Luke Cage is the latest superhero series created for Netflix set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The series was created by Cheo Hodari Coker and stars the titular Marvel Comics character Luke Cage, played by Mike Colter. Having gained unbreakable skin and super strength from a sabotaged experiment in prison, Luke Cage is a fugitive from the law trying to live a low-profile life in Harlem to keep his past from catching up with him. When violence in the community hits close to home Luke risks being exposed, using his abilities to fight the criminal element that exploits and threatens the community.
Much like Daredevil and Jessica Jones before it, Luke Cage is a great example of a street-level hero and provides its own unique perspective on this. While being the most superhuman of the three series lead characters we’ve had so far, Luke’s approach to heroism is much bolder. His near invulnerability allows him to simply walk into a situation and deal with it, rather than the stealthier calculated approach someone like Daredevil needs.
Luke tries to maintain a low profile, but his approach draws the attention of the community of Harlem as he becomes a force for change. Public opinion is an important motif throughout this season and his actions start to earn him a reputation, both good and bad. The show does a good job of showing how Luke justifies his actions, putting a stop to things where the legal system can fall short. It’s also clearly established that this is a community with tension between the people and lawful institutions, who can be difficult for them to trust. All the same, it still highlights the issues of handing over law and order to super-powered individual and where accountability falls as a result. His enemies’ best weapon against him is public opinion and this season had them effectively manipulating and creating false narratives to get the upper hand.
He’s a super-powered black man in Harlem, and the show doesn’t shy away from the prejudices and mistrust someone like Luke would face in his position. Issues of race, law enforcement, crime, and politics permeate the show giving unfolding events more weight without feeling like they’re overpowering the story. The show captures a distinct perspective for the audience through these lenses without beating the audience over the head with them. It almost always maintained that the focus is Luke Cage’s story.
As much as I liked this series there were problems I had with its length and some of its direction. With 13 episodes, the season felt a little too long for the story it was telling, which has become a common problem for the Marvel series on Netflix. I feel like the fat could have been trimmed down to a solid 10 episodes and would have made for a stronger season. There were a lot more key players on the villainous side, this length giving them a lot more time to be fleshed out, and the supporting cast got similar treatment, which did not go unappreciated. I still feel it should have been more concise, however. They tried to cover a lot of things in one season, to the point where the amount of variables taking place felt too busy, though I didn’t really feel this until around the second half of the season.
There is a major paradigm shift about half way through the season, where a key villain was killed of quite unceremoniously to me. This character had been really well fleshed out, to the point where it seemed like it was their story as much as it was Luke’s. They ran concurrently together quite well. This character’s death, though a shocking development in the moment, left the season feeling lacking in a way that it never quite got back for me. Diamondback, the series’ overarching villain, was an imposing figure but never really got me invested in the way he should have after the first encounter. He was too one-note, and his machinations felt overblown compared to how they ended up playing out.
The focus of the conflict was clear in the first half, with a lot more shades of grey to make it interesting. I was hoping it would be a case of continual escalation until, perhaps, this endeavour that Luke started out with that seemed so easy for him gets all the way out of hand and dangerous for everyone. Instead, there is this shift that interrupts that flow. The direction it goes in isn’t terrible, just not as good as the first half left me hoping. It tried to be more intense than what came before without doing as much to earn it.
Harlem itself feels more defined as a setting unlike others we’ve seen before too. Though the story is concerned with its bad elements, there is a strong focus on the rich culture, history, and great minds that have been born from that neighborhood. Though music is not one of my strengths in terms of critical commentary, the soundtrack of this series is distinctly enjoyable too and a highlight for many other fans.
All said and done, Luke Cage is a series more than worth your time, even if you’re not closely following the MCU. There are references, winks, and nods to the greater canon but not so much that you can’t enjoy this season on its own. There are also some fun little Easter eggs for fans. The characters are really strong, from the resourceful Claire Temple, the relentless cunning of Detective Misty Knight, the sagely guidance of Pop, or the reluctant heroism of Luke himself, with plenty of complicated villains to cause trouble for them. It fell a little short in a few areas, but more than makes up for that in the good that in brings to the table.