Review: Luke Cage E.03 - "Who's Gonna Take the Weight"

If the first two episodes of Luke Cage were like watching superhero Shakespeare, then "Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” is all about becoming an emotional catharsis to answer our pent-up frustration with tragedy. When people talk about Shakespeare or when they call something Shakespearean, they’re usually talking about dudes in puffy shirts, star-crossed characters, and big speeches. You won't catch me doing that, though. I'd offer up , rather, that at the core of every Shakespeare play are characters who are driven by complex needs and forced to navigate their complex social and political hierarchies. They’re a realm of emotional politicking and that description is what the first two episodes of Luke Cage felt like.

Harlem is a living and breathing place here. There are lines drawn in the sand and desperate people willing to poke and prod them to find what they want. Some characters want money, some want power and others justice. Luke Cage just wants to be left the hell alone.luke-cage-poster

So far we've seen people get what they want and get what they wanted, launching their intersecting paths into an unavoidable climax that ended the second episode.

There’s a reason so many of Shakespeare’s plays end in tragedy. Why so many are filled with thankless if inevitable deaths and chaotically uprooted social structures. It’s that they’re made-up of people and people are selfish and destructive even when they want to do the right thing.

Luke Cage, however, came with a promise of not being a tragedy. A bullet-proof black man entering the cultural consciousness at a time when we are surrounded by the real faces of wrongfully slain black men and women by the police promised to protect them.

Luke Cage cannot be a tragedy.

From the very first episode, people on the sidelines have been telling Luke to use his powers and change things. The cops are too ineffectual to do anything. The politicians are in bed with the criminals. Luke uniquely stands with abilities and incorruptibility to do something and this episode is when it finally starts to happen.

When Luke fights back, it feels good. The choreography is sloppy and the action undeniably campy but it almost has to be.  We need to understand the invincibility of Luke; we have to bear witness to what happens to the people who point a gun at a bulletproof man.

The show’s style is hugely carried by its soundtrack and that’s no better delivered than here. When the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring da Ruckus” starts thumping and Cage storms a fortress nestled in the heart of Harlem, it feels good. Doesn’t matter if a bunch of dudes clumsily swing machetes, the scene moves in tune with the music you believe everything.

This moment of righteous justice from Luke makes it a strange choice for this episode to be where the morals of vigilantism get questioned. Misty Knight debates with her partner what role super-powered vigilantes play in a world with the Avengers. Where should these powered individuals stand while the police try to do their jobs?

This is a question the Netflix shows have summarily avoided and desperately needs to be addressed in superhero film and tv. Real world vigilantism never ends well for anyone. These people are ill-equipped and unaccountable making them a danger not just to themselves but everyone around them. Without protocol, they invite mistakes and recklessness—a type of danger that this season later tries addressing but ultimately proves ill-equipped to handle.

TV shows like the Wire tried and succeeded in showing what happens when someone wages a one-man war against gangs and drug dealers. They’re heroes but there’s a tragic inevitability to their struggle as men can never be legends.

Luke Cage, however, can be. He’s super strong, super tough and a licensed brand.

Here even the show’s narrative betrays Misty’s reasoning. We saw with our own eyes what happens when no one pushes back against the bad. We saw Pop die. We saw a community torn to shreds while the cops kept their hands behind their backs and twiddled their thumbs.

For those who read ahead, we already know that inevitably Misty will not even believe her own words which is unfortunate because this is a solid question to ask.

Coming from this show, though, it’s unsurprising. Not just because the role's role as wish-fulfillment about a bulletproof black man in a social climate where they’re shot nearly daily on the street but because of the show’s troubling love of excess.

Episode three ends on a note that sours—something resembling a Wile E. Coyote cartoon more than a proper political and race driven narrative so many people wanted this to be. That’s because when this show gets drunk on its own internal bombast, it gets sloppy. So in love are they for the moments when Luke wraps a car door around a confused thug, they never stop to ask if they should pump the brakes.

While that becomes a greater problem for the series as a whole, at this point in the season it’s okay.

Just lean back and enjoy seeing a bulletproof man clean the streets and bring da ruckus.

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Luke Cage E.03 - "Who's Gonna Take the Weight" Director: Guillermo Navarro [/su_box]


Review: Luke Cage E.02 - "Code of the Streets"

