Netflix’s newest exploration of the mean streets of the Marvel Universe, Luke Cage, is now available for your binge-watching pleasure on the streaming service. Contributing editors Michael Avila and Tara Bennett bring you, our loyal readers, their immediate, unfiltered and spoiler-ish thoughts on the latest Marvel TV series.
SPOILER ALERT: WE WILL DISCUSS KEY DETAILS ABOUT LUKE CAGE BELOW.
Tara: Despite the fact that I'm sure it'll elicit some hissing from our readers, I'm going to admit that Daredevil Season 2 was lacking for me. Sure, there were some interesting characters introduced, but I wasn't as engaged with the storylines as I was with Season 1. It paled in comparison to the fantastic freshman season of Jessica Jones. A sizable part of my love for JJ was Mike Colter's enigmatic yet engaging introduction as Luke Cage. By that season's end, I was left wanting a lot more of the character, and I'm thrilled that his eponymous series has amply satisfied my viewing expectations.
The Marvel TV creatives have been allowed to really shape individual stories around their heroes. While the noir elements carry through, their individual vibes are as unique and distinct as the New Yorks boroughs in which they are set. Luke Cage is all about Harlem: its deep history, ethnic identity and the complicated hierarchy of the street. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker gives us a contemporary Harlem that's an amalgam of its rich history. The opulence of the '30s Cotton Club era is represented in Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes' tailored suits and the decor of his modern club, Harlem's Paradise. Meanwhile, the '70s-era Blaxploitation aesthetic is felt in Pop's neighborhood barbershop. And yet both are seamlessly fused with the contemporary street violence of today. Watching Luke Cage traverse the streets is like being immersed in a decadent gumbo of recent history that is palpable in any given scene. Luke has to battle his personal demons, along with the sobering issues that define modern America, and the series traverses the messy realism with style, substance and a lot of swagger. Cage is a quiet brick wall that literally swallows what the street throws at him. Immortality seems like it would be a conflict killer, yet Cage's powers force his enemies to be smarter and more personal, creating some fantastic stakes, especially by Episode 7. Luke Cage is a excellent next installment in Marvel's cast of New York in-the-trenches heroes, or Defenders (as we know they're preparing to become).
Mike: You had me at gumbo, Tara. Its true that Marvel’s Netflix properties do have their own specific vibe – Daredevil’s street justice ethos, Jessica Jones’ psychological deep dive into what having powers means and its accompanying responsibility. Luke Cage happens to be about what it means to be black in America. The show does seem to exist in a strange, time-agnostic place. It’s like Coker created a Harlem from pieces of the neighborhood’s actual history, like my colleague pointed out.
That pastiche allows the show to stretch past the conventions of superhero stories and do much more. Luke Cage isn’t about a bulletproof black superhero. It’s about being a bulletproof black man in modern America, the pressure that comes with that, the expectations, the suspicions. It’s an unabashedly Black show, embracing its cultural roots. Cage on more than one occasion schools a thug on the rich African-American history that permeates Harlem. From Jackie Robinson Park to the story of Revolutionary War hero Crispus Attucks, Cage sometimes is the angry old man shaking his fist and telling disrespectful kids to get the hell off his lawn.
It also has backbone. From the N-word and how it's used, to society’s expectations of black men, it all comes up at certain points during the series. And the image of the main character in a Marvel superhero show being a black man in a hoodie is as bold a political statement as the genre has ever made.
Is the world ready for a bulletproof black man? It better be, because he’s here.
Instead of an exhaustive breakdown of every episode, we're just going to give an overview of some of key points in the series up to Episode 7 (we'll do the same for the final six episodes).
Instant Episode Reactions
1.1 "Moment of Truth"
Tara: This episode lays out the proverbial chess pieces/players in Luke Cage's neighborhood. There's an almost unrepentant, laconic attitude it has about taking its time to unfold what, and who, we need to know. I love that it's not a traditional origin story dumping ground. Instead, it's an exploration of Cage's reticence to interact and the cost of his holding back.
