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Monday, October 3, 2016

Static Thoughts - Luke Cage

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So here we are at last- the premiere of Luke Cage.  After months of previews going all the way back to the end of Daredevil season 2, we’ve finally arrived at the next stepping-stone in the road to Defenders.  The new series has been hotly anticipated as the latest and greatest push for diversity from everyone’s favorite cinematic guardian Marvel Studios.  

That’s not even touching on the social importance of such an explicitly black-informed superhero story working on the power fantasy of a bulletproof black man in 2016.  Even beyond the rank and file of Marvel Studios, Luke Cage represents the first significant, black led superhero adaptation since Blade Trinity- it’s a big deal.  So, with all that weight on its shoulders and the world watching how is the final show?  Good Enough, spoilers to follow.  

To be clear, I’m not saying Luke Cage is bad or even that it’s mediocre, just that it’s about as good as it probably needed to be to succeed.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; Force Awakens was ultimately ‘good enough’ and people love that movie.  

In the case of Luke Cage, it’s that the show is a beautifully tailored exploration of black culture and history through the lens of the incredibly broad reaching superhero genre…but it’s also structurally flawed, circuitous, and deeply compromised.  In terms of other Marvel productions, it’s most similar to Age of Ultron in that it’s got a lot of great elements and some individually great moments, but it tries to take on so much that it becomes overburdened with ambition.

A big part of this comes from the way the season is broken into two major segments.  Episodes 1-6 are concerned with Luke emerging from the shadows of Harlem to become a genuine hero and match wits with the malicious machinations of local crime lord Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes.  However, at episode 7 Cornell’s cousin Mariah, a powerful and morally complicated councilwoman, kills her brother in a fit of rage.  After this point the show switches gears, bringing in the previously unseen bad guy Diamondback as the new central antagonist with Mariah working around the margins. 

That kind of structural disconnect has become more and more common with superhero TV lately, like the way The Flash season 3 and Daredevil season 2 filled up their seasons with two distinct arcs.  I like to refer to it as Season A and Season B, given how different the two sides of things end up being.  In Luke Cage’s case, Season 1A is where a lot of the show’s strongest and most cohesive elements can be found while 1B is where most of the major problems arise. 

What makes 1A work as well as it does is how much it rejects the standard approach to genre and structure of Marvel’s productions.  At its best, these episodes are most reminiscent of Superman (1978) and Spider-Man 2.  The character content is all about self-determination and identity in the midst of the black experience in urban America, drawing a comparison between Luke and Cornell.  Mike Colter brilliantly realizes Luke as a quietly exceptional everyman, but Mahershala Ali steals every scene as Cornell Stokes.  He’s a community crime lord steeped in loud and proud opulence and strength that covers his inner weakness. 

Luke is an outsider to the community but one embraced quickly into a street level culture, working at the local barbershop that acts as the neighborhood's hub.  He’s embraced by the simple comfort of normalcy in his existence, partially because he likes it and partially because, given his background as a fugitive, the banality of good food and good company are the only comforts he can attain.  

Cornell is the opposite side of the coin; a Harlem local whose family history is grounded in the criminality of the neighborhood.  His entire identity is crafted to oppose Luke’s: the son of a criminal whose avoided prosecution where Luke was the son of a preacher that was framed for a crime.  Where Luke lives humbly Cornell makes his home in an opulent and well-furnished club- Harlem’s Paradise.  He’s clothed himself in the trappings of black opulence to obscure the fact his power is incredibly petty. 

Both men are defined by their self-projected affectations covering for their real identities.  Luke has fallen to his current station but uses the trappings of banality to hide his inner hero while Cornell has clawed his way upwards clothed himself in the illusion of power to cover for his weakness.  It’s an elaborate character study to reflect the black experience in America and the demands of power and morality that it elicits. 

