The formula for apparent success in a Marvel Netflix television series is to nail at least two key components: a strong focus and a good solid antagonist. Daredevil’s first season and Jessica Jones have been the major critical successes and they both contain a strong focus and good clear antagonists to explore. The second season of Daredevil lost an incredible amount of focus as it wanted to bring in The Punisher and then a bunch of ninjas – leaving Matt Murdock without a strong recurring villain to battle. In Marvel’s latest offering: Luke Cage, we have a strong focus (Luke struggling to deal with both positive and negative consequences of his own actions) but the show tries something a little different on the villain aspect but it doesn’t quite pull it off. It gets points for effort, though.
From the outset, the look and feel of the show is very, very 1970s in it’s look. There’s a funky bass-line in it’s music and the setting and filming style looks as if someone has taken 1970 blaxploitation films and remastered them to DVD. That’s nowhere near a criticism, as it gives the show a very unique feel and glass to it that makes it’s stand out a little from Hell’s Kitchen’s doom and gloom. The setting of Harlem and the focus on the African American community is great; as the world around Luke Cage is given life.
There’s some great character work being done throughout here, too. Highlights include Simone Missick’s “Misty” Knight – almost an audience surrogate for those who may not have seen Jessica Jones and are encountering Luke for the first time. She gets quite a lot of development throughout the series; being our eyes in a police force that may contain a little bit of corruption. Mahershala Ali plays villain Cottonmouth; and whilst lacks the physicality or menace of Wilson Fisk or Kilgrave; manages to develop a strong character who feels the flipside of the coin for the first half of the season.
But the season takes a quick turn as Alfre Woodward’s Mariah kills Cottonmouth at the halfway point and thus the season dips a little. There are moments where it feels the season is beginning to strain to stretch itself across its thirteen episodes (something Daredevil and Jessica Jones have done in the past) and then it continues to do; furthering to drag itself out. Once Cottonmouth goes, the season tries it’s hardest to bring out the “real” villain in Luke’s half-brother Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey). Someone we’ve heard about but never see until later in the series. The season tries to sell us on Diamondback but by that point, it feels as if we can’t invest in him as a villain as we have Mariah running around being political and turning Harlem’s opinion against Luke and Shades (Theo Rossi) being all cool and under-utilised.
With Fisk and Kilgrave, you had two villains that were very strong antagonists in terms of character development and that they felt like an impossible obstacle for the main characters to battle against. Here it’s a case of the villains trying to play catch-up and as the playing field levels out a little – it never feels as if there’s that big a threat against Luke apart from people thinking he’s a villain. This is extremely evident when Diamondback turns up in a suit out of nowhere and starts beating the hell out of Luke. There are a few episodes of building the relationship up missing and it leaves things a little flat.
Mike Colter was a big highlight in Jessica Jones, here’s he’s not the best thing in the show (he’s still good though). Full of iffy pacing issues and struggling to build up some villains to the point it felt like effort to get through a couple of episodes at times. It raises some questions about the Marvel Netflix formula, so it remains to be seen just how Iron Fist handles it. Because with Luke Cage, there are hints cracks are beginning to show.
★ ★ ★
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