Friday, September 30, 2016

Meandering Into Adequacy: Luke Cage Season 1 Stumbles!

The Good: Decent performances, Good start, Special effects, Supporting characters
The Bad: Plot meanders, Adversaries quickly become lame, Very repetitive fight sequences, Language, Loses artistry as the season progresses
The Basics: Luke Cage Season 1 gets off to a good start, but falls fast and hard as it progresses.

When I look back upon things I review, there are sometimes works that I come to believe - over time - I have judged too harshly initially. It is hard for me not to think that perhaps I was a bit rough in my rating of Jessica Jones Season 1 (reviewed here!) given that it has been out for less than a year and it is now the element of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I have watched and rewatched the most. I have returned to binge Jessica Jones an average of once a month since it was first released and I keep going back because I enjoyed it complexity and darkness, the layers it possesses and the performances of the cast. But, in rating it as a more average program because of its plot arc and the divergent episodes, I came to feel I did a bit of a disservice to Jessica Jones Season 1.

As I sat down to watch Luke Cage Season 1, I was determined not to make the same mistake. Unfortunately, Luke Cage is just not as good as the other Netflix-produced Marvel television series's. The first season of Luke Cage suffers from its derivative nature, lackluster villains, and a season's pacing that is unfortunately erratic. While there is a level of authenticity to the language used in Luke Cage Season 1, it is tough to sit through the sheer volume of time the words "bitch" and "nigger" and its derivatives are thrown around. And for Luke Cage, Misty Knight is presented in the first season as a much more consistent and efficient protagonist.

The first major issue with the first season of Luke Cage is that the show attempts initially to tell a complex story that has a number of layers. While ambition is usually laudable, by casting out so many initial antagonists to Luke Cage, none of the adversaries seems particularly formidable. In piecing together the threads of the antagonists' motivations, each of the enemies comes to be very simply rendered and motivated and the show has to stretch out its story to accommodate the leads it established. Fundamentally, Luke Cage is not given an antagonist who seems to be even remotely in the same league as him, so the time it takes him to resolve the conflicts they set up undermine his innate strength. So, more villains rise and fall; more than any other television season I've seen in recent memory, the first season of Luke Cage feels like it lacked enough material to tell a single story and took a shotgun approach to storytelling instead.

Luke Cage is laying low in Harlem, working at Pop's Barber Shop and the Harlem Paradise Club where he is paid under the table and keeps off the grid. When the local gangster and owner of the Harlem Paradise Club, Cornell Stokes, arranges an illegal weapon sale to try to raise money for his cousin's political campaign (and to repay the money she misappropriated in order to fund the club's refurbishment), two of the young men who hang out at the barber shop double-cross the buyers and Stokes to steal the money for the transaction. That sets off a series of bloody events in Harlem that leave Stokes struggling to retain his rising influence over Harlem and keep his cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard, on the defensive. As Cage attempts to broker peace between thugs and Stokes, some of Stokes's men get triggerhappy. So, Luke Cage starts to systematically attack Stokes's assets.

But Stokes has allies in the police force, local government, and from a higher-up gangster, who uses his liaison Shades Alvarez to apply pressure to Luke Cage. While the police close in on Luke Cage, Detective Missy Knight looks objectively at the truth and comes to believe that Stokes, Dillard, and others are actually responsible for the chaos sweeping through Harlem. With the help of Claire Temple and Missy Knight, Luke Cage works to exonerate himself from the crimes he is implicated in and avoid being returned to prison.

The rising action of the first season of Luke Cage happens very fast, leaving a significant portion of the season floundering to find its footing. Early in the eighth episode of Luke Cage, the viewer is likely to wonder "how can this possibly go on for five more full episodes?!" And even the process of getting to that eighth episode is an agonizing wave of derivative moments. Anyone who has watched the other elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially Daredevil, is likely to be utterly unimpressed by Luke Cage as very little of it is truly original. Cottonmouth dispatches his first victim in a way that is instantly reminiscent of Wilson Fisk beating the life out of a Russian mobster, the entire sequence of attempting to get a corrupt cop to the police headquarters feels familiar to everyone who saw the Daredevil season finale "Daredevil" (reviewed here!), and when the season's ultimate villain finally arrives, he is so bat-shit crazy that it is hard to believe he ever rose to his position of power.

