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Right out of the gate, Marvel’s Luke Cage feels unlike anything the studio has done to date. The third TV series from Marvel studios produced in partnership with Netflix (after “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones”) shares its gritty noir sensibility with the other Netflix shows, true, but Luke Cage is the first Marvel product to not be set in world where white people dominate the action. That alone makes it feel vibrant, refreshing and compelling, capturing an authentic sense of place and character. While the opening episode is perhaps a bit too low-key for its own good, its energy and style remains hugely engaging and sets the stage for what could be another triumph for Marvel and Netflix.
The style I’m talking about is probably most readily apparent in the music, a sonic landscape that instantly gives you a sense of verisimilitude and place. Show runner Cheo Hodari Coker was one of the great hip-hop music writers of his day, writing for both Vibe and the LA Times before turning to television, and he’s smart enough to know that music can be one of the most powerful tools in communicating atmosphere and setting to an audience. And the title of each episode of this series takes its name from a Gang Starr song, and that’s just cool. The score for the series is being supervised by two hip-hop stars, A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, probably most famous for his great score to “Black Dynamite.”
But the strength of the overall atmospheric choices Coker makes go way beyond simply the sonic. Coker has said that he wanted this series to be “The Wire” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the series definitely feels that way. The action of the first episode, “Moment of Truth“, is set entirely in Harlem, and therefore our cast of characters wind up being literally darker than Marvel fans are going to be used to. I don’t know of another super-hero film or TV series that has ever had this many people of color both in front of and behind the camera, and the result is a series that is long overdue and instantly welcome.
Coker has ensured that hip-hop is woven into the episode as a result, in the same way that Scorsese intertwines Classic Rock into his films. It’s more than music, it’s a felling that influences the shot construction, set design and editing. Same thing, here. And it’s only when you watch the pilot of Marvel’s Luke Cage that you realize how homogeneous the MCU has truly been. And if you’re like me, then you appreciate what Marvel is trying to do with the different Netflix series they’re making. “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones” and now Luke Cage are attempts to make their TV division feel completely different from their film world. Still part of the same universe, but different spheres that don’t really overlap except in the most tangential ways. And our world is like that. You and I are never going to hang out with someone like Bill Gates. And Luke Cage is unlikely to meet Tony Stark. They may occasionally be in the same city, but they might as well be on different planets.
The episode itself spends much of its time setting up the world and the characters we’re going to be following, and in some ways it focuses on this too much. We open to find Luke Cage (Mike Colter) working in a Harlem Barber Shop, hiding out as a fugitive following the events of “Jessica Jones.” It’s a great scene, as the patrons and barbers talk basketball and basically shoot the kind of breeze shot in barber shops since time began. The dialogue gives you flavour and tone without being obvious about it, revealing character in the best kinds of way. Luke sweeps the shop and keeps it clean for Pops (Frankie Faison, who is a brilliant hire anytime you need effortless authenticity), and in the scene Colter effectively establishes who Luke is; a low-key, no-nonsense man of integrity who never starts anything but absolutely will finish it. Luke also washes dishes at Harlem Paradise, a top-notch club run by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Stokes is more than a club owner, he’s also a crime lord embarking on becoming a dealer in high-tech weapons, aided by his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a city council member.
As Luke gets pressed into tending bar at the club one night, it’s revealed that the regular bartender called in sick but is in actuality ripping off one of Stoke’s shipments, a move that will bring Luke’s life under the radar into conflict with Stokes’ rise in the underworld.
The episode excels in all the things I brought up earlier, namely in creating a setting and world of characters that are engaging, well-drawn and well-performed. The entire cast is great, from the leads of Colter, Ali and Woodard, to Simone Missick as Det. Misty Knight, to Theo Rossi as sinister Shades Alvarez, to always solid Frank Whaley as Det. Scarfe. Everybody’s interesting and brings their A-game.Paul McGuigan directs the pilot, and he’s always been a stylish director with a solid handle on directing tough guys and making their brutality ring true without being gratuitous. Overall, the writing is stellar throughout, rarely delivering clunky exposition or a false note (the exception being a two-word explanation of Luke’s origin which felt too nakedly dropped in).
The only complaint I have is how low-key and quiet an opening this episode is. We see Luke trying to live a normal life, hiding out, and we see Stokes making plans and schemes, but it stumbles a bit as it tries to build up steam. The episode lacks a definitive climax to its structure, and that makes it feel more like a slow smolder than an explosion out of the gate. I liked everything I saw, but felt that the scenes were paced too similarly, so even when the episode concluded with an action scene, it didn’t feel like it was kicking into high gear but just continuing to cruise.
All that being said, “Moment of Truth” remains a compelling and engaging pilot just for its unique flavor and sharply drawn characters and world alone. And in this era when you can immediately click on to the next episode, maybe having an explosive pilot doesn’t matter as much. I can easily see the conflicts simmering, and can definitely see the potential for greatness in Luke Cage, so even if this premiere is maybe more subdued than it should be, that’s a minor trade off when the lower gear ride is this enjoyable. 8/10
Keep checking back throughout the week as I review each and every episode of Marvel’s Luke Cage!