Small Screen Series: Luke Cage

August 16, 2017 - Television
Small Screen Series: Luke Cage

The back half of 2016 was the next window for Marvel and Netflix to unspool part of the Defenders run-up. With Daredevil still receiving solid viewership despite a weaker second season and Jessica Jones having won both critical and audience acclaim, crossing the Rubicon full steam ahead must have seemed like a no-brainer. Luke Cage and Iron Fist would be the final checkpoints before Defenders launched (that’s two days from now!) and offered characters and universes who, if still rather niche and obscure as superheroes are concerned, nonetheless were more well-established than Jessica Jones had been.

Of course, if the challenge with Jessica Jones involved the obscurity of the material and representation of the dark themes at its heart, Luke Cage presented an altogether different issue: from its inception, Luke Cage as a comics property has been steeped in blaxploitation; created by three white men to cash in on the then-popular wave of films in the early 70s, Luke Cage’s popularity faded as the genre declined, forcing a merger with Iron Fist (another character based on a waning film genre) to keep both characters afloat. Since that time, he’s worn the Power Man moniker on occasion and been splashed into any number of other series, remaining a minor but enduring part of the Marvel universe. It’s just hard to get around his roots.

Perhaps that’s why showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker didn’t try; instead, Luke Cage as a series is neo-blaxploitation, or something beyond: postmodern blaxploitation, in which the negative stereotypes of black masculinity and black American culture are given a celebratory framing superimposed around characters whose lived experience actively deconstructs both that celebration and the stereotypes themselves. If that sounds too long-winded and/or nonsensical, well, it probably was. Here’s what it boils down to: Luke Cage knows where it came from and what it signified in the United States of America in the year 2016.

At the time of this series, viewers have already had an opportunity to meet and become familiar with Luke Cage, previously a bartender in a tenuous relationship with fellow superhuman Jessica Jones. A widower whose previous place of employment caught a nasty case of the explosions, Luke Cage has returned to his roots in Harlem, where he defies cultural notions of what a black man should do with himself by taking honest, unglamorous work sweeping floors and washing dishes. Whose cultural notions are these? That would be the young punks giving him sass at Pop’s barber shop, who have big plans to make their bones in a way informed by those same negative stereotypes celebrated in blaxploitation. The rapid and dramatic collapse of their plan kicks off the plot, as the forces of Harlem’s underworld converge to teach them a final lesson on how the world actually works.

Luke Cage has had enough of playing the hero; he’d gladly fly under the radar the rest of his life, “Power Man” be damned. When his debt is called in by Pop, asking him to rescue the last of the idiot kids and negotiate with the local crime boss to keep the boy alive, Luke Cage gets embroiled in the corrupt underbelly of Harlem, encountering detective Misty Knight (who is investigating the original shooting/robbery/illegal weapons sale that kicks off the story) and finding the connections between the local crime ring and the local politician.

Pop gets popped, and suddenly the last bastion of neighborhood neutrality is no more. While both sides mourn the death of a beloved community figure, Luke Cage is riled to do right by Pop’s legacy and knows where to find the ill-gotten gains to keep the barbershop open. The resulting devastation of the crime ring’s key facilities and theft of their money blows the lid off of any hope for peace, and things immediately escalate to “rocket launcher” territory. As crime boss Cottonmouth watches his empire unravel without his money and resources, Cage is forced to deal with crooked cops, sudden public visibility, and enemies made aware of his distinctive abilities.

Luke Cage has repeatedly been described by commentators as the hero and narrative figure that black America desperately needed in 2016. With so many police shootings of young, unarmed black men, a literal bulletproof man standing up against corruption in law enforcement and politics is an intensely resonant image. Mike Colter fills the role with warmth, humor, and a particular grade of enduring humanity that a lesser actor could have failed to remember. He’s a commanding screen presence, and one of the best assets in the Marvel Netflix fold. The character’s power goes beyond his unbreakable skin and vast strength, however, as Cage is frequently required to demonstrate reserves of patience with societal attitudes and representatives of a dispassionate (or corrupt) establishment in a way that other superheroes could never be bothered to. His uniquely street-level, accessible persona requires him to be a local hero in the most conventional sense, interacting with people one-on-one in a way the Tony Starks and Steve Rogerses of the world never do. One of his most powerful moments emerges in a simple funeral speech to his community.

When Luke Cage was announced, my greateat concern was that Marvel and Netflix couldn’t hope to replicate the same magic formula that made Daredevil and Jessica Jones work. Why? The villain. Daredevil had Wilson Fisk, whose parallel narrative and character development outstripped his adversary in spades in a widely acclaimed performance by Vincent D’Onofrio. Jessica Jones as a series was characterized by the dark and psychopathic Kilgrave, whose sinister ability and utterly vile personality permeated every inch of the series and gave it tension and narrative pulse. Luke Cage’s rogues gallery isn’t characterized by any archenemy of such note. I figured the series would have a difficult time picking a villain who could actually matter.

