The first moments of Luke Cage offer much that the previous 38 or so hours of Marvel superhero Netflix drama haven't: laughter. Warmth. A sense that the New York City that Daredevil and Jessica Jones mope and brawl through might be more than just a place to save — it could be a place to live in, to cherish.
Of course, Luke Cage isn't set in Daredevil's New York. It's uptown, across 110th, set in barbershops, basketball courts and a swank soul-music club whose stage is commanded by Jidenna and Charles Bradley. Yes, there's music — in the pilot, Raphael Saadiq gets two songs, like an SNL guest.
This is uncharted territory for Marvel even after those 38 hours of TV and something like 30 of shared-universe movies. It's not just that the hero for once is black — it's that the show around him is, too, both in front of and behind the camera. That freshens everything, like someone opened a window and let some air into a room long stale with Stan Lee and Frank Miller farts.
It's the sunniest of Marvel's Netflix shows, and the funniest, with the most engaging cast. It's also the first whose individual episodes feel shaped and structured, put together with such confidence that its creators sometimes don't even bother ending with a cliffhanger. They're right to trust that these characters compel: Luke Cage has cranky beat cops (Simone Missick and Frank Whaley), a wise barber/father figure (Frankie Faison), a Fender Rhodes–playing gangster (Mahershala Ali), a councilwoman so corrupt that, when spoken by her, the phrase “new Harlem renaissance” sounds as nasty as “stop and frisk” (Alfre Woodard). Even that selfless nurse from the other Marvel series, played again by Rosario Dawson, finally gets to do more than scowl in scrubs.
Cage himself (Mike Colter) is a sleek-pated man-mountain with unbreakable skin, a wearily charismatic figure more folk hero than Avenger. He's dressed down, unmasked, never eager for a fight, clumsily charming in his wooing: “I ponder older women,” he says to Missick’s Misty Knight in the first episode. The line's so dumb he should get laughed back to Georgia, but he's so fine, with just the right tickle of deviltry in those eyes, that you believe it when they wind up in bed together.
There's life in Luke Cage's Harlem. Characters gab, joke, discuss matters beyond superhero drama. In those first moments, the talk, a little stiff, is of sports; an hour or two later, our hero — a sort of black Superman who favors gray hoodies and wouldn’t bother flying even if he could — finds time for some spirited book-chat, comparing Donald Goines to Chester Himes, and then to Walter Mosley, before showing some love for Price, Lehane and Pelecanos. (Quick, someone mail Cage a copy of George V. Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle!)
The show, at its best, plays more like one of those crime novels than a Marvel property. There are the usual serialized shared-universe plot points to keep track of, those references to “The Incident” (an alien invasion from The Avengers) or Justin Hammer (an arms-merchant rival of Tony “Iron Man” Stark) that offer the faithful a chance to geeksplain to their binge-mates. (“That's Stan Lee!” they hiss sagely once per film.) But the trademarked proper nouns aren't much of a hurdle. As I cheered Luke Cage's one-man war against uptown crime-boss Cottonmouth (Ali), I wasn't above daydreaming that the binge-mates might take the opportunity to explicate the real-world references to the faithful: Invisible Man, Pappy Mason, “Bring da Ruckus,” Robert Moses and benign neglect. Cage himself spits out a welcome lecture on Crispus Attucks, with a gun pointed at his gleaming dome.
Cage was conceived in the ’70s, in Marvel comics, as a blaxploitation hero for all ages, a peacocking “Hero for Hire” whose bared chest and chain accessorizing suggest, as Cage says in the new show, “a runaway slave.” (He briefly, hilariously wears his old comics costume, canary-yellow blouse and all, in the series' fourth episode, the best of the seven I have seen, a flashback-heavy look at his time in prison.) Back then, he tended to shout “Sweet Christmas!” and launch into Conan-style rages, a Spandex-panted embodiment of anger itself. He was a riff or a goof, one tainted by white ideas about savage blackness.
Following the lead of comics writer Brian Michael Bendis, who re-envisioned Cage as a grown-up in the 2003 Alias comic series that introduced Jessica Jones, Colter swaps the rage for the quiet, wary pride of someone who wants no trouble but knows there's going to be some — and that he can handle it. He's so strong, so unbeatable in a fight, that he's got nothing to prove and other things he'd prefer to be doing. But he does have lessons to learn: about responsibility, about what he represents, about how stopping a crime is one thing but stopping crime itself — well, that's going to invite some blowback, and not just to him. “Your ass may be bulletproof, but Harlem ain't,” detective Misty Knight warns him.
It's with some relief that I report that all the escalating violence here is the least grim and graphic of Netflix's Marvel shows. Often, the sight of Cage, that strolling tank, parading through a swarm of attackers is straight-up comic. A couple episodes in, he tears the front door off an SUV and then, holding it out before him like Captain America's shield, busts the heads of 20 guys firing off semi-automatics. Eventually, he burrito-wraps that door around Guy 21, and then barrels on unshielded after more. It's some Dolemite shit, some true comic-book craziness, and it's over in just a couple minutes, because Luke Cage has plenty of other life to get to. (Daredevil would have taken all night to battle through, pausing once in a while to grunt-debate with them the ethics of vigilantism. Daredevil's fights grind on like sex with Sting.)
When Jessica Jones hit last November, everyone asked, “Is it the best Marvel TV show yet?” Of course it was — its competition was Daredevil, a sort of grim/dumb The Wire made by people who understand nothing about police work/hospitals/lawyers/journalism, and the broadcast TV also-rans Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. With Luke Cage, there's no question. Saying this is the best Marvel TV show is like saying Luke Cage himself could stomp the asses of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, his one-time lover. He just can.