Marvel’s Luke Cage premiered on Netflix on September 30th, 2016 with 13 episodes. It is the fourth overall installment in the Defenders franchise following the first season of Daredevil, the first season of Jessica Jones, and Daredevil’s second season. Luke Cage follows the titular hero in Harlem after being featured as a major player in Jessica Jones. Luke Cage is a wrongfully convicted man who was sent to Seagate Prision and subjected to horrible experiments that gave him super strength and unbreakable skin. Cage escaped and has been a fugitive from justice ever since. The series stars Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali (Remy Danton from House of Cards), Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Erik LaRay Harvey, Rosario Dawson, and Alfre Woodard.
Luke Cage has been working two jobs in New York City’s iconic Harlem neighborhood, insisting to be paid in cash. He works one job as a janitor in Pops’ Barber Shop. Pops is a reformed ex-con who’s shop has turned into a safe haven for street kids, doing whatever he can to help them stay off the street. He is a father figure to many, including Detective Misty Knight, Cage himself, and even Cottonmouth, to some extent. Cage’s second job is as a dishwasher at Harlem’s Paradise, a club owned and operated by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, a crime boss that runs drugs and guns in Harlem. He is covertly alligned in a conspiracy with his cousin, City Councilwoman Mariah Dillard. Dillard is currently working on a series of ambitious new housing projects with the goal of bringing Harlem back to its former glory, each named after famous black heroes, most notably Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the famed Boston Massacre for what would become America. (I put that in there just to brag that my US History class is teaching me things.) Dillard embezzled city money to back Cottonmouth’s huge gun deal with Latino crime lord Domingo, as well as an extensive renovation of Harlem’s Paradise.
Dante is a bartender at Harlem’s Paradise who is friends with Chico and Shameek, two of Pops’ young charges. They stage a raid of the weapons deal, ruining Domingo and Cottonmouth’s partnership. Shameek kills Dante when Dante panics. Chico does not have the stomach for this, and literally throws up after seeing Shameek brutally kill Dante. Shameek and Chico split the money. With his dying breath, Dante calls Cottonmouth’s crew and gives up the two teens. Shameek is captured and brutally murdered by Cottonmouth himself.
This murder, as well as the junkyard shootout, come to the attention of NYPD Detectives Misty Knight, a street-smart and brilliant detective who played basketball after hearing her father and Pops argue over the sport constantly when she was a child, and her partner, Detective Rafael Scarfe. The night of the initial raid, Knight was working undercover at the Harlem’s Paradise, where she began a rapport and an immediate sexual relationship with Cage.
After Shameek’s murder, the terrified Chico returns to Pops for protection. The big-hearted man is angry and saddened at Chico’s recklessness and stupidity, but still accepts the boy with open arms after a tearful reunion. Pops, through Cage, attempts to set up a meeting with Cottonmouth to negotiate the money for the boy’s life. The barber shop in Harlem has always had respect, no matter who’s side you’re on. “This place is Switzerland.” Cottonmouth, who has respect for Pops, agrees to the meeting. Chico was spotted in the barbershop, leading Cottonmouth’s lackey Tone to shoot up the barbershop, killing Pops and wounding Chico. Cage shields a young boy in the shop with his own body. This action, Cage’s lack of an explanation, and the fact that he has been at the center of everything, leads to suspicion from the two detectives. Cottonmouth throws Tone off the roof, enraged at his “executive decision.” Despite the fact Tone went against Cottonmouth’s wishes, Cage holds the unstable crime boss responsible and swears to even the score.
Luke Cage is another extremely unique and interesting addition to both the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large as well as Netflix’s growing catalogue of excellent original series. Jessica Jones was able to have a progressive and thoughtful conversation about sexual assault, domestic violence, and the nature of mental illness (specifically PTSD) without any politicizing of the subject. Luke Cage does much of the same thing with black culture. Luke Cage is the most stylized of Netlix’s Original Series so far, with overt references and homages to various 70s blaxplotation films. Shaft, the works of Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained is overtly referenced, with the series taking obvious stylistic cues from both Pulp Fiction and the underrated Jackie Brown).
While Jessica Jones chose to approach its subject matter on a metaphorical basis, Luke Cage is very direct in its message concerning black culture in America. Cottonmouth wants money and power, believing that to be the thing people notice about others, especially African-Americans. Mariah and Cage, however, believe that respect is the single most important thing a black American could have. Like Jessica Jones, Luke Cage is able to send a powerful and thoughtful message without becoming preachy or political. Luke Cage is as much of a story about the city of Harlem and Black America as it is about Cage vs. Cottonmouth.
Luke Cage not only pulls from black culture in terms of visual style and dramatic themes, but also musically. Luke Cage has the best soundtrack in a Marvel feature since the catchy 80’s-infused tunes of Guardians of the Galaxy, but Luke Cage is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Featuring hardcore rap courtesy of artists like Method Man and Wu Tang Clan, as well as R&B from Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, and Charles Bradley, not to mention countless other notable artists from prominent genres , Luke Cage features a catchy, specialized, yet diverse number of songs that compliment the themes of the series and will stay in your head for some time, and I even neglected to mention the great theme tune.
Overall, if I had one criticism of the series, it is concerning series lead Mike Coulter. His performance as Cage in Jessica Jones was rather impressive, but Coulter seems a little wooden in his own series. Though certainly not bad, I feel that there are some aspects of his performance that leave much to be desired. On the other hand, Mahershala Ali is an excellent villain and an excellent actor. Theo Rossi’s performance as the mysterious “Shades” was also very impressive, and Alfre Woodard is a force to be reckoned with.
Luke Cage is ultimately proof that you can make good TV out of anything. Luke Cage as a character is, at his core, simply a nigh-invincible black guy with super strength. That could wear thin very quickly, but showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker realized this, and decided to make Luke Cage about so much more than the man himself. Though not good enough to break my unwavering favorable bias towards its cousin series Daredevil, Luke Cage is highly entertaining, highly addictive, well-made, and another solid addition to the Marvel/Netflix team up; by the way, it crashed Netflix. This only makes me more excited for Iron Fist, and has me hoping for Heroes for Hire somewhere down the line.