Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sweet Christmas - Luke Cage, Season 1 Part II, Reviewed

Two weeks back, I reviewed the first half of Luke Cage. In the intervening  fortnight, I have watched the remaining 7 episodes, bought the soundtrack, and watched episodes 1-4 for the second time with Glory and Audrey.

Suffice to say, I liked it quite a bit.

Why? Well, there's a few reasons for that. First and foremost is still the cast, a who's who of modern black actors, from Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard to star Mike Colter. In this second half we add Erik LaRay Harvey as Cottonmouth's arms supplier, Diamondback. He brings a ruthless, Joker-like combination of charm and unpredictability to the table, grinning like a latter day Tony Todd (Candyman) and pursuing Luke Cage with the singlemindedness endemic to comic book adaptations.

In honesty though, the latter half of this inaugural season is less about Luke Cage, and more about Cottonmouth's cousin, Mariah Dillard. One area where the MCU movies can take notes from the Netflix series is the care and attention they give to their villains, an area the silver screen has flatlined on pretty much since Loki. If part 1 of Luke Cage is about establishing his origin, part 2 is about establishing Black Mariah as a worthy nemesis, balancing greed, vengeance and pragmatism in equal measure, which they do admirably. And she is only one of several smart, strong, female characters of colour. Simone Missick establishes Marvel mainstay Misty Knight to such a degree that many are calling for her to get her own show, which I am okay with so long as it doesn't prevent an ongoing Heroes for Hire at some point.

Showrunner Cheoi Hodari Coker also uses this latter half to establish a little more connective tissue to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rosario Dawson makes a welcome return as beleaguered nurse Claire Temple, the woman we were sure was to become the MCU's "Night Nurse" until it was rumoured Rachel McAdams would play that role in the upcoming Doctor Strange, but then Marvel uberlord Kevin Feige denied it, so now...well, nevermind, it's not important and we can talk about Night Nurse another day.

The important thing is that there is a connection beyond just references to "The Incident" of the first Avengers movie. Frankly I could have done with more allusions to S.H.I.E.L.D. or Tony Stark, but gunrunner Cottonmouth does mention that a lot of his tech comes by way of Justin Hammer, secondary villain of Iron Man 2, Turk from Daredevil shows up, and the downfall of Wilson 'The Kingpin' Fisk from that same show gets a mention, so I am content.

All in all, Luke Cage is a solid addition to the Marvel/Netflix canon, but there are two criticisms that bear addressing. The first is that hey, for a superhero show, there isn't nearly as much action as you might expect, and the fight scenes lack a lot of the panache shown in Daredevil.

There is no denying this; Luke Cage is unquestionably a slow boil that metes out its action sequences like methadone to someone coming off horse. And the fight sequences aren't as imaginative or creative as the hallway fight in Daredevil. You know why?  BECAUSE LUKE CAGE IS BULLETPROOF AND SUPER STRONG, FOOL. He doesn't like to fight, He has nothing to prove. I love the internet commenter who described his fight style as "annoyed". I do love that the people he does hit fly back a significant distance, but the lack of flash is frankly refreshing; a violent vanilla sorbet meant to cleanse the palate just before the flashy kung fu of K'un Lun shows up when Iron Fist arrives on Netflix next March.

The second is that, wow, this may be the blackest comic adaptation to date; one person confided in me that, because they don't listen to a lot of hip hop or have other exposure to black culture, they were experiencing a degree of 'cultural whiplash' they found a little daunting.

Any you know what? That's fine too. You think a lot of young brothers and sisters in areas like the one Luke Cage is set in share our memories of The Facts of Life and M*A*S*H and even Justice League? A little turnabout here is not just fair play, it is long overdue, and all of it, from the slang, to the fact that the episode titles are all track listings from rap pioneers Gang Starr to the whole Harlem Renaissance angle you see in the show, is a critical ingredient. I will go on record as declaring Luke Cage as the most blacktacular show I have ever watched, and anyone who wants to characterize it as being 'too black' (whatever the hell that means), just needs to imagine a person of colour saying the same thing about Star Trek or Lost or Big Bang Theory being 'too white'.

The most telling reflection of Luke Cage in today's world, especially today's America, is a tweet I cannot currently find but in which a viewer said that watching a strong black man in a hoodie get shot and remain standing, literally reduced him to tears.

In short? If you like the idea of  something like a superpowered version of The Wire, a languidly paced potboiler that doesn't talk down to you and tells it like it is in terms of the modern black experience in America, Luke Cage is just the ticket.

And now a word on the soundtrack: this is some great stuff right here. I grabbed it on iTunes the day it became available, and have not regretted that choice.

Hip hop producers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge have crafted a thoroughly modern and urban score, unencumbered by gratuitous record scratches and cussin', and which still echoes with traces of the jazz and funk that established Harlem as a musical incubator beyond compare.

Better still are the full tracks that we hear as source music in the Harlem Paradise club which is a key setting in the show: The Delfonics, Faith Evans, Raphael Saddiq, and my personal favourite, Charles Bradley.

How in the hell have I gone this long without hearing more about this guy? A man who ran away from a basement bedroom with a sand floor at 14, who worked as a cook most of his adult life, whose first band got drafted away from him to fight in Vietnam, and only started recording with modern soul saviours Daptone Records in 2002, when he was already over 50? If nothing else, I owe the show and the soundtrack for introducing me to this artist, who was tragically diagnosed with stomach cancer earlier this very month. (And check out how young and white his band is in the video; crazy!)

Music plays a big role in Luke Cage, no more so than in episode 12 (my favourite) where a chance encounter with rapper Method Man from the influential Wu-Tang Clan results in him creating a track on a radio show later on called Bulletproof Love.

A satisfying superhero show, with brilliant music, tremendous performances and great insights into modern black culture in America. The best thing about Luke Cage though is that it shows how much great television can be wrung out of a character originally established as a way to leverage '70s blaxploitation flicks, while still respecting the source material and the fans (like me) who love it.

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