With the release of each new season of Marvel’s collection of Netflix series, we’re always presented with one question: Is this the best one yet? As it stands right now, the ranking goes Season 1 of Daredevil, followed by Season 1 of Jessica Jones, and then Season 2 of Daredevil somewhere way below the first two. Placing Luke Cage somewhere on that scale though is difficult, even after watching the first seven episodes of the Mike Colter-led series.
We’ll keep this review relatively spoiler free, but here’s the basic synopsis: Luke Cage is an ex-con trying to live under the radar of society, having been given superpowers in a botched experiment in prison. He sweeps hair in a barbershop and washes dishes for a living, and generally tries to stay unnoticed. The series itself picks up sometime after the events of Jessica Jones, while filling in the many gaps in Luke’s past with flashbacks along the way.
Stylistically, Luke Cage is a masterwork that transcends even the boundaries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The old-school hip-hop, R&B, and soul soundtrack acts as a fitting complement to action and dialogue that’s equal parts a parody and homage to the days of blaxploitation films. It’s from that era where the original Luke Cage: Hero For Hire comics first began, and balancing the negative connotations of the genre while still echoing the tone is a tough line to walk. Netflix’s own Luke Cage walks that line beautifully though, and set against the backdrop of Harlem, it’s seamlessly incorporated into what amounts to your basic reluctant hero narrative.
Inevitably, comparisons to both Jessica Jones and Daredevil are going to happen, so let’s do that now and get it out of the way. Both series’ brilliant first seasons were driven by villains that number themselves among the best in the MCU. In Jessica Jones, we got the chilling sadism of David Tennant’s Kilgrave, while doubling as a parable on consent. Daredevil gifted us with Wilson Fisk, whose calm rage and detailed back-story made him equal parts terrifying and sympathetic. Luke Cage lacks that villain with Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, who at least for the first seven episodes doesn’t carry that same transcendent appeal as an adversary for our hero.
Throughout the early viewing, Cottonmouth feels like a lesser alternative to Fisk. Much like Daredevil, the primary conflict revolves around a wealthy criminal who pays off law enforcement, trying to seize control of a New York neighborhood while our hero seeks to dismantle his empire piece by piece. The biggest issue: After half the NYPD was arrested on corruption charges in Season 1 of Daredevil, it’s a tough ask to have us believe that the local police department has once again been bought off by a criminal kingpin.
All that is secondary to the crux of the story. Luke Cage is less about the conflict between a hero and a villain, and more about one man’s journey, set alongside a historic New York neighborhood. We’re here to learn about our titular main character more than anything, from his origins as an ex-con thrown into prison, to his reluctant evolution into Harlem’s protector. All the while, we get a collection of one-liners delivered by Colter that’ll have you jumping out of your seat and applauding on the regular.
There are times where you forget you’re watching a superhero show, with many of the early episodes used to set the groundwork for Luke’s various relationships within Harlem. The series works hard to help us understand who he is, why he does what he does, and how that relates to the people around him. It’s often at the expense of the primary hero versus villain conflict that drives most comic book stories, but it also affords us an in-depth perspective on both Harlem’s rich history and our main character.
In terms of the whole “is it better than Daredevil and Jessica Jones” question, it’s a tough comparison to make; it’s very much an apples and oranges type of debate. Each individual series focuses on something that goes far beyond good guys beating up bad guys. Daredevil is largely about morality and the grey lines that exist within it, Jessica Jones focuses on consent and the culture surrounding victims, and for Luke Cage, we get a series that narrows in on black culture and its evolution in the context of a single neighborhood.
Its core concept often works in its favor, but at times, it also makes it difficult to string together a cohesive narrative. Episode to episode, it’s tough to see where the story is going, and even after seven episodes, it’s unclear where the train is headed. That isn’t necessarily a knock against Luke Cage either. It’s merely an admission that the series doesn’t roll toward a central conflict like its Daredevil and Jessica Jones predecessors. Based on what we’ve seen so far though, we’re hopeful about what comes next.
Luke Cage releases in full on Netflix on September 30, 2016.
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