LUKE CAGE: MARVEL’S DISCREET NEIGHBORHOOD HERO
“There’s something about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and unafraid.”
This quote from an episode of “Luke Cage,” the latest project from Marvel and Netflix, expressed that it was about time that an African-American leading superhero figure to grace our television screens.
All 13 episodes were set free on Sept. 30 and being set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it perhaps is the most political-conscious release yet since race, power and corruption are major themes. The show feels relevant in light of recent real-life events like the Black Lives Matter movement and the violence against police officers like in Dallas since having an African-American hero offers a sense of hope to viewers.
Mike Colter succeeds with playing Harlem’s neighborhood hero, Luke Cage, who prefers to not be called a superhero as he feels comfortable being private and away from the spotlight. With superhuman strength and a seemingly indestructible body, it can become boring since viewers know he’s perfectly capable of withstanding criminals shooting, punching or throwing grenades at him. But Colter keeps his character enthralling by always placing his sense of humanity, desire for normalcy and love for Harlem upfront as well as his heartwarming friendships with his neighbors and close confidants. Viewers can easily empathize with him as he’s initially shown to be working multiple jobs and has trouble with paying his rent.
The overall cast is mostly of color, hence effectively avoiding any accusations of whitewashing, which actress Tilda Swinton is facing for being cast as the Ancient One in Marvel’s upcoming film, “Doctor Strange.” The supporting cast also mostly triumphs in making “Luke Cage” such a compelling show because each actively plays a significant part to largely keep the thirteen-episode narrative afloat.
Cage is supported by two strong-willed and determined black females: detective Mercedes “Misty” Knight (Simone Missick) and nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). As both get to individually interact with Cage, their respective knowledge of crime in Harlem and medicine also propels the show forward in terms of storytelling and character growth. They are hard evidence that a set of supporting allies is a valuable asset to any superhero figure.
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a local crime lord, who heads the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, dazzles as one of the show’s two main antagonists with his intimidating smirk, intelligent dialogue and unforgiving fists. Alfre Woodard plays his cousin and corrupt politician, Mariah Dillard, who uses her media exposure to constantly influence the public into believing Luke Cage is a dangerous freak. Both characters prove that one does not require superpowers to genuinely threaten a superhero.
However, Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey) falls flat as the show’s second main antagonist. The revelation that he’s Cage’s half-brother and is jealous that their father always favored Cage more than himself feels childish and has-been. This is painfully evident during their climactic fist fight scene in which he bitterly insults Cage’s mother, as if reducing his character to practically using terrible “Yo Mama” jokes to hurt him. Moreover, during flashbacks which show younger versions of Cage and Stryker together, they mostly seem to be amicable which further causes the viewer to wonder why Stryker has not let go of his cartoonish hatred for Cage.
As Luke Cage mainly operates within Harlem, the community there can be figuratively condensed into a supporting character of sorts since the people mostly support Cage, despite Willard’s efforts to tarnish his reputation. Even when Cage is wrongly framed for numerous crimes, many Harlemites supported him by donning variants of his signature black hoodie with fake bullet holes in them—an obvious nod to how Cage survives bullets which leaves ugly holes in his own hoodie. He is then aptly given the street name, “the HOLE-Y Hero.”
A second weakness the series has is why Jessica Jones or Daredevil never appears, at least briefly, since Harlem has become such a hotbed of violence and crime, like Hell’s Kitchen where the former two hail from. With videos going viral of Cage seemingly wreaking havoc, it would be nonsensical for Jones and Daredevil to not react at all, given their abilities. Although the three will unite for “The Defenders” series, Harlem feels as if it’s so disconnected from Hell’s Kitchen which defeats the purpose of Marvel having this shared universe.
But what makes Luke Cage a contemporary, everyday hero is that his devotion to Harlem and genuine respect for its people and his allies as well as his discomfort with being labeled a “superhero” all makes him look humble and very likable. Unlike other figures like Thor and Captain America, Luke Cage is perhaps the most down-to-earth hero yet as he prefers to blend into the crowd and wants to be left alone. Yet his discreet personality and confidence make him a truly intriguing divergence from the stereotypical loudly-costumed superhero.