“Luke Cage,” the Netflix-exclusive show was released Sept. 30 and follows Marvel’s Luke Cage, played by Mike Colter (“The Good Wife”), as he grapples with confronting his past, complicated relationships, and most of all, his bulletproof body. However, unlike its titular protagonist, “Luke Cage” is certainly not bulletproof.
Colter, reprising his role as Cage after first appearing in last year’s “Jessica Jones,” delivers a dynamic performance, but not dynamic in that Colter shows incredible range; instead, the word is fitting in that it conveys the sometimes-believable sometimes-robotic acting on display. However, Colter’s shoulders should not bear blame for all elements of his character’s shortcomings. Bad writing appears far too often for the actors to be solely responsible for his subpar performance.
Neither was the plague of poor scripting quarantined to Colter’s character. Detective Mercedes “Misty” Knight (Simone Missick, “Douglass U”) and Domingo Colon (Jacob Vargas, “Sons of Anarchy”), present the viewers with this gem of an interaction: “How do you have time to commit crimes and train boxers?” says Knight. Colon responds, “I guess you must have to be good at multitasking,” prompting forced chuckles by both actors.
The weak writing even extends outside the realm of dialogue and into the storytelling. It has always been unclear what the Marvel shows’ goals are when they introduce heavy topics and themes. On one hand, they delve into issues of serious import, like rape and sexual abuse in “Jessica Jones” or gang culture in “Luke Cage,” then include elements of absurdity alongside whatever ideas and discussions are presented.
When Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”) suddenly appears on a roof in the middle of Harlem with a rocket launcher, then blows a whole building to pieces with it, any suspension of disbelief comes crashing down. Furthermore, Cottonmouth’s character is presented as a hot-tempered gangster whose laugh is a dead ringer for that of the Count from Sesame Street. He responds with laughter to almost any situation, whether having just made a threat or having just been threatened.
Yet in the episode of his death, the audience is pressured to feel bad for Cottonmouth through a series of flashbacks leaving the audience to question why the writers needed to present a second face to this previously one-dimensional character right before he dies. Was having him as a mindless crazy villain for the first half of the season just too important to pass up?
Yet despite the phoned-in writing that so often shakily supports the show, it cannot be denied that the premise and plot are genuinely interesting. Whether that is a credit solely to the source material is impossible to say, but it is very refreshing to see a superhero with a scientific explanation for his “abilities” instead of just having them shoved in the audience’s face with no context.
Another bright spot in “Luke Cage” is its hip-hop influence, which permeates the show like water in a sponge. It is perhaps most apparent and well-implemented in the soundtrack composed by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The original recordings heard during lapses in action distinctly recall Younge’s other work and are very welcome whenever they appear in the show. The viewer even granted a snippet of Ghostface Killah’s “King of New York,” during a contemplative scene with Shades.
While the soundtrack may be a high point, other elements of the flavor leave something to be desired. For the number of times Harlem is brought up in dialogue, more effort should have been spent matching imagery, references and music with locale.
The looming picture of the Brooklyn rapper Biggie in Cottonmouth’s office is recognizable to a mainstream audience, but it would make much more sense to have Harlem rappers Big L or even Cam’ron instead.
It also has to be asked why Gang Starr, also from Brooklyn, was so important to the fabric of the show that every episode had to be named after one of their songs. These might seem minor issues to the casual observer, but when a show goes to such lengths to cater to a certain niche audience, it has an obligation to get the small details right.