Rich World-Building and Strong Characters Make LUKE CAGE a Win for Marvel
By Chelsea Hensley
“For black lives to matter, black history and black ownership must also matter.” So says Luke Cage, in its premiere episode. Though uttered by one of its many antagonists, it’s a mantra that can be felt throughout the season. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker blends the sinuousness of neo-noir with the fun and fury of the Blaxploitation era that birthed Luke Cage to craft Marvel’s most racially diverse effort yet, one that twines rich, black history with the present and can credit most of its success to the work of its black showrunner and mostly black writer’s room.
Raphael Saddique, Faith Evans, Jidenna and Method Man appear in Luke Cage’s Harlem. A photo of the Notorious B.I.G adorns Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes’ office wall, and Luke blares Wu-Tang Clan while he throws bad guys around. The many references and nuances to blackness and black culture will likely be missed by non-black viewers, (similar to how Daredevil’s references to Catholicism may be harder for non-Catholics to pick up on). But with so much of television being white-centric, it’s hard to call this a problem.
With rich characterization and powerful performances, Luke Cage may or may not have crashed Netflix on Saturday, but certainly defined itself as a win for Marvel and Netflix as further proof that diversity, both onscreen and behind-the-scenes, works.
“Harlem’s Captain America”
Superheroes usually appear (like Steve Rogers, Peter Parker and Clark Kent) in times of upheaval that leave people hoping for the intervention of someone stronger. It’s timely and relevant that Luke, bulletproof and unafraid, appears in the current sociopolitical climate, where a new black man (or woman or child) becomes a hashtag every other day after being killed by police. Luke Cage, wearing a hoodie that signified danger when worn by Trayvon Martin, is incredibly important. Like Coker says, Luke Cage didn’t set out to be, nor is it, “the Black Lives Matter show” despite explicitly touching on police brutality in later episodes. But as we’ve learned, black people doing anything has become political, even if it’s as simple as existing.
Only recently have black male superheroes (Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther) appeared onscreen, and until the Black Panther film drops, Luke Cage is holding the leading man mantle alone. So it’s important that Luke Cage, “Harlem’s Captain America”, appears with his own hero arc, particularly one as traditional as this one. Mike Colter (The Good Wife) plays Luke with a quiet reserve, all the more to heighten Luke’s wholesome heroism. Men like Luke Cage, dark-skinned black men who wear XXL hoodies, aren’t usually allowed the optimism, or the corniness, of a traditional superhero narrative. But Luke Cage gives Luke one, and it works.
Luke would likely get along well with Steve Rogers who shares similar abilities and would probably appreciate both Luke’s devotion to the people of Harlem (and his swear jar). While Luke’s abilities closely resemble Captain America’s, his superhero arc more closely resembles Peter Parker’s. The death of his mentor and friend Pop (Frankie Faison) spurs Luke to finally put his abilities to use and take down Cottonmouth, and Luke’s forced to contend critics who label him a menace and not a hero. He even gets a rap written about him.
Sometimes Luke Cage’s exploration of Luke’s origin story leans toward clumsy. Flashbacks follow Luke to prison where he’s recruited into a fighting ring and finally imbued with his powers in an experiment that nearly kills him. These flashbacks are good at providing context to Luke’s relationship with wife Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley), especially after Jessica Jones used both characters so poorly. It’s only when we’re rushed into further exploration of Luke’s father and family life in Georgia when things get a bit murky.
The fight scenes aren’t anything close to the structured choreography of Daredevil, closer to Jessica Jones in its reliance on Luke’s brute force. There’s indication that Luke has a boxing background, but the show plays on it so little it’s easy to forget. Taking out a bunch of lackeys requires little technique when Luke is involved, and the show clearly enjoys watching bad guys, and their bullets, bounce off him.
The awe inspired by a bulletproof man in Harlem is palpable, but the question the series has to hurry to answer is: what can threaten Luke Cage?
“Everybody wants to be the king”
As important as the hero is, the villains are equally vital to Marvel’s success. Daredevil’s second season faltered in part because it replaced its focused examination of Wilson Fisk with a mysterious threat that was difficult to pinpoint, and Jessica Jones couldn’t have thrived without building up the despicable Kilgrave. Luke Cage approaches its characters in the same way: cast talented and memorable actors and make us to understand why our villains are who they are.
