Review: Luke Cage
Streaming: Luke Cage (2016 – )
Fresh from his success in the Jessica Jones series on Netflix, former Power Man Luke Cage gets his own Netflix series and 60 Minutes With sent Steve Woolley on a 13 episode trip to Harlem to check it out and to get his damn hair cut while he’s there.
In general and with a few exceptions (Deadpool for one), superhero adaptions are really not my thing. I find the films too long and I haven’t made it past more than a couple of episodes of any the TV spin offs to care what happens. However, when I read about Marvel’s Luke Cage series I had to give it a try for old times sake as Luke and I have history. In my adolescence when Marvel Comics teamed up Power Man & Iron Fist as ‘Heroes for Hire’ it filled the void precisely for a martial arts obsessive and part-time soul boy.
Luke entered the comics universe when its superhero roster was about as white as a UKIP karaoke night. The success of the blaxploitation films of the 70’s obviously proved there was a market for a character of colour and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire by Archie Goodwin and John Romita was born. The title later migrated into Power Man & Iron Fist teaming up Luke with a martial arts master and thus adding another genre the company wanted a piece of. In Heroes for Hire the couple were basically skint and offering their skills for money, Professor X may have had deep pockets but Luke and Danny Rand had holes in theirs. The series eventually faded but Marvel made several attempts to resurrect the Luke Cage character and he became part of the New Avengers series.
The TV series opens up in Pop’s Barbershop in Harlem where Luke is employed as a sweeper up, one of the two menial jobs he needs to pay his rent. Pop it seems is a reformed ex-gangster who is more than happy to lead discussions on black crime writers, artists and musicians rather than ask about his customer’s holiday plans and how shit United were on Saturday. Luke’s character is tonally reminiscent of Denzel Washington’s portrayal in the 2014 Equalizer movie: a man with a past living under the radar and wanting to be left the hell alone and looking at the size of Mike Colter who plays Carl Lucas, aka Luke Cage, I would be quite happy to oblige.
Luke’s other job is as washer up in Harlem Paradise; a nightclub which introduces several of the key players in the series: Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes the Paradise’s Gangster owner, Detective Misty Knight (sister of Rainy, Foggy and OhWhata), who is on Cottonmouths case, Miriah Dillard the obligatory corrupt politician and ‘Shades’ Alvarez, played by Theo Rossi fresh from Sons Of Anarchy and minus a Mohawk who is a representative of the mysterious and yet unseen arms dealer Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker.
No mention of superpowers yet? This appears to be a deliberate act by the makers, we are three quarters of the way into the first episode before we learn that Luke has near- invulnerable skin, super strength and is super grumpy about the whole thing. We learn this when he slaps the crap out of a few of Cottonmouths heavies who are attempting to shake down the owner of a Chinese Restaurant and thus spoiling his dinner. The Showrunner Cheo Coker wisely doesn’t blow the show’s budget on cheap CGI and explosions, instead choosing to let the show develop as a crime story with a superhero element, no spandex, no capes, just a brother in a hoodie kicking ass. Luke has then to accept the consequences of his actions thus bringing down a whole heap of crap from bad guys and the police which sets the tone for the rest of the series.
The story does make an effort to relate to the original comic book series: we get an origin of superpowers episode in which former police officer and now prisoner Carl Lucas is experimented on by a scientist with things going inevitably wrong. Gaining super strength Luke breaks free and with metal restraints on his arms and head he recreates the Power Man outfit to which he observes ‘I look like a damn fool’. In the 70’s Marvel were working under the governance of the Comic Book Code and Luke developed some weird curses such as ‘shoot’ and ‘Sweet Christmas’ and surreally this gets repeated in the show.
Under Cheo Coker’s guidance, Marvels Luke Cage is a hip hop take on the comic book character. You will be reaching for your old Gang Starr albums as each episode is the title of one of their tracks. It even goes as far as to recreate one of the weirdest rap lyrics of all time. ‘Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is’ which is spoken verbatim in the DWYCK episode. We also are treated to some Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Bring da Ruckus’ as a soundtrack to a fight scene and Method Man shows up performing an original ‘Bulletproof Love’. Given that Harlem is the show’s setting and home to historically significant venues, such as Milton’s Playhouse, the Square Club and the Apollo. It uses the fictional Harlem’s Paradise Club and gangster HQ to showcase performances from the likes of Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and the magnificently old school Delfonics.
The show manages to build momentum nicely until the halfway mark and then stumbles for a few episodes following the demise of one of the main protagonists. A new love interest; Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), is shoe-horned in and we get a couple of punchy- shootem episodes featuring the over-the-top Diamondback. The episode Soliloquy of Chaos borrows very heavily on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Superman/Batman duke out sequence. The show I feel also suffers from not knowing what its target audience is: there is liberal use of the ‘N’ word but otherwise it’s mild cursing (Luke even rattles a swear jar), no nudity but heavy on the violence.
As the show picks up speed once more there is one brilliant scene where the citizens of Harlem don bullet ridden hoodies in an ‘I am Spartacus’ support of our battered hero (Literally. In one episode he gets deep fried!). The series ends with Luke remaining stoic as he deals with the aftermath of his battles with police, politicians and criminals. Two final twists indicate how Season Two will continue: one hints at salvation, the other shows things are gonna get a lot worse. As his old workmate Danny Rand is about to get his own Iron Fist TV Series, he might have to make a call.
Review by Steve Woolley.