Luke Cage seems to be splitting opinions more than previous Netflix/Marvel collaborations, owing largely to it's slow burn start. It takes a while to know why we should care other than the goodwill of fans given to any Marvel character. Early episodes were slowly paced, with little action and a largely passive lead character. The writers had to make us care about a reluctant, loner hero who can't be seriously threatened or harmed. Those elements do not necessarily lead themselves to compelling drama.
The first few episodes then rely on the show's supporting characters and villains with mixed results. Cottonmouth and his crew never feel like credible threats to Cage because, simply, they're not. Whilst their stories are interesting in a sort of Marvel does The Wire way, this is perhaps why the show is initially so reluctant to have Cage do what Cage does best - the show would only be two episodes long. Cottonmouth is a villain with come complexity - certainly a conflicted moral code - but he's no Wilson Fisk. He is later outshone by his cousin Mariah, both in terms of Alfre Woodard's brilliant performance and plotting. More on that later. It is only when villain Diamondback makes an appearance that the show steps up and finds something that can actually hurt Cage physically. If a hero is only as good as his villains then the show has real difficulties, only rewarding your patience in later episodes.
This may also go some way to explain why the pilot episode does more to establish it in superhero continuity than others, a way of compensating for the general lack of on screen super heroics. In fact, this show makes plenty of references throughout to both the wider MCU and the other Netflix series (which, 3 shows and 4 series in you would hope to start feeling a sense of cohesiveness) and it's a genuine joy for fans to see the connections writ large and small. It is perhaps the first Netflix series to truly embrace it's place in a much wider world. The show is also laden with references to the comic book history of the character, including a very funny and gleeful moment in which Cage appears in his original 70's comic book attire with Luke commenting "you look like a damn fool", perhaps something they should have remembered when designing villain Diamondback's finale attire. Diamondback's costume in the last episode may be based on his look in the comics but it is slightly, well, crap. The problem with taking a design from the 70's and putting it into an otherwise grounded show is it looks terribly out of place.
Once the show does find it's feet however, it becomes compelling and exciting television. This is largely down to the women in Luke's life. It's a delight to once again see Claire Temple, with the effortless funny, charming and kick ass Rosario Dawson proving to be the glue that holds the Netflix corner of the the MCU together. Simone Missick gives us a fantastic Misty Knight, different from her comics counterpart (noticeably lacking a robotic arm) but the show feels like an origin story for her and her move from cop to Vigilante. Missick's performance is great, especially in the episode DWYCK. The series also feels like an origin story for Mariah Dillard (based on the comics villain Black Mariah) - and she is easily the most fascinating of the antagonistic characters. Her rejection of crime is ironically what leads her deeper and darker. So whilst she never feels like a credible physical threat, ultimately she is able to do more damage to Luke Cage than any other character in the show. We also get to learn more about Reva and her history with Luke. This gives the series a strong sense of connection to Jessica Jones and proof to the Marvel adage that everything is connected, a rich tapestry of stories. However, whether or not it is dangerous for viewer retention to assume viewers are watching all the Marvel series is yet to be seen.
This isn't to say the Luke Cage isn't a great character or that there is anything wrong with Mike Coulter's performance. He's smooth talking, principled, funny and Coulter handles the action well (with an amusing sense of weariness for man who knows he can't be shot but is often having to replace bullet-hole ruined clothes). However, it is possible to argue that the real core of the show isn't Luke Cage but the way the world reacts to Luke Cage and this sometimes means the character takes a back seat in his own show. We're seeing the street level reactions to super heroes that reflect the mood that leads to the Sokovia Accords. We feel it in a way that there just isn't time to explore in the movies.
The show has a fantastic sense of style which also helps to carry episodes where the substance may have been a little lacking. Of particular note is the music, a great soundscape that recalls classic Blaxploitation soundtracks with a modern edge. This soundscape gives it a strong identity and the standout score of all the Netflix shows so far (if still lacking in particularly memorable themes). None of Marvel's superheroes have yet had a rap dedicated to them (the brilliant Bulletproof Love could have been a corny mess but the show gets away with it).
The show also has something to say, and whilst it may sometimes feel preachy (to a middle class privileged white man like me) with some scenes feeling like momentum stalling lectures in African-American history, it is important to recognize how important it is to see this level of representation and to celebrate it as much as the show does. The heart and soul of Harlem is the core of the show, not afraid to tackle issues in black America whilst delivering an inspiring message of hope for the disenfranchised. As stated in the show, "there's something powerful about seeing a black man that's bulletproof and unafraid." It's an important show and it revels in it.
Over all, if you are willing to invest the time in the show and slog through the slower paced early episodes, the show will reward you with a strong second half that manages to mix the super heroics and the street level crime and corruption in a much more compelling way. The finale also does a good job of setting up The Defenders (with only Iron Fist left to arrive before then). Hopefully the second season of Luke Cage will have a stronger story to better serve it's characters.