Netflix are certainly not playing it safe with Luke Cage, their third collaboration with Marvel, nor are they tripping over themselves as they retread through the same universe as Daredevil and Jessica Jones. No, this one has all the ambition and polish of the other two but with the aim to make much more a statement, to lash out at real world issues and defiantly paint a portrait of a strong, black and powerful street-level superhero with as much muscle and grit in the visuals and text as Cage himself.
Mike Colter burns up the screen as our bulletproof, super strong protagonist, an imposing force rather than a troubled love interest (as he was in Jessica Jones). Sure, he’s still a bit quiet and moody since living outside of the law and grieving the lose of his wife, but Colter gets to work with an endearing determination here, a noble desire to help others portrayed with the kind of warmth the series wouldn’t be the same without.
That kind of vast thinking, of being a saviour for his neighbourhood despite having gone through some intensely painful experiences – which are explored in a vivid, emotional origin episode further in the season – adds to the potent, raw punch that Netflix hand us every hour of this compelling superhero drama (this review is not based on the entire season).
Like the show’s soundtrack of mostly 90s hip hop, Luke Cage is the rose that grew from concrete here, a very human hero facing the self-appointed task of saving Harlem’s everyday people from the shadow of corrupt politicians (namely Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard), dodgy police, and a quietly menacing mobster named Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). That type of sharp, hard-knock approach mirror the very grounded framework of the show, whereas something like Daredevil has an element of fantasy embedded, Luke Cage is much closer to Jessica Jones in that the strength comes from gritty realism. It makes it all the more thrilling when action does go down and Cage brings the ruckus to those who seek to profit from keeping Harlem’s working class down, plus it makes the slow burning drama feel closer, more immersive with Cage as our sturdy guide through the shot-on-location streets of the troubled neighbourhood.
Clever little touches add greatly to the atmosphere of the show, one of the best examples being live music in Cottonmouth’s lavish Harlem nightclub. In the first episode accomplished artist Raphael Saadiq is smooth sailing his way on stage through “Good Man”, a performance which is revisited in between shots which weave around the nightclub and even veer to off-site to the familiar deal-gone-wrong scenario. Throughout the season this technique of having a real-life artist perform live is used again (Faith Evans particularly putting on a great show), helping build the atmosphere inside the nightclub and also bringing some dynamism to the soundtrack, one which is inseparable from a superhero show which is fearless in its commitment to the cultural fabric of the predominantly black neighbourhood.
There are also plenty of smart visual choices, like the ultra-violent scenes with Cottonmouth brooding in his private room, a space that’s glowing with blood red hues, centered by a framed photo of The Notorious B.I.G wearing a golden crown. There’s one particular shot in the first episode where the show’s villain draws attention to the kingly photo before coming closer to the camera, his own face blocking out Biggie’s so the only part of the photo you see if that bright golden crown that seems to fit on Cottonmouth’s head, instantly telling of his aspirations before he beats another man to death.
It’s best not the spoil too much of what happens with Luke Cage, the various arcs are well-written and surprising, with development that are both connected to the larger story but feel like contained, episodic adventures. Luke Cage’s structure is a big reason why it works so well, and if this consistency is seen through to the finale then this may go down as the finest Defender series yet.
First Impressions Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
All episodes of Luke Cage will premiere on Netflix this Friday 30th September.