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Luke Cage - Advance Preview - "Forward, Always"

When Daredevil hit Netflix early last year to critical acclaim and a warm fan response, it took everyone by surprise with its surprisingly compelling narrative and meaningfully gritty tone and feel. When Jessica Jones hit a few months later, racking up even stronger reviews, that too felt like a surprise – an untested formula and obscure lead character combined to create something impactful and thematically fascinating. However, with Marvel’s Netflix plan now in full swing, that element of surprise and the cautious expectations that met Daredevil and Jessica Jones has vanished. Luke Cage, therefore is perhaps the first of the Marvel-Netflix shows, that has been roundly expected to be great – it’s following a clear winning streak rather than coming from nowhere, so the third of the Marvel-Netflix shows finds itself saddled with the weight of untempered anticipation. Does the Power Man’s solo series manage the burden of those expectations?

Based on the first seven episodes, Luke Cage is up to the task. Put simply, it's a new, fresh kind of superhero TV - a jolt to a genre that's filling up to saturation point with relatively similar heroes. The basic framework of the story may be familiar, and it indulges in some of the bad habits we've seen the other two Netflix-Marvel shows develop such as a habit of repetition, but Luke Cage puts an invigoratingly original spin on these old tropes, with the one-two punch of a committed social conscience and a uniformly excellent cast elevating it above the generic elevator pitch.

Daredevil and Jessica Jones unfurled their narratives carefully, even slowly on a long road towards pay-off, so it comes as no surprise that Luke Cage unfolds at a relatively leisurely pace. It's a show that, in the early going at least, requires your patience and trust that this is all going somewhere.

This is most obvious in episode one, which is so front loaded with character establishing moments and introductions of plot points that it doesn't get much of a chance to really tell its own narrative. And when episode two appears to walk back even the big hook at the end of episode one, it's tempting to lose faith in what Luke Cage is doing.

Stick with it, though, and you'll find that this is a genuinely satisfying story, well-told. It's a show that's deceptively smart, with the intricacy of its character development and themes only revealing themselves at their pay-off. Scenes that may appear meandering and extraneous at the time turn out to be absolutely crucial to the thematic point the episode is building towards, and seemingly disconnected plot lines might just be working towards the exact same purpose.

Luke Cage isn't short of flab, and there's certainly some ideas that are overdeveloped, but it's a show where almost everything serves a purpose, and where very little of the generous amount of screen-time is wasted - and considering just how sprawling a runtime the show has to fill is (13 episodes, some of which here are pushing an hour), that's no mean feat.

Much has been made of the fact that Luke Cage is the first live-action Marvel property to feature a non-white lead character (it's a ridiculous fact, but that's Hollywood for you), and this show is deeply aware of that fact.

On one level, it gives us the deeply resonant imagery of Luke Cage, aptly termed by show runner Cheo Coker as 'a bulletproof black man', effortlessly strolling down hallways in a hoodie, an image inextricably linked to the current Black Lives Matter debate, shrugging off bullets. And on another, Luke Cage puts the concept of legacy within an African-American community at its very heart.

It's a shameless cliche, but the community of Harlem is a character in of itself here. And, in many ways, Luke Cage's depiction of Harlem is its central triumph, as it's the vessel through which Luke Cage can really delve into those core themes of community and legacy. The struggle to define the community can be seen as this show's main conflict, and it's one to which there are several compelling answers, all of which are absolutely unique to this show's focus on portraying a black community - politician Mariah Dillard runs on a platform of 'keeping Harlem black' and fiercely protects a community she sees as a monument in of itself, for instance.

In one of the most gripping scenes of the season's first half, Cottonmouth and Luke Cage give opposing speeches about what Harlem means to them, as insider and outsiders respectively to the community. The basic substance of those arguments are familiar, but they're being told in a way that's thrillingly new, through a point of view that we almost never get to see within the superhero genre.

Part of the reason why the battle for Harlem is so compelling is that we really get to see the community fleshed out in a way Hell's Kitchen never has been. A lot of that is due to the very distinctive vibe the show creates surrounding Harlem, with the glowing autumnal lighting accompanied by a layered hip-hop soundtrack which includes a handful of great live performances by artists.

Side characters who would be reduced to bit-parts on other shows become genuinely interesting presences who feel like they exist far beyond the events of the series (that might seem back-handed, but it's tough to make small characters like these any more than plot devices). From warm community patriarch Pops to the wise, chess-playing Bobby (for those wondering why Romero wasn't in this season of Mr Robot, here he is!), we get a sense of just how everyone, even those who are less significant to Luke's journey, contributes to their community. Because of this, we care as viewers about what happens to Harlem, because Luke Cage takes the time to make us care. That's simple stuff, but deeply effective.

