The seemingly unending tide of Marvel hero films has been a major component of Hollywood for the last few years. Since Iron Man in 2008 to the latest Doctor Strange film coming out later this month, Marvel Studios have produced 15 different Hero-themed movies for the big screen.
The studio has even proved just as lucrative on the small screen, with Agents of Shield and the slightly less successful, Agent Carter. The new market seems to be, however, the Netflix original series. Luke Cage follows the recent successes of both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and takes a strong shot at the Marvel-for-adults genre. With sensuous cinematics and dynamic dialogue, Creator Cheo Hodari Coke seems to escape the traditional hero story and present more of a gangland crime thriller set in the heart of Harlem. Rather than focussing on the ‘who hits harder?’ aspect of adult television, the show’s importance lies in the power dynamics between characters and the Harlem social hierarchy that seems to suffuse the entire series.
The fight scenes involving Luke Cage (Mike Coulter) himself are few and far between. You’ll be waiting a fair while during the first episode before you get to see our eponymous hero in action – but this limitation works well. When your hero is bulletproof, it seems a waste of time and effects to have people constantly and ineffectively shooting at him. Instead, they give him two jobs and a mysterious past which allows for an interesting, if not slightly stereotypical, origin story involving false imprisonment and suspicious medical trials.
This aversion to constant action means the plot is not quite as fast paced as what Marvel fans may be used to. This is, however, made up for with beautifully shot scenes and quotable quips being thrown by each of the bold and intriguing characters. For example, scenes set inside “Harlem’s Paradise Nightclub” – the shady gangster head-quarters of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) – are always enjoyable. There is great use of music and cinematics which creates an undeniably cool style that seems to be the driving force of the series. However, between the stylised shots and authentic Harlem wit thrown back and forth, some plot points are sometimes lost.
Cage’s base, the local barber shop owned by the patriarchal Henry “Pop” Hunter (Frankie Faison) acts as the moral opposite to the club. The location plays the role of the friendly local meeting hub, all scenes here relying on the charisma of the cast and the authenticity of the dialogue. The shop is instantly given a sense of community that makes you care about not only the characters of the show, but also the city of Harlem itself.
The series has been criticised as neo-blaxploitation, negatively stereotyping the behaviours of African Americans whilst trying to appeal to that same audience; but it is hard to agree with this argument when what is produced is so artful and slick. The hardcore reality of these poverty stricken areas is represented, and not done pityingly. As Coker puts it, it’s “the Wu-Tang-ification of the Marvel Universe”. Whilst some argue about its lack of racial diversity, most will see this series as a gritty, realistic and artistic representation of Harlem and a new look for Marvel. The superhero game is growing up – and it’s doing it well.