“Luke Cage” Season 1 – Of Oppression, Race, Power and Hope

luke-cage

  Marvel’s “Netflix” shows are the best thing to come out of the MCU. The shows are relevant, topical and have fully fleshed out characters and stories. “Luke Cage” is no different and the more powerful with the election of Trump and resurgent KKK and Alt-Right. This is a show about African-American characters and their power, be they heroes or villains. The story takes place in Harlem and is honest about racism and poverty in the story that unfolds. I’ll get into that more with the assessment, but for how relevant this show is now, and shows like it can not be unsaid….stories matter.

      “Luke Cage” was created by Cheo Hodari Coker.

    The story is about Luke Cage, who after the events of “Jessica Jones” returns to Harlem and has gotten out of the hero business. This until the actions taken by the gangster Cottonmouth pull him back in as Cottonmouth’s corruption leads to the loss of his mentor and the harming of Harlem.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world of “Luke Cage” is close to our own (like what most of Marvel strives to be like in the “Defenders” world, but from the lens of Harlem manages to tackle topical issues as well as still giving us fantastical elements like a HAMMER suit and the fact that Luke Cage is a Super Hero. The world is like ours enough to be relate-able but fantastic enough to allow escapism.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and is great at showing the beautiful areas of Harlem. Whether it is Cottonmouth’s club or the Church or even the city streets. Every scene is alive.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is amazing and is a great mixture of R and B and Blues. Cottonmouth’s Club has some great performances and they are in the background and give themes to some scenes. Younge and Muhammad really did a great job putting this score together.

The Writing – This is Marvel, Marvel is great at choosing good writers and this is on display here. There is all show rather than tell and the themes of race, oppression and power are intermixed in subtly and beautifully.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of the film, though “Luke Cage” does have the MCU villain problem where the primary antagonist just isn’t that compelling in the end. Outside of that though I loved these characters.

Misty Knight – Misty Knight is the detective who sleeps with Luke in episode 1 and is working to capture him or save him as she learns her partner was working for Cottonmouth and that Luke Cage is innocent of what others keep trying to frame him for. She even manages to convince her boss of Cage’s innocence though when Luke is revealed as Carl and that he escaped from Seagate, there is nothing she can do.

Shades – Shades served time with Carl Lucas/Luke Cage in Seagate and was one of his tormentors. Once he gets out he is working for Diamondback and trying to get Cottonmouth to better follow Diamondback’s lead. Eventually Diamondback turns on him (after Shades helps Mariah cover up the murder of Cottonmouth) leading to an alliance between her and Mariah to overthrow Diamondback and become the new leaders of the Harlem Underworld. They win. Can’t wait to see more of this guy.

Mariah Dillard – Mariah was raised by one of the past leaders of the Harlem gang (Mother Mabel) scene and was meant to be the brains while her cousin Cottonmouth was meant to be the muscle. She succeeds but goes through great trauma first as she was raped by her Uncle as a kid and Mabel did nothing. She kills Cottonmouth when he blames her for her Uncle and rightfully she kills him. This leads to her working with Shades to overthrow Diamondback and taking over the political scene and crime scene fully. By the end of the season she’s one as Luke Cage is taken in once more by Seagate.

Cottonmouth – Cornell Stokes, or “Cottonmouth” is the main antagonist in the first half of the series and I wish he’d stayed the main antagonist. The reason why is he is very much Luke’s foil in every way. Where Luke is stoic, Cottonmouth talks a lot and takes pleasure in everything. He is also a man who losing it all doesn’t stop him from owning his power. This dynamic would have forced Luke to kill him in the end but it never happens since his cousin Mariah does after he victim blames her. This is a character who was a musician but gave it all up to take over the crime scene and all his scenes on the piano are full of regret. Mahershala Ali (Remi from “House of Cards”) is once again amazing!

Claire Temple – Claire is back! Rosario Dawson is easily the best hero of the Defenders as she is flawed, complex but good at the end of the day and she doesn’t carry the martyr complex most of the heroes carry at it. She’s the one whose grown the most and it is great seeing her use her connections to help Luke Cage fight Diamondback throughout the series.

Luke Cage – Luke Cage, known as Carl Lucas before was framed for murder by his half-brother Diamondback and spends most of the film running from that until he finally gets to confront his step-brother and the truth comes out leading to him going back to Seagate. Luke Cage is a story of resistance, it doesn’t matter that he was framed, at the end of the day he is seen as a threat and him tackling the racist underpinnings of that (from vigilante white cops wanting to kill him and the prison warden) Luke Cage’s story is that of reclaiming power that was lost and from that he represents the fight for equality from within the United States.

Racism and Power – This is a running theme through the story, from the fact that money isn’t really coming into Harlem (leading to Cottonmouth, Mariah and Diamondback’s rise) and a huge part of that is because it is the African-American quarter of New York and as history has shown those areas existed because of the groups in power not wanting to be with the groups who didn’t have power (Red lining, denying housing to groups that weren’t white, etc.). This is implicit in the story and lends power to the narrative as Luke works to change things from within the city.

Okay: Diamondback – Diamondback is Luke Cage’s crazy half-brother who has tons of daddy issues and believes himself to be in a religious quest to purge Harlem of the corrupt and rule it. At the end of the day he is crazy and is never given any more dimension than that, which is fine but he isn’t great and is one of the weakest parts of this series. I wish Cottonmouth had stayed the big bad.

Pops – Pops is the mentor character but never felt fully fleshed out. He wasn’t bad and was a good guy but he works more as the ideal of Harlem and how all are in it together as family. In that way he works as well as being the call to action.

The Cons: The Final Fight – Diamondback and Luke Cage are fighting in the streets of Harlem and a crowd gathers to cheer on Cage. This felt so corny that it ruined the tension.

   The main cons that really bring the story down are the death of Cottonmouth (which made sense and I still really like Shades and Mariah and I’m glad they are still around) and Diamondback not being all that compelling. He’s crazy but he can’t carry it, especially since the first half of the series is setting up Cottonmouth as Luke Cage’s foil. His death was a major loss to the MCU and I think was overall the wrong choice due to how it shattered the great narrative pacing that had happened up to that point. I’d still recommend this series, it is a favorite and even though it is no “Daredevil” Season 1 I’d put it above “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” season 2 in the “Defenders” stories we have seen so far. We will need more stories like this in the future and I look forward to Season 2.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

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