Months ago, around the time of the release of Captain America: Civil War, the Parade Magazine portion of the Sunday edition of the Washington Post had an interesting cover. It had three action figures representing the Falcon, the Black Panther, and Luke Cage in his Power Man costume. The cover story inside examined what they considered the rise of the Black super-hero. While there’s nothing new about seeing people of color as super heroes, the problem is that they don’t get as much shine as their White peers. Marvel Studios has been slowly but surely including Black characters with prominent roles into their releases. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury was among the first, followed by Don Cheadle as Jim Rhodes/War Machine; Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon; and Chadwick Boseman fairly recently as T’Challa/Black Panther. But that’s all on the big-screen where they all appear larger than life. But the unsung Black super-hero is the everyman, the one who’s not a hero, but just tries to be a good guy. Netflix gave us a taste of such a hero when he appeared in 2015 with Marvel’s Jessica Jones.
However, just last Friday, that very hero got his own full-length feature series. With America’s current escalating racial climate of young Black men being unjustly shot and killed by White police officers operating with impunity, this series was released at a perfect time. The first episode let me know that it’s geared towards a Black audience in a way that goes beyond the hip-hop culture that was used heavily as part of the series’ promotion. By the time I finished the season finale, I came to this conclusion: Of all their Netflix shows, Marvel’s Daredevil is dark while Marvel’s Jessica Jones is darker. But Marvel’s Luke Cage?
Marvel’s Luke Cage is appropriately the Blackest thing they’ve done to date.
PLOT: Taking place in Harlem, Luke Cage (played by Mike Colter) is a man in hiding. He hides his real name, his past, and his true potential by hiding out as a hair-sweeper in a friendly neighborhood barbershop run by Pop (Frankie Faison). Condescended to by customers because of his lowly position, Cage demonstrates an aversion to profanity and an affinity for sports and crime novels that, along with his intimidating massive frame, puts them in their place. He also works as a dishwasher at a night club called Harlem’s Paradise, run by shady businessman Cornell Stokes (played by House of Cards‘ Mahershala Ali). Stokes is aided by his equally shady political cousin, councilwoman Mariah Dillard (played by Alfie Woodard) and idolizes slain rapper Notorious B.I.G. as demonstrated by the large framed head-shot of him hanging in his office.
A fatal incident at the barbershop involving some of Stokes’ men convinces Cage to come out of his shell and hit hard back against the local crime lord. After learning where Stokes (also known as Cottonmouth) keeps his stashes throughout the city, Cage attacks all of his men and leaves behind the contraband and large sums of money for the police to confiscate. In response, Stokes begins a campaign to hurt public citizens to draw Cage out. Along the way, we learn of Cage’s backstory: Originally named Carl Lucas, he’s sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and became the unwitting test subject of an experimental treatment that left him with superhuman strength and seemingly impenetrable skin. Escaping from prison with his new power-set, he changed his name to Luke Cage and hid in New York City.
The police are in pursuit of Cage after he’s framed by Cottonmouth and one officer doggedly pursues him, convinced of his innocence. Detective Mercedes Knight (b.k.a. Misty Knight, played by Simone Missick) knows something isn’t right about what’s happening to Cage and is frustrated by cops on the take and the bureaucratic red tape that keeps her from doing her job right. The plot takes some more turns with twists that lead to cascading betrayals, desperate alliances, past connections, and secrets long buried being revealed. Without giving away any spoilers, some of the villains are not who they appear to be and play an integral role in moving the plot forward.
Rounding out the rest of the cast, Erik LaRay Harvey plays the psychotic Bible-quoting Willis Stryker (aka Diamondback), who goes unseen for most of the season before making his presence known in a big way as being more than just Cottonmouth’s supplier. Also appearing are Sons of Anarchy’s Theo Rossi as Cottonmouth enforcer Shades; Ron Cephas Jones as barbershop patron/numbers guy Bobby Fish; Frank Whaley as crooked detective Rafael Scarfe; and Rosario Dawson also stars, reprising her role as Claire Temple, the Night Nurse.
MY TAKE: Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has succeeded in making me forget War Machine, the Falcon, and even the Black Panther. This series is Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first real attempt at targeting Black audiences and it succeeds. With several direct references to Black-American culture and interests, it captured this viewer instantly. In the press releases and promotional tools for the series, one prominent aspect of the series was its use of hip-hop. But seeing it thirteen episodes straight got me excited. For one thing, every episode title was named after a song from the classic hip-hop duo Gang Starr (“Manifest”; “Code of the Streets”; “Just to Get a Rep”, etc.). In the episode entitled “DWYCK”, the writers managed to incorporate a lyric from that song into the dialogue, “Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is“. That same line was also used in another hip-hop influenced show 10 years ago, Adult Swim’s The Boondocks.
Since the series takes place in Harlem, some of that region’s hip-hop luminaries got shouted-out such as Big L and A$AP Rocky. Direct nods to NYC rappers Mobb Deep and Raekwon were also mentioned. The score also had “hip-hop” written all over it, courtesy of Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad giving it a vintage jazzy feel mixed with hip-hop. One of the later episodes, the penultimate one in fact, gave every viewer who’s a true hip-hop head a moment to remember. Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man makes two appearances as himself. In the first scene, he’s a customer saved by Luke Cage during a botched convenient store robbery. They both recognize each other, their respective work, and show love to one another. The other scene has Meth on Sway Calloway’s radio show rapping a freestyle about Luke Cage and the good he’s doing despite media and police opposition. Without being contrite, both scenes had a meta-textual feel to them.
