Gritty, groundbreaking and profoundly powerful, Marvel's Luke Cage: The Complete First Season blazes with action and suspense while redefining what it means - and what it costs - to be a true hero.
Framed for a crime he didn't commit, escaped convict Luke Cage is just trying to live under the radar. Mysteriously blessed - or cursed - with superhuman strength and unbreakable skin, he hides his abilities and shuns getting involved. But when ruthless crime boss Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes turns his beloved city of Harlem into a bloodbath of chaos and carnage, Luke is forced to come out of the shadows and embrace his ultimate destiny in this riveting fusion of dark drama, hip-hop and classic super hero thrills.
Genre play has been one of the saving graces of Marvel's output. From the MCU to the rough and tough shows on Netflix, each character is given a genre for their heroics to inhabit and help distinguish them from their counterparts while also serving to be a part of a cohesive world. Ant-Man got to be a heist film. Thor: Ragnarok reinvented the character in the world of the buddy action movie. Jessica Jones gets to be a Noir-styled detective. For Luke Cage, Marvel went full Blaxploitation using the streets of Harlem and familiar genre tropes to inspire this solo outing for the hero formerly known as Power Man. What was very nearly Marvel's best show on Netflix is undermined by some late episode bloat that should have been saved for the second season.
Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is a man on the run. A man with a past he'd rather put behind him and strike out on a new path of peace and quiet. Living and working for local barbershop owner and community figurehead Pop Hunter (Frankie Faison), Luke just wants to get back to living a normal life, but can't move past the death of his wife. Life becomes even more complicated with the local color and Harlem crime boss Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes" (Mahershala Ali) who along with his politically-minded sister Mariah (Alfre Woodard) aim to lock up control all legal and illegal activities of Harlem for themselves. Luke would rather not get involved, but when blood is spilled in the streets and the good people of Harlem are caught in the crossfire, it's up to Luke to take down Cottonmouth, Mariah, and their pal Shades (Theo Rossi) - even if that means learning the painful truth of his own past.
I've mentioned that great Detroit T.V. station of my youth that would run great horror movies in numerous other reviews. I have to bring that station up again because it fostered my love for 70s Blaxploitation movies. So, at that tender young age when most kids were getting to know Saturday morning cartoons, I was getting a healthy dose of Jason, Michael Myers as well as Coffy and Black Belt Jones. Not to say that I didn't enjoy my favoriteTransformers or G.I. Joe characters, but I could also spot John Saxon a mile away even if I didn't know who he was. It's to that point that I firmly plant my foot on the ground and state that I loved Luke Cage: The Complete First Season. Loved it. From the first moment when the characters started monologuing as their prone to do with a funk backbeat kicking up the dramatics, I was hooked on this show. I burned through this first season of Luke Cage faster than any other Marvel Netflix offering to date. I just couldn't stop watching it.
I loved the interplay of the characters harkening back to old genre tropes. Mike Colter's Luke is just like the Nam vet who returns home to Harlem to see the neighborhood he knew and loved isn't the same anymore. It's gone bad. He tries to do the right thing by keeping violence out of the equation. He tries to do the right thing by getting people talking rather than let the fight rage on - but of course, that's not going to work. He's going to have to get involved with Cottonmouth's criminal dealings more directly - even if that means absorbing a lot of gunfire. Of course, there's the hotheaded police detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) who doesn't know whether or not she can trust Cage given his shady past, but you know she's going to have to team up with him because who else is capable of stopping Harlem's most dangerous crime syndicate? Toss in Theo Rossi's cool-as-ice Shades and his dealings with an even bigger baddie by the name of Diamondback and you've got the perfect mix for a well-layered ode to the Blaxploitation genre.
However, as much as I do love this show and I've enjoyed each and every time I've watched it through, it's not perfect. Far from it. To put a fine point on things without spoiling any important details or events, this first season should have ended at Episode 9 "DWYCK." Those first nine episodes were spot on perfect for my interests. The show takes its time by establishing all of the major players, their relationships to one another, their own personal ambitions and then tosses everything into a pot and lets the concoction gel and it's fantastic. There's action, there's drama, there's mystery -- everything you could want out of a 70s styled show like this. Unfortunately, the powers that be decided everything needed to be explained and most (but not quite all) plot threads should be nicely knitted up in the final four episodes. Honestly, Episodes 10 through 13 could have been their own eight-episode second season for how much material they dig into and speed through. But because they're only given so much time, all of these remaining plot points and some important characters are run over as the show goes to plaid and flies right past some great stuff without giving it the time necessary to fully explore these moments or characters.
