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Luke Cage Review: New Marvel Series Is Strong, But Not Without Weak Spots

Marvel's Luke Cage Review

grade_BNetflix’s superhero dramas, because they don’t have to sweat the week-to-week ebbs and flows in ratings, are able to spend protracted amounts of time with the villain. And that can indeed be a sweet storytelling luxury, as demonstrated thus far by Marvel’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones series.

But there’s a point in Marvel’s Luke Cage (premiering Friday, Sept. 30, all 13 episodes) where two crime bosses are drilling down so deep into their dealings, the viewer almost feels remiss for not possessing a degree in Illicit Business & Finance.

And yet those talkier moments, which take place largely inside the cavernous Harlem nightclub run by Cornell “Don’t Call Him Cottonmouth” Stokes, are perhaps the only significant weak spot in this telling of the rise of reluctant, impervious hero Luke Cage.

Mike Colter of course fills the title role, which he first played opposite Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones. The challenge for the Good Wife alum is that, while as perfect a physical match for the character as one would dream, Luke isn’t armed with Jessica’s snarky zingers or Matt Murdoch’s wry sense of humor. He’s a quieter-spoken character, more at home trading jokey jabs at the barber shop where he sweeps floors. And yet Colter brings a needed intensity, especially as the deadly drama quickly escalates, that threatens to boil over at any given moment, usually resulting in him ricocheting dozens of thugs’ bullets.

As the series opens, Luke is still mourning wife Reva, whose death was detailed on Jessica Jones. And he has pretty much given up the bartending thing, until called on to “upgrade” from washing glasses at Cottonmouth’s club to filling them. It is during that gig that he first meets Misty Knight, and as quickly as they (ahem) get to know each other, they eventually discover they each are full of surprises.

Played by Simone Missick (Wayward Pines), Misty is a greatly interesting character, and part of the reason why is because — and Luke himself observes this — she is a woman, and not a girl. She has lived a vivid life and has tales to tell, including of her basketball prowess on the playgrounds of Harlem. The question is, will the aforementioned (and torrid) hook-up with Luke keep her from seeing the incredible truth right in front of her, when a bulletproof, hoodied vigilante begins making a well-meaning ruckus?

Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) is compelling and threatening as Cottonmouth, whose suddenly comprised criminal enterprises threaten to taint the Harlem-enriching achievements of their benefactor, semi-crooked city councilwoman Mariah Stokes (four-time Emmy winner Alfre Woodard). As that relationship evolves, Ali and Woodard enjoy an often animus-filled rapport that simply crackles.

Other characters include Pops (The Wire‘s Frankie Faison), the sage barber shop owner who looks the other way with a grin when Luke lifts a washing machine with one hand; Shades (Sons of Anarchy‘s Theo Rossi), a smirky tough who surfaces to keep Cottonmouth in check; and Misty’s NYPD detective partner Rafael (Ray Donovan‘s Frank Whaley, playing things too broadly at times). Rosario Dawson reprises her Marvel-verse role of Claire Temple midway through the run, in part to give Luke the “Nothing hurts you, so what are you afraid of?” pep talk he at the time needs.

Harlem is itself a wonderfully utilized character, both a welcome departure from the well-explored Hell’s Kitchen and a distinct neighborhood unto itself. That Netflix’s Marvel shows shoot on location in New York has perhaps never been better justified.

Again, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and now Luke Cage take… their…… time in unspooling a 13-episode story, rarely serving up action scenes just because. As such, each skirmish that “Harlem’s Captain America” (as one character dubs Luke) allows himself into — or, later, initiates — boasts a special immediacy. And as one-note as his ability may appear to be on paper, the series finds multiple innovative, whiz-bang! ways to illustrate it (and to a more frequent degree than was done with Jessica Jones’ own skills).

THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Welcome to the Netflix neighborhood, Luke.

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