THE SHOW “Marvel’s Luke Cage”
WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Luke Cage (Mike Colter) — wrongly jailed in the brutal Seagate Prison — is out and trying to rebuild his life, working odd jobs around Harlem, and helping Pop (Frankie Faison) at his barber shop. Luke’s got a past, of course (a failed experiment gave him great strength and the ability to repel bullets) but he’s looking to the future as a normal person. It’s that past, though, that keeps pulling him back. A local mobster, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), has been robbed, and has reason to think one of the perps knows Pop. Stokes want his money, and so does the real boss of Harlem, his cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), the local — and blindingly corrupt — councilwoman. A couple of cops try to work a vicious murder case, but Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Det. Scarfe (Frank Whaley) quickly learn that what happens in Harlem stays there. Soon enough, Luke meets up with a new friend and ally, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson).
MY SAY At long last, the black superhero is having his — and it is mostly “his” — moment, with Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther, or “Captain America’s” Anthony Mackie as Falcon. But those moments are up there on the big screen. What about down here, eye-level with the rest of us, on TV?
That distinction belongs to Mike Colter’s Luke Cage, first introduced on “Jessica Jones,” and now fully occupying his own universe — a preferred Marvel word to the more mundane “series.” In the span of tv history, there have only rarely been other series with black superheroes — Carl Lumbly, for example, in the long ago and far away Fox series, “M.A.N.T.I.S.” There has never been a series or hero with either the scope or ambition of this one, so “milestone” feels like the right word for this Friday’s launch.
At Comic-Con over the summer, “Luke” creator and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker said, “When I think about what’s going on in the world right now, the world is ready for a bulletproof black man.” But it’s abundantly clear Coker hasn’t created a hero or series necessarily refracted through real-world tragedies, either.
Colter’s Luke is distilled from the classic Stan Lee master plan: Human first, hero second, and reluctant to heed the call. “I don’t want to be different from anybody else,” he says to Claire — fully aware that he is ridiculously different from anybody else. Luke is a fully formed character when we meet him, with shards of his back story pulled from the Marvel universe, but the rest of them are brand new. He’s a tragic figure, but the trajectory of his journey is Shakespeare in reverse. He’s already suffered his fall. Now, the rise.
Colter — as “Jessica” fans already know — is just about perfect in this role. He’s a melancholic who has taken the worst the world can throw at him, then — ka-BLAMM! — spits it right back. Bullets literally bounce off that torso, squashed and misshapen. They are your metaphor for that cold, cruel world, which had best watch out: Luke may not be vengeful, but he is righteous.
The rest of the cast is reasonably perfect, too. Ali was a standout in “House of Cards,” and as Luke’s archrival, a standout here as the Tony Montana of Harlem. Missick’s Misty Knight is the tough/gentle cop with a back story, and Whaley’s Scarfe is her cynical counterpart with an entirely different one. They’re also — unexpectedly — the ideal buddy cop duo with chemistry. Woodard — one of the greats, after all — has constructed another “Luke Cage” standout, as the councilwoman actually more depraved than “Cottonmouth.”
As a viewer perhaps about to devote a good portion of your Friday or weekend to this, here’s something else you need to know, or at least gird yourself for: “Luke Cage” can be maddeningly slow, even lethargic. The early episodes build out the characters; Luke’s Seagate Prison back story arrives by the fourth; and the broader city of New York south of 125th Street begins to take notice of Luke’s unusual abilities by the fifth.
But, at times, “Luke Cage” feels like a series in search of a story, or a series intent on drawing one out, scene by chatty scene, over 13 episodes. (Six were available for review; I watched the first two, sampled the rest.)
A cast this good, especially a Luke Cage this good, should compensate.
BOTTOM LINE Sluggish story compared with “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” but Colter and cast are first-rate.