Mike: As first episodes go, this one is tough to beat. It immediately establishes the tone and the mood for the series. Most important, it also plants one very important flag in the ground: Luke Cage is always the coolest cat in the room. Even when he’s got a broom in his hand, sweeping the floors at Pop’s, the neighborhood barbershop.
1.2 "Code of the Streets"
Tara: Cage utters "I'm done running" and it's off to the races in terms of his proactive involvement in helping Chico, and then avenging the devastating murder of Pop. I would have appreciated more time with Frankie Faison's warm and wise Pops, but he is Cage's inciting incident. Emotional and purposeful.
Mike: This episode begins with an immediate declaration that this show won’t be afraid to keep it one hundred. Cage takes angry offense to being called the N-word by a young street punk. It’s a powerful rebuke of the almost casual way one of the most hateful words in the English language is used, and is guaranteed to make more than a few viewers uncomfortable. On any drama on practically any network not named HBO, this would be a shockingly daring move at any time. But as I wrote at the beginning of this piece, for a series based on a Marvel Comics superhero in the current climate of racial division we’re seeing in our country, this is absolutely revelatory.
1.3 "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?"
Mike: It was a thrill to see Luke take the fight to Cottonmouth and his goons. Not just for the sake of getting to see him pound on a few more overmatched minions, but also because it’s hard to ignore the symmetry of a black man taking matters into his own hands to fight the injustice around him. I don’t think we can say enough good things about how absurdly perfect Mike Colter is as Luke Cage. He not only has the physical presence, but there’s a sensitivity he carries as well that adds dimension to the character. This episode continues to echo the themes that make Luke Cage more than just another superhero series. Like Jessica Jones, which provided a window into the life of a sexual assault survivor melded into a superhero crime noir, Luke Cage does an excellent job of examining life in the black community from various angles.
Tara: This one features a lot of clever fight staging as Luke goes on the offensive with Stokes' gun running operation. The man uses a couch to lay out a line of guys! Then Stokes volleys with a rocket launcher! Epic. There's also a needed twist in the last act regarding character alignment which propels the story forward.
1.4 "Step in the Arena"
Tara: It's all origin, all the time, as a building on top of Cage allows him to flashback to what got him there. It's a bit of an awkward structure to shift time periods but the journey back to how Cage's rep got sullied is intriguing stuff.
Mike: In a fast-moving 53 minutes, we finally get answers to many questions we’ve had about Cage since we first met him in Jessica Jones. Not just about how he got his strength and bulletproof skin, but also giving us more clarity into who Luke Cage is. We know he used to be a cop named Carl Lucas, until he was somehow jailed –framed, perhaps? – and shipped to hell, otherwise known as Seagate.
We truly have a better understanding of the person Luke Cage is in the present day after watching this episode. The writers show admirable restraint to not reveal everything, but they laid out the blueprint that created Harlem’s new hero. By the final scene, when he makes a move right out of the Tony Stark playbook and announces to the world, “My name is Luke Cage,” we know that this guy is done hiding.
1.5 "Just to Get a Rep"
Mike: After that incredible origin story I was bracing for a letdown episode. I was pleasantly surprised to be proven quite wrong.
Cage’s fight against Cottonmouth has unintended consequences. Local business owners are getting squeezed hard to make up for the cash shortage caused by Cage taking out Fort Knox. For a split second, Luke seems overwhelmed and unable to deal with the demands of Harlem. But it’s only for a second. After getting called out by one spunky local merchant -- “You need to check these dudes!” – Cage goes on a nice, leisurely stroll through Harlem to recover the goods taken from the area merchants, and trashing most everyone in Stokes’ crew. It’s actually quite funny, but not in a campy way.
My main beef with this episode? After punching your way out of the rubble of a collapsed building and being caught on cellphone video lifting two-ton chunks of concrete, how is half the military and every major media outlet not camped out outside the barbershop? Harlem’s still just an A train ride away from midtown!
