Luke Cage, also known as Power Man, was a product of his time. The character was originally created as a response to the popularity of Blaxpolitation films in the 1970s. Since then he’s floated around, carrying his own comic book at times and taking part in team-up books at others. He joined the Marvel Netflix Universe as part of the cast of Jessica Jones, giving us a look at what he can do and how he responds to the absurd situations superheroes end up in.
With his own show, though, Cage is one again a product of the time in which he exists. The show finds its own way to look at modern racial issues, but they’re definitely there and they’re a core part of the show.
Luke Cage isn’t the best of Marvel’s Netflix shows, but it brings some of the best characters and some of the Marvel Netflix Universe’s best moments.
What makes Luke Cage tick is, more than anything, the characters that power the world around them. The main cast of this show act as a seemingly infinite source of fuel that powers it along even when its writing doesn’t quite live up to its characters or their actors. The four main characters – Luke, Misty, Cottonmouth, and Mariah – are some of the best that Marvel’s Netflix shows have seen.
Each of the characters is trapped in some way. By their history, by their sense of justice, or by the system they’re forced to work within.
At the center of it is Mike Colter as Luke Cage himself. There’s no doubt that he made a strong (and probably fist-shaped) impression in Jessica Jones‘ inaugural season, but out of Hell’s Kitchen and into Harlem he comes into his own.
Colter brings a quiet rage to the character. He has a strong moral compass that directs him even as forces around him push him back and forth. His frustration with the busted system around him is palpable, and it helped carry me along with him on his journey. He’s a fugitive who can’t bear to see those around him suffer. He wants to stand tall as a symbol of strength, and refuses to hide behind a mask to do it.
All of these push and pull at each other, and Colter’s portrayal of Cage shows this. Cage’s durability comes as much from inside as it does from his unbreakable skin. Sure, he couldn’t do what he does without his super powers, but those conflicting forces shape him and give him the fortitude to wield those powers.
On the same side of justice is Misty Knight, a Harlem-based detective. Played by Simone Missick, Knight is an officer trapped in a system that is distracted by politics and rife with corruption. Too much time is given to the procedural aspect of her policework and not enough about the system she is trapped within, but the message still comes through. Even as she tries to pursue real, genuine leads, she’s directed toward red herrings that are easier and more satisfying not for her or for her community but for the police department and those in power.
As good as those two are, though, the two best parts of Luke Cage are Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard, two characters trapped in their history and their understanding of power.
Mahershala Ali will already be known to fans of one of Netflix’s other big shows, House of Cards, where he plays Remy Danton. Here he plays Cottonmouth, a gangster whose first concern is preserving and enhancing the culture of the Harlem neighborhood. We learn early on that violence isn’t Cottonmouth’s favorite way of doing things, but it seems like it might be the only thing he’s ever known.
He’s surrounded by music at all times, whether it’s the huge framed image of deceased New York rapper Notorious B.I.G. on his wall, the piano in his office that he plays during quiet moments, or the joy with which he watches the acts that play at his club – real life acts like Faith Evans and Raphael Saadiq. His investment in Harlem’s culture isn’t a front – it’s a very real one that informs the character in both the past and present.
His cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), is a local councilwoman who similarly chases the black heritage of Harlem, attempting to stop the gentrification of the neighborhood that’s happening to the rest of New York. Like her cousin Cottonmouth, though, her history has taught her that accomplishing things is done through manipulation and shady deals.
These two form the center for much of the show. They’re believable and even likable from their very first scenes. Their goals are believable, and their opposition to Cage and and other forces makes sense in ways that other villains’ motivations so rarely do. Neither has superpowers, nor do they have obscene amounts of wealth (not that they’re wanting, though). They’re just incredibly driven people who want to do the right thing through a skewed perspective.
These two get the show’s best writing and many of its best moments. They even get some of the best sets, with Cottonmouth’s club serving as one of the show’s primary backdrops.
Even the secondary characters and crossovers from other shows are enjoyable and significant. Frankie Faison (The Wire) plays Pop, a moral guide for Cage, and one of the forces that drives him through the show. Ron Cephas Jones (Mr. Robot) is Bobby Fish, a man who doesn’t stand quite as tall as Pop, but pushes Cage in the right direction all the same while providing a few light moments.
Crossover characters are a highlight, too. Turk Barrett, the poor chump at the wrong end of Daredevil’s fists and sticks, is more three-dimensional than ever and at moments even seems competent, if a bit greedy.
And then there’s Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple. Like Luke himself, she started life as a guest star, bringing Daredevil back from the brink of death time and time again as his selfish actions picked apart her life. She appeared again in Jessica Jones, finding a way to save the unbreakable Luke Cage.
