13 October 2016

Luke Cage season one review

There is a lot to like about Luke Cage, the latest Netflix series set in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. For a start, it's an unabashedly black TV show in a time when the default remains lily-white, and it's full of the kind of things that great TV relies on - interesting characters, a great cast, and a strong sense of style. Unfortunately, this is all undermined by a lack of direction that comes close to derailing the entire thing at times, which raises the questions - at what point does something stop being flawed and start being... simply not all that good?

Set in Harlem, we follow the super strong, bulletproof Luke Cage as he attempts to get his life back to normal after the events of Jessica Jones. He's working multiple jobs off-the-books, including sweeping hair at a local barbers and washing dishes at Harlem's Paradise, a club owned by gangster Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes. But after three kids ruin a gun deal between the local gangs by stealing the money at gunpoint, Cottonmouth starts searching all of Harlem for them, bringing him to conflict with Luke.

With thirteen episodes to its name, the first season of Luke Cage is maybe twice as long as it needs to be. Both seasons of Daredevil and even the first season of Jessica Jones have suffered from a similar problem, but not to the same degree as Luke Cage does - it takes more than a little time for the plot to start in earnest, and even when it does there are entire episodes that only seem to exist in order to stall for time, throwing up needless obstacles that do nothing beyond stopping the season-wide plot from actually going anywhere.

Which might have been an acceptable flaw if the season-wide plot was an otherwise interesting one, but it's not. Even ignoring the way that Luke ends up as a side-character in his own show, seeming to have little impact on the plot due to his unwillingness to take action, it's still full of odd decisions and lazy writing that taint even the best aspects of the show. It's hard to talk about this without entering the realm of spoilers, but between things like the shows decision to swap the primary antagonist halfway through and the frustrating lack of inspiration that went into Luke's only weakness being... a bigger gun, there's a lot about Luke Cage that feels either slapdash or just plain wrong-headed, as if it was written in a hurry and with no real thought for how these individual pieces would work together.

As such, my favourite episode of the whole season - and arguably the only genuinely good episode of the show - is a flashback episode showing us how Luke got his powers in the first place. It's almost entirely divorced from the season-wide plot, but its singular focus on just one specific story results in the only episode of the show that has any real drive, unhindered by the stalling and meandering that plagues the rest of the episodes. It's also the one of the few episodes with a decent fight scene in it - it turns out that watching nameless goons shoot at a bulletproof person before being dispatched incredibly easy is actually pretty dull after the first time.

But Luke Cage's biggest failing is in the way it squanders the opportunity it had to actually say something. This is a TV show centered around a black man whose skin is bulletproof, and it comes at a time when we are becoming more and more aware of the systematic racism found in police forces that frequently result in unarmed black men being killed by police - and yet on the very few instances that Luke Cage dares to even approach the subject, it plays it as safe as can be. Again, I don't want to get into the "how" of Luke Cage for fear of spoilers, but the regressive nature of these politics - politics that ultimately end up suggesting that the biggest problem black communities face is in fact... black communities - seems nothing more than cowardly, wasting the important, effective imagery that the show does still somehow contain. "Trust the system", says Luke Cage, all while ignoring or doing everything it can to divert attention away from the real world flaws in that thinking.

And that's a real shame, especially when aspects of Luke Cage hint towards a much better show. Mahershala Ali is nothing short of great as Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, giving a performance that would have made him the character of the moment if only the show were able to utilise him better. In a very similar vein, we have Alfre Woodard as shady politician Mariah Dillard, Mike Colter as Luke Cage, Simone Missick as police detective Misty Knight - all engaging characters with strong performances behind them, but almost entirely wasted in narratives that lack any real motivation or purpose throughout.

Which means that Luke Cage ends up being the weakest of the Marvel Netflix shows to date, lacking the strong theme and intelligent writing of Jessica Jones or the fairly solid plotting and well-choreographed fight scenes of either season of Daredevil - and that's a damn shame, especially considering that under different circumstances, it could quite easily have ended up being one of the most important, relevant pieces of pop culture of our time. Instead, Luke Cage is just a vaguely entertaining yet wholly forgettable season of television, one that simply doesn't live up to the potential that you can still catch glimpses of throughout.

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