(Mild spoilers for “Luke Cage” follow!)
Stay home on September 30th. You’re going need that downtime to watch “Luke Cage” on Netflix.
The breakout character from last year’s “Jessica Jones” series has always been a superhero in his own right, with a comic book legacy that’s much longer than his foul-mouthed private detective friend. Now, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) has got his own series coming out on Netflix, and it’s unlike anything Marvel's ever put out. Here’s why:
It embraces its setting wholeheartedly.
No, Harlem isn’t “another character” in the show, because this isn’t a cheesy Woody Allen romantic comedy set in the Upper East Side. But it is integral to the setting of “Luke Cage,” in a way that no other part of New York has been in Marvel yet — not even Hell’s Kitchen, as much as Daredevil likes to whine about it.
More than once in the first seven episodes, Cage finds himself squaring off against a would-be assailant, and goes out of his way to give the other guy a history lesson about the famous Black figure that this particular park or building is named after — ensuring that you’ll learn more about his neighborhood and what it represents than you have about any other part of Marvel’s New York so far.
There’s more than one singular villain for Luke to contend with (although one of them definitely stands out).
If there’s one thing the Marvel Netflix series know how to do better than the movies do, it’s create a compelling villain. With the exception of Loki, most Marvel villains are just generically mean guys with need to steal a powerful thing for something bad. In contrast, Wilson Fisk’s quiet, repressed rage proved to be the most fascinating part of “Daredevil," and Kilgrave’s superpowers and lack of empathy in “Jessica Jones” turned him into the stuff of nightmares.
So far, Cage doesn’t exactly have one “Big Bad” to contend with like Matt Murdoch or Jones did in their debut seasons — but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have plenty of fascinating antagonists to keep up with. Looming the largest is Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a fascinating foil to Luke Cage who uses his popular nightclub as a front for his criminal dealings and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
But Stokes has associates, like his politician cousin “Black” Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodward) or his gang connection, Shades (Theo Rossi), who has a history with Cage and reports to the mysterious Diamondback. Without giving anything away, I suspect that these two are going to be just as important to the action as Stokes is — if not more so.
It gives Claire Temple something to do besides stitch people up.
Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is the glue that holds the Marvel-Netflix universe together, appearing here and there to provide medical assistance to our heroes when necessary. In “Luke Cage,” though, she truly becomes a part of the action, partially because she isn’t tied down by her regular nurse shift anymore; “Daredevil” made sure of that last season when she got fired for refusing to pretend that her hospital wasn’t attacked by ninjas.
This time Claire truly wants to make a difference, and she’s figured that the best way to do that is to seek out people with superpowers — starting with Cage — and help them do good. If deep-down you believe that Claire is going to become the Nick Fury of the Defenders, this show is going to give you a lot of evidence to work with.
It doesn’t give Cage anywhere to hide.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has mostly done away with the trope of the secret identity; everyone knows that Tony Stark is Iron Man, and that Steve Rogers is Captain America. But in the Netflix world, things are a little different. With some exceptions, nobody knows who the man behind Daredevil’s mask is; and no one really cares that much who Jessica Jones is because she’s deliberately trying to stay below everyone’s (especially Kilgrave’s) radar.
Unlike them, Luke Cage is a known quantity within his community. After all, you can only shoot a giant bulletproof man so many times before people start to notice that he isn’t dead yet. When Stokes figures out that it’s Cage who’s causing him so much trouble, he upends all of Harlem searching for him, meaning that Cage’s neighbors — and the rest of the city — are going to know his name, whether he wants them to or not.
The music is incredible.
True, the Netflix series are usually a little better with music than their cinematic counterparts, but “Luke Cage” blows them all out of the water with a lush score that’s part ‘90s hip hop and part ‘70s soul album (composer Adrian Younge also wrote the music for the Blaxploitation parody “Black Dynamite,” so no surprise there). And unlike other Marvel/Netflix shows, “Luke Cage” actually spends time with the performers themselves and really lets you roll around in their songs, meaning that you are definitely going to have to binge watch the series all at once or you’re going to have a lot of Raphael Saddiq stuck in your head in between episodes.
It actually looks like New York (not so full of white people).
The population of New York City is 25% Black and 27% hispanic, but you definitely wouldn't know that from watching a lot of television shows set here (see “Girls,” ”Friends,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Ally McBeal,” and also the entire history of television). But "Luke Cage" doesn’t have that problem. In fact, it’s about 13 minutes into the first episode that a white person even speaks for the first time. That shouldn’t be surprising, as the show never really leaves Harlem (at least in the first seven episodes), but when you compare it to what the rest of the media landscape has looked like for the past 70+ years, it absolutely still is.
Here’s another example: there’s one scene about halfway through the series in which Misty Knight (Simone Missick), a Black woman, is talking to her superior officer at the NYPD, who is also a Black woman, who then must step aside so that another lieutenant can take over the case— and she’s also a Black woman. This stuck out to me, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen three professional Black women in a room together in a Marvel movie or TV show ever. In fact, it took me about five minutes of struggling and Google searching to come up with five Black women who’ve been in the MCU up to this point, period.**
Again, this should not feel like such a revelation given that it’s true to the story “Luke Cage” is trying to tell. But ask any Black female actor and they’ll tell you that it’s hard to find jobs in television. “Luke Cage” definitely proves that it’s not only possible to hire more, but also that when you do, that you can make some pretty incredible TV.
**(If you’re curious, here's who I came up with: Black Panther’s Dora Milaje guard from “Civil War,” Alfre Woodward’s brief speaking role in “Civil War,” Reva Connors from “Jessica Jones,” Ben Ulrich’s wife from “Daredevil” season 1, and that DA from “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” season 2 whose name completely escapes me. No, Gamora from “Guardians of the Galaxy” does not count.)
It uses Luke Cage’s experiences as a stepping stone for deeper themes of racial injustice and identity.
Part of the reason why “Jessica Jones” had such crossover critical appeal is that even though it was about a woman with superpowers, it used that framework to tell a complex story about how sexual assault and abuse survivors (especially women) learn to navigate the world in the wake of a trauma that no one believes they’ve experienced.
“Luke Cage” is similar, using a superhero’s origin story as a jumping off point for a story about unlawful incarceration, gang violence, community, and legacy, and what it means to be a Black man in America today. Even just by depicting a bulletproof Black man in a hoodie, it creates a powerful image that’s especially evocative against the current political climate of 2016.
As a white woman, I obviously can’t speak firsthand about these aspects of “Luke Cage” as expertly as I could speak about the sexual assault narrative inherent in “Jessica Jones.” But the beauty of “Luke Cage” (and “Jessica Jones” too, actually) is that it was created by people who know what they are talking about, in this case showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker. As he told Decider, his goal was to create an “inclusively Black” TV show, where “anybody who watches the show could eavesdrop on what it’s like to be part of the Black experience, and all of its nuance and contradictions — and beauty. But at the same time, not feel excluded by that.”
“Luke Cage” certainly succeeds on that front. There’s no denying that Luke Cage’s Blackness is an important part of his story, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us won’t find ways to relate to his struggle and share in his triumphs. In fact, it's more important than ever that we do relate to Black heroes — and Luke can certainly fill that role.