Tara: I'm with Mike on the head-scratching of Cage revealing his powers on TV not inviting a media frenzy the likes of the Brangelina breakup. That Cage goes back on his merry way on the streets of Harlem is a major stretch in this episode. However, we get Claire Temple (as played by Rosario Dawson, the unifying character in Marvel's Netflix universe). She's terrific as always and a welcome surrogate to Pop's lost voice urging Cage to be more.
1.6 "Suckas Need Bodyguards"
Tara: So much Scarfe in this episode as the mortally wounded Detective gets dragged around Harlem By Cage and Temple in hopes that his copious double-dealing notes will act as the nail in Cottonmouth's corruption coffin. Mariah Dillard gets deliciously squeezed by her own dirty dealings this episode, too.
Mike: Scarfe being dirty was fairly obvious, but he was still entertaining. I liked seeing Cottonmouth’s desperation becoming more apparent. He’s like a wounded animal backed into a corner. He’s just lashing out wildly. It’s quite fascinating to see the crime lord who seemed so chill when we first met him, coming unglued. But at the end, his arrest seemed a bit...anti-climactic. And the political shenanigans that let him quickly skate on what should be insurmountable charges is an uncharacteristically lazy choice by the writers.
Tara: A boiling point episode with a thrilling cliffhanger. We get the origin story of Cottonmouth, which is suitably sad and tragic: A musical talent wasted because of his forced inclusion in Mama Mabel's Harlem organized crime ring. His desperation is all the more palpable in the now, as he sees his power (which makes his past sacrifices worth it) slipping away. Power corrupts as Mariah proves when she wipes him out in a stunning twist, only matched by the landing of that Judas bullet!
Mike: The Judas Bullet may be the greatest name for a Macguffin EVER. That final scene was stunning, because, up until that point, the only weak point Luke Cage has shown has been his humanity. But this episode reinforced to me what a great job the writers and Mahershala Ali did in creating the character of Cottonmouth. The Harlem crime boss who wanted something totally different for his life. The backstory of Cornell and Mariah growing up under the harsh guidance of Mama Mabel was fascinating. Tara is right. The power was the only thing that allowed Cornell to be OK with the detours his life took, and as it slipped away, what did he really have?
Best Supporting Characters
Tara: What a cast! Actors like Ron Cephas Jones (Bobby Fish), Simone Missick (Misty Knight) and Faison (Pop) make Harlem come alive with a rich, warmth. They feel like people you'd meet on the street, and have deep history in all of their interactions. I cared for all of them from the jump and appreciate how they help humanize Cage, or coax him out of his reticent shell.
Mike: The entire supporting cast is aces. It speaks volumes that someone like Bobby Fish, who I thought was just there for background and mild comic relief at first, suddenly grows into a key role. I love Frankie Faison and the worn guidance he provides as Pop. Usually this type of role just exists to justify the funeral scene. But Pop was Luke’s conscience. In fact, Harlem maybe doesn’t have a Luke Cage without Pop’s words of wisdom.
Misty is every bit the badass she has been in the comics, and she doesn’t even need a bionic arm! Her scene on the basketball court in Episode 2 cemented Simone Missick as a key member in the Cage cast list. I’m glad she and Cage have nothing but tension between them, because it frees him up to be paired with Claire. Rosario Dawson is a great floater across the Marvel Netflix shows, but she and Mike Colter are electric together.
Tara: Good lord, how fantastic is it to see Mahershala Ali (Cornell Stokes) get his character to shine? A fantastic actor usually relegated to supporting roles, Ali is resplendent as the neighborhood boss losing his hold on his empire. First, his tailor knows how to dress that man beautifully. Next, Ali brings a weariness to the character in his quiet moments plunking on the keyboard that speaks volumes. But on the other hand, is there much more sinister than his bold laugh when confronted? Masterful work, and I will sorely miss him regardless of how badass Diamondback turns out to be.
