NOTE: Some mild spoilers from the debut season of “Luke Cage” are present in this review. That said, the review is written to accommodate those who haven’t yet watched the series, and as such, will avoid discussion of major plot developments.
Marvel and Netflix have collaborated on two standout TV shows already, with two excellent seasons of Daredevil and a comparably excellent debut season for Jessica Jones already being available to stream on the Netflix platform for many months now. In the continued lead-in to crossover miniseries, The Defenders, it’s finally time for the third Marvel/Netflix collaboration to arrive on the world’s biggest streaming platform, and that comes in the form of Luke Cage, a series that spotlights a character that was previously introduced as a recurring personality on Jessica Jones last year. Obviously, Luke Cage goes far deeper into its title character’s history and backstory than Jessica Jones did though, and fortunately, it provides the same superb showcase of its lead as Daredevil and Jessica Jones did when introducing their own titular heroes.
That said however, while it’s still really great overall, this first season for Luke Cage does trail the debuts of Daredevil and Jessica Jones a bit. The show’s sense of 1970’s-inspired hip-hop/R&B style and sound design, the majority of story elements and twists, and of course, Luke Cage himself, are all outstanding, and do the legendary standard of Marvel’s Netflix shows proud, even if the season does suffer from a few flaws that need a bit of tightening in a potential second season. Later in the first season especially, the story loses itself a bit in some places, and the show gets especially confused as to where the real threat to Luke Cage and co. is supposed to lie at times, though it’s never enough to ruin what’s otherwise another fantastic debut for a fan-favourite Marvel personality’s own new TV series.
Another undeniable strength behind Luke Cage is, much like Daredevil and Jessica Jones before it, it simultaneously exists as a bold and distinct new direction for the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe addition, while also managing to do just the right amount of tying in to the other MCU-set Netflix shows, and the MCU as a whole. The show puts a uniquely Marvel spin on what’s largely a dark, grounded street drama, with the show’s antagonists and supporting cast feeling perfectly ordinary and grounded in contrast to Luke Cage himself, a superhuman man with incredible strength and unbreakable skin, living in a world of regular thugs, gangsters and criminals, who just wants to be left alone. In taking place after the character’s introduction in Jessica Jones, when Cage was shown to already have his abilities for at least a couple of years, Luke Cage does a good job of building on the character’s ever-increasing cynicism and desire for isolation that was already hinted at in Marvel’s previous Netflix series, while still managing to stand on its own two feet, rewarding those who have already seen Jessica Jones’ debut season, but never demanding that it be a requirement.
Oftentimes, the best episodes of Luke Cage in this debut season are the ones that dive deep into the title character, his history, and his psychology. In many ways, Cage is one of the most powerful heroes to yet grace the MCU, yet he struggles with a calling that he never asked for, much as Jessica Jones did, albeit in a different way. Jones wasn’t afraid to use her abilities in order to intimidate or assist a person when she deemed it beneficial, but Cage would be happiest to simply forget about his time in prison that led to his unbreakable hide. Cage is a good person that wants to see good done to his community, and will step in when he sees a bad situation for some innocent folks, but he also contends with a growing sense of weariness, persecution and sometimes even a surprising ignorance to the world around him.
This is a big reason why establishing the character on Jessica Jones previously, rather than leaving this show to introduce him to the MCU, proved to be such a smart choice, since avid followers of the MCU media will already have a good idea of what makes Cage so beat-down and cynical, making him more sympathetic than he would have been if he’d debuted here. Obviously, this relatable pain and anguish for Cage also helps tie in with the show’s timely themes of the value of black lives and black history both being crucial parts of our Western culture too, with the setting of Luke Cage shirking the fictionalized, run-down rendition of Hell’s Kitchen from Daredevil and Jessica Jones, in favour of the more starkly grounded and more harshly realistic neighbourhood of Harlem.
Mike Colter consistently steals the show as Cage, giving the character even more dramatic chops and surprising humanity than what he displayed on Jessica Jones previously, but it also helps that Colter has an equally good supporting cast to work with. Rosario Dawson once again makes a return as Claire Temple, a character that previously appeared on both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and is made an especially active presence in the season’s later storylines, where she has many of her best moments to date. The real standout among the supporting heroes however is Simone Missick as Misty Knight, a hardened Harlem detective, and a recognizable Marvel Comics personality affiliated with both The Defenders, and Luke Cage’s eventual Heroes-for-Hire business, which, sadly, never comes to pass in this debut season for Luke Cage, despite being cutely teased in dialogue a few times. Missick creates an especially flawed, human performance for Misty, a straight-shooting, hard-pressing and sometimes borderline-obsessive NYPD sleuth, one that represents both the righteous fury and beautiful power of Harlem’s finest peacekeepers. Knight is very headstrong, and can be an obstacle for Cage as much as an ally, but her strong heart and desire to do right make her the other unlikely hero of this show, and another personality to look forward to a return for in The Defenders next year.
