I remember a few months ago Comic-Con, Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker referred to the series as the "Wu-Tangification of Marvel" or something along those lines. It was the kind of catchy, targeted blurb that makes headlines but I doubted its significance. Despite the dark, violent corners of the MCU that were explored in Netflix's Daredevil and Jessica Jones, would they really go so far as to make Luke Cage that unabashedly....black? Hell the f**k yes they did. Luke Cage is so black it makes Meteor Man look like Ant-Man.
And that means dealing with the realities of being a black superhero in the MCU and the realities of being a black man in America. To its credit, Luke Cage is also the most political thing Marvel has ever done, but in a more specific way than the broad national security argument made in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is about the politics of race, and former bartender and Jessica Jones love interest Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is burdened with the weight of responsibility his powers mean. What we remember from is scene-stealing appearances in that earlier series is that Luke was a man hiding from the world. Now we see the reasons behind that decision as he flees to Harlem, working a number of odd jobs but primarily in the barbershop run by Pop (Frankie Faison). Pop's barbershop was more than just a place for cutting hair. Like in so many black communities, the barbershop is a safe place, "Switzerland" as he often calls it. Of course, it's said so many times that we know that fragile peace will inevitably be broken, and when it tragically does Luke is forced out of hiding and into action to get some justice. Luke's quest sees him face-to-face with rivals from the street, like smooth-talking gangster Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali), and political heavyweights like Cottonmouth's sister Mariah (Alfre Woodard). He also makes a few tenuous alliances, most important being dogged detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick, in need of a spinoff ASAP) and ubiquitous nurse Claire Knight (Rosario Dawson, excellent again), who always seems to be around when superheroes get jacked up. Somebody should investigate her. Why haven't the Avengers hired her yet?
While visually each episode resembles the murky aesthetic scene in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the funky opening credits tells you immediately this is not going to be like either of those. Coker's earlier promise is fulfilled through the extensive, pervasive use of hip-hop as an episodic mission statement (each episode is titled after a Gangstarr track) and as a source of personal strength for the series' two main rivals. Cottonmouth's office is adorned with a massive image of legendary rapper Biggie Smalls, crown atop his head signifying his place at the top of the food chain. Luke, like many of the citizens on the Harlem streets, draws inspiration from the Wu-Tang Clan, making a latter appearance by Method Man both inevitable and welcome. Considering hip-hop was created as the voice of an oppressed people, speaking out in the only way they could without fear of repercussion, its place in Luke Cage is particularly resonant. With beats co-composed by A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Luke Cage's combination of jazz and boom-bap is unlike any other show on TV. This is a soundtrack that demands to be bought immediately. You could pump this loud in your car and get nods of respect from every passerby.
So how does one go about making a bulletproof, seemingly indestructible hero interesting for 13 hour-long episodes? It turns out by attacking him where he's weakest, and that is through his emotional connections. It doesn't take long before scenes of bullets bouncing off Luke's chest become repetitive, no matter how many jokes are made about his constant need to get a new wardrobe. So the series smartly delves into Luke's past, from his time at Seagate prison to the experiment that gave him his armored hide to the woman who changed his life. They serve to not only flesh out some of his prior comments in Jessica Jones, making that show worthy of a rewatch now, but also to lend context to his anti-establishment mindset. All that said, Luke Cage still falls into the same mid-season rut that every other Marvel Netflix series has fallen into. It begins with the sudden, unexpected dismissal of arguably the most charismatic character in favor of another. While the twist is shocking and had me gasping "What the f**k is going to happen now!?!?", the next few episodes struggle to refocus around a sudden new threat to Luke's well-being. While this character poses both a physical and emotional challenge he's ultimately written as a one-note villain of little complexity.
Character nuance and realism are the engine that drives Luke Cage, which is why the arrival of such an over-the-top bad guy is so disappointing later on. As Luke, Mike Colter (who I've only seen as Luke Cage, nothing else) perfectly captures the modern struggle of a black man living in a world where police violence against men of color is worse than ever. And if there's one thing the series makes clear, it's that even for an unbreakable hero like Luke Cage it can't be fully escaped. There's no attempting to divert attention away from today's realities; in fact those issues are accepted as part of the fabric that is Luke's world. The Black Lives Matter movement may not be mentioned specifically but its presence is felt. When Luke puts on his hoodies, and others in the community follow suit, we know what it stands for. That it isn't spelled out for us shows the respect Coker has for the intelligence of his audience. Nor do they try to diminish the inherent sexuality within a powerful black man like Luke, even though historically that has been discomforting to certain people. Luke is a sexual character ("Want to get some coffee?" is going to become a thing now, trust me.) and there's no shying away from that.
The cast surrounding Colter are uniformly excellent. I've said repeatedly that Mahershala Ali is going to be the next big thing. I think he's due for an Emmy and an Oscar probably in the next year or two. As Cottonmouth he's silky smooth, dangerous, and disarmingly funny. His interactions with the bulldozing Luke are beautiful, only matched by the thorny conversations he shares with Woodard, who shows a devious side I'm not sure we've ever seen from her. I've been reading the Misty Knight character for years in the comics but have never cared about her as much as I do now thanks to Missick's performance. And it's good to see Dawson get more than just a cameo this time. She is critically important to everything that goes down, and I can't see a second season moving forward without her. I was also happy to see such an extensive role given to Theo Rossi (JUICE!!!) as the villain known as Shades, and veteran actor Frank Whaley (remember Career Opportunites?) as Misty Knight's partner.
Luke Cage isn't perfect overall, but it's the perfect Marvel series for right now. My only hope is when the character inevitably converges with the rest of the family for Iron Fist and The Defenders that what makes him so special, his blackness, isn't forgotten.
Rating: 4 out of 5