Mahershala Ali is a fine fit in the role of Cottonmouth, swinging easily between self-deluded charm and easy brutality. One minute he plays a pretty song on the keyboard, the next he pummels a man to death. His megawatt smile transitions easily to flinging his second-in-command off a rooftop for violating his rules. Alfre Woodard plays perfectly against type as the alluring and tempestuous Mariah, rising politician and Cottonmouth’s cousin and partner. Though she matches Cottonmouth in ambition, they disagree on the proper avenue for reaching the top, a nice source of tension that has the two butting heads but usually reverting to the “family first” mantra that seals their partnership.
Most will tune in, like I did, expecting to see Luke battle Cottonmouth and Mariah, and he does. But Luke Cage burns through a potentially season long struggle between Cottonmouth and Luke in half that time, and a midseason shakeup leaves Cottonmouth bludgeoned by his beloved cousin. Mariah slips into his position, prodded along by the slimy but smart Shades (Theo Rossi) and under the thumb of the season’s real Big Bad, Diamondback, who arrives wielding bullets that can penetrate Luke’s skin.
Cottonmouth’s death propels the season into a new chapter, but after spending so much time getting to know him, we don’t have the benefit of understanding Diamondback before he clashes with Luke. His first appearance is jarring to say the least, and made me wonder if I’d missed something in previous episodes. When we finally get an answer to his identity and hatred of Luke, it’s far from satisfying. His character relies on the wearisome resentful/ jealous brother trope that doesn’t do him many favors.
So Luke Cage relies on his function as a wild card. Diamondback despises Luke and is unhinged enough that he openly walks the streets with a sniper rifle, casually kills cops, and takes multiple people hostage with zero planning. But when these moves lack the methodical calculations of Mariah, Shades, or even Cottonmouth, they feel a lot like plot contrivances.
But Erik LaRay Harvey commits fully, spouting Bible verses and seething his way through scenes (a hissed “Bye, Felicia” is a particular favorite), it can’t quite smooth over the missed opportunity for the careful characterization the show did with Cottonmouth and Mariah, and their respective intentions to secure their legacies.
“I don’t believe in Harlem. I believe in the people who make Harlem what it is.”
Luke Cage is, of course, about Luke Cage. But it doesn’t mind splitting its time among other characters. It’s expected that the show will attempt to humanize it’s villains, but Marvel shows have fallen short with supporting characters, usually the hero’s friends and love interests. That’s not the case here where the show’s created a living, breathing community in Harlem that underlines the street-level nature of Luke’s heroism.
Compared to Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the cast is almost bloated, but even minor characters like Genghis Connie, Bobby Fish, and Turk (with more screen time than he’s gotten in previous appearances) get characterization Luke Cage could have easily ignored. The same care shown to Luke is given to everyone else including allies Misty Knight and Claire Temple.
Misty, imbued with confidence and charm by clear standout Simone Missick, is easy to fall in love with. Considering Misty’s own superhero credentials, Luke Cage is as much an introduction to her as it is to Luke. We watch her grapple with her partner’s corruption, a frightening near miss with Diamondback, and a nearly career-ruining altercation with Claire. She’s an excellent foil long before she’s onboard with Luke and shares much of the show’s time. The finale, slowed by putting Luke and Diamondback’s final battle at the beginning, is spent closing out Misty’s seasonal arc, as she finally loses faith in the justice system she’s working for. There’s little reference to Misty’s eventual superheroism, though the near loss of her arm nods to the bionic one she has in the comics, and a final shot shows a Misty closely resembling the one comic fans know best. Eventually Missick will likely reprise her role on Iron Fist, but Luke Cage makes a good case for giving her a show of her own.
Despite Misty and Luke’s initial romp and apparent chemistry, romance blooms between Luke and Claire (Rosario Dawson). She’s as reliably enjoyable as she was in Daredevil and Jessica Jones but with the added benefit of a more central role (and a goal of her own). Claire’s earnest and tenacious goodness (our first Claire sighting has her chasing down a mugger to retrieve her purse) is a nice companion to Luke, struck by cynicism and self-doubt more than once. Their romance is relatively chaste (not a lot of time for “coffee”) but the pairing still sails on the wind of Colter and Dawson’s chemistry, bolstered by so-corny-its-cute flirting and handholding.
With Misty and Claire, Luke Cage provides grounding characters who fit seamlessly into the show’s landscape. And it only benefits from bringing them into the fold, rather than keeping them on the sidelines as some superhero properties habitually do. Like Colter’s restrained performance and the bombast of Harlem’s villains, the mostly strong characterization manages to obscure the show’s pacing and plot issues.
Nothing is perfect, but Luke Cage comes very close.