I have been a Marvel fan since I was born, but Luke Cage always felt very blaxploitation to me, so I never ended up picking up an issue. Now that I am halfway through the first season of the brand new Netflix show, I can honestly say, I regret that now. If the comic character is anything like he is represented on his new Netflix show, this is an intelligent, driven, passionate man who will not sit back and let his neighborhood turn to a back alley from the scumbags to hang out in and ruin. But there is much more to Luke Cage than meets the eye. On the surface, you get Luke Cage 101. Ripped African American man who was experimented on and given invulnerability. He IS unbreakable. But keep in mind, he does not walk or talk or think or carry himself like that when he doesn’t HAVE to. He just wants to exist in Harlem and keep his home up to the standards it deserves to be held to. If you sit down to watch Luke Cage thinking you are getting anything like the Avengers or Wolverine or even Daredevil, take a breath. Cage is not that. He is a man struggling with his own power and the growing presence of nefarious power around him. He doesn’t WANT to be a superhero or use his abilities to help at first. He just wants to stay low key and do what he needs to do. But then someone makes it personal and Cage realizes, he may be his people’s only hope. Just know, this show is more Scarface than Superman. More Goodfellas than Guardians of the Galaxy. Once you understand that, the show pulls you in and never lets go. Luke Cage and Atlanta forever changed the landscape of African American TV this year, and that is a pretty profound step forward we should all be proud of. But enough of that, let’s get to the heart of why we are here. Luke Cage, the TV show. Which is astounding by the way.
Most of you may recall Luke Cage from other Netflix superhero show, Jessica Jones where he was introduced. There will be ONE MORE new Netflix show to drop at some point soon called Iron Fist, and once Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist all are out, they will come together in a new show called The Defenders, but I am getting ahead of myself. Yes, all these shows are setting up a massive team-up of all these characters, but for now, we are still a ways off.
But if Daredevil, Jessica Jones and now Luke Cage’s shows are any indication, The Defenders could end up being some other level, worthy of the movies type of shit. For now, we just gotta wait it out and see.
But back to the man of the hour, Luke Cage.
Now one must understand, outside of the comic book caricature called Blade (and the joke movie called Steel), there have been no African American superheroes properly represented on-screen yet. Yet in 2016 we get Black Panther and Luke Cage from Marvel, both perfectly done right from the gate. So what makes Luke Cage so damn good? Well, we start with casting. Mike Colter does something insane with Luke Cage. He makes a giant man who is extremely powerful, and they make him feel small and personal and relatable. You would think a man who can wield a car door like a weapon is nothing to f*ck with, yet in every scene he has an approachability and vulnerability to him that makes the character FAR MORE RELATABLE than you would assume (if you are a white guy in his 30’s like me). Don’t expect the Hulk when you sit down to watch this. That is not him. And from Frankie Faison perfectly embodying the older intelligence and pathos of the Pops vibe to actor Mahershala Ali bringing something sneering and sinister to the big baddie on the show, Cottonmouth (but DON’T call him that to his face), the cast all come to table with something particular that works particularly well for who they are. Rosario Dawson fills out the cast with her nurse character Claire from the other two Netflix shows. By the way, can someone at Netflix greenlight a Nurse Claire show? Think about it, every episode could have her saving a different hero from the Marvel U. She is CLEARLY the unsung hero of that universe as she is the one keeping them all alive. Just saying.
One last actress shoutout to Alfree Woodard. An actress of extreme reputation, history, and talent. She lends an heir of superiority to the show which fits nicely with themes of power the show sets to establish.
Also, keep an eye out for the scene in episode 4 (his origin, so to speak) that shouts out the original costume. Awesome little details help put the show right up there with its kin, Jessica Jones (who also did an old costume shoutout in one of her episodes). Marvel and Netflix has been a superb combo so far, and this (and hopefully not too far off, The Punisher) cement that fact.
The Dapper Dan scene was unreal, too. The man who defined fresh urban outfits dresses Luke Cage in a tailored suit so the man can kick ass in style.
Again, another subtle nod that makes Cage’s Harlem feel very much like the real thing and a place well worth defending for those that knows its truest roots.
