Here’s another one of those items on my to do list before The Defenders so let’s get to it. I’ll keep this relatively brief, and just stick to what I thought were the strengths and weaknesses of Luke Cage.
Misty Knight is awesome
If there’s one character I care about more than any of the others on this show, it’s Misty Knight. She manages to be both adorable and genuinely hardcore, a combination that makes her human and relatable. She loves her job deeply, gets invested in it – more than she should – and cares deeply about justice. I even dig the way she talks.
When I think about what I liked most about Simone Missick’s Misty, it really comes down to a series of strong and well-acted scenes. There are the montages of her visualizing a crime scene in great detail, her steamy first scene with Luke, the one where she’s talking with a psychologist, her time with Claire in the basement of Harlem’s Paradise, and her sneaky way of coaching Luke to break out of the police transport.
Cottonmouth and Mariah
I probably should have given them separate sub-headings, but a big part of what makes both of them great is their weird family dynamic. Mariah has a great scene early in the season when she’s doing a public appearance meeting with teenagers in the park. She moves along, all smiles and personal anecdotes about the kids, but when she’s done her expression changes and she rubs her hands with hand sanitizer. From a pure cinematic point of view, this is a great “show, don’t tell” moment. Alfre Woodard, whom I happen to like a lot in almost everything she’s in, does a fantastic job of depicting this woman who does care about her community on some level but is deeply morally flawed. In some ways, she is the Kingpin of this show. Oh, and she has that weird yet alluring relationship with Shades. Love that.
Mahershala Ali is another one of those “good in everything” actors who does a great job of bringing Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes to life. Stokes is more of a classic gangster than his cousin, but also has enough complexity to make the character interesting. I’m probably not the only one to think they ended up killing the wrong villain (more on that below), and wish that Stokes’ story could have lasted a bit longer.
Claire Temple gets plenty to do
One point of criticism I have when it comes to Claire is how she’s forced to play slightly different versions of herself across the three different shows she’s had significant appearances in (i.e. not Jessica Jones). After skipping town after Daredevil season two, she is back and actually looking for heroes (though I’m partial to Jeri Hogarth’s term “people with complexities). I can see how this change of heart came about. She’s come to feel that there’s a role for her to play after she’s left her more traditional career. Still, the change in attitude is a bit jarring. Having said that, I really enjoy the character she gets to be in Luke Cage, and the relationship they have feels organic and well-earned.
First of all, it’s interesting to actually get to see how Luke and Reva met, especially after just getting a taste of her in Jessica Jones where she’s this enigmatic presence whispering from beyond the grave. And, after we do get to meet her, we also learn that she’s not who Luke thought she was. To have him realize that their entire relationship was built on a lie, and that she was complicit in everything bad that happened to him, is one of those major heartbreaking reveals that would have a huge impact on anyone. I think it’s interesting for how it might affect the dynamic between Luke and Jessica when they are reunited in the Defenders. On the other hand, the creators could have done more with it, as Luke’s reaction is a bit too stoic.
Great use of music
I think the soundtracks of all of the Marvel shows have been really good, but in Luke Cage, they put the music and the people actually performing it front and center. With the night club backdrop, it makes sense to have performers, but this is still very ambitious. Also, who can forget Luke smashing his way into Crispus Attucks to the sound of som Wu-Tang Clan? 😉
The big themes
The people behind this show knew that they had something important to say, beyond the usual superhero action, and for the most part, I think they did a very good job of it. And, it’s a tough balance to strike between too obviously “relevant” and just relevant enough. At the end of the day though, the show touches on issues like race in ways that feel natural to the story, exploring the idea of “the black man with bulletproof skin” (oh, and I love it when all of Harlem is filling up with people wearing hoodies with bullet holes in them), without coming across as preachy.
The not so good
Wow, it took almost three full episodes for Luke Cage to fully get my attention. The first scene in the barbershop is almost unforgivingly long, and had I not known anything about the character, or been invested in the MCU, I might have dropped Luke Cage before I got to the good stuff where things even out, and the story really gets going. Of course, all of the Marvel Netflix shows have pacing issues, to varying degrees, and the problem with all of the shows (except maybe both seasons of Daredevil) is that they don’t seem to have enough story to fill thirteen episodes, which is one of the main reasons I’m not heartbroken that The Defenders is only eight episodes. I think Marvel/Netflix needs to allow more done-in-one (or two) subplots to operate alongside the bigger events for things to feel a bit less contrived.
I will say this though, and this is sort of the flip side of the coin in terms of the pacing issue: I really enjoyed that Luke Cage allowed more and longer scenes of people having meaningful and adult interactions than this genre might traditionally allow. With Daredevil, I sometimes get the feeling that Matt and all the other people caught up in his whirlwind are being rushed from one disaster to the next with little rest in between. A little more room to breathe would have been nice, and there’s more of that in Luke Cage. Not all of it good, but much of it is.
Yeah… No. Diamondback feels like he would have been a better fit if this were a children’s morning cartoon from the 90s. His motivations feel contrived, his larger than life personality is a poor fit for Luke Cage’s tempered emotions (more on that below), and he just doesn’t deliver on the build-up from earlier in the season where he’s known by name only.
Luke’s emotional range
I think that Mike Colter is a good fit for the role of Luke Cage, but I do wish that he had shown us a bigger range of emotions. The story certainly would have allowed it. His reaction to Reva’s newly discovered villainy should have been more of something, and even when enraged, he’s not really all that angry. It kind of works, as is, but the Luke Cage part could have been better acted.
I liked “nice” Scarfe and the way “nice” Scarfe and Misty interacted. I guess I liked Misty’s idea of Scarfe. The only problem is that all the things he does for Cottonmouth come way too easily for him. It’s very hard to empathize with Misty’s feelings, even after learning about his betrayal, when you know that he didn’t even seem conflicted about killing Chico. Because of that, his big turning away from the dark side scenes later on don’t feel genuine.
The one I can’t make sense of
There’s one event that I honestly can’t make up my mind about. The “frankensteinesque” scene where Luke is put into a heated acid bath so that his skin can be penetrated fills me with an unexpected amount of glee. At the same time, it is tonally a bit over the top. Claire flirts with the Mary Sue trope by virtue of her perfect ability to generate flawless hunches (which also includes her earlier scene of diagnosing Luke’s “skin condition”). She actually throws a high-voltage equivalent of a toaster into the Luke cooker! But it is kind of fun. (I kind of hate myself for saying it.) 😉
What did you think of Luke Cage? What are you hoping for in terms of how his character might grow in The Defenders? Let us know in the comment section!