In addition to Luke and Cornell, the other major characters in this section of the show are Misty Knight, a detective investigating Cornell’s operations, and Mariah Dillard, Cornell’s cousin and Harlem politician that I mentioned earlier.  Misty may be more compelling than Luke himself in the long run, which is interesting because she’s basically slotted into the Foggy Nelson role of wanting Luke not to be a vigilante.  It mainly works because Simone Missick is excellent in the part and Misty does cool things instead of solely existing to nag the hero, she’s proactive and fights crime on her terms.  She’s cool but also a big part of the show’s problems in the second half. 

Mariah is the much more interesting character in the first half, even if she always remains a bit mercurial and at arm’s length.  She’s tied up in her brother’s schemes, using his drug running money to finance various housing complexes around Harlem.  She’s a useful and genuinely needed counterpoint to Cornell in that both characters are about an obsession with the exceptional and climbing upwards from a past in poverty, but Cornell is defined by opulent excess while respectability defines Mariah. 

Aside from the excellent character study elements, season 1A works as an incredibly well-informed exercise in genre blending and broad inclusivity on black culture.  The show’s genre radically shifts from scene to scene but it never feels incoherent about it, mainly because the aesthetic definitions of the show remain grounded firmly in black culture and tradition.  

The genre of any given scene is whatever it needs to be at that given moment while the style carries things through, so even as Luke’s time in prison exists as something akin to modern blaxploitation while his fights with crime are as pure superhero as you can get it all fits together. 

A big part of that cohesion is a kind of theatricality that’s built right into the show’s DNA.  I mean that literally in this case too as the show makes great use of the Harlem Paradise’s stage to fill the soundtrack with incredible tunes.  

What’s more, the use of the stage as a chorus coupled with the handful of static locations does create the feeling of a stage play in some elements- especially in the long, dialogue-driven scenes in the barbershop or Cornell’s private office.  It’s such a full reaching inclusion of black history and culture in the visual identity, references, and language of storytelling. 

So, where does it all go wrong?  It mainly comes down to Cottonmouth’s death and how much trouble the show has switching gears.  The actual death scene is one of Marvel’s best all time moments by a wide mile and is probably the most impactful moment of the show overall.  It’s the only scene where all the pontificating on the black experience pays off in a meaningful and powerful way.  

It’s revealed that Mariah’s uncle had molested her when she was younger, to which Cornell alleges that Mariah had been “asking for it” which is what causes her to kill him.  It’s an amazing and visceral scene full of big, dramatic emotion and power that radically redefines the entire show, with an amazing showcase from Alfre Woodard. 

After that, though, the show just never reaches that same level of emotional intensity or focus.  Rather than having Mariah step-up as the new central antagonist the issue becomes obfuscated with the introduction of Diamondback with as the new big bad.  Erik LaRay Harvey plays Diamondback, and he is terrible in this, possibly one of the weakest Marvel bad guys yet.  

The character ends up this big dish of ham and cheese that completely clashes with the grave and deep tone of the show.  What’s more, his ultimate motivation, though fitting to the show’s largest thematic concerns, is soap opera levels of goofy.  It turns out Diamondback is Luke’s secret half-brother and has been ruining his life because he’s mad their dad loved Luke more. 

As I said, I understand why the writers went this route, but it’s incredibly silly, and Diamondback’s performance does nothing to reduce that goofiness, it’s like if the Riddler climactically revealed he was Batman’s brother all along.  It’s meant to play off the theme of absent fathers and the way these men create exaggerated concepts of the fathers they never knew and eventually grow into that idea of a man.  

Cornell's key father figure is his uncle whose hedonistic style informs Cornell’s adulthood until his preconceptions of his father are shattered by Mariah in a moment that ends up destroying Cornell.  Luke and Diamondback’s dad was a preacher so Diamondback styles himself as a holy gun runner, always quoting the bible, was also acting as a living destruction of the sanctified holy image Luke had of his dad.  It all works on paper but in execution, the acting, and structure, completely fall to pieces. 

Speaking of, S1B is a structural mess.  S1A is pretty structure-less overall, with none of the big scheming plot boiler elements that defined so much of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  This makes the first half a lot slower and more deliberate but also gives it more room for its thoughtful meditations.  