And again, like Luke, this season is where she finds her footing. Instead of letting New York’s vigilantes interrupt her life, she’s now committed to helping them and those around them in ways no one else can. She’s an aggressive character changed by her interactions with these heroes but not scarred by them. Instead, she’s found her calling and her strength.
Dawson was a highlight of Daredevil, and her increased role in Luke Cage is making her an absolutely crucial part of Marvel’s Netflix Universe.
The only character that really feels like a miss is Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker, played by Erik LaRey Harvey. He looks the part in every way he possibly can, and the glee with which he executes the role is obvious.
The character, however, fits more into the mold of the villains at the end of Daredevil season 2 and even some of those we’ve seen on Arrow. His motivations are simple, but they’re very shallow. Where Cottonmouth and Mariah are people I couldn’t help wanting to see more of and be around, Diamondback is a caricature who doesn’t see as if he’s evolved at all from the pages of the comic. Even his eventual costume feels a bit silly.
With that said, none of Cage’s major antagonists jumps to the Super Racist Villain card that would provide an easy way to give Cage a target upon which to take out righteous justice.
No Flow for the Show
Like the characters that exist within it, the show is more hit than miss, but it’s far from perfect. Luke Cage‘s story starts as a slow, almost sleepy smoulder, and it’s not until the third episode that it feels like the engine is purring, or about the sixth before it’s at full bore.
Some of the setup is necessary. We’re being reintroduced to Luke Cage himself, who was a support character in Jessica Jones. With him at center stage, we get a chance to learn about who he is, not just what he is capable of. We learn about the world he lives in so that we can understand why he does what he does.The same has to go for Cottonmouth and Mariah, too. If they don’t feel like real people, then Luke can’t, either.
It takes a while to struggle through.
When it does finally get rolling, Luke Cage is some of the best stuff Marvel has put out on Netflix.
Writer Cheo Coker spent a few slow episodes building up a real, vibrant community filled with people, good and bad, who wanted to support it. Then, he cranked up the volume and made a deeply political show – there’s no way a show about a black hero couldn’t be, no less one set in Harlem and involving power struggles of class, law enforcement, and family.
Luke Cage became a hero who stands out not because he wears a mask, but because he takes responsibility for his power and doesn’t hide despite the danger that goes with it. He becomes a leader and a symbol for his community, and a reflection of issues affecting the black community in America right now.
While the show doesn’t always handle them as gracefully as it could, it doesn’t take an overly simplistic way out of them, either. We see how power struggles between Cage and Cottonmouth affect the community even as both are doing what they think is right for it. We see how fearful kneejerk responses from law enforcement seem justified from the inside and dangerous from the outside. We see how important the idea of a bulletproof black man in America is to those in that community right now.
And then, it all kind of falls apart.
The introduction of Diamondback, for all his evil glee, brings the show to a halt. Daredevil‘s second season started out great with a graceful handling of the Punisher’s style of justice, his background, and the way his violence rippled out. Then, it took things from human interest to comic book silliness with mystical heartbeat suppressing ninja. What happens in Luke Cage is almost identical.
Where Cottonmouth and Mariah are absolutely believable people that play off Cage effortlessly, Diamondback is goofy. The dialogue and story between Harlem’s big players feels so natural that it’s almost like it wrote itself, which is a huge credit to Cheo Coker. Diamondback’s stuff, by comparison, is uninspired. It feels like Coker ran out of steam, or was told he had to get the story somewhere and pushed it there unwillingly. If Diamondback had a moustache to twirl and a woman to put on the train tracks, he would’ve.
Even with that, I still loved my time with Luke Cage. Mike Colter is great as Cage. Mariah and Cottonmouth stand up well against Daredevil season 1’s absolutely perfect Wilson Fisk and Jessica Jones‘ antagonist Kilgrave’s unhinged manipulation, proving that properly developed villains enhance the heroes they antagonize – something Marvel’s Cinematic Universe hasn’t quite figured out yet. The interconnecting characters that pull the universe together aren’t used as cheap easter eggs; they develop in interesting ways and give us new angles to look at them from.
Despite some stumbles, Luke Cage has me excited all over again for what Marvel’s Netflix shows have to offer. We get complex deep dives into these heroes and their villains, and the writers are given room to do exactly what comics have always been great at: exploring social issues like crime, abuse, power, and race through a lens that’s often a lot easier to approach. The same way that the X-Men were developed to shine light on civil rights, Luke Cage points that light at the issues affecting the black community right now.
On the lighter, comic book side of things, it has me excited to get back to some more acrobatic fighting when Iron Fist hits in early 2017. Luke Cage and Iron Fist have a long, long history in the comics, too, so I’m excited to see how they play off each other in the upcoming Defenders series that will bring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist together. It makes me excited for the prospect of a Luke Cage and Iron Fist team up series.
If you’re following Marvel’s Netflix shows, missing Luke Cage would be a huge mistake.