After teasing audiences with his vast potential in the Netflix series, Jessica Jones, Harlem’s hero, Power Man announces his presence with authority in creator Cheo Hodari Coker’s deeply satisfying new series, Luke Cage.
The latest series from the Marvel family follows a low-key and unassuming man trying his best to avoid the spotlight. Unfortunately, the circumstances around him force him to step up and become a protector. Much of the pilot episode, Moment of Truth, is designed to introduce the uninitiated into Cage’s dark and fascinating world full of colorful characters, engaging music and a rogue’s gallery of potential adversaries.
Formerly a neighborhood thug, Pop (Frankie Faison) now commands the respect of everyone uptown as his barbershop is considered a “safe zone” from neighborhood violence. Hiding in plain site at the shop, Cage (Michael Colter) performs menial tasks around the shop and fights off advances from the attractive mother of one of the neighborhood kids (Cassandra Freeman).
Much of the violence perpetrated in Harlem comes the presence of the neighborhood drug kingpin and his crew, led by the charismatic Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), who uses his upscale nightclub, “Harlem’s Paradise” as an elaborate front for the illegal activities of not just his business affairs, but those of his cousin, Harlem Councilwoman, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). Peeking over his shoulder is his mysterious old friend, his “gangster consultant,” Shades (Theo Rossi), keeping Cottonmouth on point.
While Cage pushes a broom during the day, by night he washes dishes after hours in Cottonmouth’s club to make ends meet and keep his persistent landlady off his back. In the pilot episode, Cage steps in when one of the bartenders calls out, making the acquaintance of an amorous admirer, Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) who is much more than meets the eye.
Meanwhile on the other side of town, a botched robbery sets a chain of events into motion that will embolden Cottonmouth, setting his vengeance against his uptown foes and force our reluctant hero to show his true form.
Unlike previous Netflix Marvel series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage‘s universe feel fully developed. His world is three-dimensional in ways that his Defender predecessors are lacking. While his motives are initially understood, over time Cage’s community begins to understand his motivations even as his passion seems to be lacking for his borough. Even the tenacious Knight is not willing to give Cage a pass for his ability to constantly find himself in the wrong place at the right time far too often. In utter exasperation, Knight readily points out to Power Man that while “he may be bulletproof, Harlem ain’t.”
While Coker and his team create an intoxicating dark atmospheric world that these characters inhabit, it is the talented cast members that so convincingly bring his vision to light. Beginning with the title character, Cage, Colter perfectly embodies everything a modern hero should be. Menacing and constantly draped in a hoodie, Colter seamless blends physicality, and sensitivity, with a splash of social awareness as he beats down foes throughout Harlem. Left to his own device, his Cage would live in the shadows performing his heroic acts only when necessary.
Just as Colter’s casting is applauded, the busy and emerging Ali’s characterization of Cottonmouth is a true revelation. Charismatic and introspective in one instance and menacing in the next breath, Ali is spectacular as Cage’s main adversary. While he can’t match Cage physically, he tries to conquer Harlem’s champion with his intellect and guile, despite the fact that he is backed into a corner and too proud to give in. Ali’s best scenes take place in his office, above his club, where he often flanked by a huge photo of the Notorious B.I.G., replete with his crown, literally living out the mantra of “everyone wants to be the king.” Despite his roles in House of Cards, this fall’s Kicks, Moonlight and Hidden Figures, his performance in this series is the veteran actor’s true star-making turn.
Injecting some much-needed estrogen into this boy’s club is the bad-ass Missick, who is literally a step behind investigating both men but due to her amazing visualization ability levels the field with her foes. Whether schooling potential witnesses on the basketball court or showing tremendous loyalty to her flawed partner, Detective Scarfe (Frank Whaley), Missick is often at the center of the dizzying action, but it feels like she only scratching the surface of her true potential as the series evolves.
Executive produced by former music journalist, Cheo Hodari Coker, reportedly the 13-episode order he submitted to Netflix executive even surprised them with his knowledge and lyrical handling of the Harlem superhero. Infusing his series with a true hip-hop quality, Coker brought in A Tribe Called Quest member Ali Shaheed to co-produce the pulsating music that is expertly weaved through many of the seven episodes available to reviewers. True hip-hop heads will notice that Coker named each of the episodes from the first season after song titles from highly-respected duo group, Gangstarr. Additional music performances at Harlem’s Paradise will take many back to how the device was used twenty years ago in New York Undercover.
The idea of a bulletproof Black hero in the age of Black Lives Matter is an idea that is long overdue. Luke Cage is a breath of fresh air for many comic book fans who wanted a hero that reflected themselves onscreen. Coker should be saluted for giving the fans not just the hero that they want but clearly, the one we need for a time such as this.