Of all of Marvel’s current and upcoming Netflix series, “Luke Cage” was the one that required the most reinvention.
“Daredevil” had a rich comic book history of superhero/vigilante antics to draw inspiration from. The opening minutes of the first episode of “Jessica Jones” are straight out of the first issue of Marvel’s adults-only comic book “Alias” — Jessica throws a customer who’s not satisfied with her investigation results through a glass window and then reminds him he hasn’t paid the bill. “Iron Fist,” which debuts in 2017, will lean heavily on mystical martial arts.
“Luke Cage” doesn’t have such comic book luxuries of influence. The character’s comic book debut in the 1970s was Blaxploitation with super powers. We weren’t going to get the guy who said “who’s gonna f— with me? I’m the scariest n—- ever was,” which is a quote directly from Cage’s mouth in the Brian Michael Bendis-written first issue of “Alias.” And the PG-13 version of Cage currently featured in Marvel Comics wouldn’t be able to take advantage of Netflix’s more mature television freedoms.
Marvel and Netflix were going to have to create something new with him. What they’ve done in Luke Cage’s first live-action adaptation is create the best take on the character, who’s part of a small field of black superheroes who matter in the comic book mainstream.
The origin basics are there. Luke Cage is a bulletproof black man (you find out exactly how that came to be later in the season). But he’s no “hero for hire,” saving the day and then giving you a receipt. “Luke Cage” gives us a hero who feels that the bravest thing he can do (at least in the beginning) is stay out of sight. He’s not hiding behind a horned mask at night like Daredevil and can get along with his day when the sun comes up. Cage, played charismatically by Mike Colter, knows he can take down those who are bringing problems to his city, like the sophisticated gangster Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and corrupt politician Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), but not without possibly sacrificing those he has become close to, who he learns quickly aren’t as invulnerable as he is.
So when “Luke Cage” begins, you’re meeting an innocent man jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Cage escapes, along with powers of invulnerability and super-strength he didn’t ask for after illegal experiments. He’s determined to never go back to jail. You’ll see the world he’s built for himself. That world is something we’ve yet to see in the live-action Marvel Universe. To put it simply, it’s a world that is … black.
Yes, “Luke Cage” is the blackest thing Marvel has done. By a lot. Black hero. Black love interest. Black villains. Black city. Scored by a soundtrack that is in itself another black character in this show (the series is scored by Ali Shaheed Muhammad, of the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, and Adrian Younge). There’s barbershop talk (where Cage works), anointing of ghetto passes to the few Italian brothers who will always be “down” (yes, Pat Riley makes the list), the n-word (said by those who would use it casually and others who will be quick to say they prefer not to use it at all) and as we see during his guest appearance/hook up with Jessica Jones, Luke Cage is quite the ladies’ man. He’s frequently asked out to “get some coffee” at the barbershop, despite being the guy who sweeps up the fallen hair on the floor. A cold and humorous reminder that some brothers just have it like that.
“Luke Cage” isn’t trying to be a movement, producer-writer Cheo Hodari Coker has said, but it is a special moment in comic-book-inspired shows. Cage isn’t the first black superhero in Marvel’s live-action universe. We’ve had War Machine and the Falcon. But those are cool sidekicks who won’t be getting their own movies. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) finally arrived for Marvel in “Captain America: Civil War,” but his movie won’t be here until 2018.
The show doesn’t buckle under the pressure. If anything, the producers, writers and actors appear to know they’re a part of something that hasn’t been done before by Marvel and give it their all to make it spectacular. They succeeded.
Colter’s charisma isn’t showy — it comes through even as Cage is forced to try to keep things muted, whether he’s hiding or fighting. Even when he’s being riddled with bullets and tossing bad guys through windows, he looks as if he’s holding back, as if to say the “keep it 100” version of Luke Cage is something you’re just not ready for.
Simone Missick doesn’t have the same superhero persona as the Misty Knight from the comics (at least not yet), but she shines as a character with the tough task of being a police officer of color in a no-snitch culture that doesn’t trust law enforcement. She’s drawn to Cage, like so many at first, but forces herself to not fall victim to his charms when he keeps showing up at places where he shouldn’t be. Cage and Misty have the same bad guy in their sights (Cottonmouth), but believe in different methods when it comes to how to bring the bad guys in.
Ali’s Cottonmouth was a child of lost potential, thrown into organized crime at a young age, and eventually realizes he’s stuck there. But if he has to be there, he wants to be at the top. His covert collaboration with his cousin Mariah (Woodard) brings about the question of how far do you go to save the soul of your city? Their enemy is oncoming gentrification and what it could mean to their future Harlem interests. Mariah wants to keep Harlem black and has used some of Cottonmouth’s dirty money to do it, while Cottonmouth wants a crime empire and his luxurious night club (which provides some incredible musical performances from the likes of Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans and more).
Then there’s the symbolism. When the time comes for Luke to stop hiding and be a hero, discretion is still top priority. His mask of choice? A hoodie. Bullets bounce off that hoodie many times. You can’t help but think of Trayvon Martin and others who may have fallen for not realizing that a clothing accessory made them a threat. The symbolism is there for you to see, but it won’t be preached to you. Just like real life injustice, sometimes words aren’t necessary.
“Luke Cage” passes the Marvel authenticity test, too, taking the best elements of a character, modernizing the story and making it must see for not just fanboys, but also those in the general public who might not be comic book experts. When it comes to Marvel’s movies and Netflix’s shows, they haven’t struck out yet. “Luke Cage” is no different, and it is Netflix’s best Marvel show to date.
When given the chance to bring to life one of the most well-known heroes of color around, Marvel and Netflix produced something that is undeniably and unapologetically black and beautiful.