Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Luke Cage

Luke Cage is the latest entry in the Marvel Netflix series of what's essentially 13 hour long movies, and it's a bit of a mixed bag, but is still overall another hit. So let's dive right in, as I take a look at what stood out to me in terms of what worked, and what didn't quite click.

While I'm really enjoying this little pocket universe of Marvel Netflix shows so far, I do think that, at this point, it's really annoying and distracting that the showrunners still continue to try and tie these shows in with the Marvel movies, especially considering that it's clear as day by now that the movies have no intention of ever acknowledging the shows. It was fine in the first season of Daredevil, because back then we really didn't know any better and there was still at least some hope. But now? Not so much. But like I said, I do like this little Netflix universe that's grown out of these shows, and I'm more than okay with the references across those. I just wish at this point that these shows would just stick to their own devices, and quit referencing the movies moving forward.

Speaking of references, while I thought Rosario Dawson's inclusion in Jessica Jones felt like a bit of a forced cameo, I like that her involvement here feels far more natural, reprising her role as Claire that originated in the Daredevil series. And I like how this season also kinda sets her up to be the link that connects all these franchises together, so I think that much about her character is a pretty cool deal at least. I'm always okay with more Rosario Dawson in any event though, and she continues to shine in this series. She really isn't in enough stuff.

As far as the romantic angle with her and Luke is concerned, yeah, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that just yet (and it leaves me curious if they have plans to revisit Luke and Jessica or not). But thinking on it, in the first season of Daredevil, there were moments where it looked like there could potentially be a blooming romance of sorts between her and Matt. However, the thing that ultimately got in the way was him always coming back home more and more beat up every night, and she couldn't stand seeing him get himself killed over and over again like that. But with Luke, with his powers, that's something that she more or less doesn't have to worry about quite so much, so there's not that getting in the way of things, as he goes out and does his hero thing. And their relationship did seem to grow from a natural enough place that it felt genuine by the end, so I'm willing to see where it goes, even if I'm not too thrilled by the prospect just yet.

But anyways, as far as the show itself goes, the first half was pretty incredible, but then there's a very noticeable dip in the quality of the writing right at the halfway point on. The first half has this very grounded and gritty dramatic feel to it, and Cottonmouth was a fantastically fleshed out villain, humanized in a way that makes him feel legitimately deep and threatening. I just loved how complex they made his character, as they show us in flashbacks how his upbringing very much lead to him growing up to become the villain that he is. And there's such a compelling turmoil about him that comes out little by little the more time we spend with him, as at times we see what little remains of his humanity seeping through, as he'll be awash in a wave of resentment, of regret for what he's become. Yet by the same token, he's so fully ingrained in his ruthless lifestyle, and walks his path with a relentless sense of pride that he can't abandon, his stubbornness in his ways yet another product of his place in this world and way he was raised. And Mahershala Ali expertly balances out and totally captures all of these complexities with an absolutely commanding performance.

But his replacement halfway into the series, Diamondback, is just a complete cornball, and is impossible to take seriously. And where we could really see how Cottonmouth became the way he is and fully understand it, the same can't be said for Diamondback. His motives just don't add up at all, and the more that we learn about him, the less it makes sense. His absolute drive to kill Luke Cage at any cost just comes across as hokey and insincere, and once we learn his own backstory, it especially starts to fall apart and feel unbelievable that this would be the extreme stance this character decided to take. And especially coming off such powerful backstory reveals for Cottonmouth that showed us the real evolution of his character, Diamondback's fell completely flat, and was a total step down from that.

And it may seem weird to complain about a show based on a comic book feeling too comicy, but that's sorta what happened after Diamondback came into play too, all culminating in one of the cheesiest finales I've ever seen with that final fight. Like, what the hell was that supposed to be? How were we supposed to take that seriously at all? But I dunno, I suppose the comic book feel woulda been fine had the show started out that way, but it was such a stark dramatic shift in tone from its more grounded opening act that it stood out, and it didn't quite fit in with what had come before.

In addition to that, the dialogue also became noticeably lazy and repetitive in the second half. For a couple of examples, an exchange between Cage and Claire where she calls him corny happens verbatim two episodes in a row, and within the exact same scene at that, so close to one another that it seriously stood out like, wait, we literally just experienced that moment already. Also, "Sweet Christmas" may be one of his catch phrases, but using it twice in one episode also stood out in a similar manner.

And in addition to Diamondback's, a number of character motives were also pretty weak in the second half. For example, when they went to the doc to get Luke fixed up, they kept mentioning how they didn't trust the doc. This, despite the fact that, as far as the viewer could see, he was being completely cooperative and wasn't shown actually saying or doing anything that would warrant their distrust, no matter how many countless times they told us that. This was a classic example of "show, don't tell" at work during this entire scenario, because none of their reactions felt earned there.

Also, another peculiar recurring element I've noticed with these Netflix shows that's starting to bother me a bit as well, as seen in both Jessica Jones and now here in Luke Cage, is that these shows explicitly feature moments where they go out of their way to mock how the characters looked in the comics. And I dunno, but that just seems like sort of an odd choice to continue to insist on including in these shows, not to mention disrespectful to the source material.

But despite all of these criticisms, I actually did like this show quite a bit. It was entertaining throughout, I enjoyed the action, Luke himself is a corny but likable hero to follow along, and the accompanying soundtrack was outstanding. And I may have only discussed a handful of them here, but I also really loved almost all of the supporting cast, who are all so fully formed and have such fantastic chemistry between one another, and really just bring this whole world to life with some seriously excellent performances. In terms of villains, Cottonmouth, Shades, and Mariah Dillard all continue the trend of incorporating these really great and complex villains in the Marvel Netflix universe, and stand up there right alongside the likes of Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave (Diamondback not so much). It's a bit of a shame that it's such a mixed bag, with the noticeable decline in quality with the second half, but all in all, I thought it was pretty damn good, and look forward to seeing how things will continue to move forward from here.

In terms of how I'd rank the Marvel Netflix series so far:

Jessica Jones
Daredevil S1
Luke Cage
Daredevil S2

Now bring on Iron Fist and The Defenders!