Harlem’s got a new superhero, and he’s the baddest man on the block.
Netflix’s Luke Cage (Friday, ***1/2 out of four) brings together what Marvel does best, in both its movie slate and its streaming series: Mike Colter’s good guy could probably hold his own against the Hulk, and he also has the emotional depth of Daredevil or Jessica Jones.
But Cage has the added appeal of timeliness, as a black man stands up for what’s right, even when he’s being shot at and his neighbors sometimes would rather he not stir up trouble.
After a brief introduction in Netflix’s Jessica Jones, Luke has moved from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem, where he's working multiple jobs and has good reason to stay on the down low, though his barbershop boss Pop (Frankie Faison) tries to inspire him to do the right thing. Obviously, anyone who’s super-strong and bulletproof could probably help out around the community.
He gets a chance soon enough: Local gangster Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (a sublimely vicious Mahershala Ali) throws his weight around after a gun deal goes wrong, and a lot of his pull goes toward helping his ambitious politician cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who wants to maintain Harlem's African-American status quo. “For black lives to matter,” she says, “black history should matter.”
Cage mines the cultural roots of its comic-book character’s blaxploitation beginnings, and weaves in elements of crime dramas such as The Wire. A whole lot happens in just the first seven episodes made available for preview of the 13-episode season — gang warfare, corrupt cops, big twists, wanton destruction by way of a bazooka, plus origin stories for our hero and both of his major foes — and some characters fall through the cracks.
But executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker (Southland) manages to keep most of it focused on Luke, and the sounds are good, too. One advantage of having that old snake Cottonmouth run a nightclub is getting musical luminaries like Raphael Saadiq and Faith Evans to appear on your series.
The success of the show firmly rests on the burly shoulders of Colter, (The Good Wife), who comes into his own as a bona fide star. He looks like a guy who could shake off having a building dropped on his head, but physical presence aside, Colter is full of charisma as the well-read, hoops fan Cage. The women all want him, and the men don’t want to get hit by him.
Coker’s surrounded Colter with a stellar supporting cast, Ali and Woodard give extra dimension to their complex antagonists, and Simone Missick is a welcome discovery as Misty Knight, a detective who acts as both Luke’s love interest and foil.
Cage is Marvel’s best TV series yet, but more importantly he's the superhero that the world seems to need most right now, mainly because he’s the most real.