Not Quite Bulletproof.
The next-to-last chess piece towards completing The Defenders lineup, Luke Cage debuted on Netflix back in September 2016 and has now made its way to home video via its recent Blu-Ray release.
The first season of the Netflix and Marvel series follows the titular Luke Cage as he lives a low-key style of life out in Harlem working two jobs before an arms deal gone bad involving some of the neighborhood youth and gangster Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes drags him into the spotlight and highlights the past life he’s tried to keep buried for so long.
Luke Cage certainly stands out among the Netflix offerings from Marvel. Daredevil took a look at the brokenness of a flawed legal system and Jessica Jones took a deep, hard look at topics such as sexual assault, PTSD, consent, and more. By the time Luke Cage premiered it seemed like perfect timing given rising racial tensions thanks to many police shootings of unarmed black men. The time felt right for a bulletproof black man to be seen and on such a huge scale.
Introduced in season one of Jessica Jones, Mike Colter was already a huge positive for the show with his charming charisma and the way he exuded confidence just made it impossible to not like him. Now Colter certainly had the build and look for playing Luke, but it truly would come down to how he portrayed the character on his own without the help of being a supporting character on another show, but Colter certainly pulled it off. He’s single-handedly the highlight of the show throughout. Colter bounces off everyone he’s in a scene with, but especially Frankie Faison’s Pop for the time he is in the series. There is such a great a natural chemistry between the two that it makes for a great father-son dynamic. Faison as Pop helps give a guiding voice of reason for not just our hero, but the series itself.
On the other side of the coin are our villains for the season and that’s kinda where the show runs into some issues. The 13-episode season can distinctively be seen as two halves thanks to the sudden death of one of our villains, which I won’t spoil here, but suffice to say once that character is gone, the show dips a little bit in quality. What I’m really surprised by this show is for the first season, they stacked it up with a lot of the more memorable villains from Luke Cage comics. We got Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact) as “Black” Mariah Dillard, Erik LaRay Harvey (Broadwalk Empire) as Willis Stryker/Diamondback, and Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy) as Shades.
Ali plays Cottonmouth as the darker version of Cage, like what he could do with his powers, but the more that’s shown of Cottonmouth’s backstory and how he came to be Harlem’s crime lord show a different side to him. Ali is a very gifted actor and he brings a calmness to his business approach that makes his more volatile moments impactful when he’s confronting Luke or beating information out of an associate.
The moment Harvey’s Diamondback finally enters the picture after being talked up, the show stumbles a bit with a lot of focus on him. Diamondback is build up throughout the show as the real big boss running his business from the distance, but a twist on the origins of the character really hurt him as it just feels like a contrived reason to make the stakes higher. Harvey though is undone by the show’s biggest problem and that is the pacing. The third episode ends on a huge cliffhanger that you expect would be followed up on and the main focus on episode four, but episode four is where we get the full origin story of Luke Cage and how he got his powers. So much of the episode is dedicated to that while the follow-up on the cliffhanger is spliced in there. And the moment Diamondback himself enters the story, the series slows down considerably. Particularly episode eleven is nothing but a hostage situation that takes up the bulk of the episode and the direction on it is terrible. It doesn’t flow well at all over its 50-minute runtime and drags some scenes and moments out that it doesn’t need to.
Woodard and Rossi thankfully are consistently strong as Mariah and Shades respectively. They bring some gravitas to their characters and play them smoothly. Their scenes together later in the show does prove to be a great highlight in the lesser parts of it. Mariah is a queen, whereas Shades is a willing knight who has no problems getting his hands dirty when need be. Rounding out the cast is Simone Missick as Misty Knight and Rosario Dawson reprising her role as Claire Temple. Both play their roles fine, Missick stands out having to create a new character whereas Dawson was already proven to be good thanks to her appearances in previous Netflix Marvel shows.
Thankfully its the other aspects of the show that help it succeed. This show was essential when it came out for its talks and looks into social and racial issues, particularly with the police. Luke Cage’s hoodie was symbolic of Trayvon Martin to show not every black man in a hoodie isn’t a threat of any kind. The show tackles racial profiling, police prejudice, and Black Lives Matter all with a swift hand and doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The show couldn’t avoid talking about these issues and for good reason as the Black Lives Matter movement had gained major steam before the show’s release. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has the voice this show and character needed to bring it up correctly. In addition, the feeling and shooting style of a 1970s blaxploitation really does give the show a unique style. Arguably though the two biggest characters of the show are both the location of Harlem itself and the music. Music makes this show and its performances are more than welcome. The talents of Raphael Saadiq, The Delfonics, Jidenna, a brilliantly done Method Man cameo, and the last TV appearance of the late-great Sharon Jones stand out. The score itself is also a joy to listen to as it really adds to the tension when needed.
The Blu-Ray boasts a great crystal clear 1080p picture and high-quality audio that is just as identical to watching the series on Netflix. Now that brings up another point, why own the Blu-Ray collection when you can get it anytime, anywhere on Netflix? Well me I still like owning physical copies of movies and TV shows I like since it’ll be there forever with me and also I won’t need to rely on spotty wi-fi all the time. Also special features, which have been lacking from the Blu-Ray releases of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Luke Cage bucks that trend with one special feature and that is a roundtable discussion on the Harlem’s Paradise set between Colter, Woodard, Rossi, and Missick. The actors talk about living and filming in Harlem, the time they spent filming and the reaction to the show after it debuted. Each actor feels genuine with what they discuss and really cut loose in the intimate setting. It does feel like the camera isn’t even there at one point and its just friends breaking bread and chatting. Its a really good feature that goes into how Harlem influenced and directed the show with some interviews with Coker, executive producer Jeph Loeb, and some of the writing staff spliced in. They further discuss the music of the show and what their favorite performances were. I really did enjoy this feature but as the lone special feature of the 4-disc set, it’s not that strong enough to recommend really given how I also feel about the show overall. Not even for the admittedly really cool box art drawn up by Joe Quesada.
Luke Cage starts out as strong as its titular hero and barrels through some exceptional writing and damn good direction, but starts to stumble around the halfway mark of the series when it loses a key element of what made it so good. The performances, music, and social commentary help hold the show up through its terrible pacing issues in the latter part of the series. High hopes that what worked in season one stays on display in season two and that they fix what went wrong. If you wanna pick it up for yourself, just go right here!
What did you think of Luke Cage? What is your favorite Marvel TV show? Let us know in the comments below!