While I will still say that I do love this show through and through for its ambition and style, it loses a few strokes that keep it from being perfect. As it is, I'll say it's pretty damn good, but I totally get why this one divides fans. Those last four episodes are especially plodding and uneven and absolutely feel as if they were an afterthought compared to the first nine episodes. I honestly can't wait for Luke Cage Season Two as we get to see the true team-up comic Power Man and the Iron Fist come to life, but I wish they'd taken some of the plot points from this season and had saved them for later. But hey, as rough as this show gets, it's still leaps and bounds better than the solo outing for Iron Fist.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Luke Cage: The Complete First Season arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Marvel/Disney and Netflix in a four-disc set. Pressed onto four Region Free BD-50 discs, the discs are housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case with two discs stacked comfortably and safely on each side of the case with identical slipcover artwork. The discs load directly to static image main menus featuring traditional navigation options.
Unless Netflix cuts a deal with Target or some other retailer for a stealthy unannounced 4K UHD release, this Blu-ray release will be the best Luke Cage: The Complete First Season looks on disc. Compared to the 1080p stream, this Blu-ray presentation offers up a notable improvement in fine details, especially in close-ups. While I thought Netflix's stream was pretty great when I first saw it, I felt like on disc and uncompressed for streaming, the image was sharper, clearer, and more refined. Facial features and the film's production design are notable. It feels like you can see those individual skin imperfections where on the stream they'd appear a bit softer. Colors also feel a bit more vivid, especially the yellow/gold tones that are prominently featured throughout the show. Black levels are deep and inky giving rise to a terrific sense of depth and dimension. I also noticed that some banding and other little artifacts are absent on this Blu-ray that I had noticed on the stream. So for all concerned, this is a pretty damn good looking disc.
However, absent a 4K UHD release, this home video Blu-ray isn't quite the best possible viewing experience. In 4K with Dolby Vision added to the mix, Luke Cage: The Complete First Season just looks gorgeous. Especially color saturation. I would say that Luke Cage enjoys the most distinctive and stylized look of the Marvel shows with its heavy yellows and crimson reds and that Dolby Vision kick is particularly glorious. Given Stranger Things: The Complete First Season's frustrating multiple releases, I wouldn't expect a 4K UHD release of Luke Cage: The Complete First Season - or any of the other Marvel Netflix shows for that matter - but I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility either.
Bucking the Dolby Digital 5.1 stream to the side, Luke Cage: The Complete First Season arrives with a rich and improved English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. Yes, the dialogue is still clean and clear to hear, and yeah the sound effects enjoy a nice push and punch when and where necessary, but for me, it's the music that's the auditory star of the show in my book. The blend of modern hip-hop tunes along with the terrific score by Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge kicks up the funk levels and adds terrific low bass tones to the mix. It's why I got so excited any time one of the characters decided to start monologuing, their dialogue was cool and sounded slick, but that heavy funk backbeat just added an extra layer of awesome to it. It also punches up the LFE tones in ways I didn't experience in the streaming version. So that's where I give this mix a strong hat tip. Everything else about the mix is solid work. Levels are spot on so there's no need to make adjustments. Imaging is present and precise when and where necessary. There's a moment in Episode 9 that is particularly squishy sounding that came through with a notably impact with this mix - you'll know what I'm talking about when you get there.
What's this? Could it be… a bonus feature!?! On a Marvel show? Well, apparently the powers that be decided to use that extra disc space to do good, rather than leave it a dark and desolate void of unused date. While it isn't altogether a very comprehensive package, I will say that this roundtable was a pretty good watch and lets you hear from the cast about working on the show and breaks away from the tedious pre-packaged EPK canned talking head answers.
Offstage At Harlem's Paradise (HD 22:43) A roundtable discussion between Mike Colter, Alfre Woodard, Theo Rossi, and Simone Missick. Like I said in the segment intro, this is a pretty cool discussion. It also features some side producer interviews not part of the roundtable, but relevant to the discussion. It's mostly fluff stuff, but it's cool just the same.
Faults and all, I was thoroughly entertained by Luke Cage: The Complete First Season. I like that it brought a different mood and atmosphere to the Marvel Netflix universe and definitely did its own thing. I enjoyed seeing one of my favorite comic book heroes come to life and the colorful characters he brings. This is a hell of a great cast and they're all in tip-top shape. As I said before, I wish they'd cut out the last four episodes and left those storylines for a later date, but even with a rushed conclusion, the show sets things up nicely for Season Two - and I can't wait to dig back into this little world. Netflix and Marvel/Disney have done a solid job bringing the show to Blu-ray that easily outpaces its 1080p SDR streaming counterpart with a topnotch A/V presentation. Obviously, a 4K UHD Dolby Vision presentation would have been better, but we'll just have to wait and see about that. Also a nice change from the normal approach for other releases like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, a nice little bonus feature was also included with this release which was surprisingly substantive. Fans of Luke Cage are going to love having this one in the collection. I'm calling it recommended because in spite of some notable flaws, I do love this show and I want folks to give it an honest shot.