There’s an easy trap to fall into with sequels and spin-offs. Everything has to be bigger, brighter, louder than whatever came before, to make more noise and show off more spectacle, as if that’s what it takes to justify its place in the world. You’d probably forgive Luke Cage for falling into that same trap then, trying to pile in more ninjas than Daredevil, bigger superpowers than Jessica Jones, making Luke Cage the most spectacular show around until the next one comes along.
But Luke Cage isn’t interested in that. It’s got something to say, but it doesn’t care to shout to make it heard. Much like its own protagonist, the show is quiet, subdued, soft spoken. You’ll listen because you want to hear what it (and he) has to say — not because it’s being shouted in your ear.
For the uninitiated, Cage (Mike Colter) is the super-strong, invulnerable bartender first introduced in last year’s phenomenal Jessica Jones. After having a bit of a rough time down in Hell’s Kitchen during that show, he’s now moved uptown to Harlem, where he’s eking out a quiet living in a barbershop, trying to hide the fact that he’s bulletproof and could lift most of a building up with one hand.
It’s not gone unnoticed that Cage is Marvel’s first black lead character (the next will be 2018’s Black Panther film), and the show’s first seven episodes (all that’s been made available to review so far) hammer the point home. The cast is 90% black, and the series rarely leaves Harlem at all. The first episode name drops Black Lives Matter, the rest mention various civil rights luminaries with glee. The soundtrack is a rich selection of soul, Motown, and hip hop, both modern and old. Cage being black isn’t just incidental, the show is built around it, and the show’s central question couldn’t be much more timely: how are black people supposed to claim their place and use their power in a city and country that has rarely been kind to them?
It’s a testament to the show’s writing that it tackles such a sensitive, complex theme carefully — delicately, even. That’s good going for a show that features secret prison experiments, rocket launchers, and a building collapse — and all that in just one episode. But eventful as it may be, there’s little bombast. The show is as measured and careful as Colter’s performance in the lead. It’s slow, methodical, thoughtful. Sure, there’s action, and fight scenes, and dramatic betrayals, but amongst all that Luke Cage manages to do something truly risky in the modern superhero era: it dares to be quiet.
Words by Dominic Preston