Hey, hey friends! It’s time for another Marvel Netflix binge with Dana! This time it’s the unbreakable LUKE CAGE and I’ll be diving into one episode per day with you here (though after a day or two you can be assured I’ve watched it all and you’re just getting things parceled out in discrete units.) Honestly, before Agents of SHIELD started back up for its fourth season and betrayed me by being actually good again, Luke Cage was one of the only things on the Marvel slate I was looking forward to. With Jessica Jones and Daredevil‘s second season, the Netflix Marvel series are hands down the things in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I expect to be consistently phenomenal. After the first episode, Luke Cage isn’t quite there for me yet. But this is a Netflix series, designed to binge. Discrete episodes are hard to judge on their own. It has time to get there.
There are three things this episode does well: it introduces the characters and conflict for the rest of the story, it establishes the aesthetics of the show, and it situates itself within the MCU at large so it can get on with its business.
Plot-wise, this is almost entirely setup. It’s intriguing, and it all makes sense, but the plot of this particular episode is a bit contrived and messy. Harlem club owner Cottonmouth decides to get into organized crime so he sets up a deal with a gang leader that’s messed up by some of Cottonmouth’s own employees etc. This is all well and good. The messy part comes when, in a further effort to show the apparent downhill slide of Harlem, Cottonmouth assigns some hired thugs to shadow his Councilwoman cousin Mariah. They start roughing up the neighborhood under the cover of “helping” and demand money for Mariah’s development project. I get that it’s all connected but the connections are loose and easy to miss. The entire situation exists mostly to introduce Luke’s neighborhood acquaintances and give him an opportunity to stand up for the defenseless. Luke defending his landlady from is supposed to be his big moment of heroism but in the context of this episode I’m just glad to see him beat some people up. I liked the little name-drop where he said he’s not for hire and the action scenes are awesome as ever. Luke’s power makes for just plain cool fight scenes with unconventional choreography given that nothing will stop him. But as a hero’s awakening it was weak. Cottonmouth seems like a less interesting rip-off of Fisk at this point and he needs his own story to set him apart. I’m sure this will happen as the series goes on. That’s both a pleasure and a curse of a streaming series. You can start slow and weave in a bunch of things that you need later, but also you start slow. No big at this point.
One advantage Luke Cage has is that we’ve already been introduced to the character on Jessica Jones. We already know he’s likable so it’s like catching up with an old friend. Establishing that he’s hiding out by doing odd jobs for a former acquaintance is nice and hints at the mystery of Luke’s background which I am thrilled to dive into (please tell me we dive into that.) Somehow Luke ended up in a vat getting experiment on and got powers. I want that entire story now, please, put it in my brain like a file transfer. Luke skulking around Harlem is cool, but this whole episode was one long mood piece more than a story. If this is going to be about Luke’s hero awakening I’m all right with having a little time with him pre-hero, but there was never really a hook for a larger plot. When the episode was over I was just sort of like “okay, that was cool,” and waited calmly for the next one to autoplay.
One of my pet topics is the way Marvel does such nifty things with the genre of each entry in the MCU. Good Marvel things always find the perfect form to suit their content. That’s one of the tell-tale signs of whether it’s going to be good or garbage: is it just a generic action movie or does it have a defined style? I’m not entirely sure that Luke Cage has a style at this point, but it definitely has an aesthetic. The music swings between funk, blues, freeform jazz, and basically any and all other music that originated in black culture over the past 100 years. I love it. The music is the most delightful part of the show so far. It gives every scene a unique atmosphere. It’s the music more than any narrative or photographic style that’s doing almost all the work as far as creating the feel of the show. The dialogue and aesthetic are also proudly and unabashedly black which is fresh and refreshing because of its rarity in mainstream storytelling. What I really want is for this show to be a Blaxsploitation-inspired funky action-fest. I’ll wait and see. I would have liked this episode to have a bit more stylized narrative structure rather than just pretty decorations like the music and sets but, again, this is the first episode and there’s plenty of room for style yet. I didn’t even give myself over to my beloved Jessica Jones until about the fourth episode. There’s time.
One of my favorite things is when all the pieces in this crazy Marvel transmedia experiment connect, and it only takes one or two minor details to do it. Here, there’s a guy on the street selling recordings of “the Incident” which I’m presuming in New York City is still going to be the Chitauri Invasion from The Avengers. The other place where it connects in a pleasurable way is Cottonmouth’s illegal arms dealing when he’s selling contraband Hammer explosives. Who even thinks about Justin Hammer anymore? That one made me happy. There are also a few nice allusions to “the other fellas downtown” (which could either be Daredevil and co. or the Avengers) and Luke’s “rebound chick” aka Jessica Jones. So in like the first ten minutes it was already like “yeah, yeah, here’s this big stuff and here’s this little stuff; y’all already know what’s up so let’s get on with this.” It did a good job of it. I’m satisfied.
Overall, this episode is nice to look at but is narratively a bit slow. It plods and broods more than it mystifies and excites. There’s just not much to hook you for the rest of the story. What hooked me was the pretty sights and sounds. It’s hard to judge episodes of streaming series individually when they’re designed for binge watching and hence have a completely different structure than traditional television episodes. Essentially, this is the first hour of a thirteen hour movie and the only thing it needs to do is keep me interested. I’m plenty interested. Next episode.
Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
Follow Dana on Twitter: @DanaLeighBrand
Keep up with all of Dana’s reviews here.
Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor