| Given superstrength and durability by a sabotaged experiment, a wrongly accused man escapes prison to become a superhero for hire.
What’s most distinctive about the series is the way it puts race — and specifically pride in Harlem, where the show takes place — at the center of the story. It’s not just that Cage (Mike Colter of “The Good Wife”) is engaged in a battle for the neighborhood’s soul with Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”), a local crime boss. That’s a plot we’ve seen plenty of times. Luke resides in a version of Harlem that bears little resemblance to the gentrified, international community that exists today. The funk guitar that accompanies the opening shot nods to the hero’s ’70s roots, but such period details add to the nowhere quality of the setting.
The series struggles to make Cottonmouth more than just a contentious, high-ranking criminal with little compassion and tremendous self-interest. There’s an early scene where the character explains the symbolic nature of his Notorious B.I.G. painting, which pictures the late Christopher Wallace with a crown on his head. Ali, a deeply charismatic actor, savors the language as he speaks about how everyone wants the crown, but few are fit for it. In such moments, the show’s writers brush up against something poetic, even aching, about making money the way a person like Cottonmouth does, with the man standing before his painting so the crown on Biggie’s head looks as if it’s perched atop his own.
The director of the first couple of episodes appears to have a problem with story telling, but the real issue is there just isn’t enough material to fill each episode. Every hour drags on and on. It’s awkwardly punctuating by musical numbers that will not be appealing to most viewers with frequent cuts back and forth which simply interrupt the consequential moments of each episode instead of accentuating them. The show improves throughout its run, but it really only picks up over the last few episodes. The story is not compelling, the acting is troublesome at times (mostly early on), and Cage’s story arc and motivation (or lack thereof) leaves much to be desired for most of the first season. At times it’s hard to believe he’s the same character who first appeared in Jessica Jones.
Some of the reviews I’ve seen remark how much character development there is on the supporting cast as one of the show’s strengths. Honestly, it seems to be a glaring weakness. Not only is this too, filler, the character development is poor. It not only doesn’t explain who these people really are and in fact detracts from the characters as you see how weak and ineffectual the rest of the cast is.
There’s plenty to like about “Luke Cage,” including the gorgeous Harlem locations, but if you make the inevitable comparison to “Jessica Jones,” the show from which it was semispun off, it looks decidedly average. Mr. Colter was better served there, playing a stoic Cage in a supporting role, here he doesn’t seem comfortable carrying the show.