Article by: Anthony Florez
Going into Luke Cage I knew it would be missing the brutal, brilliantly choreographed fight scenes of Daredevil and the constant psychological dread of Jessica Jones. I was on the lookout for what was going to be its killer app, its special angle that Marvel’s television universe has been doing so well. There’s going to be an issue inherent to the invulnerable, super strong hero, an absence of stakes that makes those characters a little less interesting (cough Superman cough). Excuse me, I had something in my throat. Like how Superman is so incredibly boring in film form, so I was curious how they would handle the material. It does take the show a couple of episodes to find its footing and it took me as much time to figure out what that angle was but once it became clear I sat back for the ride and enjoyed every minute. Luke Cage is about the black experience in Harlem, it’s about the culture, the art, about family. It’s about the cycle of violence from generation to generation and the in-fighting that takes place in a minority community as well as the enormous effort involved in making a change, however futile the effort can feel in the day to day. It is the perfect show to debut in the current atmosphere of racial division and soapbox rhetoric, not just because it unflinchingly focuses on the black experience in an intelligent and relatable way but because, while doing so, it proudly celebrates and embraces what is so beautiful and unique and, here’s the right word: cool about the culture itself.
Like the color palette, the show is saturated front to back with the music, the language, the scene and it’s deeply entrenched in black 70s pop culture. I did not expect to see a conversation about Donald Goines and Walter Mosley as compared to Dennis Lehane in a mainstream show, let alone a Marvel TV series, even if it was a casual aside separate from the plot. And although that conversation is going to go over most peoples heads, if one or two folks look up Easy Rawlins and check out Devil in a Blue Dress, my hats off to Cheo Coker and company for letting their geek flag fly. The show is peppered with references and allusions to the Blaxploitation films and shows from the 70s, too many for me to catch being only casually familiar with the genre as well as the usual in-jokes about the source material. Again, Marvel has made an exciting, believable character by taking that material seriously without taking themselves too seriously and gave its showrunner enough free license for the show to have its own identity that effectively stands on its own as a work of art and, in the case of Luke Cage, representative of the culture that inspired it.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a success critically and financially for almost a decade at this point but there is one area that the extended television universe, particularly on Netflix, has been undeniably superior and that’s in humanizing the antagonist characters. Granted, television has two advantages: one, there’s a lot more time to develop characters in a 13 episode season, two, television showrunners are not nearly as beholden to studio executives to make back the $200 million budget in ~120 minutes of screen time. That being said there have been 13 films released in the MCU and the only villain that has not been killed at the end of their film has been Loki (and the German bad guy in Civil War, but he hardly qualified as a supervillain). Which is insane because I’d never heard of Loki before the Thor films and I’ve been reading Marvel comics since I was knee-high to a duck. There are plenty of compelling villains in the Marvel Universe and if they don’t start to shake off the cookie cutter, formulaic process from Phase One and Two, the comic book movie burnout is going to happen a lot sooner than anyone expects. That being said Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth is my favorite antagonist since Kingpin. He’s clearly seen Scarface and knows how to posture but the writers and Ali bring a quiet conflict, even a sensitivity to the character I was not expecting. The result is an interesting arc, which will probably be criticized as uneven, but I would argue is better for at least being unique. It doesn’t feel like an arc I have seen before and that’s a good thing.
If I could find faults with the show it would probably be with Cage himself. I like Mike Colter and he does a fine job with the subject matter but the whole ‘reluctant hero’ thing is done to death. In a Universe that is so self-aware of cliche, of superpowers and alien invasions, you’d think the guy would’t take so long to find his ‘with great power comes great responsibility‘ moment. A lot of that was explored in his time in Jessica Jones and by the time it comes around it’s more of a ‘no duh’ experience. In fact, he’d been skulking around so much I needed a beat to remember why I’m supposed to root for the guy in the first place. Also, Alfre Woodard is good. She’s always good. But I wish they could have stolen Viola Davis from the DC Cinematic Universe somehow. And, now that I’m thinking about it, that’s about it as far as casting. Every one else, from Misty to Shades on down are excellent and all feel like vibrant, three-dimensional characters.
I am not black. I am a slight shade of brown, which is completely common in Texas and the America southwest where I grew up so my experiences as a minority are very limited. So to make any informed commentary on some of the social issues touched on in Luke Cage would be completely disingenuous. I was going to add a comment on my discomfort with a certain familiar epithet that gets thrown around a lot in the show but I honestly don’t know what I’m talking about, so I’ve opted to shut up and let the people that do explore the subject. I’m also not going to pretend to be a big fan of hip hop or rap, but I appreciate the origins of the genre. More to the point, I appreciate the cultural identity that spawned it. Louis CK commented in his stand-up about how disinterested a black guy is going to be in time travel, “Any time before 1980, no thank you. I don’t want to go.” In my limited understanding of the subject, a man walking down the street is a man walking down the street, but a black man walking down the street is black first, everything else second. Being constantly and always identified by race must engender a constant feeling of exclusion, of separateness and the beautiful thing about black culture, in its music and art, is the way that different-ness is appropriated and championed. That culture is constantly being assimilated by the same society that did (does) the excluding in the first place, which is pure tragic irony. So, I’ll sum my feelings up on Luke Cage this way; again, Netflix and Marvel have succeeded in making me invested and interested in a character I was only peripherally aware of through excellent storytelling and a fidelity to the spirit of the original material. But they also made me think of Luke Cage himself as the perfect superhero for the African-American/black community, as he is the one characteristic that it exemplifies after decades of intolerance, racial prejudice, and social injustice: indestructible.