Luke Cage Stalls Because Its Villain Lacks Gravitas
(Episode 1.05 “Just to Get a Rep," and Episode 1.06, "Suckas Need Bodyguards”)TV Features Luke Cage
Poor Koko. We hardly knew ya, but you seemed like a decent enough guy. At the very least, you had a smart head on your shoulders, though in fairness, advocating “benign neglect” as the best strategy for dealing with a bulletproof superhero wasn’t your smartest move, especially being as your boss is just a bit hotheaded and tends to solve problems with violence when he’s reached his boiling point. If there was still a “next time” for you, we’d suggest you maybe think up a plan with a bit more flash. C’est la vie.
How odd, though, that as Stokes hits his lowest point and begins growing more dangerous as a result, Luke Cage suddenly starts to slow down so much that it comes close to inert. It’s not that “Just to Get a Rep” and “Suckas Need Bodyguards” are bad episodes, or even boring; it’s that in around a hundred minutes or so of story, nothing manages to happen, or put in a better way, nothing that happens feels significant. That’s saying a lot: Scarfe, that rascally corrupt cop, is dead after defying Stokes in apparent ignorance of what happens to subordinates who think they can get one up on him, while Perez, another one of Misty’s peers, is outed as being equally crooked and Mariah implicated by the press in her cousin’s criminal activity. And this doesn’t even touch on Pops’ funeral, where Luke does what Luke does best and makes Stokes look like a total clown in front of all of Harlem.
All the same, Luke Cage’s midsection sags a bit, and there’s one reason for that: It has a Superman problem. Like Superman, Luke is nearly impossible for any run of the mill bad guy to take out through conventional means, and while there’s enormous thematic and symbolic power to the nature of his gifts, being immune to bullets, missiles, falling rubble, punches, and caustic backtalk makes him kind of a bore when his enemies aren’t hip enough to figure out how in hell they’re supposed to hurt him. Superman is at his best on the page and on screen when his power and his outlook both clash with conflicts fomenting around him; what’s a god made flesh to do when faced with a problem that can’t be solved through force? Think of Kingdom Come, which put Superman in a political and philosophical bind instead of pitting him against enemies to slug it out with. That’s the kind of inner conflict Luke needs to chew on.
The series almost gets there in his eulogy dual with Stokes, except that Luke is so clearly Stokes’ superior that the winner of their elegiac confrontation is just a foregone conclusion. Luke, after all, spends a big chunk of “Just to Get a Rep” taking care of business, kicking ass all around the neighborhood to recover the goods and legal tender Stokes’ goon squad gleefully extorts from its inhabitants early on. There’s no world in which Stokes looks like the good guy here, and there’s no way for him to put a dent in Luke without getting his hands on that Judas bullet Shades has him all lathered up over. Thus the story comes to something of a standstill. It’s not that Luke Cage lacks a villain. It’s that the villain lacks gravitas. For a man of means, his means don’t mean all that much to an unbreakable man.
So we must watch the show spin its wheels, manipulating Scarfe into harm’s way (though he does a fine enough job doing that all on his own) while Stokes follows in the footsteps of Donald Trump by making himself look like an ass with every move he makes and every word he speaks. That’s all in good fun, but if Luke Cage has a Cage-piercing weapon waiting in the wings, maybe bust it out one or two episodes sooner. It’s fun to watch Cage plow through hapless bad guys with impunity for a while, but it gets tiresome surprisingly fast. When Jessica Jones had to fight Luke off toward the end of, uh, Jessica Jones, she at least realized that as tough as he is, he can’t take a shotgun blast to the face. Maybe that’s the kind of feat only someone like her, someone with gifts, could pull off, but dammit, why didn’t Koko think of that before taking a page from Daniel Patrick Moynihan?
At least all of this wraps up with Stokes going to jail, which sets the stage for Diamondback to roll into town and take over. And even when Luke Cage is listless (in such fashion as the show ever fits the definition), it’s still fun to watch by virtue of performance: Mahershala Ali is on fire in both chapters, Alfre Woodard is clearly enjoying herself playing Mariah as self-satisfied as the cat that the canary, and Simone Missick continues to grow more and more comfortable in Misty’s shoes, especially when plot calls upon her to outwit Perez. (Also great: Her parting scene with Frank Whaley.) It’s Mike Colter who feels underserved here, but that’s because Luke is, too. If Luke Cage intends to depict his battle against Stokes for Harlem’s soul, maybe give Harlem more agency in the matter. There should be a choice here, a clash between Luke’s ideals and the reality he lives in. But there is no choice. There’s just Luke.
Not that Luke isn’t the guy you want to win this kind of fight. But only six episodes in, that fight feels like it’s already run its course. Bring on Diamondback! Quick!
Bonus Observations & Quotes From “Just to Get a Rep” and “Suckas Need Bodyguards”:
Just as you do not cross Stokes, you do not screw with Claire Temple. She’ll kick your ass, and then wax poetic about her divine purpose in New York City’s growing population of superpowered human beings. She’s pretty much a servant to gods.
Mariah promising to wear Luke’s narrow ass out is the ultimate mic drop. You hear how much Woodard relishes that line with the pronunciation of every syllable in that line.
We know how cops feel about vigilante types like Luke running around, but what about regular people? The radio broadcast that hangs over the intro of “Suckas Need Bodyguards” is telling, though it is contradicted to an extent by the conclusions drawn in the climax of “Just to Get a Rep.” “Regular people” love Luke—don’t they?
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.