In the connected series of movies and television shows known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which occupies an inordinate amount of territory in our popular culture, there’s a quiet corner that belongs to Netflix. The Netflix-Marvel series, focusing on a mostly second-tier group of heroes — so far Daredevil, Jessica Jones and, since Friday, Luke Cage — has been a laboratory in turning comic books into live-action TV without the noisy battles and tag-team group heroics of Marvel mainstays like the Avengers, X-Men and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
“Marvel’s Luke Cage” features a black hero with impervious skin — everything bounces off him, even bullets. Like “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” the show (seven of 13 episodes were available for review) uses film-noir ambience and rhythms to set itself apart from the usual action-oriented superhero adaptations. And like another recent Netflix series, “The Get Down,” some of its camerawork and music evoke the blaxploitation era, though, unlike that show, “Luke Cage” is set in the present.
But what’s most distinctive about the series is the way it puts race — and specifically pride in Harlem, where the show takes place — at the center of the story. It’s not just that Cage (Mike Colter of “The Good Wife”) is engaged in a battle for the neighborhood’s soul with Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”), a local crime boss. That’s a plot we’ve seen plenty of times.
It’s the steady drumbeat of visual and spoken references to Harlem’s history and culture, which depending on your taste can come off as an inspiring refrain or as facile name-dropping. The occasional reference to a Beyoncé or Denzel is lost among the citations of past and present neighborhood figures, from Langston Hughes and Billy Strayhorn to Percy Sutton, Geoffrey Canada and ASAP Rocky.
A corrupt politician’s self-serving development plan is called the New Harlem Renaissance. The camera has a habit of catching the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building on 125th Street, with its striding statue of Powell. Dapper Dan, the “hip-hop tailor of Harlem,” appears as himself.
This approach has a couple of effects, beyond the unusual (for the superhero genre) and welcome element of diversity. The selling of Harlem as a literary-artistic wonderland is distracting in what’s basically a straightforward, middling-quality comic-book adaptation about a reluctant hero taking on gangsters and crooked politicians.
And it often feels like the cultural lessons are getting in the way of the genre fun. There’s more conversation than action, and the talk has a tendency to slide into debate, about vigilantism or competing ideas of Harlem or visions of the solitary black hero. (Cage is a Walter Mosley-Easy Rawlins man, while his mentor, Pops, prefers Donald Goines and his more radical crime-fighter, Kenyatta.) It’s as if we’re listening to a series of long-running circular arguments rather than watching a drama with some forward momentum. It doesn’t help that the show’s place in the Marvel continuum forces it to start midstream — after the action of “Jessica Jones,” in which Colter’s Cage had a significant role — which leads to a flashback-heavy structure to shoehorn in the origin stories of Cage and other characters.
There’s plenty to like about “Luke Cage,” including the gorgeous Harlem locations; good work in supporting roles by Alfre Woodard and Ron Cephas Jones; and lively performances by musicians like Raphael Saadiq, Charles Bradley and Jidenna. But if you make the inevitable comparison to “Jessica Jones,” the show from which it was semi-spun off, it looks decidedly average. Colter was better served there, playing a stoic Cage in a supporting role — here he doesn’t seem comfortable carrying the show. And “Jones” pulled off the trick of being both a compelling narrative and a smart, frightening commentary (in that case, on predatory male behavior). “Cage” tries to do a similar thing with racial politics but gets lost in platitudes. Its messages don’t get under your skin.