Netflix and Marvel's fruitful relationship has, so far, worked wonderfully for both entities. Writers are able to explore Marvel's rich catalogue of stories and heroes and give them a much more adult, nuanced approach than the cinematic tentpoles are able whilst Netflix is latched up with one of the most recognisable brands in media to create a powerhouse. What's pushed Marvel and Netflix on, however, is an understanding that these are - when you boil them right down - are soap operas with superpowers. Daredevil was about a man coming to terms with his abilities and disabilities. Jessica Jones was about about a terrible breakup and the emotional toll it takes on people. With Luke Cage, however, it's trying to be too many things at once.
Set shortly after the events of Jessica Jones, Cage (Mike Colter) is now in Harlem and trying to keep his head down. He's pushing a broom during the day in a local barbershop run by the amiable Pop (The Wire's Frankie Faison) and, at night, he's working in the kitchen of Harlem's Paradise, a local nightclub run by criminal underworld figure Darnell 'Cottonmouth' Stokes (House Of Cards' Mahershala Ali). Cage has resolved to keep himself to himself and his extraordinary powers - he's super strong and can repel bullets - are used at a minimum. Of course, this being a TV serial, things conspire to draw him in because Cage can't let things be. Helping Cottonmouth is Councilwoman Mariah Dillard, played by the incredible Alfre Woodard, who has used the ill-gotten gains of Cottomouth's criminal enterprises for her political campaigns. The two work hand-in-hand, even though Mariah refuses to acknowledge the evil that he does or his criminal nature. In the middle of all of this is Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whalley), two NYPD detectives who are trying to expose Cottonmouth the old-fashioned way.
As always, Marvel's eye for casting is spot-on. Colter brings a physical, intimidating presence to Luke Cage and Mahershala Ali gives a nuanced take on what could have been just another African American gangster character. The real standout is Alfre Woodard, who gives probably the best performance in a Marvel Netflix series as Mariah Dillard. It really is fascinating to watch her act, as so much of it is built on smaller scenes with real drama than overarching action and the like. In a way, what gives Alfre Woodard a chance to act is what makes the series as a whole suffer.
There are far, far too many episodes in Luke Cage that feel like wheel-spinning than actually driving the plot forward. At least two or three episodes pump the brakes and go into a backstory about the character's origins, completely taking any drive out of the narrative and forcing us to look at them deeper. It's effective, because the characters become much more real and textured because of it, but it becomes so belaboured and dragged out. You just know that they could have made the same point with smarter, more concise writing. For example, one entire episode is set underneath the rubble of a building and is used to tell how Cage received his powers whilst another episode throws back to the '60s and gives another character's backstory. It's all effective, sure, but do we really need an entire episode for these? The insistence, presumably by Netflix, of keeping to thirteen episodes per season probably hurt Luke Cage more than Daredevil or Jessica Jones. With Jessica Jones, there was a sense that the series needed the thirteen episodes to fill out the whole story because there was so much to get through. In Luke Cage, it could easily cut off three to four episodes into one, making it a much more cleaner and neater experience.
What sets Luke Cage apart from Daredevil or Jessica Jones is its use of social commentary in the context of a world of superheroes. Like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the likes of Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk are all far away characters who are akin to celebrities. In Harlem, it's a day-by-day experience and the realities of our world aren't much different from Luke Cage. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker made reference to the fact that the series would specifically reference and acknowledge the Black Lives Matter Movement and it's telling that Cage regularly wears his hood up and is bullet-proof. Moreover, Cage's mantra of "Always Forward, Never Backwards" is equally pointed, as is the character's indignation about the N-word - something that other characters use frequently, much to Cage's distaste.
When you come right down to it, there's a lot to like about Luke Cage and it has a lot of interesting and necessary parts to it. The fact that it's a predominantly African American cast, the use of women in powerful roles, its take on the cultural and social situation in America, how the police and social systems intersect with African Americans - it's all very important and necessary, but when these points tacked on to a weak story, it eventually becomes crushed under the weight of expectation. We're hoping for a much better story, but the fact is that the plot runs out before everyone else does and everyone's trying to get it to the eventual climax, which is anything but. As well as this, for a series based on a comic-book, it's largely action-free and the few sequences there are really lack a sense of urgency. It may look great and there's a lot of style to it, but so what if it the writing isn't up to scratch?
In all, Luke Cage is pretty decent at what it does, but the truth is that it would have massively benefitted from a shorter time frame to tell its story, or a more beefed-up one to fill it out.