Saturday, December 3, 2016

Exploring the Marvel Netflix Shows: Part Four (Luke Cage)

This is a continuation of my exploration of the Marvel Netflix shows (part onetwo, and three).  I'm a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and out of all its current expressions the Netflix shows are my favourite--the ultimate highlight of the format.  The fan service surrounding these shows lack collated, contextualized, and expository material, so what follows addresses those elements.


Luke Cage (September 30, 2016)

The most recent Netflix venture, airing after Captain America: Civil War, but before Doctor Strange. Like Iron Fist, Luke Cage was created to take advantage of a particular 70s trend (in this case blaxploitation films); he debuted in 1972 (created by Archie Goodwin, John Romita Sr., and George Tuska).  It's worth noting that he's not the first black hero in Marvel comics (which would be Black Panther in 1966), but he was the first to get his own title.

Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker's adaptation approach was similar to the one taken in the first season of Daredevil, in that the central plot doesn't borrow directly from the comics.  Coker borrowed mostly from the origins of Luke Cage's comic book run (paying no attention to the Brian Michael Bendis-invented Jessica Jones/Luke Cage romance).  Coker is the first showrunner to use elements from the movies as part of the show's plot (using Justin Hammer's company from Iron Man 2 (Hammer was Stark's corporate rival, lacking his morals), as well as Chitauri metal from The Avengers).

Credited Writers (with selected credits)

No previous Daredevil or Jessica Jones writers were used.

Cheo Hodari Coker (NotoriousNCIS: Los AngelesAlmost Human, and Ray Donovan)
Jason Horwitch (Medical InvestigationRubicon, and Southland (where he worked with Coker)) Christian Taylor (Six Feet UnderLost, and Teen Wolf)
Charles Murray (Criminal MindsCastle, and Sons of Anarchy)
Akela Cooper (GrimmWitches of East End, and The 100)
Aida Mashaka Croal (One Life to Live and TURN: Washington’s Spies)
Matt Owens (no previous official credits)
Nathan Louis Jackson (Resurrection)

1 – “Moment of Truth” Cheo Hodari Coker
2 – “Code of the Streets” Cheo Hodari Coker
3 – “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” Matt Owens
4 – “Step in the Arena” Charles Murray
5 – “Just to Get a Rep” Jason Horwitch
6 – “Suckas Need Bodyguards” Nathan Louis Jackson
7 – “Manifest” Akela Cooper
8 – “Blowin’ Up the Spot” Aida Mashaka Croal
9 – “DWYCK” Christian Taylor
10 – “Take It Personal” Jason Horwitch
11 – “Now You’re Mine” Christian Taylor
12 – “Soliloquy of Chaos” Akela Cooper & Charles Murray
13 – “You Know My Steez” Aida Mashaka Croal & Cheo Hodari Coker

Notable Easter Eggs

[I've noted which episodes these occur via brackets--so (1) refers to episode one]

Much like Jessica Jones there aren't a huge number of easter eggs to find here (six, exactly the same number as Jessica Jones).  Justin Hammer's tech is referenced continually (1); Seagate prison appears (4) having debuted in Iron Man 2 (it's also used in the Luke Cage comic); Reva hints that Justin Hammer himself might be hidden away in the prison (4); the organization IGH (4), which first appeared in Jessica Jones, reappears and is responsible for Luke getting his powers; the Judas bullet (5) refers back to the The Avengers movie, as it's built with metal from the Chitauri aliens (Loki's army in that film); we also get a "Trish Talk" radio piece (6) (via Trish Walker from Jessica Jones).
Characters appearing from other shows: Claire Temple, Turk Barrett (Daredevil), Benjamin Donovan (Daredevil), Blake Tower (Daredevil), Trish Walker (Jessica Jones), and Reva Connors (Jessica Jones).

Number of overt and subtle nods to the other Marvel shows: Daredevil: 4, Jessica Jones: 3, Iron Fist: 2, Agents of SHIELD: 0

Unlike its predecessors Luke Cage has a direct lead-in to the next Netflix show (Iron Fist), as Claire finds an advertisement for Colleen Wing's martial arts lessons (Colleen is a series regular in Iron Fist).  Luke's imprisonment at the end of the season along with Claire saying she knows a good lawyer (Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil) is a lead-in to The Defenders.

