Review of Luke Cage, Season 2

“Look… We can take Door Number 1, 2, or 3. Guess what? All the prizes suck!” — Luke Cage

Continuing my tradition of reviewing every season of the Marvel/Netflix shows, I present my observations re season 2 of everybody’s favorite bulletproof brutha from Harlem, “Luke Cage”. (See review of season 1 here.) But, before I go any further, I must lay down the requisite…

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

It was great to see Claire and Misty and Bobby again; not so much Mariah and Shades. More on that later. First, though, a few words about the primary newcomers: Bushmaster and Nightshade.

Not surprisingly, this version of John ‘Bushmaster’ McIver varies quite a bit from that in the comics. The comics version was indeed a muscular Black man from the Caribbean (though St. Croix, not Jamaica), but he wore a white and gold costume. He was a Maggia-connected crime boss whose main foe was Iron Fist and whose primary obsession was Misty Knight. He even hired Luke Cage to kidnap Misty. His strength and durability came from forcing Dr. Noah Burstein to replicate the process he used to transform Cage (aka Carl Lucas) back at Seagate Prison. No martial arts, no addiction to some nightshade concoction, and no connection to or grudge against the Stokes family.

I can see why the writers/producers changed several aspects to fit into the Netflix series story, but it still annoys me. The character (ably played by Mustafa Shakir) was better than season 1’s ‘Diamondback’, and at least as complex as ‘Cottonmouth’ had been. Still, I’m not sure I want him to return. (Plus, the Patois he and his Jamaican cronies (and family) spoke was a pain to try to follow, though I have to admit I got better at it as time went along.) His was a tale of vengeance, grounded in an inter-family feud fueled by murder & betrayal a generation ago. But, he seemed inconsistent in both his rationale and his brutality. I felt little sympathy for him, only for those who suffered because of their nearness to him.

While Tilda Johnson was never actually called ‘Nightshade’ on the show, the comic version is. That ‘Nightshade’ was a Harlem-bred sista with a penchant for revealing, black leather outfits. (That is, until she took over the name and full-body costume of ‘Nighthawk’.) Rather than a doctor with an affinity for “natural remedies”, the comics’ Johnson was a brilliant young student who used her extensive knowledge of genetics, cybernetics, and physics to build her criminal career. She apprenticed under Yellow Claw (who gave her the costumed identity of ‘Deadly Nightshade’), fought the likes of Captain America and SHIELD, escaped from prison and built a small criminal empire, only to be brought down by… Power Man and Iron Fist. At one point, she joined Misty Knight’s Crew of villains hired to fight other villains. Later, the vigilante Nighthawk saved her life, and she turned over a new leaf, becoming his partner/weaponeer/mission control.

Shakir and Dennis

Obviously, the comics version has quite a different look, vibe, and history than we see on “Luke Cage”. She develops connections of a sort to Luke and Misty on the show, of course, but they are very different. The connection to the Stokes family and legacy is totally new. So far, the TV version hasn’t done anything illegal, either, except maybe that one time she helped Bushmaster attack the nightclub. (Patty Hearst Syndrome?) The actress (Gabrielle Dennis) is certainly easy on the eyes, but I’m not sure how I feel about this version of ‘Nightshade’ or whether I want her to return.

Now, on to the rest of the show…

It was a pretty good plot, all things considered, and it really accomplished a lot. However, I feel I should at least mention the matter of pacing. As discussed in a previous post, even the best of these Netflix/Marvel series could benefit from slightly tighter pacing, and this was no exception. I can’t remember specifics anymore, but at a few points, things just seemed to drag a bit. I’m not quite sure how to fix this.

I do know that I would love to see more (super)heroics — fights, surveillance, rescues — by our heroes, especially Cage. What we did get to see was great when it involved the henchman and other normal folk. When it came to Cage’s fights with Bushmaster, though, Cage looked pretty stupid. It wasn’t until their final showdown that he seemed to have learned anything. Or, maybe he was just more focused?

Luke has always relied on his size and his fists, and the experiment gave him enhanced strength and a bulletproof hide. (Now, apparently, even the Judas-rounds aren’t lethal, either.) Most of the time, he can just plow through the punks and gangsters that come after him. But, after his encounters with Diamondback last season and Bushmaster this season, I hope he finally realizes that he needs to fight smarter. I don’t expect him to become a student of the martial arts, but I’m hoping Danny and/or Colleen can give him a pointer or two. Speaking of…

Despite my disappointment with the Iron Fist series and character, I actually didn’t mind that Danny Rand showed up here. He and Luke had some good scenes, especially the warehouse fight. He finally chopped some of the curls, which I thought gave him a more masculine look. He also seemed slightly less odd, more mature, more sure of himself. Still kind of annoying with the constant “be still” and chi stuff. But, I understand that he was trying to help Luke get “centered”, so he could be more at peace and more effective.

Shades and Mariah

I gotta say, both the writing and acting was particularly good. And the characters were not two-dimensional, either. As the story moved along, we learned that the main characters and their stories were much more complex than expected. Even Mariah and Shades (though I still dislike them). In fact, some of the best acting was a) in the argument between Luke and Claire (ep.4?), b) the dialogues between Shades and Comanche (ep.6), c) some of Misty’s stuff (both working the case and dealing w/ her injury), d) the bits between Luke (aka Carl) and his father (played by the late, lamented Reg E. Cathey), and even some of those scenes between Mariah and Shades and between Mariah and Tilda. Powerful stuff!

