Feeling cagey about ‘Luke Cage’

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Marvel’s newest series based on an existing hero is here, and it unfortunately picks up the same gloomy attitude of its predecessors “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones.”

The pilot episode of “Luke Cage” opens with the titular Cage, a bulletproof man with superhuman strength trying to rebuild his life as a convict in Harlem. Mr. Cage makes a living washing dishes and sweeping floors off the books for various businesses, doing his best to right the wrongs of Harlem in his free time.

The episode then promptly forgets about Cage and spends a good chunk of its run-time establishing the district of New York City in which Cage lives, only allowing him back for the occasional cameo or line to remind viewers whose name is on the show.

The Harlem of “Cage” isn’t portrayed as either the Disney-fied clean and perfect neighborhood or forgotten slum one usually sees on film and television. It’s a neighborhood in which realistic, breathing characters live in.

From a technical and stylistic standpoint “Luke Cage” is an absolute treat to watch. Hip hop and its surrounding culture aren’t just present in the music, it is woven into the fabric of reality. This manifests both in subtle camera tricks and clever writing, and through outright references (such as a scene in which the bad guy delivers a monologue about a picture of Biggie Smalls).

World-building and tone are the strong suits of “Luke Cage,” which is usually a weak point in superhero-focused entertainment.

That makes this review quite difficult to write, because I genuinely cannot be bothered to watch more than the pilot episode.

In an interesting move, it seems Marvel is trying to strip their usual love of goofy, colorful stories for a brooding, darker type of story that one would expect from a DC comic.

Yes, there are a lot of interesting things happening in “Luke Cage” that feel like they’re pulled from a crime drama, but I have a hard time giving a damn about a weapons dealer getting blown away when all I can think is “Hey, that gun was manufactured by that incredibly stupid character played by Sam Rockwell in ‘Iron Man 2’.”

In the past months I’ve taken quite a lot of flack for this viewpoint on the gritty Marvel Netflix universe, but it’s hard to discount the movies when the shows do their darndest to remind you of them.

Within the opening half hour of “Cage” the titular character walks past a guy selling Blu-ray compilations of home videos taken during “The Incident,” a recurring name for the alien attack on New York City that served as the climax to “The Avengers.”

Now from a New York perspective I could see this being a nod towards those profiting off home footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but when the seller is dropping hero names left and right all I can think of is how ridiculous they look set against the all too real problems of Harlem.

“Luke Cage” is a well-made show, without a doubt. If one were to delete Cage’s affiliation with the Marvel cinematic universe, it might even be one of the better pilots I’ve ever seen.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)