Select Character Notes

Personal history: my only experience with Luke Cage as a comic book reader prior to the show was via his appearances in Civil War (where his role was minimal); otherwise I knew absolutely nothing about the character.
  • Luke Cage: stays close to his comic book origin and Mike Colter owns the role; most of the series pits Luke against external enemies (Rackham, Cottonmouth, Mariah, and Diamondback), as once Pops dies his internal conflicts (keeping his head down and not being a hero) are essentially over
  • Misty Knight: while technically she debuted earlier, she appears as her comic book persona in Iron Fist (1975); the show portrayal has the same basic elements as the comic (minus the bionic arm, which likely is outside the budgetary purview of a Netflix show); I found her characterisation all over the place--an issue with the writing, not the acting--and I hope it settles down for The Defenders (I enjoyed her most as a calm and collected detective)
  • Mariah Dillard: based on a very different (and minor) character in the comics (Black Mariah); other than the name she's been completely changed (and for the better); she's bright, scheming, adaptable, and prone to anger, all good traits in a villain
  • Cottonmouth/Cornell Stokes: loses his razor-sharp teeth from the comics and is still very much alive there; the dislike of his villain name is a show-invention, but echoes Wilson Fisk's reluctance to have his name said in Daredevil season one; he's excellent here and the show would have been better keeping him as the villain throughout the season
  • Diamondback: his varying knife-related abilities are largely dropped, although he does wear his traditional costume at the end of the series; he's not related to Luke in the comics (although they were childhood friends); he's a very short-lived character there (he's been dead for quite some time, killed in Luke Cage 2); the performance is so over the top it loses its intended menace
  • Hernan "Shades" Alvarez: another race swap, as the original African-American character becomes Puerto Rican; appeared with Comanche in Luke Cage's debut; his powers from the comic are also removed (shades that shoot lasers) and he's a much more sophisticated character
  • Claire Temple: is more prominent here than in any of her other appearances (which, at least in comic book terms, makes sense as most of her appearances are with Luke); the romantic link between she and Luke has its basis in the comics (running from Luke Cage 4 to Power Man and Iron Fist 50), eventually she's replaced by brainless socialite Harmony Young in Power Man and Iron Fist 51 (whom I doubt we'll ever see)
  • Rafael Scarfe: he eventually turns vigilante in the comic books, but the corruption angle is an invention of the show; he's also very much alive in the comics; I enjoyed the portrayal and he'll be missed going forward
  • Reva Connors: appears in flashbacks after having debuted in Jessica Jones; her career and how she meets Luke is completely different from the comics, as is who killed her (Diamondback in the comics), all of which are improvements; the show neatly wraps up any lingering emotional attachment Luke might have to her, leaving the way clear for whichever romance the show wants to follow (Claire, judging by this season, or Jessica, judging by the comics)
  • Comanche: another character from Luke Cage's debut, it's a close adaptation when we see him in the flashbacks in Seagate prison; his present whereabouts in the show are unknown
  • Albert Rackham: debuted in Luke Cage's original appearance, his adaptation is almost direct
  • Megan McLaren: race-swapped (she's white in the comics); she's a fairly new character (1997), debuting in the Thunderbolts
  • Noah Burstein: just like the comics he's responsible for giving Luke his powers (albeit the circumstances are different, so in the show he works for IGH, whereas in the comic he administers the super soldier serum to a willing Luke)
  • Dave Griffith: race-swapped (he's white in the comics) and very much changed (although both versions are helpful to Luke)
  • Henry "Pop" Hunter: an invented Uncle Ben-type character (an older father-figure who gives Luke important character motivation); given that show-Luke doesn't choose to have powers (unlike in the comic), nor a revenge-motive via Reva's death by Diamondback, Pops is an effective way to shift him into his heroic arc
  • Mama Mabel: while a creation of the show, she seems to be yet another echo of Black Mariah from the comics
Reggie "Squabbles", Bobby Fish, Pistol Pete, Domingo Colon, Candace Miller, Priscilla Ridley, and Soledad Temple are all show-creations.

