The inexorable march of the Marvel Cinematic Universe* goes on, and its latest manifestation is the Netflix series Luke Cage. Debuting earlier this month, it stars Mike Colter as the black Harlem-based action hero, based on the bruising ’70s comic book creation and brought to life by Cheo Hodari Coker.
Luke Cage — known in comics and sporadically in the series as Power Man — has a curious history, which arrives on the small screen in bits and pieces. Created in 1972 by old pro Archie Goodwin in response to the then-booming blaxploitation craze, Cage wasn’t exactly the most racially sensitive creation, and, as written by a nerdy Jewish transplant from Kansas City, lacked a certain realism. But then as now, African-Americans were a big part of Marvel’s readership, and the character took off; he later teamed up with Iron Fist, who likewise was designed to capitalize on the kung fu movie boom (likewise hugely popular in the black community) to form a tandem of mercenary crimefighters known as “Heroes for Hire”.
Marvel comics have not exactly had a sterling reputation for positive depictions of African-American characters in the past, and while they were both a bit quicker than their rivals at DC to introduce black heroes and a bit better at portraying them — at least at first — you don’t have to look much further than Luke Cage to see why their outreach to black audiences has been clumsy at best. Cage was a big, dumb goon; he used corny slang; he dressed like some kind of disco bondage pimp**; and he was an ex-convict. But like a lot of his fellow blaxploitation icons, he possessed a fearsome and undeniable energy, and Luke Cage caught on to become not only one of the most enduring Marvel characters, but the namesake of goofball/superstar Nicolas Cage (neé Coppola).
When it was finally announced that Marvel and Netflix would be adding Luke Cage to the lineup of super-series, it was met with both anticipation and trepidation. Audiences expect a lot more now, and while Marvel has made some inroads in its quest for racial inclusion (most notably the recruitment of Ta-Nehisi Coates as the new author of Black Panther, the company’s first black hero), it’s still got a long way to go. Combine that with the fact that race relations in America are in a pretty awful state, and there were high expectations that Luke Cage, which featured African-American creators at every level of involvement, would more or less be forced to deal with difficult issues like police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, the ugly history of American racism and its relationship to vigilante justice, and inner-city crime.
And, to its credit, Luke Cage actually does deal with all of those things, or at least it tries. There’s hardly a hot-button issue involving race in America that it doesn’t at least brush up against. But does it do any of those things especially well? Uh…yes and no. As a work of art and as a political polemic, Luke Cage tries to play both sides against the middle, and there are times that it works out, and, well, there’s times that it doesn’t. Hobbled right off the bat with a number of problems — a pretty low-stakes conflict, a tendency towards hokey dialogue, and, in Mike Colter’s Cage, a main character so incredibly righteous and upstanding that he ends up not being particularly interesting — the show has moments when it lands in the vicinity of interesting points about what it means to be black in America and try to be a hero when everyone expects you to be a villain. But just as often, it steps the wrong way and misfires terrible, either undermining its own message or obliterating it entirely.
Luke Cage also has the problem — painfully familiar to Netflix viewers now after four seasons of Marvel TV shows — of going on far too long. As mentioned, the stakes are pretty low; Cage never seems to be in any particular danger, there’s no supremely powerful menace, and the ongoing conflict is essentially over control of a small-time racket and some minor political corruption. This might have made for a tight, tense story at 6 or 8 episodes, and an acceptable actioner at 10; but at 13, even the best scenes start to fade and viewers find themselves looking at the clock, wondering how much more of this thing there is. Jessica Jones at least had a more compelling narrative, and even it was dragging its feet by the ninth episode or so. Thus far, none of these Netflix superhero series have enough going on to justify a 13-episode commitment. These shows all need to either broaden their scope or cut their length.
Finally, there’s the fact that, especially for a show based on a broadly over-the-top but still enjoyable character, Luke Cage just isn’t that much fun. There’s some light moments and an enjoyable rhythm early on, but it pretty quickly settles into the same moody, anguished slog as the rest of the MCU series. I know we’ve collectively decided that nobody is allowed to get any enjoyment out of comic books anymore, but it’s especially a drag to know that what Luke Cage, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are leading to (once Iron Fist debuts next year) is a Defenders series; and while that title wasn’t always the best-written or most exciting super-team, it was always at the very least fun to read. The TV version will almost certainly be a gloomy downer.
All that said, there’s plenty to like about Luke Cage — enough, in fact, that I’d place it well above either season of Daredevil and only slightly below Jessica Jones. The cast is almost uniformly terrific, and in addition to providing work to Wire alums like Frankie Faison, Sonja Sohn, and Michael Kostroff, it’s got excellent performances by Ron Cephas Jones, Rosario Dawson, Erik LaRay Harvey, and especially Simone Missick as Misty Knight and Mahershala Ali as the outsized gangster Cottonmouth (and the always-wonderful Alfre Woodard as his calculating cousin). Most of the MCU series have had at least one weak link in the main roster of actors, but there are no duds here; just one tremendous actor of color after another. The fight scenes are passable, the mise-en-scène nicely blends a modern sensibility with ’70s throwback vibes, and while the direction is pretty uninspired, it makes good use of its Harlem filming locations. The music, crafted perfectly and featuring both excelling live performances and great work on the score by Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, is probably the best thing about it. But if Luke Cage is going to have a second season, or if the ultimate endgame of a Defenders series is going to come to fruition, they’re going to have to stop dragging their feet to much and tighten things up.
*: I’m proposing a blanket moratorium on the use of the phrase “cinematic universe” to describe blockbuster IP franchises, beginning in 2017. Failure to heed this moratorium will be punished by having to watch all the movies in the Children of the Corn cinematic universe in reverse order.
**: Another thing I’d like to see fall by the wayside is the cutesy shit where a comic book hero briefly references his or her original comic book costume in a knowingly ironic, oh-weren’t-we-stupid-back-then kind of way. (We’ve seen some variant of it in dozens of movies and TV shows, and Cage repeats it here.) It’s tired, it’s predictable, it’s insulting to the artists who created the original work, and it doesn’t really even work that well; while Luke Cage sticks with a pretty generic but inoffensive street style***, most live-action superheroes are clad in endless variants of the flatly uninteresting ‘tactical’ black bodysuit look, which is by no measure an improvement on the gaudy four-color lunacy of the comics.
***: Carhartt must have laid out a big chunk of their 2016 marketing budget for Luke Cage, considering how frequently their products appear prominently on screen.