The superhero credo about great power and great responsibility takes on a whole new meaning in the thrilling new series “Luke Cage.”
At first glance, this is just another comic-book drama from Netflix. But because the hero is black, this “Jessica Jones” spinoff and its layered approach means so much more when it premieres on the streaming service Friday. For starters, this dude doesn’t just save the day, he defies it as a bulletproof black man in a hoodie. Even those with a cursory awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement can understand why impenetrable skin is something a significant number of people who share this hue wished they had.
Cage (played by Mike Colter, “The Good Wife”), who comes from a comic book conceived by white men in the 1970s, has come a long way — and thanks to series creator and writer Cheo Hodari Coker, he is about so much more than just the color of his skin. “Luke Cage” is a show about a superhero who conveys a black experience even within a fantasy-filled existence.
This Luke Cage lives in a Harlem filled with black and brown people and works in a barber shop where he debates topics such as why Donald Goines’ Kenyatta isn’t better than Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. He reads Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and when he kicks bad-guy butt in a building named after Crispus Attucks, he bumps Wu Tang’s “Bring the Ruckus” in his earbuds. Luke rages against casual uses of the n-word and there’s a blue container of Magic Cream Shave on the shelf of his medicine cabinet — for those in the know.
In other words, anybody expecting a homogenized hero dipped in chocolate will be deeply disappointed because “Luke Cage” is full of black cultural signifiers and the African-American characters within this world are unapologetically black, giving the show a sense of authenticity and purpose.
The soundtrack to “Luke Cage” also helps set the scene and singers Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, Jidenna and Charles Bradley croon their hearts out at Harlem’s Paradise, a nightclub owned by Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”), the show’s villain. Meanwhile, composers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of Tribe Called Quest fame) boldly set the tone of the show with ’70s blaxploitation instrumentals, hip-hop and Nina Simone. Get ready to cry a little when you hear Mahalia Jackson’s classic rendition of “Trouble of the World.” And each episode is named after a Gang Starr song for added flavor.
As for the villainous Cottonmouth, he doesn’t work alone. Both he and his mercurial cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard, “True Blood”) are dirty but he’s more obvious as a club owner and drug dealer and she’s more savvy as a local politician. Both work hard to make Luke uncomfortable and even attempt to end his life on more than one occasion.
It’s in those moments of conspiratorial desperation that Ali and Woodard truly shine. Delivering master-class level performances, both actors turn words into music so delicious and believable they put Colter to shame.
That’s not to say Colter isn’t dynamic. He’s definitely a force and in the first seven episodes Netflix screened for critics, it is clear that the up-and-comer nails the physicality and laconic nature of a comic-book hero. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until the end of the pilot to see him fight and his back story isn’t fleshed out until episode four.
But when it comes to one-liners and turns of phrase, Ali’s Cottonmouth gets all the juicy lines while Luke is left saying stuff like “I am the gun” and of course, “sweet Christmas.” A fascinating mix of Richard Roundtree‘s Shaft and Carl Weather’s Action Jackson, Colter’s Luke clearly thinks before he speaks, but perhaps he’s thinking too hard because he sounds more wooden than Chuck Norris at times.
In fact, Colter seems most relaxed not when he’s smack talking with Cottonmouth and Mariah but when he’s sweet talking love interests like Det. Misty Knight (scene stealer Simone Missick) and Claire (Rosario Dawson pulling double duty between this and “Daredevil”), one of his biggest supporters.
Just as “Luke Cage” thrives because of its attention to detail, the show also finds its true groove via ancillary performances from Frankie Faison (“Banshee”), Ron Cephas Jones (“This is Us”), LaTanya Richardson (“Blue Bloods”), Theo Rossi (“Sons of Anarchy”), Chance Kelly (“House of Cards”) and Mike Britt (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” theme song guy).
While the pilot is sluggish and there are a couple of scenes that feel unnecessary — before episode seven ends in a cliffhanger, Luke fights a new and less significant foe — most of “Luke Cage” is very deliberate and wastes little time on minutiae. And what could be more powerful and responsible than that?
“Luke Cage” will begin streaming Friday Sept. 30 on Netflix.