Luke Cage is the best Marvel TV show that has existed thus far.
Okay. "Best" is a very strong word, so let me explain.
The plot, the acting, the cinematography, and the music far outshine all of Marvel's other outings. And it really comes down to a single word: style.
This show oozes with style. We have elements of noir, of blaxploitation, of hero's journey (natch), and modernity coalescing into a visually and sonically gorgeous painting of life on the streets of Harlem.
It starts a LOT slower than most shows, and the writing in Episode 1 feels kind of lackluster. But it gets better. Oooh weee, does it get better.
Let's start with Mike Colter as the eponymous Luke Cage. A man on the run from his past, struggling against the burdon of being a public hero while a cityful of racial tensions and gang violence threatens to rip itself apart at the seams. The show offers a fascinating look at the relationship between law enforcement, the black community, and street violence in ways no other Marvel TV show would dare.
In one scene, two major players are discussing how best to capitalize on violence caught on a police dash-cam footage. "It's how gun laws were enacted in the first place," says one character, an obvious nod to the Mulford Act. It's believable, it's modern, and it's on freaking point, guys. This is made even more amazing by the excellence of the casting.
We saw Colter's Cage take a co-starring position in Jessica Jones, but given the spotlight, he's brilliant. When he's calm, he's an iceburg. When he's angry, he's an inferno. He embodies the character as well as Robert Downey Jr embodies Tony Stark.
You could have an entire book written about the complexities of Mahershala Ali's Cottonmouth. His tragic story, his inner demons, his wild fury. He's terrifying and sympathetic. Ali's pain only hinted behind a visage of a powerhungry nightclub owner. It's awesome to watch a sly smile become something more sinister as he gains the upper hand.
The rest of the cast is stellar: Simone Missick's Misty Knight is braggadocious, cool, and collected. Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) is every political junkie's worst nightmare; a politician with a smile like a snake, and a perfect record for seizing on each and every controversy and turning it into her own gain. Rosario Dawson's Night Nurse returns with gusto, a more prominant role, and she's excellent.
Scarfe (Frank Whaley), Shades (Theo Rossi), Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones), and Pop (Frankie Faison) are all wonderful. Literally every single character in this show could have their own show, and I'd watch the heck out of each and every one of them. This is the sign of great writing and casting.
And the most pervasive character, Harlem, is the most breathtaking of them all. The bustle of city life, poverty, and desperation hang heavy in each frame. Deep, rich colors caress each scene and shot. Harlem's Paradise is filled with heavy, dark reds and blues, and when the lights of the club turn on, the colors bleed away to a muted, muffled beige and green. We're graced with the motif of Barron Claiborne's classic shot of Biggie in every frame while Cottonmouth is in his office at Harlem's Paradise (perhaps a subtle nod to the fleeting nature of power in the criminal underworld), and watch as the angles, focus, and, eventually, the image changes over the course of the show. A small thing, but no less wonderful to see.
And the music. Oh my god, the music. Jazz, Funk, Soul, Blues, and Hip Hop carefully selected and performed. There's no wasted space or filler in any scene. Montages between scenes set with a live soul performance? You bet. There are moments of rage set to the bass, trumpets, strings, and wah-wah guitars of classic Blaxploitation films like Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Sweet Sweetback. Quiet moments where Cottonmouth plays a slow, thoughtful jazz ditty on his keyboard. Also, keep an eye out for the Method Man freestyle. Pure, utter sonic perfection. A soundtrack needs to happen, because it would freaking sell.
Here's just one song used in the show:
The only problem? The bar has been set so very high with this one that it casts doubt that Iron Fist and The Defenders will measure up.
Nearly every single note is hit with expert precision. It's more socially conscious than Daredevil, Jessica Jones, or Agents of SHIELD. It is, in a word, sweet, sweet Christmas.
10/10 haircuts at Pop's Barber Shop
All images courtesy Netflix