The Marvel shows on Netflix are meant to bring superheroes to the small screen without the "cheesiness" of the DC shows on The CW. They appeal to the readership of "gritty" comics with a pretense of urban realism and a disdain for the humane idealism of traditional superhero comics. The ideal is an illusion of real life at street level, combined with the usual fantasies of superhuman strength or other impossible abilities. If that's the mandate, then Luke Cage fulfills it better than any Marvel show to date. At it's best, it's good because it's a good crime show more than it is a superhero show. It pits Luke (Mike Colter, perfectly haunted yet stoic), to whom Netflix viewers were introduced during the Jessica Jones show, against a Harlem crime family with tentacles in the worlds of politics and entertainment. The Paradise nightclub is the headquarters of Cornell Stokes, aka "Cottonmouth" (Academy Award nominee Mahershala Ali in the first strike of his one-two breakout punch in 2016). He's the local kingpin,while his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard) is a city councilwoman. The subtext of almost-sibling rivalry between these two, Cornell proving to have been a reluctant heir to gangsterdom, Mariah proving a ruthless replacement, almost overshadows Luke's interventions, which escalate after beloved barber Pop, for whom Luke works as sweeper, is mowed down as collateral damage. Corruption at every level of government permits Cottonmouth to flourish, while Luke's own criminal past -- born Carl Lucas, he was framed, convicted and subject to experiments giving him almost-invulnerable skin before escaping prison -- puts him in danger as the hoodie-wearing vigilante becomes a public hero. He gains allies in righteous cop Misty Knight (Simone Messick, who must have wondered why some viewers hoped to see her character lose an arm) and Netflix mascot Claire Temple, the "night nurse" (Rosario Dawson), but gains more powerful enemies as Cottonmouth seeks the means to take down a superhero.
Regains is probably the right word, since the man with the special bullets that can hurt Cage is Willis Stryker, aka Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), Carl Lucas's ever-resentful half-brother and the man who framed him. In the second half of the series Diamondback -- did you know that Marvel Comics has a "Serpent Society" filled with snake-themed villains? -- becomes the big bad, and the show suffers a little for that. While Cottonmouth evolved into a tragic figure, Diamondback is all about simplistic family issues, and is finally offered up as a sort of square-up for viewers who wanted to see Luke fight a costumed supervillain. Fortunately, Woodard's Mariah and her henchman Shades (Theo Rossi), inherited from Cottonmouth, remain cold constants, maddeningly adept at working the system and exploiting every mistake by the good guys. Part of the whole "gritty" thing is a profound skepticism (that often escalates into "grimdark" horror) toward heroes' ability to overcome pervasive corruption. In keeping with that, Luke Cage has no happy ending, though viewers' dismay or frustration with the outcome will be eased by the knowledge that Luke is schedule to return in Fall 2017 as one of The Defenders. The show's biggest success is its creation (credit is due here to mastermind Cheo Hodari Coker) of a milieu in which the outcome seems all too correct. It's dark but happily not humorless; the show can find time to make fun of Luke's original comic-book costume, for instance, which makes Colter look like a "damn fool." But like all the Netflix shows, the humor is toned down considerably from the quipping imperative of Marvel's movies.
I'm not going to get into a flame war over whether Marvel/Netflix or DC/CW is superior; they are different enough in intentions to make them almost like apples and oranges. But while quality control in the Berlantiverse remains erratic, the Defenders project has maintained a consistent level of quality. It's a point in their favor when you can still say that Daredevil season one, their very first production, is their weakest product. While Daredevil inevitably veers into outright fantasy (most of which derives from Frank Miller's vision, despite his grim/gritty reputation) and Jessica Jones is almost Dostoevskian in its preoccupation with personal wretchedness, Cage sets the standard for quasi-realistic superhero television that others will have to meet -- if they care to, that is.