Wednesday, September 28, 2016

TV REVIEW: Netflix's 'Luke Cage'

Netflix will drop all 13 episodes of its new original drama Luke Cage on Friday, September 30. The drama stars Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Rosario Dawson and Alfre Woodard.

Read on for my thoughts on the new Marvel drama after screening its first six episodes.

It simply cannot be understated how important and relevant the story of Luke Cage is in the superhero genre and the television medium as a whole. This is the story of a black superhero. He's the one on the complicated hero's journey with all the ups and downs of trying to protect his community from those who wish to exploit it. It's a fairly standard superhero type story. But filtering it through this prism is what makes it soar. Just like Jessica Jones was fresh and compelling because of its stance on feminism and rape culture, Luke Cage works amazing well because of its willingness to take on race and societal identity in a neighborhood with a tarnished past. It's excellent watching these themes come together throughout this story. Again, there are some very problematic beats with the actual plot. Those issues will be addressed later on. But the opening half of this season is a strong declaration of this story needing to be told in this way.

Audiences have already gotten a taste of Mike Colter's version of Luke Cage through his appearances throughout the first season of Jessica Jones. He was a supporting element to her story. He never demanded the focus or attention. The show very deliberately made sure it was always Jessica's story first. But it was still a fine introduction for Luke that helped detail the complicated past and present of this man. And now, he's front and center of his own show on Netflix. Colter commands the screen just as well if not better than he did on Jessica Jones. This is a different type of hero. One who is reluctant to use his powers because he doesn't feel the need to be a hero. He has suffered a great personal loss in the death of his wife, Reva. He got answers and clarity to that tragic loss in Jessica Jones. And now, he's just trying to lay low in Harlem. He's trying to blend into his surroundings. Obviously, that's hard for him to do. His stature makes him stand out in any room he is in. But the work the writers and Colter do to show a man just blending into the background is wonderful even if he's not going to stay there for very long.

Meanwhile, Mahershala Ali - hot off an Emmy nomination for House of Cards and Oscar buzz for the film Moonlight - continues the streak of excellent villains for the Marvel shows on Netflix. Vincent D'Onofrio and David Tennant set the bar high as Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave, respectively. The work Ali does is very different than any other villain the Marvel extended universe has done so far. But it's just as amazing, transcendent and absolutely terrifying. His character, Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, runs the Harlem's Paradise nightclub. But it's much more important that he's getting into some illegal operations. It's a mesmerizing performance because Cottonmouth isn't afraid to get his own hands dirty. At times, he's an irrational character who can act impulsively but that only makes him more dangerous. Ali also gets some tremendous support from Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, Cottonmouth's cousin and a city councilwoman, and Theo Rossi as Shades, a menacing figure from a secret organization. This whole cast puts in some excellent work. But even amongst an ensemble of veteran and beloved people, Colter and Ali stand out in some phenomenal ways.

That makes it even more glaring when Luke Cage falters to some of the some problems that Jessica Jones and Daredevil did. It's yet another case of a show trying to extend its story in order to comprise thirteen hourlong episodes. I've only seen the first six of the season - seven were made available to critics, but time alas ran out for me to get to that final one - but it's clear that things are being padded and more complicated just to fill the time. It's a major problem with shows that see themselves as a thirteen hour movie. It gets monotonous after awhile and really lessons the tension over time. Jessica Jones would have been so much better at 10 episodes and without the Kilgrave support group helping his umpteenth escape. Daredevil season two would have better with a shorter run as well. Of course, that season had some pretty major problems that would need a complete overhaul in order to truly work. Too many ninjas! Some of the action sequences of Luke Cage feel similar in tone and style to Daredevil - for reasons both good and bad. They highlight the skill of the hero and the technical proficiency of the show. But it's also a bunch of random criminals trying to shoot Luke and not learning their lesson about him being unbreakable.

And yet, Luke Cage does something that Daredevil really struggled to do. It uses Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple as a vital part of the series. She is the one character who best connects the various Marvel shows on Netflix. She appears in all of them but she largely pops up whenever someone needs medical treatment. Luke Cage picks up her story after she leaves her job at the hospital in Hell's Kitchen. She's searching for a purpose. It's a personal story arc that's not apparent early on but has the potential to give her some fantastic material to work with in the second half of the season. The series largely does right by Simone Missick as Misty Knight as well. That's yet another character fans of the comics have been waiting to see onscreen. There's even buzz already about Netflix wanting to do a Misty Knight spinoff series - similar to what they're doing with Jon Bernthal's The Punisher. She's served well in these episodes. She provides the greatest insight so far into the NYPD of this connected world. Her skill set is just as apparent and important to the understanding of this fragile ecosystem. She proves to be her own individual. She's not just a love interest or a woman who needs rescuing. She's the one who believes in the law and is really concerned about the rising conflict between Luke Cage and Cottonmouth. Of course, she is sexualized to an extent as well. Those scenes have their problems. So, she'll ultimately be destined to be a supporting element of this story. Present enough to be important but also to further add to the complications of the main story.

But again, the culture and vibrancy of this world makes Luke Cage so special. The actual environment of Harlem is way more important here than Hell's Kitchen was on either Daredevil or Jessica Jones. There is clearly a respect and understanding of what Harlem is in 2016. It's an identity that really helps the show thrive throughout these episode despite how crazy and other-worldly things become. There's a respect for the past. These characters understand where they come from. The black struggle that has led to this moment in time. Some use it for nefarious personal gains. Some use it to become heroes. But the show itself soars because of its understanding of why this particular story is so important in today's world. That only is enough for the show to overcome many of its structural problems.