I was a big fan of Jessica Jones, and a big fan of Mike Colter’s portrayal of Luke Cage in Jessica Jones, so I was very excited about Luke Cage. And to hear it had aspirations of being a superhero version of The Wire, with Harlem instead of Baltimore? Even better. But, while Luke Cage remains a fascinating character, and Mike Colter a fine actor, season 1 of Luke Cage is hobbled by lazy writing—the only thing that can slow Cage down.
Luke Cage does mention events from Jessica Jones early on, and you may want to avoid spoilers if you haven’t watched season 1 of Jessica Jones yet, but absent a couple throwaway lines likely added in just to draw the connection, and the later appearance of Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, Luke Cage is really a standalone story. Cage is working two jobs, sweeping hair at a barbershop by day and washing dishes at a club by night, just trying to keep his head down, not wanting to be a hero, when he gets thrust into the orbit of local crime boss Cottonmouth. The standalone story would be more than fine, except for the half-assed writing of that story.
There is a lot of bad, lazy writing, including of the little things. Cottonmouth is desperate over $1 million, then he has $7 million in cash laying around the next episode. JESSICA JONES SPOILER Cage went into a coma in Jessica Jones when he took a shotgun blast to the head END JESSICA JONES SPOILER; here he takes multiple shotgun blasts and automatic rifle shots from a few feet away . . . and a direct shot from a rocket launcher, that drops a building on him, and doesn’t blink. Sometimes bullets ricochet off of him, sometimes they don’t. And so on.
I’ve also had quite enough of origin stories. A lot of bit-driven words have been flying back and forth over just what is “superversive” fiction. I have a lot to say on the subject, but I will limit myself here to suggesting that the modern obsession with origin stories is in part related to a need to give motivation when doing the right thing—standing up for truth, justice, and the American way—ostensibly won’t cut it anymore. But it leaves us with heroes who feel small, and hardly worth rooting for.
The Wire thing was a big selling point for me. I still rank The Wire as the GOAT. Luke Cage wears its ambitions to be a poor man’s The Wire on its sleeve. Four actors from The Wire even show up. But it doesn’t manage to do what The Wire does. Says the guy who has never been to Baltimore (before this past weekend) and Harlem. But that’s the thing. Most people haven’t. You have to show, not tell. Make it real. Too often Luke Cage is simply rattling off names and places. Presumably they’re real (I know Dapper Dan is), but that only works for the tiny sliver of the audience that walks in with foreknowledge (Treme had the same problem).
Luke Cage is also going for a Ripped from the Headlines vibe, with Cage’s usual choice of hoodie meant to evoke Trayvon Martin (not sure if Martin had a product placement deal with Carhart, though) and much of the reaction of the people of Harlem inspired by Black Lives Matter. It’s heavy stuff that could be powerful if done well. But if you’ve read this far, you can imagine my thoughts. Maybe the writers didn’t have the guts to really go through with something that would push that many buttons. Or maybe it’s just that show-don’t-tell problem rearing its head again. Show the people of Harlem; don’t just show us Method Man telling us what’s happening. We learn more about Cage from Colter portraying Cage’s quiet dignity than when he’s talking about Jackie Robinson or Crispus Attucks. More effective is Woodard, who plays Cottonmouth’s political cover, easily morphing from glad-handing pol to crime queen to racist demagogue. (She’s still a poor man’s Mags Bennett.)
The writing is a shame, because Luke Cage has a stellar cast doing stellar work. I could go on about pretty much the entire cast, but I’ll limit myself to singling out Mike Colter, Theo Rossi (Juice from Sons of Anarchy), Alfre Woodard, Mahershala Ali, and Rosario Dawson. The Wire alumni are Michael Kostroff (Maurice Levy), Sonja Sohn (Kima), Frankie Faison (Ervin Burrell), Method Man (Cheese).
I will say that the action sequences—at least the early ones—can be a lot of fun. There is a certain amount of wish fulfillment in watching Luke Cage stride through the bad guys, mashing them and shrugging off bullets in turn (and particularly cathartic to see a black man do it). There is a reason why we loved that invincibility star when we were kids. But it robs the action scenes of tension. Especially when the bad guys come after Cage with guns again and again…and again. There is a throwaway line about maybe—just maybe—trying some other method to hurt Cage, but nothing inventive is actually done. And when a way to hurt Cage does appear, Cage doesn’t handle it well enough to create real tension.
SPOILERS for the last episode, but really, if you’re familiar with the MCU, you won’t be surprised that Luke winds up fighting someone with the same powers as him. Well, powers as provided by a suit. If you think that maybe Luke would aim for the half of his face left exposed, or try to disable the suit, you haven’t been watching this show. END SPOILERS The writers that sent men with guns after Cage all season don’t do even the most basic creativity. Sigh.
I’m not without hope though. Nor, despite my criticisms, was Luke Cage bad. I’m more excited about The Defenders now. The Netflix shows are consistently better when they bring characters together. Which would have been a good reason for Cage to take Claire up on her offer of a legal referral. But a better reason is that talking to the police without counsel is really fucking stupid.
8/5 Stars (3 stars for Luke Cage, 5 stars for Rosario Dawson).