TV Review: ‘Marvel’s Luke Cage’

Maureen Ryan

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say that 2016 has been a banner year; when it comes to politics, violence and matters of race, the past 10 months have been especially trying. Thus there are at least a dozen reasons viewers might be tempted to repeatedly savor a sequence from “Marvel’s Luke Cage” in which the title character, an indestructible black man, takes on a whole building full of bad guys while Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring da Ruckus” blares on the soundtrack.

It’s an undeniably great moment in a series that is not without its share of flaws, but fortunately for those who have been anxiously anticipating this drama since it was announced by Marvel a few years ago, it’s worth the wait. A wildly charismatic performance by star Mike Colter and solid work from the rest of the show’s cast are usually enough to power this addition to the Marvel TV universe through its rough spots, which include a somewhat clunky pilot and a notable tendency to sprawl (a common trait among streaming and pay-cable dramas, and not just in the superhero realm).

A viewer does not have to have seen “Daredevil” or “Jessica Jones” in order to watch “Luke Cage”; there are a few elements and characters that link the Marvel dramas, but each program stands on its own, including this new one. And it’s long past time that the powers that be in the superhero realm, in TV or film, gave an African-American character a starring role. 

Colter brings a great deal of soulfulness and intelligence to Luke, as well as beautifully calibrated shadings of pain and rage, and the sight of bullets bouncing off the hoodie-clad character carry layers of meaning well beyond the character’s quest to save Harlem. In a time in which images of violence against black men and women are disturbingly commonplace and indicate deeply rooted problems not just in law enforcement but in American society as a whole, watching this man survive any number of encounters with gun-wielding assailants may, for many viewers, provide a deeper kind of catharsis.

“Luke Cage” understands that those aspects of its storytelling carry great deal of weight, and just as “Jessica Jones” did with its in-depth examinations of assault and consent, this new Marvel series turns the specificity of its lead character’s experiences to its advantage. “Luke Cage” tells a particularly impassioned story about the costs of mass incarceration in an early episode that also serves as a well-crafted origin story, and characters regularly discuss whether they can trust any aspect of law enforcement or the legal system. Luke’s position on gun violence seems pretty clear, however; he twists firearms into useless hunks of metal every chance he gets.

 “Don’t you need a gun?” someone asks him at one point. “I am the gun,” Luke replies.

Crowd-pleasing lines like that prove that “Luke Cage” never forgets its roots in the Marvel universe; scenes set in the villain’s elegant lair, as well as an array of crackling fighting sequences, evoke vividly hued comic-book panels from back in the day. But Cage’s determined face, framed by his ever-present black hoodie, will likely become the show’s iconic image. Luke doesn’t wear a costume, which makes sense, given that much of the drama revolves around his attempts to reckon not just with his own difficult past but with what he owes the community of Harlem. It’s not long before residents find out who he is and what he can do, and as the first season progresses, people from the neighborhood begin to look to him for certain kinds of justice.

As is the norm for a superhero movie or TV series, Luke struggles with the nature and the scope of his quest, which he takes up with a great deal of reluctance. One of the most admirable things about Colter’s performance is that he illuminates so many interior layers in a man whose exterior is impenetrable. The Luke we first meet is watchful and wary; he’s sweeping the floors in a barber shop owned by Pop (the dependably excellent Frankie Faison), who spends much of his days mentoring local kids and trading jokes and book recommendations with his friend, Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones, who’s also very good).

When “Luke Cage’s” characters hang out and talk, whether they’re in a barber shop or a diner, the show is often at its best; it achieves a relaxed intimacy with them and their world, and it’s clear that all the characters — even the greedy ones — love their community. Where the drama tends to stumble is in meandering expositional scenes, which quite often go on too long and drain the show of momentum. Mahershala Ali plays local villain and club owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes,” and Alfre Woodard plays Stokes’ cousin, Harlem politician Mariah Stokes, and when actors of their high caliber can’t make a long dialogue scene work, the problem is in the writing, not the performances.

There are also a number of sequences that intercut performances at Cottonmouth’s club with other storylines, but only some of them have the kind of energy and brisk editing they require to pop. All in all, “Luke Cage” tends to spend too much time and energy on scenes set in the club, which may have been a cost-saving measure, but it’s one that begins to grate. 

That said, “Luke Cage” has a more than adequate supply of pleasures, a number of which can be found in Colter’s determined and admirably nuanced performance. Ali, who has just as much presence as Colter, brings a sense of intense calculation and unpredictable danger to Cottonmouth, and an image of the brutal gangster framed against a portrait of the Notorious B.I.G provides another unforgettable “Luke Cage” visual. Simone Missick is instantly likable as NYPD detective Misty Knight, even if her partner, Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), seems like a transplant from a much more melodramatic and cartoonish show. Given her long service patching up superheroes in various Marvel shows, one hopes Rosario Dawson, who plays former nurse Claire Temple, will get more to do in the second half of “Luke Cage’s” first season; here, she once again provides able back-up in an underwritten role.

“Luke Cage” could use more focus; a few of its 13 episodes have several different quasi-endings, one awkwardly tacked onto the next, and each installment could stand to be tightened a fair bit. Some of the more unexceptional storylines and plot mechanics could be cut, but certainly not the argument about whether Jet Li or Bruce Lee is the more legendary martial arts star, the discussion of Chester Himes’ novels, or the amiable diner scene in which Bobby proposes a slogan for Luke’s services (“I ain’t no hero — pay me”). Recalling those bright spots makes it easier to shrug off the show’s imperfections. But nothing is cooler than watching bullets bounce off Luke Cage as he brings the ruckus and schools all the fools.

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