Regarding ‘Black Mariah’ herself, here’s a nice summary by Kim Taylor-Foster at “Fandom”:

“One of the most interesting things about Mariah Dillard is her ability to manipulate. And not only the people around her, but the audience too. On numerous occasions, we feel for her. Her crocodile tears work on us, and every time we fall for it. She’s not so bad, we think. Circumstances have made her like this; there’s some good inside; she’s misunderstood; she’s coming around – but every time she reveals she’s the unfeeling, selfish “monster” her daughter describes her as.”

Yep. Mariah had an interesting journey into darkness in these two seasons of “Luke Cage”, and I, for one, am happy that she finally met her gruesome end. (I actually anticipated how it was gonna happen, too.)

As in season 1, I wasn’t sure what to think of the Shades character, and I’m not sure how much of that is due to the writing and how much due to the acting. Regardless, I was actually a bit surprised that Shades finally said “enough is enough” to Mariah — even more so that he gave a full confession to the cops and helped to put her away! Despite the horrible things we have seen him do, we discovered that he has self-imposed limits, parameters within which he operates. As Mariah got increasingly brutal and involved in things she never could have imagined just last season (prior to killing her cousin, anyway), Shades found himself stretching his own limits, and not in a good way. I can respect his final decision, even if it was long overdue and there was, of course, a strong element of self-interest and self-preservation.

Misty Knight’s journey was entirely different but at least as interesting. The combination of dealing with her injury (followed by getting the prosthetic arm), trying to figure out her place in (or outside of) the police department, and then the specifics of the case(s) she was working on — made the more difficult by Cage, Det. Tyler, and even the late Det. Scarfe — all made for a physically and emotionally exhausting few days, I’m sure. While I’m happy that Misty’s value was recognized by the top brass who offered her the Captain’s position at the end, I’d rather see her move toward becoming a private investigator and teaming up with Colleen Wing, like in the comics. But, hey, at least she now has her bionic arm!

Misty and Luke kickin’ butt

As for our hero, Luke Cage, the dude has been put through the physical and emotional wringer yet again and, I think, has come out all the stronger for it. The character really is developing into a true hero, even as he stumbles through everything life throws at him. He’s often reluctant (especially at the beginning) and often makes mistakes. But, with the help and advice of family & friends (whether solicited or not), he pushes through and gets the job done. I would’ve liked if Claire had stuck around for more episodes, but I understand why she had to go, both character-wise and plot-wise. I’m sure it helped Cage to know that at least she was out of the line of fire, so to speak. After the various dominoes (and players) fell, someone was going to fill the power vacuum. Cage decided that he was the logical choice to save his home from the various criminal organizations, so he “stepped up”. I like it, though I also understand Misty’s reservations. It remains to be seen just how “dirty” he will get in his efforts to protect Harlem. But, we’ll probably have to wait until Season 3 for that.

After we were introduced last season to the reason for Cage’s estrangement from his father, Rev. James Lucas, I didn’t think the writers would pursue it any further. I was wrong. At first, I thought it was an unnecessary complication to season 2’s plot and, of course, Cage’s life. I also didn’t think I would like the Rev character. But, when I realized that he was genuinely penitent for his past marital infidelity and his treatment of Cage (er, Carl), I wanted them to make peace. And, lo and behold, they did! With Cathey’s subsequent passing, it’s a shame they won’t be able to follow up on this reconciliation.

As with the first season, intertwined in the plot was some “social commentary” — i.e., re racism, oppression, the struggle for minorities (especially Blacks) to “make it” in America, police corruption, etc. Also, as I said before, “If the ‘commentary’ had been more heavy-handed, it might have annoyed me; but, it did sound/feel authentic to me.” I will also note the constant use of the N-word. Unfortunately, that is probably also authentic. It was a bit jarring to me at first, but then I realized that this series is essentially a 13-hour, ‘R’-rated movie. So, nasty words and profanity is to be expected. In retrospect, I’m a bit surprised (and pleased) that other “harsh language” was not more common. Only one “love scene”, too, as I recall.

A few random comments:

o Is it just me, or did Cage’s hoodie in the first fight not get any bullet holes? All the others did.
o The ‘Night Nurse’ song was kinda stupid.
o If Hollywood ever needs someone to portray Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Alfre Woodard would be perfect!
o Nice cameo by Colleen Wing! Both the scene in the dojo ring and the one in the bar were appreciated, as we got to see Misty come to terms with her injury & situation. Plus, we got a great fight scene!
o Misty sure adapted to her prosthetic arm in a hurry! Ya gotta love comic-book science….
o Did you catch the Stan Lee “cameo”?

I would like to think that this season was also the end of the Stokes/Dillard arc. I would really like to see someone/something totally different for Luke to battle in the presumed third season. But, given the way things were left, I’m guessing we will see Tilda/Nightshade return to “get what’s hers” (i.e., the nightclub) — possibly with Bushmaster’s help, possibly in competition with Bushmaster. I hope we’ll see more of Annabella Sciorra’s Italian mob-queen character, Rosalie Carbone. (If so, will Punisher show up? They have a history…)

Final score: I gave season 1 of “Luke Cage” a B/B+. Season 2 rates a little higher, I think — say, a B+, bordering on A-.