Then there's the cast, who are just as good as you would hope. Mike Colter is a magnetically charismatic presence in the title role, as he was in Jessica Jones, conveying effortless levels self-confidence as well as hints of a deeper layer of pain lurking beneath the bulletproof exterior - in lesser hands, Luke could be a flat presence, but Colter ensures that we're deeply invested in Luke's journey from reluctant bystander to community hero.

Mahershala Ali, underrated on House of Cards, gives an equally terrific performance as villain Cornell 'Cottonmouth' (he hates that name) Stokes. It's a brilliantly volatile turn, shifting from self-satisfied egotism to uncontrollable fury to petulant child and back in the space of minutes, ensuring that Cottonmouth is a worthy successor to the impressive likes of Fisk and Kilgrave.

Thankfully, Luke Cage has its finger on the pulse when it comes to its female characters too. The surprise MVP, and definitely the one who will be earning the most fans come release, is detective Misty Knight. Though there's definitely attraction between her and Luke, to call Misty a love interest is a reductive assessment: a better term would be that she's the show's other hero, equal in heroism to Luke but contrasting in her approach.

Like Luke, Misty is a refreshingly straightforward character, prone to some poor decision-making but honest in her desire to see justice done in the way she deems to be the right one. Simone Missick's performance also mirrors Mike Colter's in many ways, conveying an unassuming, effortless sense of competence and decency - Misty might be estranged from her colleagues, but she's the smartest person in virtually any room she walks into; a fact that Missick ensures is vital to her take on the character.

There's also Mariah Dillard, cousin of Cottonmouth, who prides herself on her integrity and dedication to Harlem but relies heavily on intimidation and violence to shore up her political career. Alfre Woodard's performance is a lot subtler than most in the cast, with a lot of Mariah's true intentions and feelings repressed deep beneath her public personas of benevolent politician and loyal family member, but it's no less compelling, so it's a shame that Mariah doesn't appear as much as one may expect in these early episodes - underusing a performance that's quietly one of the best in the cast.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention Rosario Dawson's return as Claire Temple, quickly becoming the Nick Fury of the Defenders world as she hops to yet another show. Claire doesn't come in till midway through the series, but she gets a substantial role once Luke arrives, one that allows Dawson to showcase her unerring ability to have chemistry with virtually anyone she shares the screen with (although, it's worth mentioning that any Claire/Luke shippers are going to have to look for subtext). Claire is a really versatile character, and I'm glad she's being used as the bedrock of this corner of the MCU.

For all the praise I can throw at Luke Cage, the flaws have to be acknowledged to. And there are flaws - occasionally troubling ones. The familiarity narrative is often offset by the aforementioned execution, but it's sometimes hard for Luke Cage to get around the tired cliches it occasionally deploys. Cottonmouth's bursts of violence, for instance, lose their lustre fast because they're a pretty straightforward take of the old cable drama cliche of a bloody moment to establish a villain's tendency for violence.

Likewise, characters sometimes sit down to talk about the show's themes in long bouts of exposition that wearingly spell out the points the show is trying to make with little to no subtlety - that's particularly a problem for the scenes Cottonmouth and Mariah share, because their dynamic is so complicated that the show has to wade through reams of exposition to get to the pay-off. And, while the relaxed feel is something that personally grew on me, some of the early episodes are a little slow off the marks, taking so long to make their point that Luke Cage feels like it's actively toying with your tolerance for long-winded conversations that don't seem to go anywhere.

At the end of the day, despite the easy tendency to revert to comparing the show against Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage is good enough to stand on its own. What has been created here is not something perfect, and not always something thrilling, but something important - something that takes the superhero genre into a whole new ballpark of different perspectives and new themes, that feels vital in a way very few other shows do. In its own way, it's quietly groundbreaking stuff, and an ideal advertisement for the compelling new stories that greater diversity within the genre can create.

Yep, it's another win for Marvel.

Episodes 1-7 Grade: A-

+ Great cast
+ Socially conscious narrative
+ Interesting and original themes

- Occasionally repetitive
- Sluggish in the early stages
- Lacks subtlety at times

About the Author - Louis Rabinowitz
Louis is a British online writer who enjoys a huge variety of TV, especially all things superhero and sci-fi. His favourite show is, and probably always will be, Doctor Who, and other favourite shows include The Flash, The Walking Dead, Mr Robot, Breaking Bad, Fargo, Prison Break and a whole lot more, all of which he is probably emotionally invested in a bit too much. He'll be reviewing Lethal Weapon in the fall! 
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