Why make something great when you can settle for pretty good?
That’s the impression I had upon finishing Luke Cage, Marvel/Netflix’s latest superhero offering following Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Each character has been different in tone and story: DD takes a hard look at vigilantism and corruption, JJ tackles the act and aftereffects of mental abuse and sexual assault, and LC addresses black culture and some of the problems and issues of the minority community.
I say some because as timely as the show attempts to be, the story itself tends to shy away from the more controversial topics currently affecting inner city Americans, painting with broad strokes (constant focus and mention of hoodies, as though they’re the official uniform of ever black man in the world) instead of focusing some of the more pertinent issues embroiling the community.
Sure, at face value it’s a show designed to entertain, no preach or educate. But when you compare it to Jessica Jones, which mixed superhero drama with the real issue of mental and physical rape and abuse, Cage seems like it missed a few opportunities.
But that’s not to say the show wasn’t good. It was, particularly the first half. While admittedly a slow burn, the blend of Harlem grit, soulful music, and nods to blaxploitation films, hip-hop, black literature, and art create a unique look and feel to the series. The series is blessed with a number of excellent actors who shine in their moments on film. The dynamic between Cage and Cottonmouth drives up the tension and explores black masculinity and power from two completely different angles.
Let’s face it: a ‘superhero’ series centered on a person of color is long overdo and it’s great to see Luke Cage finally get his chance to shine.
And maybe that’s the problem. There wasn’t much shine to Luke Cage at all. Take away the music vibe, great supporting characters and actors, and all you have is a character with little motivation or personality.
The titular character ultimately makes the show what it is. I don’t know if it was Mike Colter’s acting, or the way the story it written, (probably a mix of both) but Luke Cage never seemed all that dynamic as a character. It feels like the creative team were afraid of making him anything of a badass, maybe to avoid a stereotypical presentation, I don’t know. But to be a towering, bulletproof man with superhuman strength, Cage comes off as awfully passive. Sure, when he’s pushed hard enough he gets off his butt and does some damage, but decisiveness is definitely not his thing.
It’s what is called the Superman Dilemma. When you have a character that can’t be hurt and is much more powerful than anyone else around him, how do you keep him interesting? What kind of enemies can really challenge him? Yeah, it’s cool to see Luke stride into a barrage of bullets without flinching, but after the eight or ninth time, it’s just not all that exciting anymore. There really wasn’t a foe that Cage couldn’t put the smack-down on in a second, (unless you count Diamondback in his lame sooper-suit version) so the story creates ways to keep him from taking out the bad guys, relying on the old moral quandary/residual guilt crutch to keep the ball rolling. Which of course slows things down to a drag, something that happens in too many episodes.
The other thing is the near lack of drive, motivation, or personality for Cage. I think most of us expected a superhero version of Shaft, but Cage comes across as more of a super-powered version of Wayne Brady.
Nothing wrong with Wayne Brady, but that’s not who we want to see cleaning up the streets of Harlem.
Look: I get it. Luke Cage is a huge first, with a lot on the line. It’s risky. Black men in America are perceived by some to be ‘dangerous’, even a threat depending on varying factors. (Ignorance being the most likely culprit.) So you don’t want to present the first major black superhero in the same light. You want to play it safe. Hedge your bets. Keep your character restrained. Because heaven forbid he have a ‘moment.’
But does that mean he has to be boring?
Watching Cage in his reluctant, low-key mode grew increasingly frustrating as the show continued. Holding back was basically his answer to every given situation, and when he did actually decide to take action, he did so in a completely passive-aggressive manner, as if floating on a high of chill pills.
A lot of it can be blamed on the writing. There’s a certain flow to pacing episodic narrative, and in this series someone didn’t appear to get the memo. (There’s an outstanding post about that subject here.) Events drag across multiple episodes, leaving Cage with little to do other than deflect. He is continually outshined by the more dynamic personalities of the supporting characters. Multiple confrontations end with uncanny conveniences designed solely for the purpose of separating the combatants for future episodes. There’s a very dumb fight scene where Cage can’t seem to stop Diamondback from punching and kicking him in a wounded portion of his body.
You mean to tell me he couldn’t just place his bulletproof and super-strong hand/arm over the wound and use the other to slap the guy senseless?
Moments like that are unfortunately common as the episodes progress, particularly the second half of the series. (pretty much the point Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth arc wraps up.)
So while the first half sizzles quite well, the creators weren’t able to maintain that drive, leaving the show to fizzle out in an anticlimactic, clumsily-choreographed ghetto street fight complete with the obligatory neighborhood residents chanting Cage’s name, instilling in him the will to knockout a chump in a sooper-suit which clearly has a battery pack that Cage never tries to tear off. To top that off, let’s end with a monologue that sounds like the one every politician has in their back pocket, because Luke Cage is a GOOD GUY.
Look, this might seem like a lot of sour nitpicking, but I think there’s a lot the creators can do to make this a much more compelling show. Free Luke up a bit, for one.
Because for a man fighting for the people, he still acts like a man in a cage.
*Kudos to the outstanding cast, particularly Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, and Simone Cook, who hopefully has a bright future ahead of her.
*Give the award for worst Netflix Marvel villain to Diamondback/Stryker. Because he sucked, and Erik LaRay Harvey came across as a badly cloned version of a young Samuel L Jackson, minus the ability to provide charisma and menace.
*While you’re at it, throw Shades up there in a near-tie. Someone get Luke Cage some real villains!
*The romance angle with Claire just seemed wrong. They worked so well without it.
*Saying ‘sweet Christmas’ and ‘sweet sister’ might work in the comics, but it was incredibly corny to hear it in the show.
*Gotta get that soundtrack, though.
When Bard Constantine isn’t consumed by pop culture, he writes gritty futures and far-flung fantasy. See more at bardwritesbooks.com