This review is based on the first three episodes of Luke Cage.
“You will believe a man can fly” declared the tagline for Richard Donner’s original 1978 Superman movie. Almost four decades later, Marvel has only just served up its first black lead superhero on TV screens with Netflix’s Luke Cage – a fact that’s almost as hard to believe as the idea of a man having unbreakable skin.
Cage began his life back in the 70s as Marvel’s take on the Blaxploitation genre, complete with yellow disco shirt. Here, he’s updated for the modern day in what proves to Marvel’s timeliest TV show yet. In the hands of showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, Luke Cage is a searingly relevant interpretation of an old symbol: the show ties into the wider Marvel Netflix universe, while still doing its own thing; it nods to its roots, while feeling contemporary; and it forges its own style of fictional superheroics, while resonating with real world headlines.
Catching up with Cage after the events of Jessica Jones, we find him laying low in Pop’s barbers in Harlem, a neutral hub for the community where everyone knows that violence isn’t allowed. But Cage finds himself drawn into Harlem’s criminal circles, as inevitably as everyone else around him – Pop (Frankie Faison, bringing gravitas to his father figure) runs the barbers as a place for young men to earn a legitimate living without turning to gangs, but just like that widely accepted safe-haven status, there’s an unspoken understanding that guns and drugs are the easiest way to make a living.
It’s in these details that Luke Cage, like Jessica Jones before it, finds its own bold rhythms – where superhero blockbusters seem to try harder and harder to blow up bigger things with shinier CGI, Netflix and Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen has become a place to explore themes slowly and in more depth, from Jones’ study of abuse and control to Daredevil’s Catholic guilt. And so, Cage takes a leaf from The Wire more than Wolverine and builds up a detailed, nuanced portrait of its city, where motivations are far from black and white.
Our villain, not unlike Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk, Cottonmouth, a suit who runs Harlem’s Paradise, a nightclub with a list of guest performers as big as the piles of dodgy cash flowing in and out the back door. Mahershala Ali, after repeatedly stealing scenes in House of Cards, soaks up the limelight with a hunger that’s almost tangible; his businessman is brutal and ambitious, as happy playing piano as he is punching someone’s face in. He’s a cruel, violent monster, who, every now and then, seems scarily compassionate and rational – a switch that Ali flicks with a calm authority.
“They want it all,” he laments of the wayward youth of today. “But they don’t want to put in the work to get it. Inside his office, in a fantastic bit of over-the-top set design, hangs a picture of Biggie Smalls with a crown on his head. Cottonmouth is prone to standing in front of it, declaring that everybody wants to be the king, before demonstrating why exactly he’s made it to the throne.
Cottonmouth is joined by his cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a politician in bed with his shifty swathes of money. She’s loyal to her family, but just as committed to the idea of helping the local community; she’d do a deal with the Devil just to build a new jungle gym in the park. They’re a wonderful pairing, given as much screen time as Cage to bring out the complexities of their supportive and disagreeing relationship. When she speaks about how “black lives matter” to the press, it’s hard to tell if she means it, or if she’s just using it as a soundbite – and all the while, Cottonmouth lingers in the background, looking on.
“This gangster life. It’s not what our ancestors fought for,” she tells him, as they lounge in his club after hours. “This is exactly what they died for,” he argues. “Self-determination, control, power.” The next moment, he’s facing off against another gangster, Domingo – a scene that makes excellent use of sweet wrappers – and you wonder just how much power he really has.
There’s a constant sense that events are steeped in the shadow of Harlem’s heritage, something that Coker achieves through a marvellous use of music. Everything from Wu-Tang Clan to Nina Simone feeds into the feel of the world, while Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s soundtrack brings a rich vein of blues to the hip-hop vibe, with Isaac Hayes levels of cool. Coker has spoken about how he approached episodes like an album and the attention to acoustic detail pays off – Luke Cage sits alongside Guardians of the Galaxy as Marvel’s smartest, most soulful use of music to date. Even the episodes are named after Gang Starr tracks.
