Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Marvel Watch: Luke Cage (Season 1, 2016)

I want to say that I loved Luke Cage.  Because for a full 6 episodes, I was ready to stand up and say "this is the best Marvel TV series to date, even better than Jessica Jones or Season 1 of Agent Carter".  But, man, the back half of this series feels rough.  It's still watchable, but as early as the beginning of the seventh episode, the wheels start coming off, and it's only in fits and spurts that the show reclaims the excellence of those first six episodes, seems to remember its mission statement, and doesn't feel like it's a throwback to 1990's-era superhero movies.  I have a few hypotheses as to what may have occurred, but that doesn't save the overall project anymore than headcannons or fan theories (neither of which this blogger recommends you indulge in).  What matters is what winds up on the screen.

What does retain it's consistency, as surely as the cells in Luke Cage's body bounce back from a bad day, is the strong character put forth in Luke Cage, the grounded, human force of a man trying every day to do right.  In Luke Cage we get that rarest of characters which are slowly climbing their way back from two decades of think-pieces to the contrary, the good guy who doesn't need to be called an anti-hero to work in a modern context.  For Marvel, and maybe for the mass audiences, up to this point we've relied on our sepia-toned notions and the uncomplicated moral battle of the Allied fight against the Axis to gain access to the point of view of our upright hero in Steve Rogers - AKA: Captain America.  But in Luke Cage we get a modern man who has known the compromise all his life and despite what's past, he's moving forward in a world that broils and churns with moral compromise as the "smart" move, the only way to get things done.  And we have a hero who isn't living in a hypothetical world of cops and robbers, but in a world that reflects a lot of our own, with Trayvon Martins and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The cast is fantastic, beginning with the natural talent of Mike Colter as our titular hero and the inspired casting of Alfre Woodard as a deeply compromised politician trying to make good in Harlem.  Aside from the always-welcome presence of Rosario Dawson, I was mostly unfamiliar with the rest of the cast minus the "that guy looks familiar..." thing that I do with so many actors these days.  To me, the standout of the series was the cool presence of Mahershala Ali as Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, the rising-star gangster and cousin to Woodard's Mariah Dillard.  And, while it was a very different tack to take with Misty Knight (who I think of as a kung-fu kicking Pam Grier), Simone Missick's cerebral but adrift detective was the stuff of good detective fiction.  And, as our resident white guy - Frank Whaley in maybe the best role he's had since Swimming with Sharks.

This is the first Big Two superhero offering that's broken from the anglo-centric/ lily-white point of view that's permeated the Marvel Universe's live-action offerings to date (and we may want to just look awkwardly at our shoes as we ponder DC's half-baked approach to it's cadre of minority characters).  As a very white white-dude, I can only comment on the success or value of this take from an observer's stand-point, but the genre has matured enough to be used as a platform rather than the genre insisting upon itself as being about the genre.

The show wears it's Black-ness as a narrative driving force, and that shouldn't be new to superhero media, but here we are.  While we've certainly seen black characters (War Machine and The Falcon), even The Falcon has been spun more as a modern war vet than reflecting his comic book origins as a hero coming from Marvel's inner-city New York and challenging Cap to include all of America in that A he wears on his head.  The parallel America of both urban Black people and more rural, southern African Americans is at work in Luke Cage, and preserving the heritage of Harlem and all that borough has produced over the past 100+ years is the noble driving force of Woodard's character - making her fascinatingly complex.  She's both the promise and challenges of Harlem in one designer dress.

As I am not of the culture (except through shared American-ness and peripheral knowledge of references), the conversations, decisions, things taken for granted, things which needing explanation for crackers such as myself - all of that was welcome.  It's not just about representation - though it's important and I welcome that aspect.  From a world-building standpoint, you don't need a fantasy realm when you've got unexplored worlds fifteen blocks from the familiar, where the terrain is different, attitudes may not be your own, and what is understood and valued resonates in different ways.  But on some things, we can universally agree, and that keeps the story familiar.  Where it's unfamiliar, maybe it's a way to get insight into the worlds of those who may not be exactly like us.

