This article contains spoilers for Marvel's Luke Cage. I'm going to try to keep them to a minimum, but there will be some so be warned.
On Friday I reviewed the first episode of Marvel's Luke Cage as it debuted on Netflix. By that night I'd finished watching all thirteen episodes and planned to post it on Saturday. Then Netflix went down and I decided to wait, to give as many people the chance to watch the full series before I posted. Hence I'm here now.
One of the things I love about the Marvel / Netflix series is that they are treated like a 13 hour movie rather than a series. There are no recaps going into each episode and they don't seem to feel rushed. They tell their story over this giant canvas at the pace they want to follow. That may turn some people off… I saw lots of comments on social media about folks checking out after episode three… but for every one of those posts, there were a dozen replies of folks who loved the series.
The things I complained about in the first review… the opening theme and some of the characters being two-dimensional… no longer bother me. Characters like Pops, Detective Scarfe and Mariah Dillard all got fleshed out quickly. They became just as strong as Luke Cage, Misty Knight and Cornell Stokes. And others were brought in like Shades Alvarez, Bobby Fish and Claire Temple that also shined.
Claire has appeared in both Marvel's Daredevil series and Marvel's Jessica Jones, but she's not the only connective tissue between the three shows. Turk Barrett plays a pretty big role here. Stephen Rider from the D.A.'s office appears and there is a radio segment featuring Trish Walker. Plus Claire refers to a lawyer friend that Luke might need.
Every Marvel outing seems to take on their own identity within the MCU. Ant-Man was a heist film, Captain America: Civil War was a 70's espionage thriller. Luke Cage is their Blaxploitation film set in a modern era. Cage is the street hero solving crimes and trying to make his city better. But it's more than just the hero. Strong female characters, a city like Harlem with history and attitude and a musical soundtrack featuring jazz, rap, hiphop meld together to bring about the right feel for the series.
The strength of the Netflix series over the films are the villains. Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave set a high bar for bad guys. Cheo Hodari Coker decided to bring in multiple villains, each with unique motivations and character. Cornell 'Cottonmouth' Stokes wanted power and control, things he didn't have as a kid. He tried to rule Harlem with an iron grip but found things slipping through his fingers. In the end he was betrayed by one of the few people he cared about. Mariah Dillard was the other end of the spectrum. She wanted legitimate power and wasn't afraid to let Cornell use dirty means to get it for her. She was about legacy and not being trapped by her past. But like Shades Alvarez, she is cold and calculating, doing what needs to be done. Which is why she's one of the last standing. And then there is Willis 'Diamondback' Striker… he's obsessed with Luke Cage and wants to destroy his life. He sees Cage as the cause of his own life being destroyed… except none of it was Cage's fault. All three of the villains come from a place where you can sympathize with them. But Stokes and Dillard have their goals but still have some of their humanity and rules. Stryker is just gone.
The big difference with Luke Cage from the other Marvel / Netflix series is how it ended. Daredevil ended with closure. Fisk going to jail and the law firm moving forward. Jessica Jones ended with Kilgrave dead and Jessica able to move on with her life. The unresolved issues in Daredevil season 2 seem to set up The Defenders. But Luke Cage ended with almost nothing resolved. Just a bunch of open threads remain for Cage, Knight, Stryker and Dillard. It feels like they expect to get a second season where previously it wasn't certain.
With Marvel's Luke Cage, the studio has found their stride and how to use the format perfectly. It's a series that has to be judged as a whole. These are meant to be binge watched, not dole out slowly over time. Coker and everyone involved did an amazing job. Colter brings the modern Luke Cage to life brilliantly and there isn't a weak link in the cast. It's a series that put so much into creating the right tone and style that it could get away with things like showing the 70's Cage costume or making a Different Strokes reference and never taking the audience out of the narrative. This was well worth the wait.