Mike: Ali is masterful here. In the hands of a lesser actor, Cottonmouth would’ve been a one-note gangster. But Ali was able to imbue him with empathy, which is amazing considering the guy beat one dude to death with his hands, threw another off a rooftop, and shot one of his guys for daring to make a reasonable suggestion. Alfre Woodard was hurt a bit early on by getting some stale lines, but by Episode 7, she was damn scary. Bring on Black Mariah!
Tara: Luke throws out some great ones like: "Being hood famous is bad enough," or his smug proclamation to Misty in Episode 6 that, "I'm not sleeping with you." I'm also fond of his vulnerable admission to Reva that "You give me hope." Kudos to Cottonmouth's "Jesus saves. I don't" line.
Mike: This show is veritable factory of quotability. “Let’s parlay.” “This is the first time I’ve seen you flunky free.” “This ain’t no social.”
“Or as I know her, Godfather Part Two.”
But this category begins and ends with, “There he is, Dishwasher Lazarus.”
Best Easter Eggs
Tara: I'll leave the comic book ones to Mike, but it was great to hear Jessica Jones' Trish Walker's radio show at the top of Episode 6. A subtle way to tie the shows together.
Mike: I like the street corner kid hustling bootleg video of The Incident. But all the best comic book callbacks happened, predictably, in the Episode 4 origin story. There’s a great establishing shot of Seagate prison that reminded me of a splash page by John Byrne in Power Man #49; and of course, the clever way the writers figured out a way to pay homage to Luke Cage’s legendarily loud and swaggy Power Man costume. Sweet Christmas, that was amazing.
Tara: I'm going to go with the long history of Carl Lucas' incarceration, connection to Reva and then unexpected transformation, and subsequent escape from prison. It unfolded well and gave us a sense of the horrors he had to face, which still deeply impact his issues of connecting in the now.
Mike: The Seagate scenes were obviously crucial, but the young Mariah and Cornell scenes had great impact. To see how the future crime boss of Harlem first started on that path was downright depressing. He could have gone in a very different direction, instead of ending up where he did.
Tara: Overall, I'm shockingly underwhelmed with Alfre Woodard's Mariah Stokes. I certainly don't blame the incredible actress, I just think for most of the start of the series she's been saddled as the exposition character. She's dumped in a chair and meant to regurgitate large clumps of necessary information that really leaves her as a cipher until 1.7. And by then, it's a little too late. I still don't understand if she really does have any loyalty, or ambition, for Harlem as a politician. It doesn't seem like it and I think I'm supposed to believe that's the case. I'm really hoping we get to know her better as a well-developed character somewhere in 8 to 13.
Mike: I disagree with your lack of interest in Mariah. She’s sociopathic and fascinating. Her meltdown in Episode 7 was intense and turned the show towards a completely different direction. Aside from the insular nature that Harlem seems to have in this show – It’s like its own separate world instead of being 20 minutes uptown from Hells Kitchen – my big issue with the series is its less-than-compelling fight scenes. Whereas Daredevil has turned its battles into single-camera shot works of art, the fights in Luke Cage are clumsily staged and incredibly anti-climactic. I know the guy’s super strong and bulletproof, but the writers and episode directors have to think outside the box a bit more. Get creative!
Tara: Stokes' Harlem's Paradise weirdly reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it's stage at The Bronze. I haven't watched a series in awhile that's made it a specific goal to focus on musical performers to accentuate the stories. I loved seeing the artists perform, and the songs were clearly a window into Cottonmouth's soul. Kudos to Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge for their fabulous score to the series. They've crafted a mélange of Hop-Hop, jazz, and soul that underscores Cage's weird world perfectly.
Mike: So much great music in this show. I especially dig the mix of current hip-hop beats and the retro soul across each episode. The single best use of any track so far is Jidenna’s “Long Live The Chief” to start Episode 5, “Just to Get A Rep.” It’s the perfect setup for Cottonmouth’s simmering anger.