Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Half-Powered

Many spoilers in this discussion -- should you wish to uncover the story of Luke Cage the old-fashioned way, stop reading now and come back later. Admittedly, one of those things happens here more often than the other.

The third Marvel Studios-Netflix collaboration, Luke Cage, continues to tell the story of what superhero life is like down at the street level and set the stage for a Defenders miniseries teaming him with the already-seen Daredevil and Jessica Jones, as well as the yet-to-show Iron Fist.

Luke Cage went by the alter ego Power Man when he was introduced in 1972. He was explicitly designed to feature aspects of urban and African-American culture, channeling "blaxploitation" movies like Shaft. Cage was a product of the Harlem streets who had developed great strength and unbreakable skin when an experimental medical treatment transformed him beyond its planned limits. He became "Luke Cage, Hero for Hire," who would help anyone that could meet his price. Gradually he connected with other heroes in the Marvel universe and became a little less mercenary.

The Netflix series removes Cage's Harlem origin and initial flashy debut. In fact, when we meet him he's trying to maintain a low profile by sweeping up at a barbershop and washing dishes at a swanky Harlem nightclub. But the tension of criminal networks and political plans for renewal swirl just beneath the surface, and when a botched arms deal ends up in murder Cage will have no choice but to take a stand in what follows.

Against him we see club owner and crimelord Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes and his cousin Mariah Dillard, who is a New York City councilwoman. Both want to see their Harlem home revived, with Dillard using the money Stokes earns from his crimes to help fuel her rebuilding and renovation efforts. Their renewed Harlem would gleam with cash and flash, boasting a cultural and social elite to rival any in New York. Cage is more in the mind of his barbershop boss and former father-in-law, Henry "Pop" Hunter, who wants the renewal of Harlem to grow from the ground up instead of rain from the top down. Though not as flashy as Stokes' and Dillard's vision, it has the advantage of not steamrolling anyone who gets in its way.

For the first half of the series' 13 episodes, Cage battles the cousins and tries to expose their crimes. This is the most fascinating part of the show, since there are times when two villains aren't exactly on the same page. Dillard wants to do a good thing -- reinvigorate the decayed but once-glorious Harlem. But she doesn't care about how she does it, which corners get cut or who gets hurt. Stokes, of course, does wrong things as a criminal should, but he believes there should still be some code of honor and respect involved. "Believe it or not, there are supposed to be rules for this," he says after dispatching an over-eager henchman who has killed Pop while recovering Stokes' money. Both fight a losing battle, of course, because you can't do the right thing the wrong way or do the wrong thing a right way for very long before catching up in the contradictions.

Cage battles against their worldviews as much as he does their schemes, holding to Pop's beliefs about what Harlem needs. "Everybody's got a gun, and nobody's got a father," he says at one point, lamenting the law of tooth and claw that moves Stokes and Dillard for all the polish and shine they try to put on it. This is a struggle, aided by amazing acting from Mike Colter as Cage, Mahershala Ali as Stokes and Alfre Woodard as Dillard, that grabs a viewer and induces binge-watching.

But when Stokes dies at Dillard's hands in episode 7, the series goes off the rails, and loses most of the momentum and focus it built over its first half. Without Stokes as a foil, Dillard becomes just another corporate evil-doer who uses the trappings of wealth to cover her merciless schemes. Theo Rossi's "Shades" Alvarez and Erik Harvey's Willis "Diamondback" Stryker have nothing like Stokes' connections with her or with Harlem, so the story loses its anchor in the neighborhoods and streets of the city. Neither of them are as good as Ali, and neither character is as good as Cottomouth Stokes. They're simple one-note baddies, and Stryker's back history with Cage that is supposed to justify his anger and desire to kill the hero is such a well-worn path it doesn't even rise to the level of retread.

Since there was no weekly broadcast schedule as with a regular TV series, nothing required 13 episodes. If there was no way to keep the temperature hot on the Cage-Stokes-Dillard battle for 13 shows, then Luke Cage would have been immensely better to have ended at 10 or fewer or however many that conflict could have sustained. As it is, Luke Cage does help draw the character of Cage for the role he will play in The Defenders, but it could have done a lot more -- and the first half of the season shows how it probably should have.

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