arguably, Woodard gives a better performance as the female politician than Vanessa Bell Calloway in Saints & Sinners.

Unfortunately, Mariah Dillard doesn't rise as a character until Episode 8, which is a long time to wait for things to kick off. Head writer Cheo Hodari Coker and his team adapting the Luke Cage comics for the seven episodes prior try to have Ali's Cottonmouth as the centerpiece. Ali appears to be having fun in the role. It's interesting to see Ali and Woodard as Cottonmouth and Mariah having existential debates about black culture and black representation, but, as mentioned earlier, Cottonmouth is never really a threat and not really that interesting.

While Woodard is more interesting or just as interesting as Calloway in Saints & Sinners, Ali as Cottonmouth isn't more interesting or more menacing than Clifton Powell who is the equivalent in Saints & Sinners. As a matter of fact, last year Colter played Lemond Bishop, a recurring role in the CBS series The Good Wife, a role that was very similar to Cottonmouth, and in scenes with Colter and Ali, all I could think was Lemond Bishop was so much better a character than Cottonmouth. Colter's performance as Lemond Bishop was also just as, if not more nuanced, even with less backstory.

It wasn't just Colter. This Cottonmouth character has also been done better by numerous people. There was Omari Hardwick in Power. There was Bokeem Woodbine in Fargo. There was also Terrence Howard in Empire and Idris Elba in The Wire. When you compare Cottonmouth to all those guys, he just doesn't measure up.

It's clear that at no point does Luke Cage ever fear Cottonmouth, so the series spins its wheels for seven episodes never going anywhere. It's not until another villain is introduced named Diamondback, played by Erik LaRay Harvey (Boardwalk Empire and Believe), that Luke Cage actually starts to break a sweat or is even on the run or on the defensive. Once that happens, the show is exciting. Prior to that, it's boring. Even after Diamondback's intro, the show slows down and perhaps needlessly so.

Colter is of course sexy as Hell. He's tall and very muscular. He has an amazing screen presence, but his character is a tad dull and clunky, particularly in action scenes, which are non-compelling because of a lack of stakes but also because there is a supreme dearth of choreography, at least any kind that's at all skilled, which perhaps fits with the character but makes for unattractive TV. Colter was a great foil for Jessica Jones, but somehow he's a bit stiff here. His character is well-read and has a slight sense of humor, but it just doesn't come across as effectively.

The series obviously plays with the idea of Black Lives Matter. It plays with it in a very clever way. In our current context, a show like this is very timely and a good beacon for young black men to see, which will hopefully give them hope for their place and presence in the world. Sadly, what this series doesn't play with is the idea of religion. The existence of super-powered people as well as alien technology doesn't seem to affect anything to any significant degree.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 13 eps.
Available on Netflix Watch Instant.


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