Starring: Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Erik LaRay Harvey, Rosario Dawson, Alfre Woodard.
“Who could have thought a black man in a hoodie could be a hero?”
The above quote doesn’t come until the end of the series, but it’s an apt one. With the release of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, the story of the “bulletproof black man” is something that is not only relevant in terms of the series, but of the world as a whole. While Cage has been around since 1972 (when he was imagined by George Tuska, Archie Goodwin, and John Romita Jr.), his presence is just as important now as it’s ever been, if not more so.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW FOR SEASON 1
In a world where fear is the new normal, Luke Cage is a breath of fresh air, hopefully inspiring young men and women to persevere, even through the tough lives they live. It speaks to the injustices in the world, to the fears of the African-American community, and to those who have lost their lives over perceived threats and misinformation. It’s painful to watch, but necessary, to see the hope that a character like Luke Cage can bring into a world that could really use someone like him, fighting for those who can’t. As a white man, I can’t and won’t speak to the feelings and fears of the African-American community, and to those affected.
The new thirteen-episode series focuses on Luke, a man with impenetrable skin, super strength, a deep love of his community, and a mysterious past. Basically coming to Harlem from out of nowhere, Luke goes from a nice, normal guy to the center of attention pretty quickly, drawing the ire from some of Harlem’s most well-known figureheads.
We’ve seen Luke Cage before in the previous Netflix series, Jessica Jones. His arc as Jessica’s love interest was a great one, and it really showed off how Cage is as a person, and as a man with powers. But it isn’t until much later that we see how he got them, and what he can really do.
Now, before we get into too much, a bit of fair warning: There will be spoilers throughout this piece. It’s recommended that anyone reading this watch the entire series before moving on with the article, or not be bothered by finding out what happened. I’ll try not to get too detailed.
Before the release of the series, star Mike Colter made a great point about the show, saying that it’s “inclusively black.” This is an important distinction, because “inclusively black” doesn’t mean it’s a show that really only resonates for an African-American audience. Yes, most of its cast is African-American. Yes, there are plenty of issues that the African-American community deals with on a regular basis that are in the series. And, of course, there is a lot of use of African-American slang and terminology. But Colter is right; while the show displays those situations, many of them are things that all of us deal with regularity.
This is something that really helps the show resonate; people just trying to live their lives, make it through their days, and be happy. People who support their community and feel love for their hometowns. People who want to help. Luke is one of those people, and arguably, so are some of the forces that he comes against. This is also the first time we’ve really gotten anything like this. Marvel, while known for quality, isn’t always known for inclusion, until more recently. The company’s main roster is mostly comprised of white men, so seeing a show starring a black man with an almost entirely black cast is an incredible step in the right direction.
When we first meet Luke, he’s working two jobs: one sweeping hair at Pop’s Barbershop deep in the heart of Harlem, and another at the biggest club in town: Harlem’s Paradise. The latter, owned by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a notorious Harlem crime boss, is where things really begin to get interesting. See, it’s at Harlem’s Paradise that we really see how Stokes and his cousin, city councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) run their business, and how they see their birthright, Harlem itself.
Cottonmouth and Dillard serve as the main antagonists to the series, at least at first. But more on that later. For now, let’s focus on how series creator/showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker built the man into a legend, and how he showed how even legends are fallible.
Coker has masterminded a stunning landscape out of one of New York’s most vibrant cities, melding the street life with the old-school culture of the city. Nothing shows this more than Harlem’s Paradise, a club that feels like it belongs in a different era. Jazz and R&B fill the room, people dance and laugh like it’s the fifties, and everything feels great. Behind all of this is Stokes, the man who is known around the city as both the lifeblood of Harlem, and its biggest cancer.
And while Stokes serves as the focal point, the music here is one of the most impressive facets of the series. Big stars show up, singing soul, R&B, and hip-hop. Faith Evans, Method Man, and the Delfonics all arrive at Harlem’s Paradise, as well as in other portions of the show.
