‘Luke Cage’ a new kind of superhero show that suffers from some old problems

“We are witnessing a massive shift in the boundaries of possibility,” a talk radio host suggests midway through the first season of Luke Cage. In that moment, the host is discussing Luke Cage the man: super-strong, bullet-proof vigilante, waging a one-man war on crime in Harlem. But she could just as easily be discussing Luke Cage the Netflix/Marvel drama that debuts Friday, and what it and predecessor Jessica Jones have tried to do with the now-ubiquitous superhero TV show.

Just as Jessica Jones – the show that introduced Mike Colter as Cage, as part of Netflix’s elaborate plan to introduce their own team of street-level superheroes – found new life in a very familiar genre by filtering the cliches through an explicitly feminist lens (Jessica is a rape survivor, literally and metaphorically), Luke Cage does it by placing things in an unapologetically black context. Cage’s new base of operations is Harlem, and characters casually namecheck black authors like Walter Mosley, Donald Goines, and Ralph Ellison, or political/social figures like Percy Sutton and Geoffrey Canada, and one of the villains is based in a building named after Crispus Attucks, the black man who was the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War.

The cultural references lend a more authentic stamp to a character created by white men at the height of the ’70s blaxploitation era, who for decades in the comics fought crime in a canary yellow shirt open to his navel while uttering “Sweet Christmas!” as his catchphrase(*). But they come across as fundamental to the version of the character and story that executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker is telling. Luke Cage is a black man who is often out at night in a hoodie, and one of his opponents is a cynical politician (Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard) who uses the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as empty campaign rhetoric. When Cage’s crime lord opponent Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) is delivering a threatening monologue inspired by the framed Biggie Smalls poster in his office, or when Cage is fighting a few dozen of Cottonmouth’s soldiers while Wu-Tang’s “Bring Da Ruckus” blasts in his earbuds, Luke Cage feels like something mesmerizingly new, and incredibly topical even with all the super powers and colorful nicknames involved.

(*) The show eventually finds a way to work in the classic Cage costume (and “Sweet Christmas!,” for that matter) without undercutting the seriousness of this version.

But as with Jessica Jones, Luke Cage is able to shift the boundaries of possibility for what a superhero show can be about without doing the same for how it might be structured. In many of its moments, it’s wonderful, but it suffers from the narrative sag common not only to the previous Netflix/Marvel team-ups, but most of Netflix’s attempts at the “our season is really a 13-hour movie” model. As compelling as the Jessica Jones/Kilgrave dynamic was in her series, there was a monotony to that first season that wore down its effectiveness, and also forced characters to do incredibly stupid things (say, the support group suddenly turning vigilante commando squad at the worst possible moment) to keep the story going over all 13 episodes. Unless you are The Wire, doing 13 intensely serialized episodes of drama in a season that build in interest as they go along is nearly impossible. Either do a shorter run (Stranger Things was just about perfect at only 8 hours), or mix some standalone episodes in with the big bad arc to pace things out better and get more bang from the hours that are all about the larger arc. Though Luke Cage makes a significant story pivot near the end of the seventh episode, the plot had already begun to feel repetitive by that point, suggesting that, once again, the story is this long because of how many episodes there are to fill, and not vice versa.

Still, Mike Colter is every bit the charismatic hero promised by his Jessica Jones appearances. This take on Cage demands a lot from the actor playing him, who not only needs to be built like a tank, but command attention even when Cage — hiding out in a Harlem barbershop run by friend of the family Pop (Frankie Faison) after the events of Jessica Jones — is desperately trying to be ignored. There’s an easy confidence to the performance, befitting a character who theoretically can’t be hurt and can bend steel bars with his bare hands; he never has to puff out his chest, not only because it’s plenty broad at rest, but because he knows he’s won almost any potential fight before it’s even begun. (There’s a trace of Jack Reacher to the way Coker and others write Cage, including one scene where Cage is figuring out the geometry of Pop’s joint as a fight with Cottonmouth seems imminent.) He sparks well with both Simone Missick as Harlem cop Misty Knight, who’s investigating Cottonmouth and Mariah (cousins raised by the late Harlem crimelord Mama Mabel), and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, a nurse who has previously helped out both Daredevil and Jessica Jones(*), and the quieter early moments where Cage is resisting the entreaties of Pop to go after Cottonmouth(**) and set an example of the community are a fun acting duet between wily veteran Faison and the relatively new Colter.

(*) Claire aside, the series only occasionally dabbles in the whole Marvel Extended Cinematic Universe thing, or even Netflix’s corner of it, and is better off for it. Among the clumsier bits from the early episodes is an extended cameo by Rob Murgan as Daredevil goon Turk, who keeps making reference to how things are in Hell’s Kitchen, like he’s a sitcom eighth banana being sent to lend credibility to a late spinoff. And the series is completely ignoring that Woodard played a different role in Captain America: Civil War, which is for the best, since it would be a waste of a great actress if she couldn’t play a meaty role – which grows more complicated as it goes along, until we begin to question how much of Mariah’s campaign talk is a hustle on the voters, how much on herself, and how much is surprisingly sincere – on a TV show because of a tiny role in a distantly-related film.

(**) One odd piece of casting: Pop, Mariah, and Cottonmouth are all meant to be roughly contemporary of one another, even though Faison and Woodard are decades older than Ali. As with Woodard, Ali’s good enough — after a career spent mostly playing cool and reserved sidekick types, he gleefully spits out all the fire and brimstone that comes with this role — that I wouldn’t want to lose him from the part, but it’s distracting every time someone brings up the history between the characters.

And though Coker is mostly trying to follow the lead of comics writers like Brian Michael Bendis in bringing Cage into the modern era, the show’s soundscape is a mix of contemporary hip-hop (sometimes performed live at Cottonmouth’s club) and a fantastic score that calls back to the character’s ’70s roots. Often, the best parts of the original blaxploitation films were their soundtracks (once you’ve made it through the Shaft theme song, you’ve seen the best the movie has to offer), but here all the strings and horns only enhance the power of what’s being done and said.

Though Daredevil has proven to be a muddle, both Jessica Jones and now Luke Cage demonstrate how effective the old stories can be when viewed from a different angle. For Marvel’s next trick, they need to shift the boundaries of how they tell their stories to go along with how well they’ve changed the kinds of people they’re telling those stories about.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com