As the newest installment in Netflix’s series of Marvel superhero television shows, “Luke Cage” stands out as the first film or television show to center around a black superhero. The premiere season succeeds in not shying away from the show”s blackness and creates an authentic tone all its own, a rarity due to the homogeneous nature of most superhero properties. Nevertheless, the show does fall flat in the execution of its story, starting off strong but falling into mediocrity in the season’s second half.
The show begins with Luke Cage (Mike Colter) trying to make a living in Harlem following the events of “Jessica Jones,” in which Cage also appears. Concealing his powers of super strength and unbreakability, Cage maintains the image of an average working man, holding jobs as both a janitor at a local barbershop and as a dishwasher in a popular Harlem nightclub. This nightclub is owned by crime lord Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) against whom Cage must eventually fight in the battle for the soul of Harlem. Cage also interacts heavily with hyper-aware detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who serves as both Cage’s friend and enemy at times, as well as Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who makes her most sustained appearance yet after stints in Netflix’s other Marvel shows “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones.”
One of the best aspects of “Luke Cage” are its performances. Mike Colter carries the show as its titular character Luke Cage, building upon the strong, collected presence that he had in “Jessica Jones.” Mahershala Ali exudes a jovial fury in his performance as the villainous Cottonmouth and chews the scenery whenever the chance. Alfre Woodard also has a powerful showing as councilwoman Mariah Dillard, Cottonmouth’s cousin who is just as conniving.
Furthermore, the supporting cast feels like they were plucked from reality.To this end, all of the actors help contribute to possibly the show’s biggest attribute: its atmosphere. Set from the opening minutes in which a group of black men of varying ages discuss the merits of different eras of the New York Knicks, the show’s mood is one that has not been seen in any superhero television show or movie. Uniquely Harlem-oriented, the show’s universe feels real and lived-in while simultaneously fantastical due to the world’s interactions with superhumans and their powers. “Luke Cage” also utilizes a number of songs performed by born-and-raised Harlem artists, contributing even further to the genuine feel of the show’s universe.
Nonetheless, the plot of “Luke Cage” does not match the strength of its performances or general character. Frequently moving at a glacial pace, poorly edited and drawing perhaps too heavily on clichéd blaxploitation-style dialogue, the show’s errors are difficult to ignore. Especially after the halfway point in the season’s plot, the narrative shifts from grounded and realistic to almost cartoonish in a way that I was not able to take nearly as seriously as before. The show’s action is also surprisingly middling considering the possibilities provided by its protagonist’s abilities, often unclear in its execution and unsuccessfully masking Colter’s limited fighting ability.
Overall, “Luke Cage” is a show that falls somewhat short of its Netflix counterparts. While I would recommend it to fans of the ongoing Marvel television that wish to be fully informed for the upcoming “Defenders” series or who want to watch it for completionist sake, the series’ glaring weaknesses make me unable to suggest it for newcomers to the Marvel comic-book universe or those looking for an especially dramatically-fulfilling show to watch. It has quite a few upsides, but they are accompanied by some negatives that prevent the show from having a wider appeal.