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Review of The Defenders (Netflix)

“It’s been a long week.” — Jessica Jones, “The Defenders”

The much(?)-anticipated “The Defenders” mini-series has finally been released, capping off the first four Marvel/Netflix series. I finished watching it a few days ago, so I have a few thoughts to share….

You probably figured I’d put out some sort of review, right? Regular readers already know how I feel about the actors and these versions of the characters from my earlier reviews, so I won’t say too much on that front. (Too many to link to here; just do a search on “Netflix” or go to the Reviews page linked above.) I assume most people who are interested in the show have already watched it, but I’m adding a Spoiler Alert, anyway.

SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!!

Let’s start with… I liked the opening/closing credits music. It reminded me of a cross between those for Daredevil and Iron Fist.

I also really appreciated the getting-to-know-each-other scene at the Chinese restaurant, after our heroes survived their first team-up. It was reminiscent — probably intentionally so — of the shawarma shop scene at the end of Avengers.

Our heroes all remained very much in character. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones did their usual strong-guy/gal thing, smashing, slamming, punching, and kicking the crap out of The Hand’s lackeys. Nothin’ pretty. Luke also got to play “human shield” on occasion. (I think he actually enjoys it, despite the costs to his wardrobe.) Once he was on board, Matt Murdock / Daredevil re-confirmed that he’s the best fighter of all of them, in my opinion. However, he also takes some chances — specifically, re Elektra — that put himself and others in danger. Of course, the writers can make even foolish decisions turn out to be the “right” ones in the end.

Each of these three, at some point along the way, had their doubts about taking on The Hand, preferring to stay out of the “war” or just not ready to go “all the way”. But, they realized the threat that The Hand represented to the people of New York (and likely beyond), and they stepped up. They knew they might not survive, but they were the city’s only real chance. That’s what makes them heroes.

I would really love to see Daredevil pair up with Cage. That could be an awesome partnership. (Cage and Rand, not so much.)

Not surprisingly, I thought Danny Rand / Iron Fist was quite disappointing. Without the chi-powered fist, his fighting skills are still mediocre — clumsy-looking, even. Good thing The Hand seems to only have mediocre-level soldiers, rather than the ninja-assassins from the comics. (Elektra aside, of course.) He also continued with the part-petulant child, part-stranger-in-a-strange-land bit, while never understanding why people aren’t impressed by his “I am the immortal Iron Fist” claims, followed by tales of dragons and mystical cities. Sheesh! Either give it a rest, or at least show off the “fist” a bit earlier.

Colleen Wing’s presence mostly made up for that of her boyfriend. She’s attractive, passionate, willing to do what needs to be done, and brings some much-needed skill with bladed weapons to the good-guy side. She seems to start many fights by charging at her opponents, which doesn’t seem too smart to me, particularly when it’s a superior fighter like Bakuto. Then again, it’s not like she’s gonna surprise him/them, especially beginning from several feet away. Maybe the head-on approach is best, just to get the fight underway?

Some of the best acting in this series was in scenes with the Colleen and Claire characters, especially the one where Colleen briefly broke down in tears. Well done, Miss Henwick.

Claire’s how-did-I-get-myself-into-this reflections and lines were welcome as usual. She really is the heart of the (non-)team, and not just because she is the acquaintance that they all had in common. She also probably surprises no one more than herself that she is still in the thick of it and, well, not dead, yet. Like Colleen said, Claire’s a hero, too.

It was nice to see Malcolm, Trish, Karen, and Foggy, too, and to find out what they were up to since we last saw them. There wasn’t much for them to do in this story but hide out. But, it made sense in the plot to have them involved, since they were the closest associates of our heroes. However, it still seems odd to have them essentially camp out in the police station, when the cops never really understood what The Hand was or how dangerous they were.

Misty Knight… yowza! (Ahem, sorry.) The lovely Detective Knight returns! Yay! (“Detective Knight” sounds like a twist on a certain Distinguished Competition’s pointy-eared vigilante, doesn’t it?) She continues to be frustrated by our heroes, but she comes through in the end and supports, even aids, them. Yay, again! She pays a dear price for it, though, since she (finally) loses her arm. Triple-yay! That’s right, I’m glad she lost her arm, ‘cuz that means she will probably, eventually, get a super-strong bionic arm, just like in the comics. (I have a feeling her benefactor will be Rand, though, instead of Stark.) Then, she just needs to become a P.I. and partner with Colleen Wing, and I’ll be a happy man. (Especially if they get their own series!)

It sort of makes sense that Stick would be the one to unite — however reluctantly — our heroes. Or, at least, try to keep them together after that initial big fight. (Btw, since we already know these Netflix shows take place in the same world as the films, it would have made sense to have someone say something like, “Why not tell those Avengers guys? Let them HANDle it!” OK, maybe without the pun.) I’m a little surprised that they killed him off, but not real disappointed. For one, he was getting annoying; for two, with The Hand out of commission (thankfully, at least for now), there’s little reason for Stick to show up, and this should help our heroes — well, Matt, anyway… and Elektra — move on.

