Marvel’s “Luke Cage” is a proud, didactic showing of black male identity.
It looks like Marvel struck gold with the induction of this television sensation, but not for the reasons many initially thought. Cheo Hodari Coker’s “Luke Cage” launched on Netflix’s web platform on Sept. 30. The heavy traffic of users watching the show over its premiere weekend actually crashed the website’s streaming servers. If that doesn’t demonstrate the grip the show has on its viewers, I don’t know what else would.
Luke Cage is a fictional superhero created by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska and published by Marvel Comics in the 1970s. The character was created during the height of Blaxploitation, a term coined at the time to refer to films featuring black actors and anti-establishment subject matter aimed at black audiences. The genre, Blaxploitation, has a sordid history for its stereotypical characterization and glorification of violence. Many in the black community viewed these films as a means to perpetuate a false narrative, while others appreciated the merits of the genre; it provided the black audience with opportunities to grace the screen, and these cinematic heroes provided a portrayal of urban life typically unseen in most Hollywood pictures at that time.
Given this history, Coker manages to emphasize the positive elements of the genre and modernizes its exploitation in a way that it appeals to varied audiences while paying homage to the original conception of the character. The show uses music to celebrate blackness, frequently showcasing black musicians each episode, and utilizes metaphors of historical figures essential to African-American history. The music in the show serves as another pillar on which the show holds itself. It takes the brassiness of the ’70s Blaxploitation attitude and pairs it with modern rap, creating a collision of time and identities of blackness. Harlem Paradise is the center of music’s permeation; it features live music from Faith Evans, Raphael Saadiq, Charles Bradley, and Jidenna.
The show combines its comic book elements with the Harlem Renaissance. Coker and Mike Colter (the actor who portrays Luke Cage) worked in tandem to transition the supporting character of Luke Cage from a flatter “Jessica Jones”-type character to a fully developed main character capable of spearheading his own show.
Coker drives the characterization of Cage away from a “hero for hire” and gives him a tremendous amount of emotional depth, which is a breath of fresh air.
“As a black man in today’s culture, what he represents and what he’s dealing with in his own life—being a fugitive on the run but being innocent, but at the same time not feeling sorry for himself—he’s always thinking about the community, and thinking about things in a larger sense in his life,” Colter remarked in a Variety interview. “He’s very thoughtful about his actions. He has no agenda with his powers. He’s seen what helping out leads to; he doesn’t see the point. It never ends well. He doesn’t have a costume, he doesn’t have a mask, everybody knows who he is. So I think he brings a certain gravitas that says, ‘I don’t want to rush to judgment about anyone. I don’t want to do anything until we just talk about this, because everything has a consequence.’”
Given the current racial climate, Colter’s understanding of his character and his potential impact is essential to the show’s prominence.
Like “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” the show takes an R-rated approach to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and provides a gritty, realistic expression of a setting around fantastic superheroes while not compromising the street appeal of these heroes. Luke Cage makes his stand in Harlem after fleeing Jones’ stronghold of New York City. The show doesn’t treat Harlem as just its setting, but incorporates the musicality and swagger of the neighborhood to the narrative and tone.
With respect to narrative and tone, the show seems to have two distinct sections: Part One could be categorized as the first seven episodes, while the later six sum up Part Two. Part One establishes Cage as the reluctant hero, as an avenging vigilante; he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, but he reluctantly takes up the call to action. Cornwall “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) serves as the “Big Bad” for the first half of the series. Rather than focusing on the supernatural abilities and one-dimensional characterization from the comics, Coker has the character assume the attitude of Biggie Smalls harboring a Godfather-like stance. Alongside Cottonmouth in his greed-driven rise to the top is his cousin, “Black” Maria Dillard. She is a politician whose platform boasts of bringing Harlem back to its prior greatness of culture and community. Part One explores Cage’s battle with Cottonmouth for eminence in the neighborhood and his responsibilities as the reluctant hero. The show establishes a sharp contrast between the capitalist establishment of Dillard and Cottonmouth’s Harlem, and Cage’s proletarian Harlem.
Part Two features William Stokes “Diamondback” as the proverbial “Big Bad” and a distinct shift in tone. Ideally, the season could have ended with the seventh episode and the second season could have explored Part Two extensively. Part One is much lighter in movement and Colter’s charismatic portrayal of Cage serves the narrative. The later episodes surround a narrative concerning a storyline that frankly seems out of the blue. The drastic shift needs time to be accepted by the viewer; the rush and chaos of the second part rivals the smooth ease of the first.
A huge flaw of the show is its lack of subtlety. Not unlike its sister shows on the platform, “Luke Cage” has over-exaggerated thematic tropes and on-the-nose visual-to-metaphor pairings. Of course, having Cage walk around in a hoodie with bullet holes in it is an act of defiance, as is his reading of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and in his penetration of Stokes’ stronghold, aptly named Crispus Attucks. Yet, the writers are extremely smart with certain implementations of references, which teaches its viewers in a way.
Although Netflix’s latest drama isn’t considered a conventional superhero series, it is relevant and proud in its practices. There is something incredible about a bulletproof black man gracing the screen and using his abilities to do good without the intention to do so. There is a poetry to the dialogue and the urban promise attributed to the show outshines its penchant for repetition and monotony at times.