Stokes is the centerpiece of the series in the beginning, with all of the tragedy linking back to him. That includes the death of two young men with links to Luke: Dante and Shameek. While attempting to rob Stokes of some very powerful weapons, they lose their lives as a consequence of their actions nearly right off the bat. Dante loses his life after being killed by Shameek himself during the heist, with Shameek being taken out later on by Stokes after he finds out that Shameek stole from him along with Dante and their friend, Chico.
This puts Luke center stage, as he has ties to all three young men, which puts him in the sights of NYPD detectives Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick). The web of intrigue also allows us to see Luke not only show off his strength, as well as his unbreakable skin for the first time in the series, as a seemingly unrelated shakedown of his landlady by some thugs is broken up by Luke, who easily takes them down. This is shown off well after a gang member tries to punch him, only to crush his hand on Luke’s face.
This brings up one of my many favorite things about this series: the display of power on the part of Luke. In prior series, we see Matt Murdock (Daredevil) fight relentlessly, using his enhanced senses to fight against his lack of sight. We see Jessica Jones use her superior strength and anger to power through her enemies. But here, we see Luke, with invulnerable skin and unfathomable strength, throw enemies off of him like they were flies. He hurts but never kills, using what are basically passive blows to incapacitate. He smacks people on the head to knock them out, throws them with little effort into walls, moving on like they were barely there. It’s almost an affront to every known hero with strength: to use it with reluctance is almost wasting it. But Luke does it every time, until it matters.
This is in stark contrast to how Stokes operates. While Luke would much rather not hurt anyone, Stokes can, and does, kill anyone in his path. Shameek is only the first, with the second coming after one of his lieutenants takes things into his own hands, costing Pop his life in the process. Showing the rage and temper of Stokes is important here, as it also shows his weakness: pride. It follows him along his path, leading to outbursts and rash decision making, even when his new ally, Shades (Theo Rossi), warns him otherwise.
Stokes and Dillard, despite running rampant for years in their crime ring, suddenly see things begin to decay as a gun deal goes wrong, and Luke, now out for revenge after the death of Pop, sabotages their operation. The retaliation on the part of Stokes gives us our first glimpse into Luke’s past, as a building collapses and traps Luke under the rubble, giving him some time to reminisce.
This “flashback episode” is perfectly timed, giving us just enough of Luke before letting us get to know Carl Lucas, the man he was before. An inmate at Seagate prison in Georgia, Luke lives his life as an inmate, slowly but surely showing his strength and resolve despite his situation. He makes a friend, finds himself attracted to a young psychologist (Reva Connors, who made her first appearance along with Luke in Jessica Jones), and gets himself into some trouble as an underground prisoner fighting ring leads him to be a part of a secretive experiment that finally shows us in full, heart-breaking detail how Luke got his powers.
It’s also during this sequence of events that leads Marvel to do something it does best: the subtle nod to its past. Usually done with some humor, that trend continues as we get to see Luke don his original Power Man costume, much to his own chagrin. These are subtle references to the comic book history of the character, and it’s only one of the many small nods to the source material that we get in the series, and one of the ways that Marvel, in all its interconnected glory, sets things up for what’s to come.
That interconnectedness is something that really comes into play later on, as Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) makes her way into the show, and into Luke’s life. Temple has been in both seasons of Daredevil and in Jones, and her appearance here only solidifies the world-changing events that occur throughout this series, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole.
From here, we get less of a focus on Luke and more of a focus on Misty and the crimes of Cottonmouth. This is a bit unfortunate, as Luke really carries the series, and him taking a backseat really draws away from the story as a whole. It also leads to an important shift in the path of the series, as (I know I did a spoiler warning here, but this is a big one. Be careful if you haven’t been watching the series.) our villain, the charismatic and cruel Cottonmouth Stokes, is killed by his own cousin, Mariah Dillard. The councilwoman loses her temper, and without anyone around to stop her, does the unthinkable.
This feels very reminiscent of the portrayal of Wilson Fisk in Daredevil. While there are some obvious changes here, Stokes, like Fisk and even like Jessica Jones’ Killgrave, were given enough time to develop and show their own tragic histories. While a tried and true method, it certainly works as we see the mild-mannered, but musically gifted, Stokes get pushed into his life of crime. Stokes’ death does lead to an interesting development: the emergence of Cage as enemy number one in the eyes of the NYPD, as Luke is framed for Stokes’ death.
