One of the best things about Marvel’s growing set of series on Netflix is how each has managed to create its own distinct feel while not straying too far from the overall tone. Daredevil is dark, literally, and contains some of the universe’s most grisly violence, while Jessica Jones’ narrative bleakness is tempered by a bright banter. Luke Cage is smooth and deliberate, with Cage himself (Mike Colter) fighting to move both himself and his neighborhood into the light. All three protagonists struggle with the idea of heroism, and how they fit into a world forever changed by “The Incident” (see: The Avengers). But they do, each finding their own way to a path that will, eventually, bring them all together with Iron Fist for The Defenders.
But for now, each story belongs uniquely to its title protagonist, and while Luke Cage had an important impact on Jessica Jones’ story, his own series finds him removed from those events. Taking place several months after Jessica Jones, Cage has relocated to Harlem from Hell’s Kitchen, and is attempting to keep a low profile. He’s barely making ends meet as he sweeps hair at a local barbershop (owned by the neighborhood’s father figure Pops, played by Frankie Faison of The Wire and Banshee), and cleans dishes at a nightclub owned by the crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). It doesn’t take very long for those stories to connect, as young regulars at the barbershop see an opportunity for quick cash that soon turns bloody. The fallout from this is what pushes Cage to finally move forward with his life and embrace his strengths for the protection of those who need it.
Colter has described the series as Marvel’s version of The Wire, which is bold yet in many ways apt. It’s an intimate portrait of street life, detailing not only the inner workings of the crime syndicates, but also the beleaguered police, sleazy politicians, and the young people in the community who see guns and drugs as an easy way to make money.
Luke Cage, it should be noted, hates guns, and one of the great delights of his fight sequences is not just the physicality he uses to overpower his foes (he wasn’t called Power Man in the comics for nothing, and there are some great nods to Cage’s comic history throughout the season), but also in how he pointedly destroys their firearms as he goes. As he tells Pops, “a man with a gun has no father.”
Cage is a physical badass, as demonstrated in a number of thrillingly satisfying scenes, but he has a much quieter side. He reads the New Yorker and discusses his preference for the crime writing of George Pelecanos, and has serious opinions on Bruce Lee versus Jet Li. He’s a gentleman hero, and a reluctant one. But when he’s threatened by a young man with a gun who calls him the n-word, Cage – even after a long day full of emotional toil –confronts him. “Do you see a n— standing in front of you?” he asks, also asking if the boy knows the significance of the historical black hero, Crispus Attucks, featured on the building in front of them. “I see a dead n—“ the boy replies. Cage sets him straight.
Race matters in Luke Cage, but most especially in the way that the show fully embraces its Harlem location with style and substance. There’s an intimacy of place here, and it extends to all corners of the series in cultural specificity and details. The idea of Luke Cage not just as a hero, but as a black superhero, is important here.
In that way and others, Luke Cage is a story that’s about more than a vigilante. Jessica Jones dealt brilliantly with the complicated, important issues of rape, consent, power, and being a survivor, and this series also deals with difficult real-world issues that go beyond metahumans and cartoon villains. As with Daredevil, it’s about changing the viewpoint of the community to not allow a villain to rule just because it’s easier. Cornell and his politician sister Mariah (Alfre Woodard) are like the two sides of Kingpin. Cornell cares about the money, power, and respect, while Mariah uses those means to get to her altruistic ends. It’s a complicated corruption.
Speaking of the other Defenders, fans of Jessica Jones will miss Krysten Ritter‘s investigator and her electric spark with Cage dearly as the series begins. But another heroine soon arrives: Misty Knight (Simone Missick), a detective who not only has her own bright banter and connection with Cage, but who is her own brand of badass. Missick is luminous in the role, bringing a fiery energy to Misty that’s smart, sexy, and a little mysterious. It’s a perfect mirror for Cage, especially since she’s strong, well-written, and not a traditional sidekick or love interest. The same is true for Luke’s wife Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley), who returns in flashbacks to connect us not only to Luke’s superpowered origins and her own role in them, but also to connect the story back to the events revealed in Jessica Jones.
Luke Cage does an excellent job giving each of its cast members (however long they stick around) distinct personalities and memorable moments that create immediate stakes. Theo Rossi’s Shades isn’t just Cornell’s henchman, he has his own unique story, and one that’s closely tied to Cage’s past. Similarly, Frank Whaley’s Rafael Scarfe, as Misty’s partner, isn’t forgotten or written off as back-up. In this world, everyone has a place, and it matters.
But none shine as brightly as Colter. Like we saw glimpses of in Jessica Jones, he gives Cage a sense of reticence mixed with righteous defiance that hits all the right notes for a hero who uses his strength only as a last resort, and he does so in low tones and with a casual confidence. Though Cage isn’t always confident, he’s extremely principled with a magnetic charisma, making him a kind of Captain America to this ragtag group of vigilantes. Though he may struggle to define his heroism and what it means for himself and Harlem, there are no complications for viewers. He is the hero we’ve been waiting for.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
Luke Cage premieres Friday, September 30th on Netflix.