Welcome back to a feature I’m doing this summer called “The Road to The Defenders.” The concept is pretty simple. Between now and August I am going to be watching the Netflix MCU shows a second (or third) time through in the build up to the monumental team up hitting Netflix on August 18th. I won’t be reviewing the shows per se, more just reflecting on the way the episodes feel with the full scope of the first two and a half years of the project now in view. In particular, I want to explore what feels different in retrospect from the first viewing. For those who haven’t watched these shows yet, I will give a SPOILER WARNING that I’ll be talking about the shows without concern for revealing anything that happens in the story lines. This week we are looking at Luke Cage. If you would like to catch up, scroll through The Defenders tag on the site.
If you’ve been keeping up with this feature, you may note that the last one was about Daredevil Season 2. Why jump to Luke Cage? Well, the two seasons should hypothetically combine. At several points, the shows share two characters, Claire Temple and Turk Barrett, which allow a rough interconnected timeline to exist. As I’ve rewatched, I decided to try to watch them in some kind of combined order. (I’ve shared a decent option for that viewing order below.) This has made me aware, however, that there is far too little attention to continuity in these Netflix shows. While the two seasons should fit together, they don’t really. The major problem is that each show wants to create a sense of momentum and does so by events feeling like they land right upon each other. Daredevil Season 2, for example, clearly happens over about six months (from the hottest part of Summer until Christmas time), yet almost every major event feels like it happens within days of the previous event in order to feel like the action is fast and furious. Luke Cage makes similar mistakes.
Just on first blush, I’m enjoying a rewatch of Luke Cage far more than I thought I would. The reality of the situation is that the back end of the show really falls off. I haven’t made it that far in rewatch, but my memory of the last five episodes is that they are significantly inferior to these first few. Much of the show’s quality is in the incredible character work. Everyone on the show feels well fleshed out and considered. One of the things I love is that Misty Knight and Luke Cage get along at times (hello coffee!) but at other times are at odds. They each have their own perspective and moral code. Just because they are “good guys” doesn’t mean they necessarily agree. Pops and Cottonmouth have a history that changes the way Pops sees the villain, versus how Cage does as a newcomer. The writers are cautious not to make anyone a flat character.
I’m far more impressed with Mike Colter this time around. On first viewing, I found his acting pretty limited. I’m still not convinced when he plays sad. His tears just don’t feel authentic to me, but that could just be my taste. He is at his best when he has a swagger about him. That particularly shines when he flirts with female characters, be it Jessica Jones, Misty Knight, or Claire Temple. But he also does a good job when he shows moral indignation. The use of the n-word is a major talking point for the show. Whenever Cage speaks of his feelings on the subject, and on black history more generally, Colter portrays a strong, confident, and thoughtful character. I think that my earlier distaste is more based on the way Cage as a character waffles between “I’m here and I’m a hero!” and “I’m just going to run away and abdicate responsibility for this mess.”
That plot line is one of many times I feel like the show does unnecessarily drag things out. The pacing here is just always a little too slow. Pops funeral takes next to forever to happen. Cage and Cottonmouth have a stern conversation about three billion times. Perhaps the most startling version of this is the attack on the Crispus Attucks building. That was obviously a major set piece to sell the show, featuring in the ads strongly. Episode 2 begins and ends with Luke standing outside about to attack, during his “really long day.” The rest of the episode happens the day before. Then we return to the building exterior for the start of Episodes 3, before flashing back again, this time to the day leading up to the attack. For the record, that’s three flash forwards or more than an hour of flashbacks, however you look at it. Cheo Hodari Coker and crew are clearly building up to that scene, but its just a bit much foreshadowing for me.
That fight scene, Cage’s version of a “hallway fight,” also highlights what continues to be my biggest problem with the show. There are just only so many ways that a super strong, invulnerable man can show off his powers. Seeing him walk through a hail of bullets is fun once. But even by the beginning of this series that trick is played out, particularly given we saw it in Jessica Jones. His fighting style is blunt, brutal, and boring. You don’t need ninja moves when you are that strong. It makes sense. But it’s still boring. The most important part of a fight scene is that you have to believe your hero is in danger. (For a great example, try to watch Daredevil v. Nobu I and not cringe for Murdock as the weapon lodges in his ribs.) Cage is never in danger, so it is hard to work up angst for the situation.
The music is a key part of this show and is used brilliantly. While some might find the frequent montaging a bit cumbersome, I love it. As a relatively uninformed individual on hip-hop and modern R&B and soul, I find the show great to expose me to things I really like and didn’t know existed. The lyrics typically inform the situation as well as add atmosphere. For me the use of “Long Live the Chief” in Episode 5 is maybe the best example. While James Gunn gets a lot of love for his use of soundtrack, I think Coker may actually use it better.
I also should mention the flashback episode to Luke’s origin as a hero. Most of it is great. Netflix flashback episodes, whether featuring Murdock in college, Fisk as a kid, or Jessica Jones as a teen, are almost always fun. They also provide character depth, the main value of Netflix as a platform in the MCU. My one concern is the mad scientist aspect of the set up. I’ll mention it more when we get to Luke’s trip to Georgia later, but generally the sci-fi aspects of this show are its worst for me. It could be the unique soundtrack or the camera angle decisions, but it all feels like a B movie. I think there is some of that intended as a sort of send up to old blaxploitation movies, but it falls flate for me, just lacks the quality I expect from the MCU. That said, Luke and Reva discussing his new name is maybe the best scene of the show for me. As I mentioned in the early days of Daredevil, a lot of religion talk in modern TV is trite and ill informed. But the quotation of Luke 4 is pitch perfect to the themes of the scene and show in general. It is very good writing.
That will do for this installment. We’ll be back relatively soon for another look at Daredevil Season 2 because we are starting to run out of time until The Defenders! Thanks for reading and we’ll see you next time.
Suggested Watching Order for Daredevil Season 2 and Luke Cage
Daredevil Season 2 Episodes 1-4 (Punisher saga, Turk is in Hell’s Kitchen but leaving)
Luke Cage Episodes 1-4 (Intro of the characters, Turk in Harlem but leaving)
Daredevil Season 2 Episodes 5-11 (Claire Temple is in Hell’s Kitchen but leaves at episode 11)
Luke Cage Episodes 5-8 (Claire arrives in Harlem, talking about DD events)
Daredevil Season 2 Episodes 12-13 (Turk is back in Hell’s Kitchen momentarily)
Luke Cage Episodes 9-13 (Turk returns to Harlem, complaining about DD events)