Pilot Review: Luke Cage Is Better Than Daredevil, But Not as Great as Jessica Jones

Friday, 30 September 2016 - 12:36PM
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Luke Cage
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Friday, 30 September 2016 - 12:36PM
Pilot Review: Luke Cage Is Better Than Daredevil, But Not as Great as Jessica Jones
The Marvel/Netflix shows are a cut above all other superhero shows thus far, and Luke Cage is no exception. It's well-acted, culturally relevant, and features some wonderfully choreographed fight sequences, and it has already received heaps of critical acclaim. But while Luke Cage is great compared to other superhero shows, and even surpasses Daredevil in many ways, it never reaches the heights of Jessica Jones, which managed to be both a great superhero show and a prestige drama.

Let's start with the good. This is no surprise after his standout turn in Jessica Jones, but Mike Colter turns in an outstanding, charismatic performance as the reluctant, unbreakable hero, and most of the supporting cast matches his talent, particularly Alfre Woodard, Mahershala Ali, and Simone Missick. No one beats Daredevil in fight choreography, but the fight sequences are wonderfully reflective of Luke's character, both in terms of his physical fearlessness and his personal unflappability. 

In fact, Luke Cage may surpass Daredevil in every area aside from fight choreography. Where Matt Murdock's characterization as a "reluctant hero" always rang false, and his character often seemed arrogant and spoiled, Luke is a far more complex and likable character who genuinely seems to be pulled into a role that he never wanted to take on. And while Daredevil would often try its hand at moral shading, particularly with the entrances of Frank Castle and Elektra in the second season, most of its morality is black-and-white. Luke Cage's world, on the other hand, is filled with shades of gray. As in real life, the "villains" are hardly worse than anyone else, and the "heroes" may be noble in their way, but they're certainly not idealistic. As of the pilot, the narrative has much more potential to be as nuanced and morally ambiguous as the best dramas out there.

And like Jessica Jones, Luke Cage engages in much more social commentary than Daredevil, and is generally more culturally significant. As many reviews have noted, Harlem is a central character in the show, and the writing is deeply invested in tying the journeys of the characters to black culture, both past and present. Hip hop is a huge influence, and the soundtrack adds another layer of meaning to the proceedings.

But there's one aspect in which Luke Cage doesn't live up to its predecessor: the writing. In broad strokes, the writing is much more on Daredevil's level than Jessica Jones'. The dialogue isn't particularly snappy and exposits to the point of cheesiness, character beats tie up far too neatly (the moment in which Misty Knight says she doesn't like coffee was almost an interesting trick, but was distractingly explicit in its reference to Luke's previous conversation with his co-workers), and Luke's grief over Reva is portrayed to the audience in a far more heavy-handed way. In Jessica Jones, the writers let Colter's acting do the work, showing his grief over his wife through subtle expressions and tone of voice. In the pilot of Luke Cage, the writers resort to sentimental flashbacks and a sequence in which Luke talks directly to his wife, all of which descended to the level of cliche. 

And unlike Jessica Jones, which subtly explored feminist themes by crafting an honest drama about sexual abuse, the social commentary in Luke Cage doesn't have much nuance so far. While the celebration of black culture is appreciated, the references to pillars of the Harlem Renaissance, the brief mention of Black Lives Matter, and even the iconic Biggie Smalls poster all felt more like name-dropping than actual commentary. And the fact that it's explicit wouldn't be a problem if the issues were going to actually be explored, but we haven't seen any real exploration so far. (For example, are they going to mention Black Lives Matter without directly critiquing police brutality? That would be something of a disappointment, but we'll see.)

As Mike Hale said in the New York Times:

Opening quote
"Jones" pulled off the trick of being both a compelling narrative and a smart, frightening commentary (in that case, on predatory male behavior). "Cage" tries to do a similar thing with racial politics but gets lost in platitudes. Its messages don't get under your skin.
Closing quote

To be fair, I've only seen one episode, and those types of themes often need a little bit longer to breathe. But judging only from the pilot, Luke Cage can comfortably take its place as the second-best TV show in the MCU.
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