The Wu-tangification of Hip Hop’. So said creator-in-chief Cheo Hodari Coker, when he announced the highly anticipated Marvel/Netflix co-venture, Luke Cage. Hopes that he was at the helm of a winner skyrocketed when Ol’ Dirty Bastards immortal opening line “Shimmy shimmy ya shimmy yam shimmy yay…” rained down all over a trailer filled with various shots of Mr Cage sending ill informed (and ill advised) wannabe thugs through doors, windows and walls. But we all know that in some cases the trailer is as good as it gets.
Initially the aura of blaxploitation era themes and sounds proved to be a stumbling block to a definitive thumbs up. Of course you can’t Boom Bap and Trap your way through every minute of the series, but just the title sequence music(which is superb by the way), the end credits and a couple of well placed guest spots aren’t enough. If you’re going to spend so much time tieing this series to Hip Hop (even naming each episode after a Gang Starr song) it might be worth making sure that there is more of it to be found in the actual show. The soundtrack and the assortment of musical patrons on show border on perfection but incorporating Hip Hop elements doesn’t make it the dominant force. The series encircles Harlem’s music, of which Hip Hop is a part so why not market it as such. It would have been just as easy (and compelling) to trail a clip of Luke walloping behinds to Sharon Jones or Charles Bradley’s vocal wails as it was to use ODB’s drawl.
Those same blaxploitation leanings also lend themselves to some cheesy quotes, one or two of which are on the wrong side of the believability line (if such a line can exist on a show about a reluctant shotgun proof superhero). I was about four episodes deep before I stopped sighing and gesticulating at the screen when the clichés became a little too… cliché. The smart part however, is that everyone involved not only takes ownership of the melodrama, they practically revel in the corniness. To the point where eventually Power Man’s repeated use of “sweet Christmas” actually sounds kind of cool in certain situations.
Unfortunately (I’ll try not to get too spoilery) that phrase cannot be used to describe the finale. My spider sense started tingling when I noticed that the final episode was the shortest of the series. Up to this point both Daredevil finales as well as Jessica Jones’ ending had me wanting to watch them again and talk about them with my fellow Marvel geeks. But in the case of Luke Cage the music had me consistently pressing the rewind button but the final bout didn’t. It all kicks off okay, picking up right where the previous episode left off with the obligatory cliffhanger. But for me, it all seemed to dissipate without a big bang. It was almost as if the need to drop a few Easter eggs for the next series and future Netflix/Marvel projects took precedence over making sure that the climax was actually climactic.
There are however, plenty of positives. Marvel has always taken full advantage of the Netflix platform to push boundaries that are frankly, a non-starter for their cinema audience. Bounteous bloodletting, grittier staging and more ‘human’ language allows for a truer present day representation of the comic and it’s characters (from all the series so far) on screen. The action choreography for example, is spot on. If you’re bulletproof why waste time on shaolin techniques and roundhouse kicks. Simply walk through some bullets and break an arm, walk through some more and shatter a thigh bone, do the same again and throw that low level corner bully through a wall. It’s simple, it works and it’s exactly the right approach.
The creators were also not afraid to let proceedings reflect the current climate and broached America’s current racial and social tension head on. Police brutality & mistrust, race relations and the political spin machine are all caught in a Luke Cage fist powered crossfire. All of the above are dealt with very well and without letting the story get bogged down by over complicated social schisms. Alfre Woodard’s take on Mariah Dillard freeing her true self is arguably a more compelling origin story than the one used for the main man himself. A convincing argument could be made that this entire first season plays out as a series of origin stories to prepare us for what’s to come. The Marvel streaming universe is fast catching up with its big brother both in terms of required viewing and the heroes available. I wouldn’t be surprised if, sooner or later, Marvel/Netflix started talking about their future plans in phases.
And then there’s the music. The lack of a semi regular Hip Hop soundtrack notwithstanding, the guest list is insane. The above-mentioned (and absolutely superb) Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones are joined by Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, The Delfonics, Jidenna, and none other than Mr Meth himself drops Luke’s series anthem, Bulletproof Love. To top all that off the show is scored by a tandem of the will-be-legendary Adrian Younge and the already legendary Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Once my expectational frustration toward the musical content had subsided, I found myself repeatedly rewinding 2-3 minute sections of certain episodes to catch their compositions one more time.
You could call Luke Cage series one, the introduction to a ghetto cinematic opera, albeit without the tenors or falsettos. A high powered take on the classic, oft told story of the good humble guy from around the way who takes on the neighbourhood powers that be, and emerges victorious. There is plenty to shout about and I fully expect course corrections to be made next for the next installment. At this point however the question is, if Luke Cage wasn’t the human personification of a Kevlar vest and Striker didn’t have a (#spoileralert) special suit and bullets, would the script and delivery still hold its own? If this was a boxing match the scorecard would not be unanimous but the answer would still be yes. And while those who keep up with all things Marvel on the big and small screen have an idea of what’s to come (surely they’re gonna take on ‘Heroes for Hire’ in series 2), at this juncture Luke Cage the series is like Luke Cage the character, almost a top table superhero but not quite there yet.