Welcome to The A.V. Club’s Luke Cage binge-watch. From Friday, September 30 through Sunday, October 2, A.V. Club contributor Caroline Siede will be watching and reviewing every episode of the Marvel series’ first season.You can follow along and comment on the whole season on the binge-watching hub page or chime in on the individual episode reviews. For those watching at a more moderate pace, reviews by Ali Barthwell will run every other day beginning Monday, October 3.
Though it bears his name in big, bold letters, it turns out Luke Cage isn’t nearly as focused on its protagonist as I expected it to be. This premiere, at least, is more the story of a community than it is the story of an indestructible man with a reluctant hero streak. To some extent that’s also been true of Marvel’s previous Netflix series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which both dive into the seedy underbelly of Hell’s Kitchen (the former more so than the latter). But Luke Cage’s premiere is even more focused on world building than character building, in ways that are both good and bad.
The bad is that Luke gets a little lost in his own premiere. It’s not an especially egregious misstep, particularly because Mike Colter is charismatic enough that he could never fully get lost in the shuffle. But, like many Netflix original series, Luke Cage is clearly banking on the fact that its audience will be sticking around to binge at least a few episodes; its premiere doesn’t need to be as top-heavy as a traditional pilot.
The trade-off, however, is that Luke Cage manages to establish a world that’s not only incredibly vibrant, but also wholly original in the realm of live-action superhero properties. Luke Cage isn’t just the first black protagonist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Luke Cage is perhaps the most unapologetically black live action superhero series ever. (How many comic book properties feature a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as a major prop?) And “Moment Of Truth” is as interested in fleshing-out its heightened version of Harlem as it is fleshing out Luke.
From the loving barbershop banter to the sexy flirtations at Harlem’s Paradise nightclub to the complicated hierarchy of the neighborhood’s criminal element, creator Cheo Hodari Coker (who also wrote this episode) paints a loving portrait of the diversity of the black experience in Harlem. Hell, I’m pretty sure this episode alone has more black female characters than the rest of the MCU combined, including Simone Missick as the instantly magnetic Misty Knight.
Luke Cage reflects its interest in the black experience in both style and substance. Not only is the show set in a predominantly black community, the series spices up its grittily realistic superhero tone with a healthy dollop of Blaxploitation flavoring. Everything from the soundtrack to the editing to the heightened performances of the show’s gangster criminals are imbued with a specific 1970s energy that immediately sets this series apart from both Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
I’m looking forward to seeing how Luke Cage both embraces and subverts Blaxploitation tropes as the series progresses. Particularly because—as Dan Caffrey points out in his reviews of The Get Down—the 2016 TV landscape has a surplus of gangsters. Not only are they running disco clubs in that series, they’re also investing in the music industry in Vinyl, shaking down restaurateurs on Feed The Beast, and—of course—trying to make Hell’s Kitchen great again on Daredevil. Given that mobsters have long been a part of both superhero stories and Blaxploitation films, it makes sense that Luke Cage would want to utilize them too. But, on the other hand, the interactions between Mahershala Ali’s power-hungry nightclub owner and Alfre Woodard’s pragmatic local politician are by far the most overly familiar parts of this premiere.
But Luke Cage succeeds in making both of those characters more than just stock archetypes by finding the specificity behind their broader characterizations. I’ve seen plenty of scenes in which a well-dressed criminal kingpin beats the shit out of someone, as Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes does to a double-crossing employee. But I’ve yet to see one in which the kingpin does so in front of a giant pop art portrait of Biggie Smalls. Similarly, while Woodard’s Mariah Dillard fits a familiar mold of politicians willing to bend the rules for what they see as the greater good, the specificity of her “New Harlem Renaissance” platform (“For black lives to matter, black history and black ownership must also matter”) brings something new to the table
This premiere comes alive when it utilizes specificity (like a junkyard shootout intercut with a Raphael Saadiq performance) and stumbles when it falls back on tired tropes (“Everyone has a gun. No one has a father”). If Luke Cage can find a way to focus on the former over the latter, I think we’ve got a smashing (pun very much intended) binge-watch on our hands.
Standout moment: There’s so much I didn’t get to mention above, but I love the opening barbershop argument about which celebrities get an automatic free haircut at Pop’s. The list includes Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Richard Roundtree, Michael Jordan, Al Pacino (“The Godfather and Scarface guaranteed that man an eternal ghetto pass”), and Pat Riley (“Cause The Knicks played like men when Pat Riley was head coach”).
Marvel Cinematic Universe connections: In a particularly meta moment, a man on the street is hawking DVDs of The Avengers saving New York. Plus Mariah name drops Wilson Fisk; Stokes’ illegal weapons are manufactured by Iron Man 2 villain Justin Hammer; and Jessica Jones gets written off as a “rebound chick” (rude). And the moment in which Luke beats up a group of thugs before the final one abandons the group was either stolen from or an homage to Iron Man 3.
Recommendation Corner: Because this show is so tied to the black experience, I’m really looking forward to reading how black critics respond to it. Please feel free to hit me up with recommendations in the comments or on Twitter and I’ll share some of my favorite articles here, starting with Joshua Alston’s great pre-air review.
Burning question: Did we previously know from Jessica Jones that Luke had spent time in prison? I don’t think so.
P.S. I’ll be keeping my titles and review photos vague so those who aren’t binging the whole show in one weekend don’t have to worry about accidental spoilers!