For all its seedy goings on; its unsavoury characters, its violence, its double-crossing and its endless persecution of a well-intentioned character just trying to keep his head down and do the right thing… There’s something wonderfully celebratory about Luke Cage.
The show, in and of itself, has a lot to celebrate with superb performances across the board, loving references to the comic book mythos and the wider MCU and a tone that redefines the term “street-level” in relation to the Marvel’s ongoing cinematic and televisual universe. As someone who remembers the street peddlers selling photos of the World Trade Centre at ground zero there’s something resonant about the street hawker peddling DVDs and BluRays of “The Incident” from The Avengers.
It’s also a celebration of African-American culture, epitomised in Harlem’s rich political and cultural history. The show’s eclectic and dynamic musical guest stars from Method Man to the Delphonics via Faith Evans and Jidenna create a soundscape across the 13 episode run that adds authenticity to the show’s sense of location.
For all its sense of celebrating Harlem, it also feels like a celebration of New York in general, with references not only to the Blaxploitation films of the 70s to which the Luke Cage comics owe a debt but also to the brooding, atmospheric crime dramas of the 70s like Taxi Driver (1976) and The French Connection (1971).
While fellow Defender Daredevil‘s show has been a tale of straight up street level super-heroics and Jessica Jones was a psycho-sexual thriller, Luke Cage is clearly at its most comfortable as a crime drama (albeit one peppered with loving references to the comic book canon).
Mike Colter reprises the central role of Carl Lucas / Luke Cage from Jessica Jones wherein he first bedazzled audiences with his charmingly earnest performance. While retaining the raw machismo and quiet vulnerability from the previous show, Colter’s talent benefits from the opportunity to add emotional layers to the weary resignation of his performance, especially as we get to explore his origin.
Opposite Colter the show boasts two principal villains. Mahersha Ali plays Cornell Stokes AKA Cottonmouth with serpentine restraint. Fans of House of Cards will be familiar with the actor’s undeniable screen presence and charisma which he combines with a sense of barely constrained threat; a snake that’s always a moment away from striking.
Another Serpent Society alumnus, Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker provides a stark contrast with a performance that crackles with frenzied malevolence. While Stokes is graced with moments of compassion and sensitivity, Stryker is presented more as a card-carrying comic book villain. Quoting scripture as he unloads his Hammertech weapons (reverse engineered from Chitauri technology left over from “the incident”, Stryker is a physical threat with links to Cage’s troubled past.
Marvel is often celebrated for its supporting characters and there are some great ones here. Theo Rossi has sleaze oozing from his every pore as “Shades”, Frank Whaley gives a solid performance as deeply flawed but not irredeemable cop Raphael Scarfe, Frankie Faison is eminently loveable as the show’s patriarch ‘Pop’ and Rob Morgan is back as everyone’s favourite scumbag, Turk.
As good as the male performers are, this show belongs to the ladies.
Alfre Woodard (who, confusingly, played a completely different character in Captain America: Civil War) gives a multi-faceted performance as political up-and-comer Mariah Dillard. Believing that she can have her political cake and eat it, Dillard has no compunctions about using her cousin Cottonmouth’s ill-gotten money to fund her campaigns yet retains an air of superiority, spouting media friendly soundbites even as she feigns ignorance of the blood stains on her money.
Rosario Dawson reprises her role as mainstay of the ‘Defenders Universe’ Claire Temple. Already a firm favourite amongst fans, the character’s no-nonsense manner is tempered only by her honest desire to do good, armed only with her medical knowledge and her resourcefulness. Her chemistry with Colter is electric and their flirtation plays almost like fight choreography.
The star of the show, however, has to be Simone Missick as Detective Mercedes ‘Misty’ Knight. We at Nerdifi have been itching to see Misty on the big screen long before this show was even announced and Missick does not disappoint.
Remember how The Dark Knight (2008) despite being a Batman movie was very much Jim Gordon’s story? While Luke Cage may have his name on the marquee it’s Misty’s character arc that keeps us clicking ‘Next Episode’ time after time. Smart, capable, compassionate, strong, flawed, sexy, driven, disillusioned, the role of Misty Knight is a gift to an actress and Ms Missick hits every beat from start to finish with a screen presence worthy of Pam Greer. We see her at her best and at her (potentially career-destroying) worst and want to stick with her through every step of her journey. While she also enjoys excellent chemistry with Colter’s Luke Cage she also shares a variety of meaningful relationships with most of the other characters that add to the verisimilitude of the character and the actress’ impressive range.
The Marvel brand has never been stronger enjoying great success on the big and small screens alike. As great as the big-screen super-heroics of the Avengers and the space opera of the Guardians of the Galaxy are, Luke Cage reminds us just how many fascinating and compelling characters there are on both sides of the good fight down here at street level.