By Sean Ray | A&E Editor
The third show in Marvel’s “Defenders” series, “Luke Cage” takes a surprisingly deep and compelling look into the experiences of African Americans in modern day America while also providing enough super-heroic fun to get behind.
“Luke Cage” follows, well, Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a man with super strength and bulletproof skin. After the destruction of his bar in Marvel’s previous Netflix feature, “Jessica Jones,” Cage is working at a barbershop in Harlem. However, a crime lord known as Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) threatens to tear the community apart after a gun deal gone bad, and Cage finds himself forced to take on the role of the hero.
Going into the show, I had some trepidation. While Colter is a fine actor, it felt like the writers did not quite nail Cage’s character during his appearances in “Jessica Jones.” He felt too melodramatic at times, without the sense of fun he possessed in the comics.
Thankfully, this is rectified in his own show. Cage is given some much needed levity in his writing, and it feels so great to hear him say his signature catchphrase of “Sweet Christmas.”
Now, that is not to say the show lacks seriousness. The cycle of violence that draws so many inner city youths into a life of crime is a major focus during the first half of the season, while the second half takes a look at the tension between police and citizens. Despite being about an indestructible man, these issues are developed in very realistic ways.
Harlem is realized beautifully and given a life of its own. The city is portrayed as colorful and full of life, a far cry from the decaying Hell’s Kitchen, where “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” took place.
Adding to this is the masterfully upbeat soundtrack that manages to encapsulate so many of the problems affecting modern black America. Particular standouts for me were “Good Man” by Raphael Saadiq and “Long Live the Chief” by Jidenna, the latter of which managed the impossible by being a gangster rap song I actually liked.
Coming off of his role as Remy Danton in “House of Cards,” Mahershala Ali really showed some hidden depths with his performance as Cottonmouth. At once threatening and tragic, he seems more like the hero of another story rather than a full-on villain.
As to the other performances, it was refreshing to see Rosario Dawson, who plays Claire Temple across all the Netflix Marvel shows, was finally given something to do. If you did not love her from the previous series, this will be the one to change your mind. Simone Missick, meanwhile, plays police detective Misty Knight, who will most likely be the breakout character of “Luke Cage.” Her portrayal of Misty is incredibly close to the original comic book version, filled with a palpable sense of strength and confidence.
Unfortunately, the show could not escape the same trap “Daredevil” season two and “Jessica Jones” fell into: its second half just is not as good as the first. Thankfully, “Luke Cage” does not have as bad of a fall off as those other two, but it is noticeable.
It really feels like the showrunners tried to stuff two seasons’ worth of content into only one, as half way through, a major plot and tonal shift occurs. This shift causes many previously important characters to be almost forgotten, while the newly introduced ones do not quite get the amount of development they needed.
Seeing as this is becoming a recurring problem, I would really suggest Marvel follow “Stranger Things” in cutting the length of its seasons down to around eight episodes.
At the end of the day, however, “Luke Cage” represents another clear cut victory for Marvel. It’s smart and exciting, with a real slam dunk of a final episode. If one can forgive the quality drop after episode 7, they will enjoy one hell of a ride.