Diamondback is later revealed to be the true villain of the season and, like Cottonmouth, sometimes peppers his speech with hip-hop slang. When hatching criminal plans, he explains them in exposition to his underlings using terms like “off-the-dome” and “pre-written freestyle”. He even manages to say “Bye Felicia!” when taunting Cage. A villain with overwhelming daddy issues, he dedicates himself to destroying Luke Cage and has the technology to do so. Harvey’s portrayal was perhaps the most menacing part of this season as he definitely has the “scary Black guy” trope down-pat, much as he did during season four of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Mahershala Ali’s portrayal of Cottonmouth was indeed layered and reminded me of Johnny Depp in Black Mass. Like Depp’s character, Cornell Stokes hates the nom-de-crime he’s had since childhood and would kill anyone for calling that. His backstory shows that the idea of “Family First” was embedded into him early on, with him and Mariah being born and raised into a criminal family with their grandmother as its matriarch. The crowned Biggie picture in his office not only represents his love for the slain rapper, but his mutual desire to be the king of New York. Woodard’s Mariah Dillard is more of a snake than Cottonmouth which explains her holding political office. Mariah wants to escape her background but ultimately embraces it after a heated argument with her cousin.
The polarity of the police partnership between Misty Knight and Rafael Scarfe was also of note. Scarfe is a White man and Knight’s a Black woman. Scarfe proves to be a crooked detective while Missick’s Knight is a righteous woman who, like Cage, just wants to do the right thing. Apart from Cage and Claire Temple, Misty Knight is one the few actively good characters on the show. She gets shot in the arm during a club shootout and, despite getting it treated, has difficulty using it afterwards. This easter egg is in reference to the bionic arm she had during her first comic appearance back in the mid-1970s. I don’t doubt for a second that we’ll see the bionic private detective in later episodes. On a related note, in the season finale, Claire Temple later decides to take a self-defense class after seeing a telephone pole advertisement for it. Guess who’s the instructor? Colleen Wing, Misty Knight’s best friend in the books. Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple is the one constant in all the Marvel shows on Netflix now. She’s also a love interest for Cage here, an obvious source of tension between her and Misty. I also found it cool that she gave nods to Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock, respectively, with the latter being mentioned as a “great lawyer in Hell’s Kitchen” that she refers Cage to.
Also, Coker compared this series to HBO’s The Wire in early interviews. Despite the urban landscape, crime depictions, and frequent profanity and use of the quote-unquote “N-word”, this series just doesn’t compare to the stark reality of the HBO series. The only connection it has with that series is the cast. Several actors from The Wire appeared in this season: Frankie Faison (Commissioner Ervin Burell) as Pop; S. Robert Morgan (Butchie, Omar’s advisor/bank) as a blind street panhandler; Sonja Sohn (Detective Kima Greggs) as a…wait for it…police detective; Michael Kostroff (criminal attorney Maurice Levy) as Dr. Noah Burnstein, the doctor who administered the experiment that turned Cage into a superhuman; and the aforementioned Method Man. In the first episode, George Pelecanos (crime story scribe and writer on The Wire) was mentioned along with Donald Goines.
And at lastly, Mike Colter’s portrayal of the title character. I like how he portrays Cage as an everyday Black man who just always happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Apart from being a giant with incredible strength and durability, he’s got two idiosyncrasies that stand out. He foregoes using profanity when possible, taking the swear jar in Pop’s barbershop very seriously. He even uses his trademark exclamation of SWEET CHRISTMAS! at least twice. He also frequently wears bullet-ridden clothing, hoodies in particular. Speaking of clothing, when he escapes from prison and ditches most of his prison garb (he still kept the metal wrist-bands and the tiara from when he was experimented on), he dons a long-sleeve yellow shirt and some blue-colored pants he found hanging out to dry in a suburban backyard. This is a nod to Cage during his Heroes For Hire Blaxploitation look as Power Man, a look that Colter’s Cage deemed as ridiculous and quickly discarded it. There’s more meta-textual references that serve as social commentary too. When Method Man is at the radio station, he mentions that “there’s something powerful about seeing a Black man who’s bulletproof and unafraid.” That’s not just about Luke Cage, but a commentary on the police shooting deaths of Terence Crutcher, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. For the latter, Colter confirmed that his character sporting a bulletproof hoodie is a way of paying homage to Martin.
The one thing I didn’t like was the fight scenes (except for the one against Diamondback, which looked a lot like the street fight in 1990’s Rocky V). Anytime Cage is in a physical fight, its completely predictable. Cage has too much of an advantage over any non-superhuman he fights. Cage has super-strength, so I know what to expect every time he fights someone who’s clearly outmatched. The other thing I didn’t like was the redundancy of firing a gun at him. After word of his reputation spread throughout Harlem, every criminal and cop knew that bullets are ineffective on Cage. After that, I kept yelling at the TV, “WHY are you idiots still shooting?!“. With the exception of Diamondback’s weapon, using bullets on Luke Cage is an exercise in futility.
Mike Colter’s Luke Cage is a “super” but without the “hero” part. Well, he is a hero, but not in the sense of costumed heroes like all of the Avengers. Unlike War Machine, the Falcon, and the Black Panther, Colter’s Cage is more grounded and literally down-to-Earth compared to the other three. As a Black man, I enjoyed this series and am ecstatic to have a character aimed towards my demographic taking center stage. When season two is released, I’m sure they’ll take it further. Though Marvel’s Daredevil is still my favorite of the Netflix series, at least me and mine now have a character to call our own.