Luke Cage: Season 1 Review
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Comic book publishers have always looked to other forms of pop culture for inspiration. The first wave of heroes borrowed liberally from earlier pulp fiction and radio serial characters, while more modern creations share more with action movie icons. In the early ‘70s, blaxploitation films like Shaft and Super Fly were striking a nerve with high-energy, if low-subtlety, takes on African-American heroes. Responding to the trend, Marvel comics introduced Luke Cage, a Harlem-based powerhouse with unbreakable skin, who became the first black superhero to carry his own title. Now Cage has come nearly full circle with his own eponymous series on Marvel’s corner of Netflix.

Viewers met this version of Cage (Mike Colter) in the previous series, Jessica Jones, where he was laying low as a bartender before being pulled both into a relationship with the superstrong Jones and her battle with a mind-controlling supervillain. Still reeling from those experiences, Luke Cage finds him back in Harlem, doing odd jobs for neighborhood barber and mentor Pop (Frankie Faison) and trying to stay out of trouble. When Pop presses him to take more of an interest in the neighborhood’s troubles, Cage ends up on the wrong side of gangsters Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey).

  
 
Colter made a strong impression as the stoic Cage in Jessica Jones, and he continues that work here. Wisely eschewing the disco shirt and tiara look that the character first showed up in, here he’s more of an everyman, with a bullet-holed hoodie the closest he gets to wearing a costume. His version of Luke Cage isn’t a skilled fighter but more of a sentient bulldozer who’s finally seen enough violence and corruption creeping in around him.

It helps that the series sports a deep bench of excellent supporting characters, including Cottonmouth’s equally dangerous sister, Mariah (Alfre Woodard), and the canny and incorruptible police detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick). Also returning from previous Marvel Netflix series is nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who is finally given something more substantial to do and is quickly becoming a major connective thread for these different series.

With all this talent, it’s unfortunate that Luke Cage suffers heavily from the pacing problems that have become increasingly evident in these shows. The first half does fine work setting up Cage and his new status quo, but it loses steam in the back half. While it does make room to get a bit more about Cage’s origin, it’s clear that same story could have been told in fewer episodes. By the time it gets around to Cage’s surprising (not really) connection to Diamondback and a final showdown, the audience is probably ready for an end.

None of that is to say that it’s not another hit for Marvel and Netflix. Luke Cage revels in its sense of place and a character, along with a killer soundtrack—and, as a result, it feels different from what we’ve seen before. Cage even gets his own rap anthem courtesy of Method Man, and as the neighborhood begins to respond to their new hero, we’re all feeling the bulletproof love.

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