This is where Luke Cage both exceeds my expectations… and then fails to meet them. As Cottonmouth, Mahershala Ali doesn’t bother with the killer bite of his comic book inspiration – Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is an ordinary human, a small-scale crime boss framed by a picture of The Notorious B.I.G. wearing a crown. He’s possessed of wealth, connections, and a ruthless gang of thugs, but his whole empire teeters on the brink and he’s at best got the cash reserves for one major operation at a time. Stokes is a layered and complex character, a deconstruction of the stereotypical black gang leader haunted by his lost potential and left hollow by the effort it takes him to find meaning in being a lost boy grown up into a kingpin with an unstable kingdom. Sadly, the show doesn’t give him as much time as it could have – Ali turns in a top-notch performance and provides the show with its best antagonist by being arguably its most powerless.

Alfre Woodard is his counterpart, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard, Stokes’s cousin. Dillard’s public facade is as shallow as she herself is revealed to be – a hypocrite who despises her origins for the weakness they reveal, she’s introduced smiling to youngsters and then turning to wipe the stink of colored child off her hand when no one is watching. Her polticial career built on gun-running dollars, she’s embezzled campaign funds to put Harlem’s Paradise in business for her cousin, and now expects him to pay her back out of his criminal cash. Behind her smiling veneer is an endless font of hatred and rage, marked out by her childhood nickname “Black Mariah,” which seems to provoke her by reminding her of the color of her skin (and implicitly of where she comes from) when she tries to lie to herself about her feigned nobility and good works.

Spoilers approach; begone ye who would not view them.

A supporting cast includes Detective Misty Knight, a welcome addition whose no-nonsense approach to law and order clashes with Luke Cage’s unstoppable-man street justice; Rafael Scarfe, her corrupt partner; and Shades Alvarez, professional ambitious right-hand man to the many villains of Harlem. Rosario Dawson returns to the fold as Claire Temple, now a love interest for Luke Cage and a main character in her own right. The female characters in this show spend so much time evenly matching the men that it’s surprising it takes so long for the Bechdel Test to get passed. Nonetheless, an eventual storyline sees Knight and her female captain face off against Dillard over a female witness being sheltered by Temple and her mother, a situation that feels completely organic to the narrative.

And then we have Diamondback.

A specter hanging over Cottonmouth from the first episode, Diamondback takes over as the main villain of the show after Cottonmouth is unceremoniously killed off in its seventh episode. Diamondback has personal ties to Luke Cage and immediately establishes himself as a true physical threat to the superhero in a way Cottonmouth could never hope to even attempt.

Unfortunately, he also destroys the show.

Diamondback’s personal connection to Luke Cage, aka Carl Lucas, unspools unevenly and in a choppy fashion. He bears a grudge against Cage for the sins of another man, and is so scenery-chewing and over-the-top that he seems to belong to another series. A walking narrative instability, Diamondback represents a larger criminal organization that never materializes into actual humans, and appears so phenomenally unhinged and inept that it’s difficult to accept his position in the ostensible hierarchy of Harlem’s scum and villainy. The threat escalation that follows with him is much more interesting, but the series’ insistence that the audience desires a mano-a-mano throwdown between Cage and Diamondback does an awful disservice to the well-constructed first half of the season. Other fantastical elements, such as an improvised acid bath surgery, also kill the momentum, and remind viewers that Marvel and Netflix have never been able to use 13 episodes to anyone’s satisfaction. The back six insist on being an inconsistent and muddled wreck.

Watching Luke Cage, I lack a great deal of the cultural comprehension that underpins Cheo Hodari Coker’s vision, yet I remain able to appreciate his artistry when present. The establishing shot of Cottonmouth with Biggie Smalls’s crowned portrait behind him evokes a sense of sadness and pain radiating from the late rapper in the image, and indeed Cottonmouth is someone who has climbed to the top only to find that his “crown” has not liberated him from the expectations weighing down a black gangster in Harlem. The first episode is bathed in primary colors that splash across the screen, and Harlem itself is an important character in the show. Worth noting is that the show begins to crumble when characters leave Harlem – the setting is its beating heart. Musical acts, chiefly appearing at Harlem’s Paradise as diegetic performances, resonate with the sounds of artists’ lived experience – Coker was able to convince multiple artists to provide then-unreleased tracks for the show’s soundtrack, and his selections craft a unique voice for the series that elevates it above the superhero genre (making it all the more aggravating when Diamondback crashes in to ruin things). Of particular note, to me, was Jidenna’s “Long Live The Chief,” effectively Cottonmouth’s anthem and framing theme.

The vision for this series: Reclaiming blaxploitation in 2016 by critiquing the social cost of the cultural beliefs it spawned and channeling its better tropes into a hero for Black America in an age of police shootings – then getting that vision hard tackled by a set of genre clich├ęs it didn’t see coming, those from the superhero genre, and struggling to find its footing again. The first half is among the best offerings of both Marvel and Netflix, notwithstanding some pacing issues that underserve Pop and Stokes as characters, but the second half struggles with the loss of a compelling villain and the rise of an obnoxious intrusion who destabilizes the antagonists already involved in the series to provide an odd and unnecessary-feeling final showdown. Cracking into Luke Cage’s backstory the first time feels warranted, while the second occasion just distances us from the beating heart of the show at the time when it should be reaching its greatest triumph.

Luke Cage has succeeded as a character, and he has a strong supporting cast going into Defenders and his own second season (it’s on the books and casting has already happened). I look forward to seeing if Coker’s team can regain their footing and assemble a follow-up worthy of the promising foundation they have built. America could use more Luke Cage.

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