I hate to say it, but Sigourney Weaver looked… old. But, then I realized she’s 67, so she’s allowed to have a few wrinkles and such. Don’t know that I would have thought of her as a villain for this series. But, as the Alexandra character was written, she was a decent choice. We suspected they would bring Bakuto back, as well as the ever-present and deceptively powerful Madame Gao. The other two new Hand leaders — Murakami and Sowande — seemed formidable at first. But, the latter was too easily defeated, and the former was ultimately not that impressive.

I have mixed feelings about the whole Elektra thing. I mean, we already knew she was being resurrected by The Hand, so she’d probably be involved in another series storyline. And, it makes sense the way it was done and why. I think. Her betrayal of Alexandra was a surprise, which made for a nice plot twist. However, I don’t understand why she suddenly became so cold, amoral, etc. I guess it had something to do with her soul being affected (seared? tainted? infected?) by her brief time on “the other side”. I don’t remember hearing a good explanation for her behavior, but maybe I just missed it or didn’t put the pieces together.

If Elektra survived and if she eventually returns (though hopefully not for awhile), I hope she becomes more the assassin-for-hire that comic readers are familiar with. One with a damaged, yet still present, moral compass and ethical code.

The overall plot wasn’t bad, though it seemed to take a little while to get moving. Definitely room for improvement here and there, which might have been do-able if they had another episode or two to work with. Or, maybe fewer episodes would have forced them to tighten it up and get to the good stuff sooner. For the most part, though, the four heroes’ individual stories came together fairly well. It all flowed OK (though the earlier episodes were a bit rocky), and there was some good character development. (Even Rand.) Most of the interaction between our heroes was good, too, and I appreciated the occasional doses of humor.

Open questions: Why didn’t the NYPD file a report? Why wouldn’t they charge our heroes with terrorism? I’m not saying there isn’t a plausible way around it, with Jeri Hogarth (and Foggy, of course) coming to their aid. (Even “The Defenders” sometimes need a legal defense of their own, right?) But, the “wrap-up” at the end seemed too easy.

Overall grade: When feeling generous, I’m tempted to give “The Defenders” a solid ‘B’. Other days, I might go as low as a ‘C’. So, let’s split the difference and go with a ‘C+/B-‘.

Upcoming, Live-Action Superhero Series Round-up, part 1

I’ve said it before, but superhero genre fans are truly blessed these days. In addition to the the many live-action adaptations on the big screen, we have more leather- and spandex-clad heroes with special powers and skills on TV now than ever before — from DC’s various series on regular TV (“Arrow”, “The Flash”, “Legends of Tomorrow”, & “Supergirl” on CW; “Gotham” on Fox (no costume-wearing heroes in this last one, though)); Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” on ABC and “Legion” on FX; and, Marvel’s Netflix-original shows (“Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones”, “Luke Cage”, “Iron Fist”). I suppose I should throw in DC’s “Preacher” (AMC), though I don’t care for the concept and would hardly call him a hero. (Same goes for “Lucifer”.)

There were also the late, lamented “Agent Carter” by Marvel and “Constantine” by DC, both of which had loyal fan followings but still got canceled. And, of course, there have been a few that were talked about a lot but fell through — e.g., DC’s “Teen Titans”/”Blackbirds” and Marvel’s “Mockingbird”/”Marvel’s Most Wanted”.

But, there are more on the way…. Over the past couple years or so, several other comic book adaptations have been rumored, discussed, planned, and in many cases gone into production. I thought we’d take a quick look at each of them — those I am aware of, at least. (Given that I’m a bit pressed for time, though, I’m splitting the “round-up” between this week and next. Hope you don’t mind.) Let’s begin with…

Netflix

o “The Defenders”: Anyone paying attention is aware that the heroes from the first four Netflix shows have always been intended to co-star in a mini-series as Marvel’s best ever non-team, “The Defenders”. I don’t think this particular line-up has ever seen print, but anything to get our heroes fighting together and likely among themselves in time-honored Marvel tradition. It debuts this August 18th.

o “The Punisher”: The popular, gun-toting anti-hero was so popular in his appearance in Season 2 of “Daredevil” that the powers-that-be decided a spin-off show was in order. I believe I’m on record as being in favor of this, as long as they do right by the character. Last I read, this one’s scheduled for release in Nov. 2017.

o More?: A little over a year ago, rumors began that Netflix was planning to add to their stable of Marvel-based series. Specifically, Moviecreedlive reported, “Our sources have revealed that Blade, Ghost Rider, and Moon Knight are lined-up to join Netflix.” These all make sense, given the darker, street-level tone of their other series. However, I haven’t heard/read anything more about this, other than the discussions of MK replacing Iron Fist, when the latter was having trouble getting some direction. (No comment.) Of course, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has since introduced a version of Ghost Rider, so I don’t know how that might affect Netflix’s plans. Since Marvel has been keeping its Netflix properties independent from other shows & films, it might not matter at all. Personally, I’d love to see the original Ghost Rider, with host Johnny Blaze, brought to Netflix.

