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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Luke Cage Trailer Analysis

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Edited by Robert Beach

At the time of writing, we’re a little over one month out from the premiere of Marvel’s 3rd Netflix series Luke Cage. The series promises to be a major debut as its the first ever Marvel Studios production to star a black man as well as the first comic book adaptation since Blade Trinity to revolve around a black superhero. It’s also pretty clear that Marvel is leaning heavily into the overt blackness of the hero based on how hip-hop heavy the scoring of his trailers are and the presence of Cheo Hodari Coker as showrunner. 

After a couple of great teasers and very interesting set photos, we have our first full trailer. And boy is it awesome. The trailer gives us some great insight into both the super-powered action of the new show and its very interesting themes and atmosphere. Lastly, it blends a gritty, urban crime story of glossy hip-hop opulence with a politically minded superhero story about whether or not the world is ready for a bulletproof black man. 

We open the trailer with what I assume is a fairly early scene in the show: Luke meeting Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple. Dawson remains Marvel Netflix’ secret weapon, absolutely crushing her role in all three of the Netflix superhero seasons we’ve had so far as a composite of the bizarre superhero Night Nurse and Dr. Temple.  

Given Dr. Temple’s ties to Luke Cage in the comics, Dawson was bound to show up in this trailer. I’m more surprised by how much she’s here as she seems to have been up-jumped from sporadic presence to a full-on supporting character. Dawson’s certainly earned the upgrade, and she seems to have real chemistry with Luke himself. 

From that opening, we get our first look at the show’s vision of Luke Cage’s origin story along with some fun visual shout outs.  If you’re unfamiliar with Luke, his origin is that he was framed for murder and sent to jail. Eager to decrease his sentence and get revenge Luke signed up to participate in a weird super soldier experiment.  The experiment worked, giving him super strength and unbreakable skin and in the confusion of the success Luke escaped both the experiment and prison, fleeing back to Harlem and adopting the new name Luke Cage to cover his tracks.  

Most of that seems to have translated to the movie as we know Luke was in prison from the Defenders teaser trailer and, as we can see here, he is involved in a botched experiment.  Fun visual shout out, the look of big silver bracelets and tiara that Luke sports upon emerging from the tank is a reference to his original costume from the Heroes for Hire comic. 

I’m not exactly sure who the sagely old barber we’ve seen sporadically through the trailers is, though he’s obviously someone of significance to Luke. One of the unfortunate things about Luke Cage is that, because he wasn’t very popular till the modern era, he lacks a lot of core mythos. There are a handful of characters you might call Luke Cage supporting cast, and we’ll get to them. For the most part, this show is going to be fleshing out who his friends and enemies are for all future adaptations.

Something I really like about this trailer is the concept of Harlem it’s sporting. So far in the Marvel Netflix corner, New York has mainly come off sleazy and crime riddled.  While there’s certainly crime in Luke Cage’s Harlem, it feels a lot more like a place of hope and comes off downright utopic in comparison to Daredevil’s vision of Hell’s Kitchen or the neon hellhole that Jessica Jones is set in.  

Quick little nod that I like, the opening street art during the Harlem montage features a newspaper from “the Black Panther party.”  While this is obviously tied to the real life Black Panther group, I do really hope Luke Cage makes some mention of the hero now that he emerged onto the world stage in the wake of Captain America: Civil War. 

We also get a first look here at Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, a powerful rising politician out of Harlem and relative of the series prime villain Cottonmouth. I’m not sure how Dillard will impact the overall plot. Previous set photos clearly feature Luke Cage fighting the cops, which, combined with the ongoing thread of people turning against heroes in Jessica Jones, Agents of SHIELD, and Civil War, I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up gunning for Luke Cage at some point.

Speaking of Cottonmouth, we get our first look at him, and he looks incredible.  Mahershala Ali has been long overdue for a star turn after showing up on everyone’s radar in House of Cards, so I’m glad to see him finally getting his shot at the big time through this role. Most of all, I like that Cottonmouth doesn’t just look like a Kingpin rehash and very much his own bad guy.  

