The less I’m enamored of a genre — in this case, movies and TV shows based on comic books — the less forgiving I feel toward toward its recurring tropes. Marvel’s Luke Cage (Netflix), debuting on Friday, September 30, rehashes many of the superhero motifs we’ve seen before: the correlation between power and responsibility, the loneliness of being different and feared, the role of vigilantism in a law-and-order society, and, most flummoxing to my mind, the demand that we care about the well-being of a character defined by his indestructibility. A spin-off for the bulletproof widower first introduced in (the far more engrossing) Jessica Jones, Luke Cage is dissatisfyingly familiar: yet another origin story for yet another reluctant crime-fighter.
Hollywood’s cringeworthy history with representation makes the series noteworthy in at least one respect: Mike Colter’s Luke is Marvel’s first TV-movie black protagonist, beating Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther as a lead by two years. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker observes that milestone while paying respect to Luke’s blaxploitation beginnings in the comics by framing the superhero’s exploits in the context of black pride. Luke intended to disappear after his relationship with Jessica (Krysten Ritter) flamed out, but he only went uptown to Harlem, where he works as a janitor at Pop’s (Frankie Faison) barbershop and a dishwasher at gangster Cottonmouth’s (Mahershala Ali) club.
The fight over Harlem’s future — a three-way tussle between Luke, Cottonmouth, and his councilwoman cousin, Mariah (Alfre Woodard) — is the most original element in Luke Cage. Like Daredevil, which also focuses on a single NYC neighborhood (Hell’s Kitchen) that feels 20 to 30 years out-of-date, Luke resides in a version of Harlem that bears little resemblance to the gentrified, international community that exists today. The funk guitar that accompanies the opening shot nods to the hero’s ’70s roots, but such period details — including a brief musical performance by a James Brown look-alike — add to the nowhere quality of the setting.
Black Lives Matter gets a shout-out, but Luke Cage is mostly keen to explore the benefits — and the limits — of respectability politics. Colter was “adamant” that Luke not use the n-word, lest his hero resemble “someone on the street corner who didn’t respect himself or the people around him.” The first two episodes feature scenes with arguments against its usage, and the best scenes between Cottonmouth and Mariah find the tense allies arguing about whether it’s more important to look honest or to look powerful. The first seven episodes largely dance around making a point about such themes rather than getting right into it, an evasion that makes the show feel smarter than it is.
Prone to grim and patient silences, Luke decides to battle Cottonmouth for the usual superhero reasons: exhaustion with injustice, a smidge of vengeance, and a protective streak he wishes he didn’t have. But his journey is about black progress, too, and doing his part to better his people. In his way, he wants to join Harlem’s luminaries of past and present. (Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston are name-checked here, as are Shirley Chisholm, David Dinkins, and Geoffrey Canada.) It’s inspirational stuff, but it doesn’t make the crime drama — which is mostly remarkable only for its surprisingly muted violence — any more interesting.
The first half of the 13-episode season pits Luke against Cottonmouth, who reels from theft and betrayal by his underlings. The gangster beats a young man under a huge portrait of Biggie wearing a crown in one of the show’s few visual flourishes, but the punching and the shooting hold little tension when Luke walks around in impermeable skin. In the pilot, a henchman punches “Power Man” in the temple, only to find his arm bone poking out of his wrist upon impact when fist collides with immovability. The show would benefit from more jokes like that — or even not-so-dark ones, like Luke complaining that he’s “sick of buying new clothes” when bullets riddle his t-shirts with holes — but our hero insists on moving his square jaw as little as possible.
Luke/Jessica shippers will have to wait longer; he’s still mourning his dead wife (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and the flashbacks to their first meeting justify his grief. Rosario Dawson reappears as Claire, the through line between Netflix’s Marvel shows — and one of the few presences that make Luke lighten up and seem human instead of a wall of righteousness after the death of his mentor. Simone Missick plays Misty Knight, a fan-favorite superheroine in the comic books but a faintly psychic detective here, who voices the requisite concern that a man who takes the law into his own hands will ultimately destabilize their community. It’s a moot debate anyway; Luke Cage is about heroes, not their complexities.