On the other hand, a different report around the same time said that Marvel/Netflix were next developing series for She-Hulk, Cloak & Dagger, Bullseye, and Elektra. The odd one out here seems to be She-Hulk. Not only do they already have one show about lawyers — Shulkie is also an attorney named Jennifer Walters — and two characters with super-strength, but the character doesn’t really fit the dark-n-gritty tone of the other shows. Plus, they’d need a decent CGI budget. The other three make more sense, though I haven’t read/seen anything more about Bullseye or Elektra. Most likely, it was an April Fool’s joke, anyway, since the article was published 4/1/2016. However, I’ll talk more about Cloak & Dagger in a minute — or, rather, in Part 2.

Finally, the possible Netflix show that makes the most sense to me would be the one rumored to spin off the Misty Knight character from “Luke Cage”. Ideally (for me), she would get her bionic arm and team up with Colleen Wing (from “Iron Fist”) to form “Knightwing Restorations”. (They could use that as a title, or “Daughters of the Dragon”.) It has been confirmed that Knight & Wing will both show up in “The Defenders”, so maybe it will set up events that lead to a spin-off then. Unfortunately, there has been no further news on this front, either.

That’s it for now. Continued next week…

Review of Luke Cage (Netflix Series)

”There’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and unafraid!”  — Method Man in “Luke Cage” cameo

I’m a day late with this post — sorry ’bout that. Blame it on my having been on vacation for over a week and now trying to catch up on stuff. Speaking of vacation, I managed to finish watching “Luke Cage”, so I decided to push up my review by a couple weeks.

luke-cage-netflix-cast-600x264

Primary cast for “Luke Cage”

As some of you probably realize, the “Luke Cage: Hero for Hire” character was created in the 1970s to capitalize on the Blaxpoitation film craze. Much of the writing — by white guys unfamiliar with actual Black culture — involved stereotypes and often inauthentic dialogue. Nowadays, some people would call it downright racist, but I don’t think that was the intent. “Ignorant” and “misguided” would be fairer descriptions of the creators/writers themselves. Some of the storylines were pretty hokey, too, but that’s par for the course in comics. Still, Cage is a beloved character who has evolved over the decades, often written by Black writers, and losing much of the Blaxploitative aura.

The challenge, then, for Netflix’s production was to make a series about this character, in a particular environment, that resonated with the person of color in 2016, while drawing heartily from the source material and providing nuggets of nostalgia. Not an easy task, but I thought showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker et al. did an admirable job.

Let’s break it down, beginning (as usual) with the main characters….

Luke Cage (aka Carl Lucas): I probably wouldn’t put cage in my personal Top 10 Marvel characters, but I have read enough material with him in it that I find him an intriguing character. So, I’m really glad he’s getting the live-action treatment. I have commented previously regarding the choice of Mike Colter to play the role, so I won’t repeat it here, other than to say Colter continues to do a great job as this Luke Cage. It’s a more toned down, stoic, and definitely not stereotypical version of the character, which probably works better than trying to adhere too closely to the 70s version. I also understand why the original, disco-influenced, bright yellow-n-blue costume with upside-down steel tiara and huge chain for a belt would not have worked for 2016 sensibilities (not to mention Cage/Colter’s self-respect). However, I very much appreciated the “Easter egg” that had him in a version of that outfit in the flashback scene following his prison escape. The handful of “Sweet Christmas”es were great, too.

In case you didn’t know, the comics version of Lucas/Cage was never a cop, though his father was. He did go to prison as the result of being framed by Stryker. Why they made him a former cop (also framed) for this series, I’m not sure. Maybe to strengthen the idea of his instincts to help and protect people? (Given the attitude toward cops by a lot of the Black community these days, that’s a little surprising.) It irked me at first as an unnecessary change, but I’m OK with it.

Finally, I would have liked to see Cage get truly enraged when fighting a group of bad guys. I don’t know if they didn’t do this in order to avoid the “angry Black man” stereotype, or just because this version of Cage is generally more reserved. Still, I want to see what he’s really capable of when ticked off. He also had that opportunity in his big fight with Stryker, but they opted to do that differently, too. (It was kind of frustrating, IMO.) Otherwise, I thought Cage’s characterization was pretty good, especially for a current-day, live-action adaptation. (See related comments under ‘Plot’.)

15-luke-cage-1-w529-h352Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes: Mahershala Ali is a talented actor, and I’ve appreciated him since first seeing him years ago. He has a reserved intensity that really worked for this role. The Stokes character is a complex mix of mid-level underworld boss, businessman, street punk, and frustrated musician. I could feel the stress and annoyance he felt as his mini-empire began to crumble around him, all while being badgered by his cousin, who had her own issues and selfish concerns. The fact that he was far more than a two-dimensional villain made him all the more intriguing. I have to admit, though, that his tendency to burst out in often-derisive laughter got to be tiresome toward the end. (And what a sudden, gruesome “end” it was!)

Incidentally, the original “Cottonmouth” was an older guy with a white unibrow and mustache, sharpened gold(?) teeth, and an affinity for green pimpsuits with a matching hat. He was also the guy whose drugs Stryker stole and framed Lucas with. I’m not surprised they decided to throw most of that out, but at least this version was still a drug dealer and a snappy dresser! Also, as far as I can tell, he is still alive in the Marvel Comics Universe.

