luke-cage-poster-featured-08102016By Ashley Pauls/Box Office Buzz

Luke Cage didn’t set out to be a hero. After being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, he’s sent to prison, where he becomes a part of an experiment that gives him super strength and bulletproof skin. He tries to build a quiet life for himself in Harlem, working at a barbershop and a nightclub, but fate won’t let him disappear from the spotlight. The rise of a villain and the death of a friend force him to take action, and he becomes the hero his city needs.

“Luke Cage” is the latest series to come from Marvel’s partnership with Netflix, following “Jessica Jones” and two seasons of “Daredevil.” Although the tone of these shows is much darker and grittier than the more lighthearted Marvel Cinematic Universe films, like the MCU these shows have found a template that works very well and opens the door for crossovers down the road (Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage will all be teaming up in “The Defenders” miniseries next year).

While anyone who knows me knows how much I love the MCU, I have also enjoyed seeing these smaller-scale Marvel projects from Netflix. It’s nice to see some storylines that are more personal, where the fate of the whole world isn’t at stake. You get to delve more deeply into the characters’ lives and watch their stories develop more intimately.

The strength of “Luke Cage” lies with its star, Mike Colter. Although Cage is a man of few words, you sense he is also a man of integrity, who’s willing to put his life on the line to do what’s right. Colter gives the character just enough vulnerability that we see his humanity beyond his superpowers. There are also many strong supporting characters, including fearless Harlem NYPD detective Misty Knight and a reappearance of Rosario Dawson as Hell’s Kitchen nurse Claire Temple. Having already appeared in both “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” Temple is sort of becoming the Defenders version of Agent Coulson, which is fine by me. She may not have superpowers, but she can definitely hold her own with these superheroes. Other highlights of the show include great music and a dash of humor (there’s a great running joke about Cage’s hoodies always getting riddled with bullets, forcing him to constantly replace them).

Although the MCU is often criticized for its lackluster villains, that hasn’t been the case with the Netflix shows. Kingpin from “Daredevil” and Kilgrave from “Jessica Jones” both made for fascinating villains. Although the main villain from “Luke Cage” can’t quite top Kingpin or Kilgrave, a strong performance from actor Mahershala Ali makes crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes an intriguing character. Some flashback sequences actually give you some compassion for the character and show what Stokes could have become if he hadn’t been pushed into a life of crime. Without giving away too many spoilers, Cottonmouth doesn’t actually appear in all the episodes, and the other primary villain, Diamondback, isn’t as compelling. However, there are some interesting side villains, including Cottonmouth’s cousin Mariah Dillard, who is a crooked politician, and Hernan “Shades” Alvarez (named for the pair of sunglasses he always wears), who is good at weaseling out of difficult situations.

Overall, I thought the plot could have been tightened up just a little, and the final episode drags on for a bit. As I mentioned before, you’ll wish the show had used Cottonmouth a lot more than it did. However, I’d highly recommend this series for Marvel fans. The themes in “Luke Cage” feel particularly timely, and the show addresses issues such as racism, political corruption, and the challenges within the U.S. justice system. The show is both thought-provoking and action-packed.

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