The Story Itself
As a writer, this is the part where I tend to giver the least to the reader. I can tell you that Luke Cage works with Pop's’ at his barber shop, cleaning up and making sure all is going smoothly, while working a few other jobs, too. Keeps himself busy so as to not think about his power and not think about the loss of his wife (of which story was told in Jessica Jones show). He lives in and loves Harlem, but sees the kind of evil people he despises gaining power there and he starts to see how far those tendrils of power reach. Soon enough, Cage is up to his eyes in chaos. Having bedded a woman in the first episode he had no idea would reappear in his life (and to what extent and in what role). There is also a mad futhermucker named Cottonmouth who is trying to sink his fangs into all of Harlem, and this is where Pops steps up and tells Cage that he has a gift he shouldn’t ignore. It is kind of the “great power comes great responsibility” speech we have heard in this universe before, but given here in a much more genuine and organic feeling way.
Suffice it to say, tragedy befalls Cage and he is left in the middle of a literal and figurative mess that he realizes only he can clean up. This is where the character evolves most noticeably across the first six episode arc.
At first, Cage kind of hates the powers. He fights to NOT use them. To preoccupy himself elsewhere. But it is only in seeing and experiencing the chaos himself that he realizes he may be the only way to countermeasure it.
As cliche’ as it may sound, he realizes he is Harlem’s only hope, and gets more and more comfortable with his powers once he starts using them for good and seeing how much he can help.
Race Issues and Overall Mood
The best way I can sum this up is when Luke Cage is not kicking ass or waxing poetic about the best African American authors and poets, this show feels like a Jazz club. Cool as hell and steeped in atmosphere (and we do spend a good time of the show in one).
Race is a huge issue in Luke Cage, as it should be. This is a superhero in Harlem, where they not only see the very worst of life but the worst of each other. There is one particular scene that opens and closes episode 2 where a young man uses the N word while aiming a gun at Cage, and without getting too lofty and preachy here, the speech Cage gives with the gun to his head is one of the best racially motivated speeches I have ever seen, and Do the Right Thing is one of my favorite movies, so that is REALLY saying something.
But that is what sets Luke Cage apart from not only any superhero on TV, but every superhero out there right now, even on the big screen. He doesn’t feel super. He feels like a well-read, culturally aware man who wants nothing more than his old neighborhood to stay safe for future generations. That is a super man, but one who does not need a cape or outfit to signify that. His actions do.
Keep in mind, I am not telling you the meaty stuff on purpose but there is much going on here. From the dynamic between character (and detective) Misty Knight (total porn star name, BTW), and Cage, as well as her white bread partner who has a few tricks up his sleeve, do not think this show will not throw some curveballs at you just because it does, and they are whammies.
There are quite a few that will drop your jaw. I will only say this. Not everyone is as they seem (but that applies to everyday regular life, too at this point).
I will say at first I thought the “white guy” detective was a little too “cheesy” for me, but then they dropped something that changed that all up, so if there are things you see as a weakness to this show, give it time. Everything is there for a reason.
Remember, what you are watching is more Goodfellas and Godfather than it is Avengers or Superman, so there will be twists and there will be blood, make no mistakes. Oh, and this is Netflix so there is some sex as well. Basically, this is the R-rated superhero we always deserved (outside of the awesome Deadpool, of course).
One Final Shout Out and Reminder
Lastly and something I only teased at up until now but deserves a massive shoutout: the score. The score of Luke Cage is something next to Godly (with live performances by awesome REAL bands and singers who influenced the genre) and a Wu-Tang scene you will never forget (as it will get you as hype as Luke Cage himself during it). All that is because the genius 90’s trip hop, jazz influenced band a Tribe Called Quest score the show, and the end result is some of the best music on a TV show ever, period. Shoutout to Q-Tip and his crew. Well done.
Next up a reminder that this is not Batman or Spider Man, the show. This is more akin to some Scarface shit, so know that going in and your expectations will be met and exceeded.
And man, that Biggie painting with the crown? That just turned into an even MORE iconic picture than it already was.
So should you be watching Luke Cage? At this point, that is a dumb ass question. Second review (with spoilers) to come for final 6 episodes soon. Just don’t wanna drop it before ya’ll can catch up.
So catch up! This is some good shit.