Det. Misty Knight: Giving the beautiful Simone Missick the role of Misty Knight was close-to-perfect casting. She has the look and talent (and big hair) that brings this strong, confident, intelligent woman to life. She’s a little different than I picture Knight, but not enough to be an issue.

I had forgotten that Knight was a cop before becoming a private investigator, but I’m happy that the powers-that-be retained this for the Netflix version. I’m a little unsure what to make of her “special ability” to reconstruct a crime scene in her mind. Is this supposed to be superhuman? Or, just an unusual, but still “natural”, finely-honed talent of a police detective? On another matter, I was surprised at how quickly her arm healed. I thought for sure it would need to be amputated, thereby providing an opening for her to get a bionic arm. (In the comics, she lost the arm in a bomb blast.) But, nope… didn’t happen. Either way, I enjoyed the character, and I’m glad we’ll be seeing more of her in future series.

(Black) Mariah Dillard: I always enjoy Alfre Woodard’s performances, but this was one of those characters that I can’t decide about. Well, I despise the character for many reasons, which I guess is what we’re supposed to do, even though I sorta-kinda feel bad for her, too. But, I can’t decide if Woodard was the right person to play this role. For some reason, she seemed out of place. Or, maybe it was just me, struggling with what to think of the character. In the comics, “Black Mariah” was an even more despicable character, but she looked more like an obese version of the “Mama Mabel” character we saw in flashbacks. (Btw, Mabel was played by Samuel L. Jackson’s wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson.) I will say, though, that Woodard did a fine job with this complex character, showing her frustrations with her cousin and her career failures and being “forced” to do things she would rather not. Her relationship with Shades, though, has taken a couple of disturbing twists and turns. Speaking of…

Hernan ‘Shades’ Alvarez: Apparently, there is a “Shades” character from Stryker and Lucas’s shared past in the comics. He was a fellow-member of The Rivals gang who ended up in Seagate Prison, where he was one of those abused by the sadistic prison guard, Rackham. But, many of the details are very different from what we saw on-screen — e.g., no connection with Mariah. Theo Rossi’s version is sort of interesting, yet something about him bugs me. Not sure if it’s the character or the actor. (I’ve never watched “Sons of Anarchy”, but I know I’ve seen him in something.) I was looking forward to seeing Shades get his butt handed to him, either by Cage or Misty, but it didn’t happen. I’m guessing he’ll show up again….

Missick, Dawson, Whaley, Rossi

Missick, Dawson, Whaley, Rossi

Det. Rafael Scarfe: The comics version was indeed partnered with Misty Knight, but he also had a history with Colleen Wing, Danny Rand, and Daredevil. He was a good cop who later “went rogue”, but he was never corrupt. So, it makes one wonder why they totally rewrote the character for Netflix. I guess they wanted another character from the comics that was relatively disposable. (I’ll note that the original was tougher and less cynical.) Frank Whaley did a good job with him as written, but it was a waste of a decent character, if you ask me.

Claire Temple: I was glad to see Rosario Dawson’s “Claire” not just pop up again but get fleshed out a bit more. She is both a likable and useful character, and I appreciate how she has become a friend, encourager/motivator, and budding romantic interest for Cage. (Question: Will Cage ever partner with, and eventually marry, Jessica Jones, as in the comics?) She is a welcome thread tying the different Netflix/Marvel series together, though she isn’t scheduled to appear in “Iron Fist”. I like that she’s a girl from the ‘hood who can take care of herself, but I also like that she is apparently gonna take martial arts training from Colleen Wing. Good for her!

Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker: While the snakeskin suit worn by the comics version would probably have been too much, I thought this over-the-top villain was played quite well by Erik LaRay Harvey, who even looks like the original. I don’t remember seeing Harvey in anything else, but I thought his portrayal of this murderous psychopath was right-on. Stryker isn’t exactly complex and is not much more than an eccentric thug, when it comes down to it. But, if that’s what they were going for — and pretty close to the comics, too — then that’s what they got. What I didn’t like was that they minimized the character’s fascination and proficiency with knives, both conventional and modified. Not sure where the Bible obsession came from, either. On the other hand, they did keep the childhood friendship with Lucas/Cage, followed by betrayal.

Now for a few supporting players…

I loved Frankie Faison as “Pop” and was sorry he wasn’t in more episodes. He was a voice of reason, encouragement, and (when necessary) admonishment, not just to Cage but to the younger guys who frequented the barbershop. Dare I say it, “Pop” was a much-needed father-figure to some. I think the character was new for the series, which is fine. The chess-playing Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) was, I think, another new character and one I enjoyed. As an older guy, he also had some wisdom to lay on the younger folk, and I liked his efforts (with Cage) to keep the barbershop an ongoing concern in Pop’s honor.

Dr. Noah Burstein and his controversial experimentation on select prisoners at Seagate was, of course, straight out of the comics. This version was ably played by Michael Kostroff. It was good to see Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley) show up in a few episodes, even if it still left a lot of questions regarding Cage’s and her relationship. There is also now some question about her knowledge or participation in Burstein’s experiments and possibly Rackham’s fight club. I should note that Reva in the comics had nothing to do with Seagate and was actually the girlfriend of young Willis Stryker, then of young Carl Lucas, and the cause of the rift that developed between them. Regardless, as a love who was tragically lost, she represents a crucial element to the history and person of Carl Lucas / Luke Cage.