Sadly, some of the best-executed moments of Daredevil undermine what could have been the best moments of the first season of Luke Cage. To wit, the first season of Daredevil had not just one, but two moments when fans of the comic books rolled their eyes, said, "They can't kill that person; they're integral to the story" and then the show pushed the envelope by killing vital, recurring, characters from Daredevil lore. Luke Cage Season 1 - from what very little I know about the source material - does the exact same thing. And the late-season adversary who is pulling the strings? Daredevil Season 2 did it with the Blacksmith.

That said, Luke Cage has its moments. In the latter half of the season, Misty Knight gets a knock-out episode with "DWYCK" and Luke Cage's origin story is presented early enough in the season to be satisfying. When a villain finally comes along who seems to have the potential to end Luke Cage, the scientific description of Luke Cage's condition are actually very satisfying in the way they are presented. But, again, for fans of the other Netflix Marvel Television works will notice that the scientific exploration of Luke Cage comes up right around the same time in the season as the scientific revelations about the nature of Kilgrave in Jessica Jones. It's like the writers and producers of Luke Cage just gave up on trying to create something original and focused on flash over substance for the first season. Even Luke Cage's power's are expanded upon in the first season of Luke Cage; more than just being invulnerable, Luke Cage exhibits more consistent and extreme super-strength than he had in Jessica Jones (where Jones was the strength powerhouse!)

To better understand the series, it helps to know who the main characters are. In the first season of Luke Cage, the principle characters are:

Luke Cage -The power man who was once used in a prison experiment before he became a fugitive and fled under his new alias, he is living in hiding off-the-grid in Harlem. He continues to mourn his dead wife, Reva, while hooking up with women like Misty Knight. He has impervious skin and a mysterious past. When he recognizes Shades Alvarez as the Harlem Paradise Club, he becomes concerned that his secrets might be revealed. He gets locked into a battle of wills against Cornell Stokes and he works to keep Pop's barber shop open in order to keep the community together,

Misty Knight - A whip-smart detective working in Harlem, she is Scarfe's partner. Quick, resourceful, and strong, Misty hooks up with Luke Cage the night before he becomes a person of interest to the police. While others attempt to frame Cage, she is skeptical of the "evidence" that is presented to her. She is able to put together in her head crime scenes in order to "see" exactly what occurred at a crime scene. When Diamondback arrives in Harlem, she is disarmed by him and she has to question her career and loyalties. She is tasked with hunting down Luke Cage,

Pop - The local mentor who runs a barber shop that is supposed to be neutral territory. He takes Luke in when Cage arrives in Harlem. He tries to use Cage to arrange a parlay with Stokes in order to de-escalate the violence in Harlem,

Mariah Dillon - City Councilwoman for Harlem and cousin to Cornell, she helped to fund Cornell's club, illegally moving around funds. She is politically ambitious, clever, and very wary of crime in Harlem. She is opportunistic and when her stash of cash is taken off by Cage, she tries to use politics to stop Luke Cage. Even as Diamondback arrives in Harlem in the wake of a personal tragedy, she formulates a plot to not only stay alive, but retain her political influence,

Scarfe - Knight's partner, he is an old-school detective. He is also a corrupt cop who begins to smell weakness when Cornell Stokes stumbles. In attempting to exploit Stokes's weaknesses, he is put in mortal danger . . . until he is able to enlist Luke Cage because of his inside information on Stokes's organization,

Claire Temple - Having left Metro General following the hospital's incident with The Hand, she is laying low with her mother when she encounters Luke Cage again. She attempts to motivate Cage to stay in Harlem and use his powers for good in overt ways. When Cage is wounded, she struggles to keep him safe and get him the help needed to keep him alive by tracking down the man who experimented upon Cage,

Shades Alvarez - An enforcer for Diamondback and a man who was in prison with Luke Cage back in the day, he arrives to aid Stokes when the guns and money are stolen from Stokes. He is a mysterious man who wields influence by using Diamondback's name. When he recognizes Cage, he informs Stokes and when there is a power vacuum in Harlem, he works to keep Dillon alive and in power to use for Diamondback's purposes,

