We’ve seen a blind lawyer take down a crime lord in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. We’ve seen a woman push past her trauma and the depths it took her to in order to strike back at the man who tried to break her. Now, Marvel and Netflix’s Luke Cage sees a man rise up to become a folk hero that an entire community rallies behind. After livetweeting the entirety of Luke Cage‘s first season over on Twitter, I want to take a closer look at the latest entry in the Marvel/Netflix canon.
First, a disclaimer: I’m white. I’m not even American, I live in Scotland. I am acutely aware that there is a great deal about this series that is inherently not for me. This is a series about a bulletproof black man living in Harlem, it was always going to be inherently political. This is a series that entrenches itself in a community that I have never experienced and talks directly to them. It is a privilege for me to, as showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker puts it, “eavesdrop” on the conversation presented in the show. For perspectives on Luke Cage from black writers, I point you to J. A. Micheline, Shawn Taylor, Evan Narcisse, and Black Girl Nerds to name just a few.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m not in a position to discuss the politics of Luke Cage. My voice is not one to contribute to that conversation, it’s one I need to listen to. However, because Luke Cage is also an adaptation of the character from Marvel Comics and because Multiversity Comics is a website about comics, I want to talk about Luke Cage as a superhero show, an adaptation and how it fits into the canon of Marvel and Netflix’s collaborations thus far.
Luke Cage, more than any of the other Marvel/Netflix shows, runs the gamut of a wild variety of genres. At its core, Cheo Hodari Coker described the show as a “hip hop western” which is a very interesting and apt description for how the structure of the series plays out. If Daredevil was a mash-up of a law drama and a superhero story and if Jessica Jones was noir thriller, then Luke Cage is a western in which every facet of the story is infused with the culture and history of Harlem.
This would place Luke Cage as the stranger, who wanders into a town beset by the menace of man whose grasp the community. The show presents Cage as a reluctant hero, taking its time throughout the series to put him in a series of positions where his innate need to do good outweighs his wish to live a simple, unencumbered life. Luke Cage is not a character who rushes in to do battle with the bad guy, he is a character pressured into taking action and being the one to stand up to a bully because he can. It’s a fascinating character to wrap a story around and it’s that fact that removes Luke Cage from really feeling like Marvel’s other offerings. Luke Cage is more of a folk hero than a superhero. The familiar trappings of secret identities and costumes are stripped away in favour of a discussion about whether a bulletproof black man in a hoodie is someone to rally behind of vilify.
What makes Luke Cage stand out is not simply the fact that it takes place in Harlem and is about a black superhero, but also how it treats the narrative of being about a superhero. The first half of the series is a real slow burn, focusing on quiet, personal character moments that create genuine development. Even over the course of only thirteen episodes, it feels like a lot happens and a lot of changes happen because the focus is on how the characters themselves change because of their actions.
That slow burn, meditative pace of the season’s first half allows for a deep exploration of its characters and they all feel like they could have their own show. Misty Knight, played by Simone Missick and honestly my favourite part of the show, is a detective looking to bring justice to the neighbourhood she grew up in. Rosario Dawson returns as Claire Temple in the most developmental role for the character yet. Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard is an righteous politician looking to spread her influence and pull Harlem into the light while Mahershala Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is a influential gangster who thrives in the darkness of Harlem’s overlooked corners.Continued below
And that’s just to name a few of the series’ primetime players, all who provide some of the best performances I’ve ever seen in anything. Seriously, this show’s cast is fully of so many heavy hitters you would think there was an on-set game of oneupmanship happening. Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth, in particular, radiates a sense of brooding, menacing calm that resoundly steals every scene he is in. His character is somewhat a departure from the comics only in the sense of bringing a sense of genuine humanity to the character. The show’s soundtrack, which is notably fantastic, is used in many ways to convey Cottonmouth’s character as much as Cage’s. As the proprietor of the nightclub, Harlem’s Paradise, the use of real world musical acts like Raphael Saadiq, Jidenna and The Delfonics provide the soundtrack to many of Cottonmouth’s scenes and bring a soulful edge to the rage that broods underneath the surface of the character.
Cottonmouth is brutal, he is charming, he is a resoundly fascinating in a way that benefits from the series ability to delve into his backstory and he is the centre of the show’s biggest gambit. I don’t want to delve into specific spoilers too much because the show’s only been out for the one weekend (even though it seems like enough people watched it to break Netflix), but Cottonmouth is the centre of a bait and switch that showcases a massive development for Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard, who is very loosely based on the character Black Mariah, and for the rest of the season Woodard puts in a powerhouse performance that makes Vincent D’Onofrio look like he’s acting in a school play.
At the centre of Luke Cage is a series of incredible performances from a cast that has I want to say around five white actors in the entire series. The only downside comes from the structure of the show. I’ve praised the meditative pace of the first half of the series which focuses more on quiet, personal character moments over larger action scenes. It begins as a show that feels very un-superheroic which makes sense given Luke Cage’s initial distaste for the idea of being a superhero in the first place. As the series progresses, however, the incredibly realistic tone the series takes in presenting the crime drama that unfolds in the first six episodes turns into a bombastic superhero action show with the introduction of Erik LaRay Harvey’s Diamondback.
I don’t want to give away much about Diamondback, but his inclusion in the show completely twists the narrative that is built up to that point which is a very courageous move and one that only partially pays off. While Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard play their antagonistic characters with a quiet, brooding menace and a self-righteous pride, respectively, Erik LaRay Harvey’s Diamondback is eccentric and manic in the ways one would expect from a comic book supervillain. His very existence feels at odds with what the show started out as and draws the series further towards a schlockier fare by the last couple of episodes including a rather silly looking albeit comic accurate costume.
Luke Cage is at its best when it’s a quiet, meditative show on the culture of Harlem and the world that these people inhabit. It’s a show that wears its politics on its sleeves and feels more comfortable speaking to the politics of the real world than the comics that inspired it. That’s likely because in speaking to the real world politics it can shoulder a legitimacy that will put it shoulder to shoulder with Daredevil‘s violent grit and Jessica Jones‘ intimate exploration of trauma whereas the comics Luke Cage was based on was a group of white men’s attempt to capture the feel of blaxsploitation. It’s a season which I can imagine a great many people harbouring many mixed feelings about it and I would count myself among them.
I don’t know how being a part of The Defenders is going to affect Luke Cage as a character, but I can only hope that if he gets a second season (which would be ridiculous for him not) that Cheo Hodari Coker and the crew working on the season bring the show back to the somber, urban western that it started off as.