Sunday, October 23, 2016

New Harlem Renaissance: Marvel's Luke Cage

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.
Inspired by a Blaxploitation-era comic book hero (Luke Cage first appeared on the pages of Marvel Comics in 1972), Luke Cage picks up on the noir tone of Jessica Jones and – its bass-driven theme music and retro title-card notwithstanding – hearkens less to the 70s than to the 20s. (As the story built itself up in the early episodes, I was most often reminded of Dashiell Hammett and Red Harvest, where a lone wild card – the unnamed Operative who narrates the novel – inexorably turns the status quo of a corrupt town on its head.) That said, with its almost exclusively non-white cast and a Harlem setting that is effectively a character itself, Luke Cage is powerfully set in our own era. The story quickly lays out a field of insiders and outsiders, those who know Harlem and those who don't. The streets binds even the worst enemies together in deep, cultural and generational ways. Even as the gangsterland intrigue ramps up between Cottonmouth and his gun- and drug-dealing rivals, characterization never takes a backseat (especially in its depiction of the tortured relationship between Cottonmouth and his cousin Mariah, played powerfully by Emmy-winner Woodard, whose political life lies in tension with her complex relationship with her family's long criminal history in the neighbourhood). By the middle of the season, Luke Cage was already among the most entertaining and compelling hours of television I've seen in a long while.

And, if the season had ended with its seventh episode, my review would close on this triumphant note. Up to that point, Luke Cage was as powerful as the best of its sister shows – perhaps even more consistently strong than the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Alas, in its eighth hour, the story introduces a new villain, takes the heart of the story (both literally and thematically) off the streets of Harlem, and somehow finds itself in a sophomore slump even before its freshman season has ended. Enter Willis "Diamondback" Stryker (played with Bible-quoting lunacy by Eric LaRay Harvey, from Boardwalk Empire), and much of what made the first half of the season so compelling dissipates. It isn't merely that Diamondback is a wholly improbable criminal mastermind (he shows up with seemingly endless capital for advanced weaponry but can't seem to end a single conversation without shooting someone, making it hard to imagine how he could ever inspire loyalty long enough to generate a stable criminal enterprise) or that he speaks almost exclusively in Baptist-preacher-cadenced verses. Rather, it's that his character never quite stops feeling like an alien to the carefully-constructed world the show has already built. Following the lead of David Simon's The Wire, Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker (Southland, Almost Human), took the time to build Harlem – with all its racial, economic, and cultural complexity – into a genuine character in the story. These parallels are further strengthened by bringing in some familiar faces from The Wire, including Sonja Sohn (The Wire's Kima Greggs) and more notably, Faison (The Wire's Commissioner Burrell). Both are strong actors in their own right – whatever televisual resonances their casting brings – but it hardly feels like a coincidence that the season begins to falter at almost the same moment their characters leave the story. As the story shifts to an inevitable faceoff between Stryker and Cage – both Harlem outsiders – the battle over the soul of Harlem (which had played out between community leaders, citizens, police, and criminals alike) now transform into battles on its streets, the neighbourhood reduced to collateral damage as the punches and bullets fly.

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.

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