I’ve stayed spoiler-free for this review, so enjoy!
Marvel’s Netflix offerings have brought comic book fans some of the best television they could’ve asked for. Daredevil has given us two seasons of gritty underworld crime mixed with ninja mysticism, and Jessica Jones—a character no one expected to see mark Marvel’s live action roster—has blessed us with a season’s worth of emotional weight and psychological thrill that has left us wanting more. Now, Marvel has given us Luke Cage, a character and show that proves to be just as high-quality contest as its Netflix brother and sister, if not a more unique tone and approach.
Luke Cage is an African-American superhero with super strength and unbreakable skin operating in New York. We last saw Luke in Jessica Jones, and this show finds him in his historic setting of Harlem, a historical and modern center of Black American culture. The show definitely uses such culture as a centerpiece for its plot and tone, and the political and social undertones of race found in the show are poignant yet never heavy-handed. Luke Cage is a show that does not shy away from its ethnic background and setting, and I personally applaud Netflix and Marvel for taking such an unabashed approach to one of the most high-profile Black comic book characters in history.
To start this review, let’s begin with the content of the show. Luke Cage offers an intricate plot involving a large circle of characters, and the narrative’s complexity outperforms that of any other Marvel shows we have seen so far. While some episodes favor dialogue and background information over action sequences, the show never feels boring or stagnant. Rather, the action sequences are utilized as a method of additional storytelling rather than a break from the narrative, thus establishing a dynamic story in which every character, scene, and dialogue exchange feeds each other smoothly and intriguingly. Narratively, Luke Cage may have the most well-executed plot out of all the Marvel Netflix shows so far.
We follow Luke through a journey of underground crime and political corruption as we witness a struggle for the city of Harlem. Crime lords Cottonmouth, Diamondback, and Domingo Colon struggle for power while futilely attempting to maintain relative peace. Meanwhile, politician Mariah Dillard works to restore Harlem and give its Black community more opportunity for success while working behind the scenes with dirty money and questionable business connections. As police officers Rafe Scarfe and Misty Knight work to solve a recent string of shootings and unearth criminal activity, Luke Cage finds himself caught in the middle as he just tries to live his life apart from all the violence and chaos. Cage offers an interesting contrast to Matt Murdock in Daredevil: While Murdock makes it his mission to help his city and defeat the corruption within it on both sides of the law, Cage simply wants to help the individual where he can but otherwise avoid the bigger conflicts altogether. The reluctant hero archetype is executed admirably in Luke Cage as we watch him transform from a quiet bystander to a powerful city guardian.
As we have come to expect from Marvel Studios, the casting is absolutely perfect. Mike Colter seems born to play Luke Cage. Alfre Woodard, Erik Harvey, and Mahershala Ali nail the various villains that they play, and Rosario Dawson delivers yet another stellar performance in the Marvel TV universe. Newcomer Simone Missick also shows incredible range in her role as the dynamic and complex Detective Misty Knight. I have no idea what the casting director for Marvel is being paid, but I don’t think it’s enough. Just like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the MCU, Luke Cage brings characters to life in a way that will make fans think they’ve walked right into a Luke Cage comic.
I would be remiss to not comment on the soundtrack for the show: Sweet Christmas, is the music perfect. From OG hip hop to soulful R&B to jazz to gospel, the music in Luke Cage captures perfectly the musical history and richness of Harlem and the Black community in America.
While the vast majority of what I have to say about Luke Cage is positive, it is not without its issues. The somewhat shaky camera work can be distracting at times, and while the fighting scenes are impressive, it is somewhat of a downgrade from the choreography we’ve come to expect from Daredevil. Obviously, one would not expect the same type of fighting from both characters considering Daredevil is trained in martial arts while Cage has military and boxing training, so the shift in style fits and makes sense. That being said, viewers expecting Daredevil level fighting choreography will not find it here. Without getting too into spoilers, I would have liked to have seen more from certain villains. By the end of the season, some characters seemed to have so much untapped potential that viewers may wonder why the writing did not go different way. However, to counteract this, the show does set up incredible possibilities for just about every character involved, so audiences may rest assured that they will leave Harlem an even more intriguing and active city than when they arrived.
Luke Cage is an excellent show. Narratively, it is perhaps the strongest Marvel show yet. Casting is as phenomenal as ever, and each episode is an exciting ride through a story that deeply respects the characters’ comic book histories while making them relevant to modern audiences. One thing that may turn off certain viewers is the social commentary present in the narrative, however. I have seen some critics and fans express dissatisfaction with the “heavy-handed” racial and political ideas in the show. While I respect those opinions, I also think that they are a little unfair and rather miss the point. This show takes place in Harlem, a city of such racial, historical, cultural, political, artistic, and social significance that to remove the Black commentary and culture from it would be to rob the setting of everything that it is. Yes, it is brought up repeatedly that Luke Cage is a Black bulletproof man wearing hoodie. Yes, several parallels can be drawn between the unrest in the show and the Black Lives Matter movement. But all of these things do not feel forced, out of place, or preachy; they feel real. Harlem is at the center of Black history and struggle; it is a big deal in the show that they have a Black bulletproof superhero because in reality, the community passionately desires protection from the violence, oppression, and chaos that is often a part of their daily lives. The show never polarizes the issues; rather, it does a service to its audience by showing just how complicated the issues really are. The police brutality and corruption in Luke Cage is shown from the angle of an angry wronged Black community but also from the perspective of an exhausted and uncertain police force. Gun violence is treated from lenses of both protection and potential violence; racial oppression and disadvantage is approached from angles of poverty, education, systematic privilege, and a host of other factors. One of the worst things people can do is simplify complex issues, and Luke Cage does an excellent job of making its audience think rather than forcing opinions onto them. Luke Cage is a character of Black pride and strength, and to ask the show to be anything else is not being true to the character’s history or the Black community at large.
Luke Cage is equal parts superhero action show, social commentary, comic book adaptation, and character study. Each character is examined from multiple angles to show their depth and complexity, and the social issues in the show are treated with equal honesty and skill. Luke Cage may be the strongest narrative entry in the Defenders mini-verse, and any comic book fan can enjoy the show regardless of familiarity with the characters. Luke Cage is more than an entertaining show; it is a source of cultural enrichment and thought-provoking social commentary that goes above and beyond the expectations for a show about superheroes. But then again, what else would we expect from the Savior of Harlem?
Now we got a hero for hire, And he’s a Black one.