Diamondback - A bat-shit crazy weapon's merchant who has access to abandoned Hammer tech, he lets Shades work in his name until the situation in Harlem becomes untenable to his interests. He keeps Dillon in power and strikes fear into Misty Knight by taking her weapon and threatening her with it,

and Cornell Stokes - A club owner in Harlem, he is called Cottonmouth by those who deride him. He is Mariah's cousin. He has a murderous temper and seizes power by acting as a gun runner in Harlem.

The first season of Luke Cage is an awkward mix of a crime drama and a political conspiracy story . . . before it degenerates into a weird revenge fantasy story. In other words, the first season of Luke Cage is pretty much all over the map. Many of the moments in the first season of Luke Cage degenerate into fights and it does not take long before the people shooting at Luke Cage or punching him becomes painfully repetitive. While there are some initially cool moments of combat for Luke Cage, there are no distinctive sequences like the stairwell sequence in the second season of Daredevil.

What is good in the first season of Luke Cage is the acting. Mike Colter is able to play Luke Cage with a slow erosion of his character's initial resistance to get involved. When playing Carl Lucas for the big flashback episode, Colter manages to find the right balance between making it clear he is playing the same character and illustrating a strong divide between who he was before Cage became super-powered. Colter has wonderful acting ability for using his facial expressions and the few moments he plays the character as raw and honest, he effectively transitions Luke Cage from a supporting to a solid lead.

Rosario Dawson effortlessly returns to the role of Claire Temple and when she returns to the Marvel Universe, she almost singlehandedly revitalizes the stagnating Luke Cage. What keeps Luke Cage watchable even through its slowest moments where the Dillon plot seems more like something out of a Shondaland drama is Simone Missick as Misty Knight. Missick is cool, plays clever expertly and she is one of the few people who plays her role in a way that the character becomes completely credible for being in the time, place, and position she is in. Missick is engaging when she has Knight flirting and the way she watches everything while investigating makes the simple act of a person standing still scanning her surroundings into riveting television.

There are no villains in the first season of Luke Cage that rise to the heights of other Marvel Cinematic Universe villains. Alfre Woodard and Mahershala Ali seem more like parodies of their villainous characters than organic, well-developed antagonists. When Erik LaRay Harvey finally appears in the first season of Luke Cage as Diamondback, he is so far over-the-top that he almost guts the credibility of the season. In fact, when Diamondback appears, the viewer is almost forced to ask aloud, "Why the hell aren't they doing anything with Shades instead?!" Theo Rossi plays his antagonist to Luke Cage with the most depth and subtlety, but he is criminally underused for the bulk of the season.

While the first season of Luke Cage makes a number of wonderful allusions to other elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the devil is in the details and Luke Cage falls down on some key details. First and foremost, President Obama is mentioned in passing. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the current president is President Ellis (and his term would have been long enough to essentially encompass the whole Obama Administration). As well, while it is cool to see a Miles Ahead poster in Luke Cage's apartment, it opens up a huge conceptual can of worms in the MCU. Don Cheadle plays Brodie/War Machine in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe . . . so in the MCU, there should be no actor Don Cheadle. So, who directed and starred in Miles Ahead in the MCU?! This conceptual problem is not unique to the MCU, but to the best of my knowledge, Luke Cage is the first example of a time when an advertisement within the universe featured a major actor who played a significant role in the MCU.

Ultimately, Luke Cage has about three hours of essential character moments that explores some truly compelling moments in the story of Luke Cage. The rest is filler.

For a better understanding of what this season comprises, please check out my reviews of the individual episodes in the season at:
"Moment Of Truth"
"Code Of The Streets"
"Who's Gonna Take The Weight?"
"Step In The Arena"
"Just To Get A Rep"
"Suckas Need Bodyguards"
"Blowin' Up The Spot"
"Take It Personal"
"Now You're Mine"
"Soliloquy Of Chaos"
"You Know My Steez"


For other television season and episode reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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