Netflix Marvel Retrospective – Luke Cage Season 1

Welcome back to third part of this series. Last time, in the Jessica Jones entry, I briefly mentioned Mike Colter’s Luke Cage but I held off talking about him too much since I would be getting more in-depth in this one. Luke Cage has been around since the 70’s and while several voice actors have played him in various cartoons, Mike Colter is the only live action actor unless we count the Macey’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from the 80’s (don’t worry, I won’t link to that again). The man had the build and the acting chops to pull it off, so it was another win for Netflix Marvel casting when he was hired. One of his greatest scenes was at the end of the second episode where he delivered a monologue worthy of Sydney Portier to a hood just before taking his gun away and shooting himself. It was a great indication of what was to come. Anyway, let’s get into the first season (oh, and there’ll be spoilers).

Topical Issues and Badass Fight Scenes

By the time the first season of Luke Cage dropped, fans were already used to the topical issues raised by Jessica Jones and since Luke Cage historically dealt with the struggles of African Americans, it wasn’t surprising that this show tackled a lot of current events. It was no coincidence that Cage wore a hoodie and was a man sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. On top of that, however, was a healthy dose of Luke Cage slamming mooks through walls. What’s not to love? While Jessica Jones was known for very personal stories that subverted a lot of superhero tropes, such as the hero beating up bad guys, Luke Cage jumped right in with plenty of exciting action sequences including hallway fights, which was a staple of these shows. The bad guys would always shoot Luke Cage no matter how many times he proved to be bullet proof, then he would waltz up to them and bop them on the head for the KO. Somehow, that never got old.

The show discussed multiple issues and delved into a part of American history that many people might not know about such as Crispus Attucks. It often did this through the setting, which took place in Harlem. While Daredevil’s show gave us a very nice setting in Hell’s Kitchen, Luke Cage presented Harlem in such a way that it was a character in and of itself. Through Harlem, it presented African American history, culture, and best of all, music. Okay, I’m gonna be honest right now. I’ve been writing this blog, trying not to just jump straight to the music as I know it’s best to talk about the show itself first but I can’t help myself. The music is incredible.

So anyway,… the music.

This show introduced me to a lot of great artists including Rapheal Saadiq and Sharon Jones. Since a large part of the series took place in a club called Harlem’s Paradise, we got to see many of these artists perform live. Some of the musical numbers were even shot during pivotal moments in the show such as this scene or this one. The directing was very tight, so it was always a treat to see this sort of editing. Oh, and the original score itself was phenomenal. It often sounded like a weird mix of 70’s blaxploitation with 70’s westerns. Also, many characters even had their own leitmotifs, so it gave the feeling that each episode was a little short film. Then you have the amazing intro theme that was so good, I never skipped it. Okay, I talked about the music, let’s get back to the show. Um, how about we talk about the supporting cast?

The Supporting Cast

Rosario Dawson, of course, returned as Claire Temple and made a great love interest for Luke Cage. I think we got a better sense of her character in this one as we understood more of her backstory and she began to come into her own as an ally for New York’s vigilantes whether she wanted to or not. Simone Missick, meanwhile, was great as the Sherlock Holmes-esque Misty Knight. I like that she went from a subverted love interest I (i.e. a one night stand), to an Inspector Javert type, and then a Commissioner Gordon type in a way that somehow made sense. These ladies quickly became Cage’s confidants and made for a great team. The guys at Pop’s Barber Shop also added to the show’s world building even if Pop died a few episodes in and the others mostly stayed in the background. Misty also had a partner named Rafael Scarfe played by this guy, although he ended up being a corrupt cop working for the big bad.

The Villains

The main villain was Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes played by the hugely talented Mahershalla Ali who was often compared to Kingpin and Killgrave, making for a nice villain trifecta. Stokes was interesting in that he was the latest in a long line of bosses in a crime family that ran Harlem’s Paradise for decades. The thing of it was, he was never actually cut out to be a gangster, even if he didn’t realize it. He was a gifted musician but due to a series of events, ended up leading the family’s organization against his better judgement. While Wilson Fisk was a gangster who thought he was a good man, Cornell Stokes was a good man who thought he was a gangster. Well, maybe calling him a good man is a bit of a stretch but it’s obvious he would have been a decent person if raised in a better family. Despite Cornell’s brutality and savviness, nothing ever quite goes his way. In fact, he ends up dead before the season is over. It would be easy for this sort of wannabe gangster to come off as unintimidating or laughable but Ali brought such a cool intensity to the character that he stole every scene he was in.

Cornell’s cousin, Mariah Dillard, was also a member of the Stokes family and was basically his exact opposite. While Cornell wanted to be a crimelord and live up to the family name, she wanted to stay away from the family but ended up being sucked in anyway (cue Al Pacino impression from Godfather III). To add to the irony, she made for a better criminal mastermind than Cornell. She started off as a politician who seemed at least moderately concerned for the people of Harlem but as the season went on, she found herself becoming more and more involved as Luke Cage closed in on her cousin. Then there was Shades who did time with Cage alongside his partner Comanche, who only appeared in flashbacks in this season but would return for a larger role in the next one. Anyway, Shades acted as a liaison between Cornell and his employer Diamondback (more on him in a sec). At first, he was friendly with Cornell and despised by Mariah but as the season went on, he became more frustrated with Cornell’s failures and started cozying up to Mariah as she got more comfortable in the role of a crimelord. This came to a head when, in a fit of drunken rage, Mariah killed Cornell with Shades swooping in to comfort her and give her advice (he would later admit he was going to kill Cornell anyway). This was a great twist and when I first watched this season, I was really intrigued. It was only seven episodes into the series and they killed off the main villain while having a perfect set-up for Mariah to come in as the new big bad with Shades as her lieutenant. It seemed like the series would go in a very interesting direction.