S1B is all about a big plan by Diamondback to kill Luke getting swept up in a scheme with Mariah to create a super-powered paranoia so the city will buy Diamondback’s special bullets that can actually hurt Luke, none of which stands up to the barest levels of scrutiny incidentally.  It’s where the show’s greatest weakness float right to the top and I don’t just mean Diamondback’s weak motivation and hammy acting. 

Firstly there’s a lot of junky logic at play in this entire scheme.  They frame Luke Cage for several murders, but the show basically goes out of its way to show there’s blatant evidence exonerating him.  For instance, they try and claim Luke killed Cornell even though we see Luke was with Misty, the investigating officer, at the time of the murder.  

Similarly, when Diamondback straps on a super suit to kill this cop, Misty actually pulls surveillance footage that she uses to identify him- this revelation is never mentioned again.  Much the same way Diamondback seems to have an infinite supply of super-bullets to sell to the city, even though I’m not sure why the city of New York is involved buying black market exploding bullets from some random weirdo. 

All this stuff would be forgivable if it was building to a point, but it’s really not.  This is what I meant earlier when I described the series as compromised.  All this gross negligence on the part of the officials seems to be building to a commentary on the system being broken.  It’s highlighted by the ending featuring Luke going back to prison and Mariah getting off entirely free; it’s clear there was a plan for something more substantial here.  

However, for whatever reason, the show can never just come right out and say, “The system is broken,” there must always be some other reason.  It’s not the system as a whole it’s some criminal invading element or some single person’s mistake, there’s always an excuse to show it’s never the fault of the system just its imperfect servants.  

It’s all very mealy-mouthed and non-committal, robbing the second half of the meaningful impact it was going for.  Misty is hit hardest by this as it’s clear her storyline is meant to be about accepting the system is broken but she never really comes to this conclusion, no lessons are learned or revelations had.   

What’s more, losing Cornell keeps the show from having as strong and well developed a central antagonist.  Aside from Diamondback’s shenanigans, Mariah remains in the picture along with a henchman named Shades.  Shades is a criminal over-actor in his own right, but it’s Mariah who really gets the shaft: the show never figures out what to do with her after pulling the murder trigger.  

Sometimes she’s a regretful and complex woman, other times she’s a fear-mongering gunrunner, and still other times she’s a blatantly evil super villain laughing at Luke’s misfortune.  It could hang together if her changes in mood were actually explained, but they’re not, they just happen out of nowhere.

The one stand out part of this section would have to be Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, the Night Nurse.  Dawson’s been in all of the Marvel Netflix stuff so far, and this is easily her best appearance yet.  She’s raised up from side cameo to a full on supporting role here and just crushes it with her blend of kindness, grit, enthusiasm and charm.  

She’s mainly involved as part of a third-act detour where Luke is forced to seek out the doctor who created his powers.  It’s an enjoyable enough diversion from the main plot, even if the Seagate prison experiments end up way more interesting than the Diamondback gun running scheme.  Seriously, if there’s any part of S1B that comes close to saving it it’s Dawson, and it’s high time she got her own show out of all this. 

This ultimately leaves the show feeling very split and not at all helped by the fact that the truly great episodes come in the opening portions of the series. The problems are definitely major, dragging down a lot of the episodes and hurting the finale especially wherein the big final fight between Luke and Diamondback is emotionally deeply underwhelming. 

What’s more, a lot of the sequel set-up from the finale hinges on the thoroughly boring villains so it is a little hard to get that excited about what’s to come.  Still, there’s a lot to like there, and even among all the problems of part 2, there are powerful and enjoyable moments.  

There’s enough great amid the good and good amid the bad to make the show a worthwhile watch and establish itself as a solid addition to the superhero pantheon.  More than that, in terms of being quality sufficient to cater to an audience starved for stories of black optimism ad black excellence Luke Cage is easily good enough. 

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