On another topic, I would like to touch here on the cast. With Mahershala Ali now out of the picture, it feels like a good time to bring up how good everyone in this series is. Colter is the perfect Cage, a combination of brute strength and careful reservation. Missick is a fantastic Misty Knight, and Ali serves as an incredible foil, despite his character being a bit undermined by Woodard’s Mariah Dillard. One of the real surprises here, however, is Theo Rossi. While he hasn’t been mentioned much in the review, Rossi’s Shades is a dynamic and impressive character. He’s equally entertaining and uncomfortable, a contrast to the bold and brash dynamism of Ali’s Cottonmouth Stokes. Quiet but intense, Rossi stole the show for me in terms of characters.
With Mariah filling the vacuum in the absence of Stokes, things take a dramatic turn when the elusive Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey), the arms dealer for Stokes, makes his way into the series. While it’s not exactly out of the ordinary for there to be an emerging threat that makes their way center stage later on in the series. (The gangs of Hell’s Kitchen seem to be the enemies until Fisk comes in and takes over in season one of Daredevil and where Frank Castle is supplanted by the Hand in season 2, of the series.) There is something that feels different about the emergence of Diamondback here, however.
I’m of two minds about this shift in plot; it’s interesting because it was unexpected, but it also felt a bit hollow. We built up so much vitriol for Stokes, for how he did things, for his brutality. I felt resentment and anger towards the schemes that he and Dillard were hatching. I bought Cottonmouth as a villain. Once it becomes the Diamondback show, things still work, but it feels different. All the real estate we put into Stokes seems to be erased when he passes, and the big (spoiler alert) reveal of Stryker’s familial relationship to Luke doesn’t hit as hard, maybe because there isn’t as much buildup to make it hit as hard as it could have.
Showing that the unbreakable man is indeed vulnerable is the perfect tool here, though, as Luke has basically beaten down anyone who dared to stand in his way. It’s a great way to not only allow Luke to accept help, but to allow those who want to help him play their part. This is especially true for Claire, who plays a much larger role in this series than she has in the other installments. Her role as the Night Nurse has been the biggest constant through the individual seasons, with her presence serving as the through-line to connect the stories of the street-level heroes together. In the most dire of situations, whether it be helping Luke reconcile his past, patching people up, or serving as the voice of reason, Claire is the rock in which the rest of the Netflix MCU is built.
That’s not to say that it isn’t satisfying. As the frame job of Cage continues, it seems to be the plan of Diamondback to not only destroy Cage’s reputation, but to end his life as well. The Marvel Universe comes into play really well here, as Justin Hammer’s Hammertech (a nod to the arms dealer in Iron Man 2) is the big manufacturer of the weapons that Stryker uses to take Luke down. This is caused by a long-burning rivalry between the two, as their relationship as best friends is revealed to be much more. Due to an infidelity, Stryker is the half-brother of Luke, thanks to some reprehensible acts by their father.
This is especially true when, after numerous successful attempts by Stryker to sully the good name of Luke Cage, the final confrontation comes to light. In a huge fight at Harlem’s Paradise, Stryker stages a hostage situation at the club in the name of Luke. With their familiar bonds solidified during earlier scenes and Luke finally ready to face his childhood friend turned spurned half-brother, everything that’s been building now comes to a head in the final showdown.
The fight is brutal, long, and powerful, as the two men use everything in their power to stop one another. In the end, of course, Luke finds a way to win, clear his name, and right (most of) the wrongs. His past confronted, Luke finds himself at a crossroads, knowing who he needs to be for himself, and his city.
Overall, this was a fantastic series, with enough major details to really keep the show going. Coker and the cast have created a beautiful tapestry of life in the city, especially those in the African-American community. While best enjoyed in large quantities, taking this series piece by piece is likely just as enjoyable. Though, I can’t say for sure, since I had it finished watching this inaugural season the weekend it premiered. And if you’re reading this, you probably did, too.
I can’t say I recommend this one as much as I do the first season of Daredevil, or even as much as Jessica Jones. But even so, this is a fantastic first season for the Hero for Hire, and his place in this expanding franchise is as solid as any other.