Whether by intent or happenstance, Luke Cage is the perfect hero at a most imperfect time: a bulletproof black man.
You get the hero you need. Don't act surprised; they told you he was coming.
'Marvel's Luke Cage' starts streaming Sept. 30 on Netflix.
It continues the corner of the Marvel Television Universe that includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones and now Luke Cage. The stories are building up to a team-up series, The Defenders.
(It's not lost on the viewer that while the Avengers work uptown where the steel is shiny and branded, Luke Cage and his ilk work their brand of street-level heroics.)
Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a man who finally steps up to be a participant in the world that's changing around him. What he hasn't missed is that, more often than not, that same world seems to be aimed at him.
The series is tonally different than those Marvel shows that preceded it. There's an urgency at work. The opening credits support this theory:
The city's skyline is like a brand on his back reminiscent of the latticework left by a whip in times past.
But it's not all about the subtext.
There are touches from the comics here and there, like the mention of his once-upon-my-time superhero name: "Not a problem for you, Power Man," quips Pop, the owner of a barbershop where Cage works and the uncle of his wife. There are enough well-choreographed brutal fights and well-timed explosions for anyone with a short attention span.
There's also enough depth of field for people who come to the series for something else. Alfre Woodard plays Mariah Stokes, an on-the-take city official. Mahershala Ali plays her cousin, a take-everything-and-give-a-lot-to-her Harlem crime boss known as "Cottonmouth." An aide carries hand sanitizer for Stokes as she hobnobs in her hood.
Her cousin doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. It's one of those times his hands are bloodied that causes a collision with the quiet life Cage has built for himself. He may possess superhuman strength but he's chosen to be a handyman by day and dishwasher by night, at Cottonmouth's nightclub no less.
So, suddenly but with warning, Cage's life is upended. Again.
He's already served time for a crime he didn't commit; he's lost his wife; he's been experimented on, imbued with powers of indestructibility and incredible strength that he didn't ask for. He's had enough and acts the only way he knows how, by acting out. This time, instead of disappearing, he becomes determined to change all their lives for the better through sheer strength and will. And bulletproof skin.
Viewers will learn some things through the sheer strength and will of this series, too. There is no code-switching here; these words are authentic. There's a free haircut list posted in the barbershop that includes Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Richard Roundtree and Al Pacino, who is said to have a "permanent ghetto pass" due to his roles in The Godfather and Scarface.
The show can be a black history class, complete with a soundtrack. Each episode is named with a Gang Starr track. Borrowing a page from New York Undercover, stellar singers grace the stage at the venue owned by our big bad, some of it live: singers Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans and Charles Bradley (!).
Listen closely and you shall hear names dropped, especially of creator and writer Cheo Hodari Coker's influencers: Donald Goings, Walter Mosely, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Chester Himes, Richard Price. And that's just in one conversation.
And then more history, including Shirley Chisholm and Adam Clayton Powell.
Keep pen and paper handy. This is homework you'll want to do.
Some of the dialogue is clunky, but the actors are elegant enough to pull it off. Especially Ali, who plays big bad Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes. He gets a lot of the best lines and delivers them as such. "Money outlasts respect" and "Nothing humbles a man like gravity." More, please.
Colter is impressive in every way: his physique, his bearing, the depth of emotion he can portray with nothing but his eyes. We know this from his time on Jessica Jones. Simone Missick is a revelation as Det. Misty Knight, who is intrigued and baffled by Luke Cage. Also, in aserious departure from the source material, attracted to him.
A lot of people are attracted to this man. That reference to Shaft is no coincidence.
When the comic-book character first appeared in 1972, it was a direct result of the movie bearing the same name.
Marvel's Luke Cage is a shift in the conversation; it's what Marvel honcho Stan Lee and his compatriots were striving for with the mutants series. The intent there was to start a conversation about acceptance and acknowledge that lives other than those that look like our own matter.
Pop has a saying: "Always forward. Forward always."
After Marvel's Luke Cage, it should be right up there with that other one about power and responsibility.