“Hey, get up, brothers!” Ernie & The Top Notes tell us in the opening frame of Episode 1. “Don’t sit there with your head hanging down.”
Cage walks through the world with his chin increasingly held high, as he begins to embrace his powers to make a difference. “You should be out there helping people, like them other fellows downtown,” Pop tells him. But his heroics feel decidedly different to the ones in the wider MCU; a combination of cleaning up the streets and carrying out personal vengeance.
Like the show itself, the characters wear the baggage of the past on their shoulders, with Pop a walking reminder that a generation ago, the criminals, the cops, the councillors and haircutters all came from the same place. In their own ways, they’re all trying to bring about a better future for themselves and the people around them, a fact that Coker allows to simmer under the pavements; is Cage, using (non-lethal) violence to put an end to violence, any better than Cottonmouth or Dillard using blood money to build affordable housing or look after old friends?
In the middle of it all is Misty Knight, a detective who might just be the best thing about the whole show. The superb Simone Missick sparks off Colter with real heat, but she’s more than a potential love interest, as we see from her wise-cracking relationship with her colleague, Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), who’s seen it all before. “You could set a watch by how this shit will play out…” he observes, wearily. Episode 2, when Misty’s ability to relive crime scenes comes to the fore, is when the series’ narrative really kicks off – a sequence that Sherlock’s Paul McGuigan shoots in almost one fluid take. Whaley, meanwhile, proves there’s more to him than just his slicked-back hair.
And what of Cage? Colter, as we know from Jessica Jones, is magnetic, the opening credits projecting Harlem’s cityscape (including the Malcolm X Boulevard road sign) onto his bulging physique like a Bond girl in the 1960s. The problem is that, like Superman, he’s virtually flawless, which means that the show has to work hard to give him depth. When it does, it doesn’t do it subtly – the first couple of episodes have more than one instance of clunky, exposition-heavy dialogue (“Riva’s dead, I’m a fugitive”), not to mention heavy-handed nods to other Marvel properties, while the odd mention of Jessica slightly distracts from his burgeoning bond with Knight.
There also needs to be credible sense of peril for his brawls to mean something, which could prove a problem in later episodes. But the show finds a clever way around that issue, with writer Matt Owens and director Guillermo Navarro presenting the programme’s signature set piece – the shoot-up featured in the trailer – by skipping to the ending first, before tracking back. After three episodes of relative restraint in the fisticuffs department, the editing removes the question of whether he makes it out of the scene alive, instead building tension around how Cage crafts the assault and why he does it; there’s no surprise in him winning a fight, but there’s intrigue in the reason for it.
That silky smart presentation is key to the show’s success, as beats are laid out that trip off the screen with attitude to spare. “If you ain’t gonna do me right, I just might do you in,” Charles Bradley sings passionately, as punches, kicks and car doors fly past in a thrilling montage. At one point, Luke even pulls out a chunk of wall to hit someone with. There’s a seamless fusion of pop culture and such big moments throughout – one important building is named after Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War, Cage informs someone, while Cottonmouth’s goons have their own role models to call upon (“This is some Django Candyland shit for real!”).
The result isn’t an instantly gripping superhero outing in the traditional sense, which may disappoint some comic book fans, but it’s more interesting than that: a complex portrayal not necessarily of its eponymous character, but of Harlem, which becomes a Wild West of conflicting, conflicted personalities, all threatening to erupt into conflict. While some talk of the city as a “a perpetual symbol of hope and prosperity and excellence”, we watch as kids become tangled in its corrupt web.
With his impervious skin and righteous cause, Luke might seem a bit like a two-dimensional cypher, but he’s something else entirely: he’s an icon. Luke Cage goes one step further than catching up on years of under-representation. At a time when news reports repeatedly bring us word of black people being killed, Marvel’s series presents us with a black man who’s bullet-proof, no matter who’s firing the gun. It’s an inherently powerful image that gives the series a burning importance, despite its minor flaws. In the 1970s, we believed a man can fly. In 2016, Luke Cage goes one step further: it dares us to believe a black man can’t be shot.
All episodes of Luke Cage are available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.