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‘Luke Cage’ shoots for more than skin deep

| Friday, October 7, 2016

lukecageJOSEPH HAN | The Observer

In today’s world of #BlackLivesMatter and growing numbers of police shootings, Luke Cage is a superhero with the potential to seriously resonate with people. The hero’s eponymous show debuted on Netflix at the end of September as the third series of the Netflix-Marvel partnership. It can also be seen as the third part in Netflix’s social justice trilogy. “Daredevil” (April 2015) has a significant plot arc where the characters try to save a poor woman from eviction. “Jessica Jones” (November 2015), where Cage was first introduced, featured a powerful look at the psychological impact of rape. Now, “Luke Cage” marks Netflix’s attempt to represent the problems facing the African American community.

It would be hard to create a superhero more suited to symbolically portray black power. Cage has the comic default super-strength, but his defining characteristic is his skin. It’s impenetrable. More specifically, it’s bulletproof. That means that neither police officers nor gang members can hurt him. He shrugs off the violence directed at him and stands above it. In the four episodes that I watched, Cage was only just beginning to act the hero by hitting the cash reserves of a local crime boss.

Despite all of this potential, “Luke Cage” somehow manages to feel flat. The characters are well acted and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker clearly recognized the symbolic potential of his subject — Cage often wears a black hoodie when fighting — but it somehow comes across as trying too hard. Take the very first scene: the show opens on a barber shop (called Pop’s) in Harlem with the inhabitants discussing the state of the New York Knicks. Cage works there, sweeping hair and cleaning, but as the victim of a bombing, thanks to Jessica Jones, and a sort-of ex-con, he gets paid in cash. This means that he has to work two jobs, one at the barber shop and one as a dishwasher at the club owned by the aforementioned crime boss.

I could go on, but I think you see what I’m talking about. The point is “Luke Cage” would be substantially better if it didn’t lean so heavily on convention. The comic book version emerged in the ‘70s, riding on the popularity of “Blaxploitation” films. This Netflix iteration walks the line between producing a black everyman and “Blaxploitation,” but it seems to lean towards the latter.

I don’t mean to suggest that “Luke Cage” is a bad show — my friends and I binged four episodes in a row and never felt like stopping. The only serious complaint that I can throw at the program is that it’s not what it could have been — what I hoped it would be.

Mike Colter is solid as the reserved Luke Cage. He’s a strong, silent type who clearly feels things deeply, especially attacks on people he cares about. When the stoic exterior cracks, as when a young man holds a gun to his head and calls him the N-word, all of that emotion comes pouring out in a burst of righteous anger. Other notable performers are Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, the ambitious crime boss, and Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, an idealistic politician with not-exactly-legal backing. Another major character is Detective Misty Knight, herself a Marvel superheroine, played by Simone Missick. Knight is a paragon of virtue in what is otherwise a fairly crooked institution. She’s headstrong and very interested in conducting her investigations the right way. Together, Knight and Cage represent the two sides of the recent police controversy.

There’s a reason that the two have an almost immediate, er, connection. He feels betrayed when he later learns her profession, and she is similarly frustrated that he is playing the role of Harlem vigilante. He is the sort of young, strong black man that so many consider worthy of fear. She is the by-the-book cop that could be accused of not understanding the struggles of the people. Together, they attempt to clean up the thing they both love — their community.

In the end, you could do far, far worse than watching a show that pushes diversity, has a great cast with musical guest stars and encourages dialogue. “Luke Cage” isn’t the treatise on the indomitable nature of black skin I had hoped, but it’s still a socially conscious show that’s fun to watch. In a world of comic saturation, “Luke Cage” is a worthy successor to the jarring “Jessica Jones,” and stands apart as one of the few comic book adaptations that tries to mean something.

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