❉ We review Marvel’s latest Netflix series.
‘Bulletproof always gonna come second to being black.’
That’s the answer that comes back, when Harlem’s own super-soldier goes on the run from the law and some folks ask the question: ‘If he’s innocent, why’d he run?’ The volumes it speaks resonate well after the end credits have rolled on the last episode of ‘Luke Cage’. And it encapsulates one reason why this Netflix Marvel presentation is great.
At times, the story is by-the-numbers and predictable, which is not entirely its fault. After all, if you’ve watched enough Marvel output, you can’t help but recognise patterns. Some things are a given.
Peter Parker lost his uncle. Tony Stark lost his parents. Steve Rogers lost his whole time period. Everybody loses someone to set them on their path. It’s as key to the formula as the radioactive spider bite or the fall into a vat of genetically modified butter-cream frosting. Or whatever. No different here.
Of course, we’ve already been introduced to Luke via the excellent ‘Jessica Jones’ series (although I couldn’t swear to watching ‘Jessica’ first being essential, you will be rewarded for doing so), but when we meet him here he’s striving to adhere to a normal, unassuming life, sweeping barber-shop floors and tending bar. He begins as a loner, sans relatives, but it’s not difficult to pick out the mentor figure who is going to get popped.
Despite recognising that in advance, it’s still sad and shocking when it hits. There’s a danger with bullet-proof heroes, I find, that the audience might be invulnerable to anything that happens to them. Mike Colter maintains a degree of distance in his performance, keeping himself to himself much like Luke, but while outward shows of emotion are rationed, he conveys plenty going on under the thick skin. So there is an emotional connection to the character and events that develops over the course of the thirteen episodes.
To be fair, that’s not all down to the central – and reticent – hero. There’s more than just his super strength on display.
Of principal note are the women in Luke’s life. Three females, in particular, play pivotal roles in the narrative, influencing events and a number of Luke’s decisions, as well as in investing us in the story and its outcome.
Rosario Dawson is something of a star of all these Netflix Marvels, delivering a character qualified for more than the label ‘supporting cast’. Claire Temple is in many ways the glue that holds the different series together and she’s very much earned her promotion to the front ranks here. She arrives in a great scene that perfectly illustrates her capability and independence. She can get by fine without superheroes. Add in Simone Cook, whose character of Misty Knight is a triumph of performance over slightly ridiculous comic-book name, and she serves us a credible streetwise cop with a brilliantly judged blend of strength, conviction, vulnerabilities and flaws. Queen of this Harlem is Alfre Woodard as Maria Dillard, a duplicitous and self-serving politician whose mission to save her town is just a front to save herself from becoming her mother, a ruthless matriarch of organised-crime. Well, you can probably guess how that works out, but the journey is fascinating to watch and provides one of the series’ chief unexpected in an explosion of emotion that knocks you out of the park.
The male villains of the piece, Cottonmouth and Diamondback, are secondary by comparison. Of the two, Cottonmouth is the most interesting, so the fact that Diamondback is the main orchestrator of Luke Cage’s woes doesn’t quite pack the punch it should, but while the ultimate confrontation is satisfactory as street-level superhero punch-ups go, it’s not the main feature.
Much like the game-changing ‘Judas bullets’ are a nice idea and introduce an element of danger to our bulletproof hero, it’s not this gun-culture kryptonite that induces us to care. Rather, it’s the real-world vulnerabilities that no amount of superpowers can tackle.
The MCU often goes some way to root its creations in an enhanced reality, a version of the world we know (‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ confronts the issue of drones and the War On Terror, for example) but for a comic-book superhero TV series to embrace and champion Black Lives Matter is a huge step further and one that I can’t applaud enough. In acknowledging that and making it as central to the story as Luke Cage himself, this series achieves more than the sum of its thirteen parts.
The MCU has its share of black superheroes (Rhody, Falcon, The Black Panther) but they operate in a pretty level arena, where the only race issue is whether you’re human or Asgardian. This series is by no means ‘The Wire’ but at times it’s almost Marvel meets ‘Treme’, with pauses in the mayhem to celebrate black culture as Cottonmouth enjoys another band rehearsing in his club, Harlem’s Paradise. There’s a great montage later on with a rapper singing Luke’s praises on the radio while people on the streets take to wearing bullet-holed hoodies in a show of solidarity.
All these Netflix productions are slick and polished presentations, each distinctively characterised by stylish title sequences. By necessity, first seasons follow a certain set progression, advancing the narrative and weaving in origin story as flashback along the way. I could have put money on somewhere around episode three or four having Luke caught up in a present-day dramatic situation while reflecting on his past and how he got his powers.
There’s a vat, a serum and a power surge. But the point is not its predictable way in which it is revealed. The point is, it happens in prison and it’s not voluntary. It’s the non-white-privilege retelling of Steve Rogers’ story.
This series is, in addition to the qualities we’ve come to expect from a Netflix Marvel, steeped in a culture and society that needs highlighting. That needs a champion.
Luke Cage is Captain Black America. The Marvel Universe needs ‘Luke Cage’. And the world, our very real world, needs this kind of Marvel.
❉ Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’ is a Netflix Original. You can watch Season One now.