Spoiler warning: Minor spoilers ahead for Luke Cage. You can read on without having finished the show, but you might want to skip the section titled "A Big Ol' Twist", which discusses a major spoiler from the back half of the season.
What do you want from your heroes? The answer to that question probably dictates how you feel about Luke Cage, arguably the best of Netflix's three superhero series to date or, at the very least, the most culturally significant.
It's not that Jessica Jones and Daredevil weren't good — at times, both were great, almost the very definition of binge-watch viewing. All three have resurrected the idea of water cooler television, and I've heard an entire spectrum of opinions from friends and work colleagues about Marvel's grittier trio of heroes. But Luke Cage came packing a little extra heat, if you know what I mean.
So, allow me to present eight aspects of Luke Cage that made Marvel's first black superhero series such a thrill ride. For an alternate perspective, check out...
1. The Soundtrack
Let's start with the obvious. It isn't just that Luke Cage's soundtrack, which ricochets from Nas and Ol' Dirty Bastard to Wu-Tang Clan and Faith Evans, stopping off for a soul interlude at the Harlem Paradise every now and then, is totally bangin' — it's the way the musical choices inform both the tone of the show and its Harlem setting (more on that in a bit).
The tracks we're hearing are the tunes these characters would choose to listen to. In the first episode, watching the soul legend Raphael Saadiq perform at the Paradise, Misty Knight remarks "Saadiq's still got it, man," and she ain't wrong. The Jessica Jones soundtrack featured some great jazz cuts, but would you really find any of them on Jessica's Spotify playlist? Doubtful.
Indulge in the Spotify playlist above. You ain't getting any work done today.
2. Less Angst
One common feature of Netflix's Marvel series is the way their heroes are practically drowning in angst. While Jessica necks whisky, Matt Murdock closes himself off from those around him. These are two screwed-up individuals. By comparison, for a man who falsely imprisoned, given powers by way of a weird experiment (we'll get to that later, too), and forced to deal with the murders of both his wife and mentor, Luke has pretty much got his shit together.
He doesn't get blind wasted. He doesn't push his friends away. He doesn't go full emo. He simply gets shit done, and that's refreshing.
3. Harlem: It's Not Paradise
What do you actually remember about Hell's Kitchen? Although shared by both JJ and Daredevil, as a setting it was weirdly beige. It had neon, and it had ninjas. But it didn't feel like a place that exists in the real world, probably because the real Hell's Kitchen is more like neighboring Chelsea and Soho — gentrified and not known for its organized crime, which kind of undercuts the very premise of Daredevil.
Harlem is the lifeblood of Luke Cage. From the very first scene of the premiere episode in Pop's barber shop, this place and its inhabitants feel real. Harlem is not paradise, but it's rich in culture and you can understand why Luke would feel so compelled to protect it (despite being an outsider), or why Cottonmouth and Mariah would work so hard to make it their own. The neighborhood is a character in itself here, flawed but impossible not to love.
4. Connections With The Marvel Universe
One of the more unexpected moments in the first half of Luke Cage is the opening scene of episode six, in which we hear vocal supporters and haters of Luke calling in to Trish Walker's radio show Trish Talk. Trish, in my opinion, was one of the best things about Jessica Jones — a smart and immensely sympathetic character who always had Jess's corner and balanced out her friend's dislikability.
References to Captain America and Hulk are a bit passé at this point, but hearing Trish's (freakishly soothing) voice again was a well-timed reminder that Luke Cage exists inside the Marvel universe, and that, whatever she's doing, Jessica isn't too far away.
5. Reva Connors
Episode four, 'Step in the Arena', does a lot in terms of fleshing out Luke's character. Set almost entirely inside Seagate Prison, the episode's best achievement is making Reva feel like an important piece of Luke's past, rather than a plot point. That's all she was in Jessica Jones — an unknown woman pushed off a building, a handy way of turning Luke against Jessica. But here we're given a chance to get to know her, and it turns out Reva is kind of awesome. You see why Luke would fall for her. The pieces fall into place. And because we're already well-versed with her ultimate fate, the entire episode feels decidedly bittersweet.
6. A Big Ol' Twist
You can't underestimate the impact of a twist. Something you never saw coming. It keeps the audience on the back foot, which is especially useful when you're binge-watching something and need the occasional reminder to pay attention. The death of Cottonmouth is shocking enough — but the fact that it happens at the hand of his own cousin, Mariah? That's some next-level shit.
And yet, like all the best twists, it makes complete sense. We spent hours watching Mariah try to reason with Cornell, to remove him from the idea that empire is everything. Ironic, then, that Mariah herself effectively usurps Cottonmouth as the series' kingpin (queenpin?) as Luke Cage barrels toward its climax. The twist actually cements Mariah as one of television's great bad bitches, and an essential part of this show's fabric. It's brilliant.
7. No More "Obligatory Black Friend"
Without getting overtly political, it goes without saying that black actors struggle for decent roles on TV. The only black regular on Jessica Jones was Malcolm, less a fully-fleshed out character than a "friend/neighbor" trope whose own story fizzled out about halfway through the season.
There are no two-dimensional trope characters in Luke Cage, and the supremely talented black cast are given a wide variety of roles, all of which feel real and lived-in. Pop is not a stereotype. Misty reveals her layers and depth as the season goes on. In a Black Lives Matter era, Luke Cage is culturally important for the way it normalizes and realistically represents black culture in the mainstream.
8. Misty Knight
It took me a few episodes to get to grips with Misty Knight. I thought she was cool, but perhaps lacking steel, and I expected her to be a little sassier. But she's smart, and deceptive. She has plenty of steel, she's just rational, unemotional. She's also charming. Those little moments when she goes into her "zone", using the photographs to picture herself at the crime scene, are awesome. I like that her colleagues mostly think she's weird as hell.
And nobody questions whether Misty is capable of doing her job on account of being a woman. We don't see her struggling to balance her personal life with her work. All of those stereotypes which still plague almost every cop on television are mercifully absent with Misty. She's simply allowed to be a self-assured, successful woman who has casual sex when the mood takes her, and is also very good at her job... and at basketball. If there's one Luke Cage character who deserves (even demands) a spin-off, it's Misty Knight.
As I said in the intro, you can't really go wrong with the Marvel/Netflix series — but in Luke Cage, the bar has been set higher once again. Do you agree, is Daredevil still king, or does Jessica have you heart? Have your say in the poll below.