Marvel’s Luke Cage: a review

Marvel’s Luke Cage is the comic book television series I didn’t know I wanted.

Netflix knows what it’s doing with the Marvel projects it has been entrusted with.

The first was the Daredevil series, which managed to wash the taste of that Affleck/Garner debacle out of my mouth and return me to the days when Frank Miller first introduced me to Matt Murdock and company.

Then they introduced me to Jessica Jones, a character I knew nothing about because she didn’t exist in the comic books when I was a reader. It was during the first season of Jessica Jones (which has been picked up for number two) that the character Luke Cage was introduced into the Netflix-Marvel-verse.

I was familiar with Luke Cage already. I met him back in the 1970s, when he was known as Power Man. He was the first black superhero to headline his own comic book for Marvel. Of course, he was created by a group of white writers and artists and his origin and stories were heavily influenced by the blaxploitation films popular during the ’70s. In those days, Luke wore a Muhammad Ali afro, a steel tiara (no joke here), metal bracelets and a chain around his waist, along with a bright yellow disco shirt usually worn open to bare his muscular chest. The Netflix series briefly pokes fun of this era of Luke’s backstory when they show him in similar garb during his prison breakout flashback. In the series, when he sees his reflection in this outfit, he tells himself he looks like a fool. Funny stuff.

I really became a fan of Luke Cage/Power Man when he was teamed up with the character Iron Fist in an effort to save both of their comic books, which were floundering on their own. Iron Fist was the response to the ’70s kung fu movie craze and the characters seemed to be an odd combo at first, though in hindsight they make perfect sense. I had been a fan of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne Iron Fist comic, and when they took the reins of the Power Man/Iron Fist crossover I stayed on-board. You can imagine my excitement about the forthcoming Netflix Iron Fist series as well.

So, unlike with Jessica Jones, I had some history with the character. I knew nothing about his later story, when he married Jessica Jones and had a child with her and all that, but I was there near the beginning. And I liked Mike Colter’s calm portrayal of Luke in the Jessica Jones series. Still, I wasn’t sure how much I would like a solo Luke Cage series.

Now that I’ve finished watching the first season, I can tell you: I liked it a lot. I would go so far as to say I loved it. I might go as far as saying this may have been the best season of superhero television I’ve seen yet, on any network. Maybe. I don’t know. I did like Daredevil and Jessica Jones a lot as well. I may like this one more at the moment because I just watched it.

I will be the first to admit that, as a middle-aged white guy, I can know nothing about the authentic black American experience. However, this show—unlike the early comic book—seems authentic to me. The showrunner and executive producer Is Cheo Coker, whose bona fides include covering the rap scene during the early ’90s for magazines such as The Source and Rap Pages, as well as being the grandson of one of the Tuskegee Airmen and the nephew of an editor for Essence. His uncle also wrote the film Uptown Saturday Night. Oh, and he’s black, in case this wasn’t clear to you. I feel that this show about a superpowered, bulletproof black man is, at the very least, filtered through an authentic black American experience.

Set in modern day Harlem in New York City, just a few months after the conclusion of the first season of Jessica Jones, the series resonates with black culture and music and history, as well as current affairs. Coker wasn’t shy about admitting that having Luke Cage as a bulletproof black man who often wears a hoodie was a pointed reference to the Trayvon Martin tragedy. I loved the fact that the show created this gritty reality as a foundation for stories and characters that are, by design, unreal. I like for fantasy to be grounded in reality.

You can judge a superhero by three things: setting, motivation, and companion characters.

Harlem, as the setting, is basically another main character in the cast. Pops barbershop and the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub are two of the main setpieces. And Genghis Connie’s restaurant of course, before it is blown up. Oh, yeah. [SPOILERS]. No matter where the action takes place, the viewer is constantly aware of Harlem in the background.

Luke’s motivation changes during the series, as you would expect in any developing character. At first, he’s just trying to lay low after leaving Hell’s Kitchen and all of the Jessica Jones/Purple Man drama. As the season begins, he’s working two jobs: sweeping the floors at Pops barbershop and washing dishes at the nightclub. These worlds soon collide and he’s forced to be a hero, which draws him out into the light and into the sights of his soon-to-be enemies. Luke is a reluctant hero, an escaped convict living under an assumed name and living with the memory of his dead wife. He wants to be left alone, but soon finds himself forced to use his powers to save his friends and his neighborhood.

Luke’s companion characters include the newly introduced Misty Knight, a Harlem native and a hotshot detective. I knew her from the comic books, back when she had a robot arm. She doesn’t have a robot arm in this series. Not yet, anyway, although her arm is injured late in the season—

There’s also Pops the former street thug turned into zen master barber. Bobby Fish, the elder statesman Harlemite and chess aficionado. The aforementioned Genghis Connie (you gotta love that name). And, oh yeah, Claire Temple.

You know Claire. She is Rosario Dawson, and she was Claire in Daredevil and in Jessica Jones. And now in Luke Cage. She seems destined to be the on-call medical service for all Marvel superheroes in the greater Manhattan area. And, as she is in everything, Dawson is amazing. I may be reading what I want to in this, but she and Luke Cage seem to be pretty much a romantic couple by the end of this season. I wonder how this will go over with Jessica Jones.

But, a superhero is also judged by the strength of his or her enemies. Luke Cage seems to have an endless rogues gallery of enemies. There’s the villainous, but musically talented, Cottonmouth, who runs the Harlem’s Paradise club as well as most of the criminal enterprises in Harlem. His cousin is Mariah Dillard (played to perfection by Alfre Woodard), a politician and villain in her own right. Their righthand badguy is Shades, played by an actor I recognize from Sons of Anarchy, who is much more than a pair of sunglasses. The ultimate villain—although that may also be applied to Mariah—is called Diamondback, and he’s little more than an ominous name until the back half of the season. All of these opposing characters, and numerous other minor badguys I’ve failed to mention, are wonderful and appropriate to the plot. I even sort of like most of them and can understand why they’re doing what they do. That’s just good storytelling there.

I’m not going to ruin the story for you here. I just wanted give you my reactions to it. If you like Daredevil or Jessica Jones, or any superhero show really, you should give Luke Cage a shot as well. It has managed to whet my appetite for the upcoming Iron Fist and Defenders shows.

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