Additional, essential elements to the story…

luke-cage-logoPlot: I thought it was a pretty decent plot, as these things go. Not stellar, but not bad. We see our hero struggling to figure out both who and what he is — ex-cop, ex-con, Black man, disillusioned preacher’s son, victim of betrayal, hero?, vigilante?, freak?, etc. — all while confronting threats to himself, his friends, and his community. He wants to be left alone, but at core he is a good man who can’t stand by while injustice is done to those he cares about. Colter did a pretty good job conveying this struggle, and I admit that someone with more muscles but less acting experience would not have been able to pull this off.

There is also the aspect of the “social commentary” — i.e., racism, oppression, and the struggle for minorities (especially Blacks) to “make it” in America. It was laced throughout much of Stokes and Dillard’s speech, as well as popping up here and there from others (e.g., Pop, Bobby Fish). There were false accusations made against Cage, resulting in the cops hunting for him. But, the accusers were both black and white, cop and criminal, so it didn’t come off as race-based. If the “commentary” had been more heavy-handed, it might have annoyed me; but, it did sound/feel authentic to me. Also, Cage’s mini-speech at the police station (in the finale) helped to explain the mindset (his in particular), as did Method Man’s on-air rap.

There were a few plot holes and unanswered questions. For example, what about the Judas Bullet wound in Cage’s shoulder? Was there shrapnel in there, or was it a through-and-through? But, I don’t remember any glaring inconsistencies. (Feel free to comment below on anything you remember being mishandled or that should have been resolved but wasn’t.)

Lastly, I loved the many “Easter eggs” — i.e., references to people, places, and events from the Marvel-based movies and the other Netflix/Marvel series, as well as a couple that haven’t appeared, yet. It really helps the fans know that the creators are building an interconnected “universe” with all of this stuff, and that they respect the source material we all grew up on.

Music: Right from the outset, this series had a distinct sound and feel to it. It began with the opening theme, which had a definite 70s vibe (though it could have been a bit stronger, imho). But, it continued with the jazz and R&B tunes performed in Stokes’ nightclub, Harlem’s Paradise. The live acts at the club are all real-life professionals — e.g., Charles Bradley, The Delfonics, Faith Evans — whose music spans the 60s thru the 90s and beyond. I’m not personally a fan of the style (though a couple tunes were catchy), but the songs fit the setting of the series and sometimes the particular scenes.

F/X: Of course, I am primarily referring to the demonstrations of Cage’s superstrength and durability. There were occasions where I thought he put a little too much effort into something that should have been very easy for him (e.g., ripping a door off its hinges). But, overall, I liked the way he smacked, shoved, and tossed around punks and crashed through doors and walls. His shrugging off of bullets was on point, as well, including the fact that the ricochets can be dangerous. And Cage’s irritation at frequently needing to replace his bullet-ridden clothes made for a bit of welcome humor.

luke-cage-netflix-trailerThe “Judas Bullets” could have used a little more explanation about their origin and how they were able to bore into Cage’s flesh. (Or, did I miss it?) But, they were a good plot device for making Cage vulnerable (to a select few) and putting his life temporarily in jeopardy. I appreciated the nod to the source material by having the Judas bullets (and special gun?) be manufactured by weapons dealer Justin Hammer. Same goes for Stryker’s special gear, except that the “supersuit” looked kinda goofy, and it made no sense to me why Cage didn’t just punch or rip off the power pack early on in their big fight. (Of course, then there wouldn’t have been much of a fight….)

The Verdict: Overall, despite the things I was a little disappointed in or would have handled differently, I very much enjoyed “Luke Cage”. I rank it slightly below “Daredevil” and above “Jessica Jones”, and I look forward to seeing Cage (and Claire and Misty) in “The Defenders”, as well as (hopefully) a second season of his own.

Fan-Cast: Iron Fist

Since Marvel/Netflix seem to be having a rough time getting some traction on the “Iron Fist” series (or, at least, last I read), I decided to help them out with some casting suggestions for the central character, Danny Rand, aka (the) Iron Fist. It’s the least I could do….

Iron Fist

Iron Fist crouching pose with fiery fistDaniel Rand is the son of successful businessman Wendell Rand, who had ties to the extra-dimensional realm of K’un-Lun, and his wife Heather. Wendell and Heather were killed during a trip to Tibet when Daniel was nine. Young Daniel spent the next decade in K’un-Lun, where he was trained in the martial arts by master Lei Kung the Thunderer. When he was 19, Daniel successfully battled the mystical dragon Shou-Lao the Undying, leaving him with the distinct brand of a dragon on his chest and granting him the abilities, title, and responsibilities of the “Iron Fist”, protector of K’un-Lun. The abilities in question included a general manipulation of his enhanced chi (e.g., for enhanced senses, healing, environmental adaptation) and the power to focus that chi energy into his fist, making it “like unto a thing of iron.” In later years, he learned additional ways to vastly augment and manipulate his chi for varying physical and psychological effects. He is a master of multiple martial arts fighting styles and other disciplines, as well as being at “peak human level of strength [for] a man of his age, height, and build that exercises intensively.”