The past few years have demonstrated how important representation can truly be in widespread popular culture, and if superheroes are our modern myths and fictional north stars, then it is past time we have a character like Luke Cage.  But it is also time we see the world as more than Black and White.  A Latino point-of-view is well past due.  An Asian POV.

Moreso than Hell's Kitchen, a neighborhood in New York that I'm not sure still has the same bad rep it did when Daredevil hit the comics page in the 1960's, Harlem is alive as a character in this show.  It's less of an abstraction as an urban hellsmouth and more a vibrant world constantly on the brink.  The showrunners brought in very real musicians and performers for scenes in their nightclub, and the names of places are meaningful to the characters themselves.  Saving Harlem from those who would exploit it, who want it on it's knees, isn't just an excuse for Luke Cage to work out some issues (*cough* Daredevil *cough*) - it's a mission worth undertaking.

But, as I said above, the show should have been six episodes and out.

If I've had one major question about the Marvel TV shows, it's been - why are you insisting on 13 episodes?  Why not 8?  Why not however many you need to tell your story and then stop?

Earlier this year I watched the 6-episode series The Get Down, and that was fine.  It told it's story, got to a great point for a conclusion, left me wanting more, and I was good.  Given the scripting and story issues (which, frankly, I think led to some bad acting as "how do you deliver that line well?" scenarios cropped up) - I wonder if they originally planned on just 6 episodes and were given orders to turn in 13 late in the game.  I'd also point out that Jessica Jones had a point in the middle of the series that was turning into a Tom & Jerry cartoon as the plot failed to advance in meaningful ways and Jessica was running in circles wrangling Killraven.  It's certainly possible that a two-part series felt like the solution to their ills.

Now, the back half isn't terrible.  It just becomes so embroiled in it's b-movie plotting that it loses the promise of the first half.

Structurally, the show also wants to work like a detective book or movie with all the threads coming together (satisfyingly or otherwise) in the last chapter.  But while the threads come to conclusions, it doesn't feel like they managed to tie it together exactly into a Godfather-esque bow and make everything into one big package.  Instead, they deal out character arcs piecemeal and with no sense of interconnectedness, despite the fact it seems terribly possible to do so.

The second half brings in ultra-gangster, Diamondback, and the air leaks right out of the story.  I don't actually blame actor Erik LaRey Harvey - he wasn't given a proper amount to work with, and the story fails to escalate in terms or scope or complexity.  Instead, much like last years' Bond film Spectre, there's an unnecessary personal stake that's entered into the mix that gives Diamondback motivation, but the explanation feels weak, muddy.  And that personal level somehow diminishes the proceedings instead of making them reach the epic scale of the American Crime Story that the first six episodes seemed to promise.  Getting into a typical "evil opposite" plotline dilutes Cage as a neighborhood hero, and distracts from the arc of who he seems to be becoming and instead makes him deal with old, ridiculous business in the most 90's of superhero ways.  And, honestly, Diamondback just never feels as interesting as Cottonmouth (and why someone doesn't just put a bullet in him makes almost no sense.  He's clearly a mad dog), and that's a huge problem for everyone as the show progresses.

Further, an unnecessary and inadvisable romance is set up between Cage and Dawson's character, and it feels forced and wedged in there.  Pair that with the easy-pass on Luke's legal issues that mount up over the series (he does toss a cop around), and you're left wishing this amazing beginning received the resolution it seemed to be headed for.

I'm not exactly suggesting you don't watch the show.  It's got some great stuff at every turn, and Mike Colter is fantastic.  And, the set up for a second season seems actually very promising.  I just hope that a second season or return of the character will return us to the high of the first six episodes.  In the meantime, we've got a hero maybe with more in common with the first ideas that drove Superman's stories - a normal-seeming man who cannot be simply killed by criminals or police alike, relying on a moral compass to drive him in the right direction.

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