Don’t let the wide Harlem avenues and neon-lit side streets fool you. Marvel’s Luke Cage is a Western. Its ex-con hero washes dishes and tends bar at a nightspot after dark and mops floors at a barbershop during the day. But in his heart, he’s a gunfighter who swears he’s left that life behind. He can cut and shoot and blow things up, but his deadliest guns are his arms. We believe him when he says he’d rather be a neutral observer. Plenty of blood is spilled in this series, but not by Luke — not at first, anyway. When he says, “Those days are behind me,” you know it’s an Eastwood-ism — his version of Unforgiven’s “I ain’t like that no more.” His is an ancient conundrum — a cliché, really: doing what a man’s gotta do, 2016 edition — but when an old tale is told as confidently as it is here, you embrace the tropes and luxuriate in the details.
And it’s the details that make Luke Cage, a series that offers still more proof that Marvel’s properties make more compelling TV shows than movies. Like its sister Netflix programs Daredevil and Jessica Jones (where Mike Colter’s version of Cage debuted as the title character’s lover and partner in mayhem), this show is less fanciful than the movies — slower, quieter, more intimate, more connected to actual life. Sure, it’s stylized: Director Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1) shoots dark city streets in the muted, solid colors of a graphic novel that’s faded with age, and series creator Cheo Hodari Coker writes like a man whose inner voice is Humphrey Bogart. (“I just got home,” says a sneering henchman who looks like he drinks lye for breakfast. “College?” Cage deadpans.) And while Colter’s everyday magnetism humanizes the character, Luke is still as much a wish-fulfillment fantasy as his caped and armored counterparts in the movies. He’s nearly flawless; his only Achilles’ heels are his kindness and lingering sadness over the loss of his wife. The character fuses John Henry’s steel-driving strength, Eastwood’s antihero menace, and the decency of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. (When a woman offers to pay him for protection, he says, “I’m not for hire, but you have my word, ma’am — I’ve got you.”)
This world is far removed from the cosmos-shaking action of Marvel’s big-screen universe — a fact made official by a glimpse of a street vendor selling video of the skyline-leveling slugfest that climaxed The Avengers. Everyone in Harlem remembers the Incident, but almost nobody talks about it, because it has no bearing on their daily lives. Luke Cage’s Harlem is a world unto itself, but it’s a troubled one. Its cultural history is as gloriously ornamented as its brownstones, but its residents struggle to make rent or find and hold jobs. Many of the conversations in the pilot are about how hard it is for Luke to get paid so he won’t have to keep ducking his landlady. Many of the show’s young men are ex-convicts like Luke, and they don’t know what to do with themselves in a country that would rather pretend they don’t exist. “I didn’t have one single skill when I got out,” says Pops (Frankie Faison), the reformed gangster who owns the barbershop where Luke pushes a broom. A shot of an exhausted Luke sitting on his bed reveals his bedtime reading: Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. (“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ellison’s hero confides.)
If the totality of Luke Cage were as mesmerizing as the hero and his neighborhood, it might be the program of the year. The show is yet another example of Netflix bloat: not enough story to warrant a 13-episode season. Granted, part of what distinguishes Luke Cage and other Marvel series from the movies is their willingness to linger inside a moment that’s entirely about character, like the scene where Pops tells Luke that he grew up in Georgia and says the gathering tension in Harlem evokes the scent of storm clouds forming over farmland. McGuigan and the series’ other directors — a formidable bunch that includes Hannibal regulars Vincenzo Natali and Guillermo Navarro — aren’t afraid to drink in the atmosphere in a room, whether it’s as vast as Cottonmouth’s nightclub or as cramped as Pops’s barbershop.
But for all of its enjoyable stretches, there are too many clichés indulged and too many narrative shortcuts taken, even by the standards of an urban Western that treats Harlem as if it were Dodge City plus Sin City. Luke’s boss and future adversary is Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a slick-suited crime boss who’s nicknamed Cottonmouth but will kill anybody who calls him that; Ali gives the character some spark, but he’s still another one of those Tarantino sadists who can’t get a shave without launching into a monologue about straight razors and the Old Testament. Stokes’s cousin is a councilwoman named Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) who talks about bringing jobs and housing to Harlem and name-checks Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes to reporters. But her hands are dirty from funneling federal grant money and tax-deductible contributions to help Stokes renovate his nightclub, and she doesn’t seem to care all that much how her cousin pays her back. The lead detective investigating Stokes, Simone Missick’s Misty Knight, is a street-crime variant of a Will Graham–style FBI profiler; she gets lost in reveries while staring at evidence, and visualizes crimes in progress while the camera swirls around her. (Missick has combustible chemistry with Colter, though, and kudos to the show for insisting that age-appropriate relationships are sexy. “Dumb men like little girls,” Luke tells Misty. “Me, I ponder a woman.”)
The crime-and-corruption story line is your basic Chinatown, not too different from the Jimmy Smits scenes in another Netflix drama, The Get Down. I’m not going to pretend the series is an immaculate aesthetic object. I could list more aspects of Luke Cage’s storytelling that could be better if you pressed me.
But I won’t do it here, because this isn’t a story show, it’s a vibe show, simply told but not simplistic, confident but not overbearing. It’s a pleasure to enter this world, a pleasure to watch these magnetic actors ping-ponging the dialogue, a pleasure to watch McGuigan’s camera float through Stokes’s nightclub, a pleasure to see Colter posed against skylines like an onyx god. And I love the small, playful touches that enhance a scene’s mythic quality, like that creepy lamp that looms over Stokes’s desk like the Eye of Sauron, and the Lynchian velvet drapes in the background of his private balcony, and the way series composers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad drape a spaghetti-Western choir across Colter’s shoulders. Luke Cage is like one of those vainglorious 1970s double albums that has way too much filler but that you still listen to all the way through because the musicianship is superb. It’s a superhero slow jam.