Reviewing a show like Luke Cage is a tricky endeavor.
On the surface, it seems like an easy enough show to give a pass to. It has a solid screenplay, an excellent performance by its lead, a uniquely groovy soundtrack, and solid roles for its supporting characters. The first season tells the origin story of Luke Cage, a man given bulletproof skin and super strength, who decides to use these gifts to combat the gangsters and corrupt politicians undermining his Harlem neighborhood.
But the problem with the first season of Luke Cage is that a good portion of it is damn close to immaculate, especially the first six episodes. These are the episodes that flesh out the characters the most, give the audience a feeling of the community pride the characters have for Harlem, and set the pieces up for the primary conflict. All of this compelling and evocative drama helps get the audience become invested in the show.
The rest of the show is, for lack of a better word, not. It’s still good in the later episodes, but after episode 6 it’s pretty difficult not to notice the drop-off in quality and audience engagement.
Nevertheless, the things that work in Luke Cage are the ones that stick around for the end. Mike Colter is simply magnificent as the titular character. It would be one thing just to play Cage as the indestructible, badass yet kind hero, but Colter does so much for the character that it becomes easy to miss some of the nuance, particularly in giving him a level of humanity and even humor present in the best of Marvel’s projects. Cage might be your typical benevolent badass, but he’s also well-read, suave, a bit of a ladies’ man, and has an understated eloquence in his voice and mannerisms.
The other main standout is Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, a police detective working parallel—but not in with conjunction—with Luke Cage to rid Harlem of crime. Like with Colter and Cage, the script enables Missick to give a real sense of three-dimensionality to Knight, subverting the no-nonsense cop archetype by granting her a likeable and relatable personality, while still allowing her to be stern.
The villains are a little more complicated. You wouldn’t have guessed it from the promotional material, but there end up being a total of four villains in the first season. The two best are Mahershala Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and his cousin, Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard. Ali looks like he’s having an absolute ball as the gangster kingpin Cottonmouth, chewing up scene after scene and adding a layer of humanity to his otherwise vile character. Woodard is also especially compelling. I was legitimately surprised by her character arc, and I’m really curious to see where it goes. Theo Rossi’s “Shades” is a bit one-dimensional, but he provides enough of a threatening presence that it’s often easy to overlook.
The biggest problem with the show comes in the form of Erik LaRay Harvey’s “Diamondback”, a mysterious figure from Cage’s past holding a grudge against him. LaRay Harvey provides enough menace to make the character almost work, but the character’s role in the overall story seems forced and out of left field. The series, up to that point, had been very realistic and subtle, developing characters and theme, but all of a sudden this nutjob pops up from Arkham Asylum with a vendetta against Cage and a bunch of plot holes in his wake.
Luke Cage is a fraustrating show because it’s so tantalizingly close to that level of excellence achieved by Daredevil and Jessica Jones, but it falls short. When it’s good it’s excellent, when it’s bad it’s average, and the rest is somewhere in between. On the whole, I’d say it’s pretty good and worth taking a look at, especially if you’re a Marvel fan.