There’s something to his opulence and theatricality that I really like; the way he’s filmed here just crushes it: the red staging and the use of hip-hop iconography to inform his character is beautifully done.  The single shot of him standing in front of the Biggie Smalls crown poster is probably the highlight of the whole trailer, though all of his scenes are an absolute steal. Every Netflix show has found a sweet spot of underused actors and great opportunities. Even though Mike Colter seems like a great Luke Cage, I think Ali will be the real breakout of this season. 

As for Cottonmouth’s plan, that seems to be your fairly standard crime lord/politician team-up maneuver. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out he was just a pawn set-up by Dillard the whole time. It seems like Cottonmouth’s MO is to try and take over organized crime in Harlem and let his men on a spree through the city to cause enough havoc to get Dillard elected on a law-and-order ticket.  

Scenes of Cottonmouth's men shooting up the local barber shop and Chinese restaurant show that these aren’t guys exerting their power so much as they’re unleashing chaos upon an unsuspecting populous. It’s the same set-up as Robocop, but these things become trusted and well worn for a reason. 

We also get a good look at some Luke Cage action here, and it’s great. I really like that shot of the guy’s fist shattering as he punches Luke; that’s a damn clever approach and highlights how visually unique Luke’s invulnerability makes him.  The imagery of Luke being impervious to all forms of harm has come to dominate the media for this show, with the cadence of “bullet proof black man” as the marching cry that drives things forward. Given the current state of the world, I can’t say that isn’t necessary. 

I will complain that the under-lit hallways and plain-clothes costumes of the Netflix aesthetic are starting to ware a little thin. There are only so many times you can see a dude beat up anonymous dorks under dim fluorescents before it starts to lose its luster no matter how unbreakable their skin is. 

Speaking of which, we also get some of our first scenes of Misty Knight, Luke Cage’s only consistent supporting character, outside of Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, played by Simone Missick. In the comics, Misty has a robotic arm and is a superhero in her own right alongside Luke. Since all of these Netflix shows have featured a secondary superhero in some capacity, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Misty ended up revealing her powers or maybe just losing her arm at some point during this show. 

It’d certainly fit with her comments about Harlem not being as indestructible as Luke is, which does a nice job positioning her as both a figure of conscience and a defender in her own right. So far, all of the heroes of New York’s lower levels have had super powers. If Misty doesn’t have her robo-arm yet, she could be the first real defender who’s just a person trying to do the right thing. 

The rest of the trailer is an action sizzle reel showing off a lot of cool locations that do seem to be shaking up the “we fight in dark hallways” trope of the Netflix brigade. We see a throwdown between Luke and Cottonmouth’s men at a club along with what looks like Luke attending a funeral at a church. Things get seriously crazy in terms of the force Cottonmouth brings to bear: huge explosions, sniper rifles, blown-up ambulances, it’s an avalanche. 

With three seasons in, the bad guys of these Netflix shows have been thoroughly varied. Kingpin played a delicate game of Jenga with the city’s criminals and cops; the Hand invaded with a ninja zombie army; Kilgrave used innocent lives as his greatest weapon. Making Cottonmouth’s greatest weapon just be "access to high level military hardware" would be a sharp way to change things up, considering Cage is the most powerful Defender. 

Speaking of defending, that really is the core strength of this trailer and the way it frames its hero. While Daredevil was much more of a vigilante and Jessica Jones was defined by her personal relation to her villain, Luke is defined here by his community and his will to protect from people who would exploit it for personal gain. That’s why, so often, the money shots from the action scenes are just Luke shrugging off attacks, defending against injury. 

What’s more, it’s the reason so much of the visual palette at hand is grounded in representations of community. Places like the barber shop, gym, Chinese restaurant, church, and the local club cast as Luke Cage’s battleground. He’s not someone seeking out crime in its dark alleys or being drawn into a world he escaped, crime has come to Luke Cage’s home. Now he’s going to defend it because no one else can.  

Luke Cage premieres September 30, 2016

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