And then things went sideways

So if the first seven episodes of the first season were some of the best Marvel Netflix had to offer, the remaining six episodes were some of the worst. I’m still not sure what happened. It’s hard to imagine the first half of the season was made by the same people who did the second half.

Remember when Cornell died and Mariah was set to take over? Well, that arc came to a screeching halt and we got Diamondback instead. You might recall Diamondback was mentioned as Shades’ employer earlier. While his name came up once or twice, he didn’t appear until after Cornell died. Within the first few seconds he appeared onscreen, he shot Luke with a plot device bullet and shouted, “CAN YOU DIG IT?” (I guess he was a big fan of Walter Hill movies). I’m not sure what else the actor has been in but as Diamondback, he was a living ham and cheese sandwich. In a different show, this level of over-the-top goofiness could work but the Marvel Netflix franchise tended to be more down to Earth and this show certainly embodied that, so it was pretty disorienting.

Oh, and did I mention that Diamondback was Luke’s best friend growing up?

Oh, and did I mention that Diamondback was also Luke’s half brother?

Oh, and that’s because Luke’s minister father wasn’t the saint he presented himself as.

Oh, and by the way, Luke didn’t have a good relationship with his father.

Oh, and it turns out Diamondback was the one who framed Luke and sent him to prison to begin with.

All this information came almost that quickly as the show suddenly hit us with multiple revelations in the span of what seemed like five minutes as Diamondback dropped bombshell after bombshell. These were meant to be huge surprises but since the show didn’t foreshadow any of this and they kept dropping in rapid succession from a guy who never stopped grinning like a maniac, it didn’t have the dramatic punch it should have. It should also be mentioned that Diamondback was a bit of a Villain Sue.

For starters, he just so happened to have a bullet that could hurt Luke. That wasn’t too bad since Luke had been pretty unstoppable up until that point, so it was nice to see him struggle. But somehow, everyone who came close to Diamondback suddenly became stupid and weak such as when he pointed a gun at Misty Knight’s head and gave her PTSD for the next few episodes. You’d think a tough detective like Misty would have had a gun pointed at her head before but I guess Diamondback points guns harder than most villains. Oh, and Mariah and Shades? They fold like laundry the moment he shows up and fade into the background, which undid all the great build-up the show had. After that, Diamondback somehow starts running Harlem’s Paradise despite not owning it. I know they wanted to show that this new guy was dangerous but instead of establishing him as a dangerous person, they just wrote everyone else as being less competent, which is never a good sign. Things got even crazier when he held hostages at Harlem’s Paradise, including Misty Knight and a city councilman and at the end of that ordeal, he walked out the front door, past several cops, and never, y’know… got arrested. Everyone saw him holding hostages with his face fully visible and his name was mentioned several times by his underlings so it’s not like the police wouldn’t know who he was. Yet, he simply walked out the door without a single police officer even looking at him. No explanation. Diamondback was supposedly so good at being a villain that logic went out the window. Then it got worse.

Why would they do this to us?

Diamondback eventually got his hands on a suit of “armor” in time for the big final fight with Luke. Now, Netflix Marvel shows often distanced themselves from costumes: Daredevil simply wore black clothes with a stocking over his face for most of his series, Iron Fist never properly wore a mask, the Punisher rarely put a skull on his chest, etc. Even this show poked fun at Luke Cage’s old costume from the 70’s, showing they were above such things. And yet, they put Diamondback in this thing. It’d be alright if the costume looked passable, but he looked like he stepped off the set of some 60’s B-movie. Hell, they could have at least made it all black to hide how cheap it looked but no. They decided to go with olive green and bright yellow as a way to really draw attention to how bad it was. And yes, I know this was similar to what the character wore in the comics but once again, this show made it a point that all those costumes were silly so they don’t get a free pass here. Especially since the comics costume was bad even by the standards of a decades-old comic. Of course, this suit didn’t stop Diamondback from taking huge bites out of the scenery as he roared, “I AM THE ANGEL OF DEATH” just before getting into a fistfight with Luke. It was just another indication that this character was a complete misfire. It’s just amazing how badly they screwed the pooch on this one. Anyway, there’s one more problem we gotta talk about.

The Netflix Problem

As bad as the last half of the season was, it felt oddly rushed but also dragged at the same time (cue JK Simmons impression from Whiplash). I mentioned earlier that there were multiple revelations just after Diamondback showed up that came so quickly, none of them had time to really set in. And yet, the next two episodes had Luke slowly dying of a gunshot wound as Claire slowly got him help. The flashbacks to Luke’s dad and him growing up with Diamondback were repetitive but for some reason, we never got a flashback to Luke getting framed or how Diamondback did it. In fact, not only do we never learn how he got framed but we never even learn what crime he was sent to prison for to begin with. This made things even more frustrating since the final episode had a folder popping up out of nowhere, containing proof of Luke’s innocence. What was in the folder? How did the characters get their hands on it? Who knows. The show didn’t have time to explain any of this because it was too busy showing us another scene of Luke talking about his dad again. And the climatic fight? It happened in the first 20 minutes or so of the final episode of the season. The rest of the episode was Luke and Claire hanging out in a police station, recapping a large portion of the season. And while there was a good cliffhanger at the end, it was a disappointing conclusion to what started off as a perfect show.

Final Verdict

The first half of the season was as good as it gets in terms of superhero shows. Somehow, they shot themselves in the foot getting to the home stretch but at least they learned from their mistakes. Season 2 was an improvement even if it never quite reached the heights of season 1. Next up: Daredevil season 2.

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