‘Luke Cage’ solid, yet unspectacular (Spoilers)

Josh Setchel

Marvel’s latest Netflix venture is an entertaining neo-blaxploitation that doesn’t rise to the heights of “Daredevil.”

In the shadows of Harlem, former convict Carl Lucas (Mike Colter) lives his life paycheck to paycheck under the new alias Luke Cage. When those he’s closest to come under fire by the mob, Cage must embrace his newly obtained super powers (born from a botched prison experiment) and once again become a fugitive as he fights for the people of his city.

Despite a setting nearly drowned in shadows, “Luke Cage” shines brightest in its character work. Cage himself is given a fascinating arc to work with and Colter brings to him the perfect blend of gentleness and ferocity. He isn’t looking for anything or anyone, he simply wants to live his life and be left alone. He only steps up to fight when his employer and father figure, Pops, is killed by thugs working for nightclub owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali).

Speaking of Cottonmouth, Netflix once again excels where Marvel movies have consistently fallen behind: they’ve given a strong antagonist. Granted, he has much more screen time than his big screen brethren, but even so, Ali, better known as Commander Boggs from “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” is a conniving, self-centered businessman who will go to any lengths to keep his post. He’s a nefarious creature and effortlessly compelling to watch….. until he meets his maker merely seven episodes into the 13-episode run at the hands of his cousin Mariah Dillard.

Dillard is portrayed by the ever-reliable Alfre Woodard in her second Marvel Cinematic Universe role following a small bit as a grieving mother in “Captain America: Civil War,” and she’s one lady you don’t want to mess with, especially after murdering her cousin and taking control of his underground empire. She even gets the best of Cage by framing her cousin’s murder on his half-brother, Willis Stryker, who steps up to become the series headlining villain, Diamondback.

Here’s where “Luke Cage” starts to slip. A narrative that began with a steady rise begins to stall and spin its wheels. No less than four or five episodes go nowhere and only extend the series runtime. This isn’t a horrible problem, especially considering the binge-watching design, but it’s a distraction nonetheless. “Daredevil” never faltered in the same way as even its one-off episodes felt relevant. The same can’t be said of “Luke Cage.” Trimming to eight or nine episodes would’ve done the story a world of good.

It doesn’t help that a villain as well set-up as Cottonmouth is offed so early, forcing the writers to bring another foe to the plate. That’s not to say Diamondback is poorly written, he’s not, but an entire season dedicated to either him or Cottonmouth would most certainly have been preferred. Kind of ironic that a show with so much filler can barely make room for its villains.

Even so, “Luke Cage” is very much worth watching. The characters are strong and the look and feel of Harlem is captured beautifully, not to mention accompanied by a near perfect soundtrack. Come for those things, as well as some thrilling, if all-too-brief, action beats. If anything, ‘Luke Cage’ will leave you hungry for more and with ‘The Defenders’ and ‘Iron Fist’ on the horizon that’s probably enough.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars