Going in to Luke Cage, I feared that the writers would have no idea how to make the character interesting or his conflicts engaging. He's nearly invincible. Who can hurt this guy? You'd need a real compelling villain for Cage to face--someone that could get under his skin and hurt him emotionally or intellectually. As smart as a lot of Netflix shows are, including Cage's Marvel brethren, Jessica Jones and Daredevil, why would I expect any less? Surely, they'll come up with a great twist on the formula to provide the audience with some gripping tension between Cage and the series' villain. It was difficult for me to finish Luke Cage, but not because it wasn't what I was expecting or hoping for. In fact, my expectations, if I do say so myself, were pretty moderate. I didn't expect to be blown away by an amazing story, but was simply hoping for some heavy-hitting action lead by the cool Mike Colter.
The first night Luke Cage dropped, I was kind of psyched. While the first few episodes were slow--as expected of a lot of new series--I was still excited to see where they were going to take the story. The next night, after knocking out a few more episodes, the snail pace hadn't relented. To be very clear, I like slow burn plots. No Country for Old Men and Drive are two of my all-time favorite films. Unfortunately, Luke Cage was all slow and no burn.
I wish I could say that I could ignore the trudging narrative because the action was so exciting, but I can't even concede that. The action choreography is woefully uninspired. For a character as powerful as Cage, I was hoping to really feel his strength, but the choreography felt flat and predictable with Colter, his assailants, and especially the camera operators showing little enthusiasm to sell the combat. In fact, you could practically map out the core formula for each of these scenes. Luke Cage enters. Goons unload entire clips at him. Cage's hoodie is full of bullet holes. He throws some dudes into stuff. Bends stuff (usually a gun). Gets what he needs. Leaves. Then he does it again in the next fight sequence and no one has any idea who this guy is still, repeating everything they tried before. The action sequences seemed more like an afterthought than the apex of what should have been mounting tension in the story--which there was almost none of.
Bridging the few action segments are incredibly tedious swaths of dialog that 99% of the time add virtually nothing whatsoever to the forward momentum of the plot. In place of plot, we are witness to the needless snapshots of life in Harlem where a few key characters chat endlessly about the streets, local businesses, politics, and people in the city. More often than not, we are treated to recycled and reassembled lines we've heard over and over by character after character. Creator, Cheo Hodari Coker, seems like he's not remotely interested in character arcs, suspense, or story, but rather using the actors as his own hand puppets for commentary on anything but their inner struggles and how it reflects their culture. The series hangs by a mere thread of a plot that I can barely say had any direction at all. The series advertised with the power and the impressive presence of Mike Colter's gaze and statuesque figure turned out more frail than it deserved to be.
Still, I could see past all of that if the villain proved to be a viable foe for Cage. I know Mahershala Ali to be a great actor. In fact, his performance as Cottonmouth was fine in Luke Cage. It's the writing that did him no favors. He was given so little to work with and far too little face time with Colter's Cage. Adding salt to the wounds, the directors too often employed stilted blocking of actors or awkward melodrama and strange emotive cues. I frequently found myself scratching my head wondering where the motivation for the characters was coming from. Why would they do that? Why would they act like this now when a second ago they were in a totally different mindset? Why are they making that weird face? Is he about to cry or fart? I don't know.
Even the choice of music can often be unintentionally funny or completely inappropriate for the tone of the related scene. I dig the old school blacksploitation jams for the most part and it certainly helps set Luke Cage apart from many shows like it. It's fresh. However, in the show's most dramatic or tense moments, swanky horns and funky bass lines rarely let up, causing a serious tonal dissonance that robs the series of much of the emotional investment we might have in a scene. It completely removes you from the story and instills a sense of silliness where it certainly should not be.
Unfortunately, I'd love to get into the avalanche of oversights and conveniences used to skirt around plot points, but then I'd be spoiling too much. Know this, you could make a great drinking game out of how many times you'll be shaking your head and saying, "What? Why?" A few of these I can forgive. In the vast majority of TV and film productions, there are bound to be some moments where you'll catch a minor plot hole or silly get-out-of-jail-free card when the writers need to cram for time, but Luke Cage makes an egregious show of how dumbfounding many of these creative choices can be--and they're everywhere.
I wish I could say that technically speaking the show shines, but it just barely passes the mark. The lighting looks spectacular at least. There is a great palette and solid contrast that makes the streets of Harlem and its many locales pop like the pages of a comic book, but the camera work rarely seems interested in any of that, opting instead to capture the environments from the very same angle each time we revisit them--and boy, do we ever revisit them. We spend so much time in the same rooms and the same places that you'd think they would place emphasis on painting these scenes in a new light or angle to better capture the shifting atmosphere in the story. Characters are often seen doing the same things and saying the same things in the same places with the same lighting, same set decoration, and same tone regardless of where we're at in the story.
It was difficult for me to finish Luke Cage because it was irritatingly boring. While the acting wasn't bad and a few characters like the mysterious Shades were exciting to see in every scene, there is little else besides the lighting and live musical performances that shine. In fact, I can't confidently recommend this to anyone besides the most die hard, ultra dedicated fanboys of the Luke Cage comics. Virtually all of the most crazy passionate Marvel fans I know have all been disappointed in this show. I thought for sure I would be alone in this, but I am shocked to have discussion after discussion with Marvel fanboys that were just as let down as I am.
It's not a bad show. I loved the prison episode and there were a few explosive beats in the story that ratcheted up the thrills a couple notches, but they quickly become dissolved in the bog of mediocrity and dull, repetitious social commentary with zero plot relevance. If one goes in with dirt-level expectations, you might find a lot to enjoy. Me? I'm waiting for more Daredevil.
- J.G. Barnes