In a vanilla sea of lily-white superhero shows, Marvel’s Luke Cage offers something valuable and rare, a saga about a black man of steel. Race is intrinsic to his character and adds provocative dimension to his genre archetype. With his bulletproof skin, virtuous heart, and activist spirit, Cage is pure superman, but he’s no spandex-wrapped caped crusader. He answers the call with whatever he’s got on, hoodies or three-piece suits. He’s a gritty vigilante like Batman, minus the mope and moral ambiguity. He is disciplined with violence and does right because it’s the right thing to do. He’s an ex-cop and an escaped con, but he’s no criminal — he respects the law and rejects the antihero. Luke Cage is a triumph of representation, and Mike Colter commands the part like a boss. Like Christopher Reeve, Colter holds the screen with confident charisma and makes his too-good-to-be-true dude completely credible. Now he needs an entertaining show worthy of him.
We first met Luke Cage last year, generating sparks and throwing haymakers with flinty strongwoman Jessica Jones in the first season of her franchise. His spin-off showcase sends him uptown from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem, albeit an underproduced, personality-lite Harlem. The storytelling rarely strays beyond a few bland sets and a few nondescript street locations. The locale is used as a metaphor for inner-city crisis, but the issues are generically simplified. The villains are cousins descended from crime-family kin: Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali in a spirited breakout), a respect-starved kingpin who idolizes Biggie Smalls, and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard, rock solid), a councilwoman determined to rehabilitate Harlem by any means necessary. Both aspire to escape their criminal heritage; both are snared by it. Their struggles have poignancy, but their corruption is cliché. Simone Missick is terrific as Det. Misty Knight: She transforms her stock cop ally/love interest into a fully realized person. But we spend forever waiting for her to learn what we already know and to knock bad-guy heads (and boots) with Luke.
Luke Cage is one more piece of Marvel pop that expresses its ballyhooed shared-world premise so poorly, it’s jarring when it even happens. The likes of Thor and Daredevil are rarely referenced by name. The alien invasion of The Avengers is considered “the incident.” Weird. Luke Cage and its sister shows are basically urban crime dramas; perhaps Marvel thinks acknowledging the fantastic undermines their reality. If so, it’s a failure of imagination. The show’s logic is buggy. Luke tries to stay on the down low…yet he quickly asserts himself as a public figure. Huh?
The abundance of flaws — a sluggish pace, thinly stretched plots — can’t smother everything interesting. The comic book Luke Cage was inspired by blaxploitation films, and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker pays homage with aesthetic touches and has sly fun with the origin story. But his primary concern is evolving Cage away from exploitative and retrograde depictions of black masculinity. The show is thoughtful in its presentation of Luke’s physique, and there’s an ongoing conversation about the legacy and relevancy of black heroes of history and pulp fiction. Luke Cage is a meaningful attempt at developing a new-model black hero. As entertaining drama, it’s trapped in a not-so-Marvelous cage. B-