The villains in Luke Cage are plenty appealing as well, especially in terms of their standout performances, though sadly, none of the antagonistic personalities match the outstanding appeal of Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk or Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave, even if those are two mighty high bars to clear. The series doesn’t hit the ground running right away, and the early episodes focus on laying the groundwork for a larger network of criminals and incidents across Harlem, mostly by spotlighting Mahershala Ali’s Cornell Stokes/Cottonmouth, a recognizable recurring nemesis of Cage in Marvel Comics lore. Ali’s Cottonmouth no longer has the snake-like fangs and toxic affinity of his comic book counterpart, instead being an ordinary crime boss with the soul of a musician and the fists of a furious titan on Luke Cage, but Ali nonetheless owns the character, creating a vexing foe that is full of arrogant personality, even as a simmering insecurity boils underneath the surface. Even beyond Luke Cage, Cottonmouth’s delicate world is always threatening to come apart, and even if it sometimes undermines his appeal, he never quite manages the same steadfast dedication or competence toward his cause as the highly similar Wilson Fisk, who is even mentioned once or twice in passing by Cottonmouth’s cronies, rather appropriately.
The true standout antagonist of Luke Cage at this point is Mariah Dillard, played by one of the show’s best performers outside of Colter, Alfre Woodard. A loose re-invention of another old-school Luke Cage foe from Marvel Comics lore, Black Mariah, the MCU rendition of Mariah is no longer a 400-pound behemoth with a panache for petty street crime, but is instead a constantly conflicted Harlem city councilwoman who is desperate to revitalize her community, even if it means resorting to less-than-legal means. Mariah being directly related to Cottonmouth is the most interesting element of both characters, but even when Mariah’s story takes several surprising twists beyond Cottonmouth’s operation, the gradual descent of her character from begrudging accomplice to full-blown criminal mastermind, is one that constantly proves captivating to watch unfold. This is because Woodard masterfully portrays such a complex foe, albeit one still a bit beneath the chilling lasting impression that Fisk and Kilgrave previously left, effortlessly moving between a sweet face and a scary temper, perfectly embodying the stressed-out, well-meaning politician with an explosive dark side that is always threatening to come out.
There’s several other recognizable villains from Marvel Comics lore tossed in as well, and this is part of the reason why the later episodes of the season especially do sometimes get a bit confused as to where Cage should be focusing his efforts. Other long-running foes of Cage in Marvel lore such as Shades, Comanche and Diamondback also show up at various points throughout the series, all of whom are fun baddies, even if they also lack the complexity and recognizably human dimensions of Cottonmouth or Mariah. The series simultaneously tries to bring together Cage’s rough past and Harlem’s tumultuous present, but it doesn’t always get executed perfectly. A few story threads in this season are just plain messy and weirdly-structured, and some of the criminals’ scheming to hurt Cage’s reputation, their best tactic with a bulletproof man much of the time, really stretch the realm of logic, even for the MCU. There’s no way that reasonable people would believe some of the frame jobs and other such tomfoolery that Cottonmouth and friends throw together, which inadvertently makes the people, and especially the police of Harlem look stupid. That’s not good, especially since that really hurts the show’s noble themes.
Any nagging flaws aren’t tough to look past though, since the vast majority of Luke Cage’s debut season is still a huge success, and another big hit for Marvel’s growing Netflix catalogue. Daredevil and Jessica Jones may have been bona fide home runs, while Luke Cage merely makes a confident drive to the outfield, but that’s still better than the majority of Netflix’s original TV content, especially when the series has so much style and character to it. The first season ends with plenty of promise for more stories, even beyond The Defenders, and the new neighbourhood of Luke Cage does ultimately beg to be expanded upon in future seasons. Hopefully, Luke Cage secures a quick renewal, just like its Marvel predecessors, so we can continue unfurling this intriguing, raw new borough for the MCU, especially since some of the story hiccups could be easily fixed in a second season.
- Expertly develops and spotlights Cage's character
- Excellent sense of raw, musical-themed style
- Superb performances throughout, especially from the leads
- Villains don't quite match the appeal of Daredevil's or Jessica Jones' foes
- Some suspect story structuring and narrative turns