In the previous two Netflix Marvel series, fans have seen stories about special people who acquired powers, and the struggles they experience because, and in spite, of those powers. Daredevil shows a blind lawyer who uses his powers, and has a problem being part of the legal system while being a vigilante. Jessica Jones is about a former super hero trying to escape the grip of a mysterious man who made her do horrible things.
The third series, Luke Cage, is interesting in two ways. First, it’s technically a spin-off of Jones because that’s where he first showed up in the Marvel/Netflix-verse. The other way is that it’s a re-origin story, a hero’s journey that winds up at a place people don’t expect.
The series is filled with excellent performances, especially from Mike Colter as Cage, Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, Simone Missick as Detective Misty Knight, and Alfre Woodard as Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Stokes’ cousin and partner). However, the overall story could have been told in ten or eleven episodes rather than 13.
The main story about Cage is still very compelling. A former cop and son of a less-than-holy preacher is framed for a crime, and put in Seagate Prison. There, he’s chosen for an experiment that will make him invunerable, and thanks to a racist guard, it works too well. He’s now bulletproof and very strong, but he just wants to be left alone, working at a barber shop and as a dishwasher while trying to make the rent. Fate, however, has other plans.
It begins when a gun deal between Stokes and the local Hispanic gang is hijacked by three teens hoping to make a big score. It leads to a shootout that kills Henry “Pop” Hunter, Cage’s boss. It convinces Luke to take action, and he causes a lot of problems for Stokes. Cage even gets some publicity for his heroism. However, Detective Knight doesn’t like Cage’s methods, because they go outside the system. Too bad she doesn’t notice she her partner happens to be working for Stokes.
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard is busy trying to remake Harlem in her own image, and with Stokes’ money. Dillard prefers to do it in a respectable manner, while Stokes says money and power are what counts. The arguments they have at his club are amazing, and tease her true self.
A third person named Diamondback (Erik LaRey Harvey) is lurking in the shadows, represented by a guy named Shades (Theo Rossi). This new player says he can help Stokes with a special bullet, and he will also play an even bigger impact on Cage’s life.
If there’s an overall theme, it’s power, and how people use each other to advance themselves, for good and bad. Cage is inspired by Pop and Crispus Attucks to step up and protect the people of Harlem. However, he’s also used by others. In prison, he’s drafted into the prison fight club by a corrupt guard named Rackham, and that scientific experiment by a supposed ally. The media uses him as a symbol of hope for Harlem, until Dillard turns him into a threat when he is framed again for a murder he didn’t commit. That helps in her plans for a new housing complex and efforts to stay on the city council despite her connections to Stokes.
Even though Stokes and Diamondback cause a lot of problems for Cage, Dillard is actually the most interesting villain since Loki. Even though she claims she’s not like her notorious grandmother Mama Mabel Stokes, she’s actually worse. She has incredible skills at media manipulation and is a pretty good actress, which barely keep her out of trouble. She also knows how to make alliances that benefit her, and can be decisive. One decision, in fact, changes the entire series. Alfre Woodard does a wonderful job playing a politician we can proudly love to hate.
Misty Knight also plays an interesting role in Luke Cage’s life. She first appears at Stokes’ club in a blue dress, and she’s very attracted to Cage. Suddenly, it’s revealed she’s a detective for the NYPD. Although she’s called out on her encounter with Cage, she still does a good job trying to represent the law, the system that supposedly works. It gets harder when she figured out not all of the cops can be trusted, and she loses her cool trying to find Cage. Still, she has an interesting skill of recreating crime scenes in her head. She also learns Cage is not responsible for all of the problems in Harlem, but doesn’t quite get all of those who are. She won’t give up, though. Just look at her last scene, set at Stokes’ place. She is expected to be back when the Defenders series airs next year.
One other character should be recognized: former nurse Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson. She’s the only person who’s appeared in all three Netflix Marvel series, and is becoming the Peggy Carter and Phil Coulson of this part of the MCU. She’s able to keep Cage positive and more-or-less healthy during his time on the run. She can also tell off Knight for her attitude towards him. She’s thinking that maybe she’s meant to be nurse to superheroes, and embraces this role all the way.
If there are any flaws in the series, it’s giving Diamondback a special connection to Cage that wasn’t necessary. The fact that he’s more intense and deadly than Stokes is enough. Also, it wasn’t necessary to have a scene where Cage saves someone famous in a robbery attempt. It was good, just not needed. The hostage situation when Dillard was trying to rally people against Cage ran a bit too long. The final clash between Cage and Diamondback also doesn’t pay off, especially because of what Diamondback is wearing.
The other battles Cage has with assorted thugs, though, were very good, especially when he decides to grab much of Stokes’ cash from the Crispus Attucks building, and at Domingo’s gym.
The final scenes, however, will surprise people who expected some sort of a happy ending. Cage’s past haunts him, and he faces the consequences. Dillard’s fate takes an unexpected turn, too. Diamondback also is healing, and his doctor may make him better than new…in a bad way. There’s still hope, though, things will eventually get better for Cage and Harlem.
By the way, there’s plenty of details that link this show to Jessica Jones and Daredevil. We hear part of Trish Talk with people talking about Cage, while Claire promises Cage he’ll get some good legal help from a friend of hers. There’s also some guy selling homemade DVDs of that time aliens fought a green guy, some blonde guy with a hammer and other heroes.
There’s also a lot of discussion about basketball early in the series, and also Black authors. This webpage lists all of them mentioned on the show.
The next Marvel series on Netflix will be Iron Fist, coming next March.