|Mike Colter as Luke Cage, in Marvel's Luke Cage on Netflix.|
Five months have passed since the events of the first season of Jessica Jones, and the scene has now shifted uptown from Hell's Kitchen to Harlem, where Luke Cage (Mike Colter, The Good Wife) has been keeping to himself, working two minimum-wage jobs and living anonymously above a Chinese restaurant. He has revealed his abilities to 'Pop' Henry (Frankie Fraison), a paternal figure who runs a barbershop where Cage works, but otherwise is largely content to sweep hair and wash dishes. All that changes when a kid from the shop, also under Pop's wing, gets caught up in some dirty business with local drug dealer and club owner, Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards). Cage stops laying in the cut and steps – hoodie, bulletproof skin and all – on to the streets. There is a lot that is great about Luke Cage, even more that is very good, and, unfortunately much that is ultimately disappointing.
Let's start with the first great: Mike Colter. As the title character, Colter should own every scene he's in, and he does that and more – often without having to say a word. The second great thing is that Colter doesn't have to completely carry the show because the wider cast is almost as compelling (see below for the few regrettable exceptions). Hopefully not lost in the righteous enthusiasm for the first headlining black superhero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that this series contains some of the strongest examples of women of colour on current mainstream television – a list that includes, but isn't exhausted by, Simone Missick as police detective Misty Knight, Rosario Dawson as Netflix/Marvel universe mainstay Claire Temple, and the indomitable Alfre Woodard as Harlem Councilwoman Mariah Dillard. (If there were a women of colour Bechdel test, I'd wager Luke Cage would score astonishingly high.) And lastly, Luke Cage truly delivers as the latest expansion of the small urban corner of the MCU that Netflix is mapping out: like Jessica Jones and both seasons of Daredevil, Luke Cage keeps its story close to the ground – it concentrates on laying out small, powerful stories that often take place within a few city blocks. (The Netflix/Marvel shows have quite deliberately stepped away from the global and political narratives of the big-screen stories, and turned their attention to the everyday people just trying to live their lives in a newly dangerous world. In short: the words "Sokovia Accords" have yet to be uttered.) Part of what makes this new series so compelling is that, though Cage certainly fits the loner mode of the two other street-level heroes in the Netflix/Marvel universe, refreshingly – unlike Daredevil's Matt Murdock and the eponymous Jessica Jones – Cage isn't always pushing people away. Strong, silent, and "always thinking" (as a character describes him), Cage is wry and in control – with little of the insecurity that leads Murdock to constantly try to prove himself and with none of the self-pity and self-directed anger that drives Jessica Jones. Travelling an almost inverted trajectory, Luke Cage is essentially a story about our hero making friends and allies, instead of alienating them. Colter also smoulders as a romantic lead, a strength that was already on display last year when he stood opposite Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones. (In this one season, Colter locks eyes with three very different female characters, and he has palpable chemistry with all of them.)
Rosario Dawson and Mike Colter in Luke Cage.
By the later episodes, this cartoonish quality infects other aspects of the series. The sheer power of the image of a large bulletproof black man in a hoodie facing off against corrupt police and urban crime doesn't need to be spelled out – though the final episodes of the series apparently decided to do just that (eventually enlisting Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man, in an otherwise amusing cameo, to tell us that "there's something powerful about seeing a black man that's bulletproof and unafraid," as if to make sure the audience hadn't missed it.)
Still, I forgive Luke Cage those indulgences. Because there is something deeply powerful about watching Luke Cage, with his multiple bullet-ridden hoodies and principled social conscience, take over our small screen for 13 hours. The series – for all its late-season missteps – demonstrates, like Jessica Jones before it, the dramatic possibilities of a reality-driven fantasy series.
– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.