Comic Book Influences

Just like Daredevil season one the show mixes adaptation with original material (primarily the main plot).  The origin of Luke's powers remains largely the same as in the comics (Luke Cage 1), although Reva has been changed and IGH is now responsible for his powers (instead of him volunteering for the super soldier serum).  The elements from Jessica Jones (where they take place in his story, mainly the background with Reva and Claire) and his beginnings with Pops are created for the show.  While the main villains all come from the comics, there's nothing like the political machinations we see here.  There are echoes of the comic version of Willis Stryker, but in there he's killed by Cage over Reva Connors (Luke Cage 2), so the motivations of each has been changed (a father's love as opposed to the love for a woman followed by revenge for her death).  The struggles to deal with Luke's injuries via the Judas bullet echo a story from the Jessica Jones comic The Pulse (6), albeit there's no Claire or Night Nurse involved (or Jessica, clearly).  Speaking of Claire, her romance with Luke has a strong tradition in the comics (see above), and the running joke about Luke getting "coffee" (as slang for sex) also has inspiration from the comics (eg, Power Man and Iron Fist 51).  I can't find any connection between Luke and Justin Hammer, who was largely an Iron Man foil in the comics (he's been dead in the comics since 2000).

Critical Reception

Rotten Tomatoes score: 96/84
These scores aren't the be-all, end-all of assessment, but simply an indicator of critical and fan reaction.  I'd take the critical score with a grain of salt (AoS somehow has 100% each of its last two seasons).


Once again the directing, cinematography, and bulk of the acting is excellent.  The music is a clear standout.  Much like Jessica Jones the show is able to tackle political issues without being overly preachy.  Mike Colter is even better here than he was in Jessica Jones, albeit his characterisation had at least one small issue (see below).  Mahershala Ali (Cottonmouth) is fantastic and will be sorely missed; Alfre Woodard (Mariah), Theo Rossi (Shades), and Rosario Dawson (Claire), who gets her fullest character treatment thus far, are all very strong.  I also enjoyed Frank Whaley's Scarfe and Frankie Faison's Pops (both unfortunate losses for the series).  I thought the Seagate flashbacks and storyline were excellent (I enjoyed getting to know more about Reva, who was simply plot service in Jessica Jones), as were the conflicts with Cottonmouth and Mariah.


This season had some of the weakest fight choreography thus far, as it was a struggle to both make the fights exciting and pay service to how powerful Luke is (some of the best moments were Luke's exasperation at the futile efforts of his opponents).  The overall pacing of the show was inconsistent, especially in the second-half (this was the most frequent comment I saw from critics as well).  As a character Luke doesn't reflect at all at being mind controlled by Kilgrave or about his relationship with Jessica--which is more than odd--while his interactions with women are very difficult to parse (does he just want casual sex or something more? Why be bitter about Misty Knight's dismissive attitude if it's the former?).  This kind of inconsistency plagues Misty Knight (Simone Missick)--something her performance almost overcomes--but it's extremely difficult to match the calm detective side with her random fits of rage.  Poor writing, unfortunately, prevents Misty from hitting the heights she could have achieved, but the potential is there and I don't think we'll see these issues going forward.  Diamondback is a failure--an overly cartoonish performance without enough substance to his story for it to work (his petty revenge motivation and psychopathic behaviour doesn't mesh with his role as a leader in the criminal underworld).  It's tempting to draw parallels between the  problems of the equally two-act format of Daredevil season two (both second acts suffer from poorly conceived adaptations of newly introduced characters, Elektra and Diamondback), but I think the scope of issues is broader here with muddled pacing and sometimes characterisation (Misty).

Are we going to get a second season of Luke Cage?  [December 4th update: Yes we will] It's a bit too early to say (it took four months for the third season of Daredevil to be announced), but it seems likely (Symphony Advanced Media reports the show was the highest rated Marvel Netflix show on first-release, but given how they arrive at their numbers I'd take that with a grain of salt, albeit a positive one).  Mike Colter has teased a Heroes for Hire show with Iron Fist, but that's probably idle speculation (Marvel is not going to want a series spoiled by an actor's off-hand remark regardless).  Where we leave Luke is as the protector of Harlem and presumably that will continue post-Defenders.  The most obvious storyline would be dealing with Diamondback again, but I don't think he's an interesting enough villain to be the primary focus and I'm sure the muted reaction to him will discourage Coker from making him a focus.  More likely some of the conflict will come via Mariah and Shades, but in what form remains to be seen.  It's unclear if Misty Knight will remain primarily a Luke Cage character or if she'll shift over to Iron Fist where (if they follow the comics) she'd presumably belong.  My guess is she'll stay in Luke Cage and they'll follow other romantic angles in Iron Fist (as well as Jessica Jones).  The shows are adaptations of the comic material and need not follow them blindly.

[If you spot any errors or omissions, please let me know!]

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

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