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Netflix

Is Luke Cage Another Bulletproof Addition To The Marvel/Netflix Lineup?

The titular hero has left Jessica Jones for a new life in Harlem. Should you follow him?

What Is This Thing?

Luke Cage -- the impossibly handsome superhuman who used to be on Jessica Jones, both with and without italics -- has taken his literally-rock-hard abs back to his hometown of Harlem, where he hopes to stay incognito and live a peaceful life. Spoiler alert: he will not get his wish.

When Is It On?

The whole thirteen-episode first season becomes binge-able at the stroke of midnight on Friday, September 30th.

Why Was It Made Now?

The Marvel/Netflix TV universe (or whatever it's officially called) has become quite the juggernaut, with the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones connecting strongly with both audiences and critics. The fact that the former stumbled a bit in its second year has done little to dampen viewer enthusiasm for the overall brand, and Luke Cage the character made an enormous impression on Jessica Jones (again, both with and without italics).

What's Its Pedigree?

Cheo Hodari Coker (a producer on Ray Donovan, Almost Human, and Southland) created and show-runs Luke Cage, based on the comic book series credited to Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas, and John Romita. The first two episodes are directed by Scottish filmmaker Paul McGuigan, who helmed some of Sherlock's best outings ("A Study In Pink," "The Great Game," and "A Scandal In Belgravia"). And you're probably already familiar with (and, let's be real, at least latently attracted to) the uber-smoldering Mike Colter in the title role, but he's surrounded by some welcome additions to the Marvel TV-verse: Frankie Faison of The Wire, Theo Rossi of Sons Of Anarchy, and Alfre Woodard of everything. Rosario Dawson eventually returns as nurse-who-can-keep-a-secret Claire Temple, continuing to serve as the official superhero go-between until everyone crosses paths for real in The Defenders.

...And?

Given the success of Marvel/Netflix's other two series, as well as the substantial amount of screen time the title character had on Jessica Jones (with and without...you get it), Luke Cage is debuting to a much more warmed-up audience than either of its predecessors. As a result, it seems, the producers have been given an extraordinary amount of leeway to disregard expectations and genre trappings and simply make the best show possible.

And wow, has that creative freedom paid off beautifully. The first hour is unhurried and nuanced, far more concerned with shading in all the details of Luke Cage's world than it is with reminding us how much ass its hero can kick. As our esteemed colleague Alan Sepinwall likes to say, a good show teaches you how to watch it, and right from the opening scene -- five leisurely minutes of barbershop conversation -- the pilot does a masterful job of rejiggering whatever expectations most viewers might have been bringing to this show. Sure, you'll see Luke throw a few punches by the end of the episode, but you'll spend a lot more time watching him sweep up hair at the aforementioned barbershop and sling drinks at one of the neighborhood's glitziest nightclubs.

As the show progresses, what becomes more and more clear is that this isn't just a series about a superhero from Harlem; it's very much about Harlem: its people, its places, and its problems, all of which are sketched with fine precision. (I guess Daredevil was trying to do the same thing with Hell's Kitchen, but -- and I say this as a genuine fan of that show -- it never added up to much more than window-dressing.) This attention to context makes a big difference in how we see Luke, and -- perhaps even more importantly -- how we interpret his powers, which take on an entirely different subtext than they did on Jessica Jones. On that series, his unbreakability made him the perfect romantic partner for a woman with a tendency to destroy everything around her, but on Luke Cage the metaphor is much simpler and starker: you need a pretty thick skin to survive in Harlem.

...But?

The one element of Luke Cage that maybe feels a little too familiar is its rogue's gallery. Cousins and partners-in-crime Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard (Mahershala Ali and Woodard) are, essentially, Daredevil's Wilson Fisk split into two characters: he, the crime kingpin who gets off on pounding people to a pulp; and she, the corrupt and paternalistic city leader who hides her illegal dealings behind community initiatives. Luke Cage's writers seem to be aware of the similarity -- Dillard conspicuously name-checks Fisk in an early scene -- which gives me hope that they're also aware of the need to spin these archetypes in different directions, but that doesn't negate the deja vu (and, frankly, boredom) I felt during the lengthy scene in which Stokes literally beats someone to death, or the been-there-done-that-ness of Dillard's perky, well-rehearsed statement to a reporter about how she's going to revitalize Harlem even though we know she's probably going to do the exact opposite!

Also, this is a much smaller nitpick, and I'm sure it's a box every Marvel series is legally obligated to check at some point, but dear God am I sick of the cheeky throwaway references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I don't care whether any of these shows ever actually connect to their big-screen counterparts, but if that does happen, it's not going to matter that the producers planted these cute little seeds years in advance.

...So?

Luke Cage is fantastic: raw, real, and compelling, not to mention gorgeous enough to make me want a 4K television. It remains to be seen whether I'll love it as completely as Jessica Jones, but there's no question that it's another huge step forward for Marvel TV in terms of both social significance and artistry. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that this will be the first comic-book series in history to get serious Emmy love; the writing, direction, and performances in the first hour alone are easily stellar enough to snag some hardware.

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