Like its predecessor, episode two of Luke Cage moves at a slower pace. The simmering tensions between characters come to a head by the end of it. In a lot of ways, this episode coupled with episode one serve as the origin of Luke Cage as a hero. And while dramatic, the big bang at the end of this episode isn't the most surprising thing about the series' second showing. No, the most surprising thing turns out to be a little piece of character insight in the form of what I call the, "Pull the trigger" speech. To find out what that is and what I think of the show after the first two episodes check out my review below. luke-cage-posterI'm going to start by mentioning a few actresses who got the snub in my last review, Simone Missick, and Alfre Woodard. Much like Luke Cage, I was unfamiliar with the characters as they were/are portrayed in the comics, I only know them as they are portrayed in these past two episodes. While both give excellent performances, Missick's performance, in my opinion, saves Detective Misty Stone's character. Considering that most of her lines and screen time in these past two episodes have been dedicated to flirting with Luke, delivering gritty detective banter, and showing up the neighborhood basketball players, she could have easily been the cheesiest character in the show. But Missick brings enough confidence and humor to the role to make the character believable. As for Woodard, she plays her character well (she plays Mariah Dillard, the cousin of Cottonmouth and councilwoman for the district). But her performance is hindered by her character's lack of an objective. With regard to her character's motivations, I'm not sure where to place her yet. She is definitely on the antagonist side of the spectrum, but after watching this episode, she seems as if she is trying to convince her cousin to get out of the game. I'm not sure if this concern for her family is genuine or self-preserving, but either way, this episode does a lot to round out her character.

As for the pacing, this episode is all about the big finish. I don't want to say too much because I'm trying to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. I will say that the major plot point in this episode probably won't come as a shock to most of you, it didn't for me. Not to say that it was a bad choice, it was just predictable. But the real revelation, as I mentioned earlier, actually comes in the form of a speech given by Cage to a would-be assailant. The moment starts off a little rocky as if we're about to see a new patriotic side of Luke. But then it turns around and becomes the moment when shit gets real! And I really mean what I say when I use the word "real." In most shows or movies, we'll often see a character get angry, for some characters that's almost their entire identity, but what we don't see is the pain. The pain that lies at the root of the anger. I think this is one of the things that makes this interpretation of Luke Cage great. From the first moment he stepped onto the screen, we've known Luke has been in pain. In Jessica Jones we learn about the loss of his wife, in these first two episodes, we learn that he was wrongfully imprisoned. And while we as the audience have been witness to this via his body language and general temperament, we haven't, until this point, seen that pain take center stage. For a show to bring in that anger, that despair, and that weariness all in one speech is a bold and impressive choice.

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Luke Cage E.02 - "Code of the Streets" Director: Paul McGuigan


Review: Luke Cage E.01 - "Moment of Truth"

Last Friday I sat down with my girlfriend to watch Luke Cage, Netflix’s most recent series in the quadfecta that is The Defenders. Now, I wasn’t the biggest Luke Cage fan going into this series. Don’t get me wrong; I was excited, but that excitement came from watching the others series Netflix has put out. I liked Daredevil, and Jessica Jones was even better, so my enthusiasm was coming from a place of wanting to see another great TV show rather than excitement about seeing a character I loved on TV. Now I wasn’t completely ignorant; I had read a few Heroes for Hire, and I was impressed when he showed up in a crossover or two. He was more like a historical figure for me, the Jack Johnson of comics. Historical and important, but not really fleshed out. Now after watching the first two episodes of the series, I can say that this character has become real for me, more so that Jessica Jones or Matt Murdock. luke-cage-posterWe have to start with the acting. Mike Coulter is perfect for this role. He was great in Jessica Jones, but in this episode, he really shines. From the opening scene, you get a sense of who Luke Cage is and what he believes. Coulter puts on a great performance, switching between sensitive to tough guy on a dime. I also liked that he’s a bit tougher than he was in Jessica Jones, everyone once in a while in this episode you get the “Man, good thing this guy is on our side” kind of feeling.

The second actor I want to highlight is Mahershala Ali. He plays Cottonmouth and just like Coulter’s Cage, we get to see who he is and what he’s about from his very first appearance. He’s got the perfect kind of charisma, great villains have, an unapologetic hustler who is all about the business when it gets right down to it. What I also liked about Ali’s performance is that while in the first scene we get to see who Cottonmouth believes himself to be, in the subsequent scenes we get to see him in his less polished form. We see him badgered by his cousin, belittled by an associate from another gang and downright out of control. Ali displays an excellent amount of range for a villain who can oftentimes be narrowed to the too cool gangster.

As for the style of the series, it stays within the vein of the shows that have come before it but provides its own perspective that differentiates itself from the predecessors. The most obvious example of his is the music, which has taken a queue from Jessica Jones and doubled down. The soundtrack is a fusion of gritty jazz and hip hop and works wonders. This episode is on the slower side, which is what I expected considering the pace of the other Netflix’s Marvel shows. We get to see a lot of introduction to characters and a lot of set up for relationships that are going to be primary points of conflict and alliance later on. My only complaint is that sometimes the writing can get to be a little too much. It’s the same way I felt about Jessica Jones writing; it’s trying to be so smooth that it slips and ends up being comical. But it’s a small flaw that doesn’t pop up too much in this first episode.

As first episodes go, it’s a slower burn, but by the time it ends you can already see each piece is going to end up on the board. We’re still in the opening moves, but the tension is palpable.

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Luke Cage E.01 - "Moment of Truth" Director: Paul McGuigan