Daniel Rand returned to America, where he took over his father’s business, aided by his father’s friend, an attorney named Jeryn Hogarth. In his “off hours”, and often when he should have been more involved with his business, Rand fought criminals of various types, “normal” and costumed, as “Iron Fist”. Sometimes referred to as “the Living Weapon”, Iron Fist is one of, if not the, most powerful & skilled martial artist(s) on the planet. He has teamed up with many different individuals and groups over the years, including Spider-Man, Daredevil, and incarnations of the Avengers and Defenders. But, he is best known for his frequent partnerships with Luke Cage, aka Power Man I, sometimes under the business name of “Heroes for Hire”. Rand and Cage are also frequently joined, personally and/or professionally, by Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, who do bodyguard and investigative work under the banner “Knightwing Restorations”. Rand’s enemies have included businessmen like Harold Meachum and Norman Osborn, as well as costumed villains such as Sabretooth, Davos (aka Steel Serpent, also from K’un-Lun), Master Khan, Robert Hao (aka Chaka Khan), and Nightshade.

iron_fist_v2_by_uncannyknack-d7pzp0bWhile I don’t remember much from Iron Fist’s early comics, I do seem to remember that he is generally level-headed. Not always responsible, but level-headed. Sometimes he gets angry or frustrated, but his training has helped him to maintain an even keel. He can be quite serious when necessary and very focused (also enhanced by his training), but he is also known to have a healthy sense of humor.

Despite the clearly Asian nature of his background, Daniel Rand has always been blonde and Caucasian-looking. There has been some talk of casting an Asian, or half-Asian, but others (like myself) think that would be a bad idea. Marvel’s wiki says Rand is 5’11”, 175 lbs., so I think a height range of about 5’10” to 6’1″ would be fair. How old? Well, if we stick to the source material, he became “Iron Fist” at 19 and returned to America shortly thereafter, when the once-every-10-years mystical conjunction between Earth and K’un-Lun reappeared. According to recent reports, the Netflix show will begin “just as Rand has returned to the Big Apple, after having gone missing from [the] city for several years.” It isn’t clear, though, if this will be his first time in NYC since becoming the Iron Fist nor how closely it will stick to the comics when it comes to K’un-Lun. But, rather than going with a 20-year-old businessman/superhero, I am guessing the show’s producers will want someone a bit more mature. So,… I think our best bet is casting someone in his mid-20s to early-30s.

Years ago, I thought David Paetkau (5’10”,b.1972) from “Flashpoint” would make a great Danny Rand, but he’s already in his mid-40s, so… too old. Martial-artist-turned-actor Scott Adkins (5’10”,b.1976) is too old, too, but he might make a good Davos/Steel Serpent (i.e., archenemy of Iron Fist). Also considered but deemed to be a little too old are Travis Fimmel (6′,b.1979) (“Vikings”), Charlie Hunnam (6’1″,b.1980) (“Sons of Anarchy”), and Alain Moussi (6’0.5″,b.1981) (Wings of the Dragon), though the last one could do all his own fights/stunts. (A Moussi vs. Adkins fight could be epic!) Model/actor Julien Kang (6’3″,b.1982) is too tall, plus he is half-Asian, so he probably wouldn’t look “natural” as a blonde. I like Jason Mac (6’2″,b.????), but he’s a little too tall and might be a little too old. Rick Cosnett (5’11”,b.1983) (“The Flash”) is a possibility, but his voice grates on me. I even considered UFC-fighter Alexander Gustafsson (6’5″,b.1987), but he’s way too tall and has no acting experience. Freddie Stroma (5’11.25″,b.1987) — Cormac McLaggen in the last three Harry Potter films — is a strong contender and gets an ‘honorable mention’. Finally, I considered Alexander Ludwig (6’2″,b.1992) but decided he is slightly too young and slightly too tall.

My top three candidates range in age from 26 to 33 (at this writing), so there’s one for each end of my preferred range and one right in the middle. They are…

Luke Bracey

Luke Bracey

First up is Luke Bracey (6′,b.1989). He hasn’t been around all that long, but genre fans may remember him from G.I. Joe: Retaliation, The November Man, and the recent Point Break remake. So, he’s familiar with action-oriented roles. He has the right height and build, and he definitely has the blonde “dude” look down. I think he’d make a fine Danny Rand / Iron Fist.

 

 

 

Chris Zylka

Chris Zylka

Next, Chris Zylka (6′,b.1985) can be seen in the Canadian series “The Secret Circle” and movies like Shark Night 3D, Piranha 3DD, The Amazing Spider-Man (as Flash Thompson), as well as the current series “The Leftovers”. So, he’s a physical match and he has genre cred. Could be just famous enough — but not too well-known — to make a great Danny Rand / Iron Fist.

 

 

 

Travis Van Winkle

Travis Van Winkle

If Travis Van Winkle (6′ or 5’11.25″,b.1982) looks familiar, then you may have followed my suggestion to watch “The Last Ship”. But, he was also in Bloodwork, 247°F, the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th, Asylum, Transformers, and appeared in several TV shows. I think he has a great look that would be just perfect for Danny Rand / Iron Fist.

 

 

 

Alright, lads and lasses. I gave it a shot, and I think I found some decent candidates. I hope Marvel/Netflix can do at least as well!

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2016.