Being a fearless Black man or woman in America has been a heroic act since before this country was founded; but having a Black superhero on screen is a different beast all together. Marvel’s Luke Cage, a Netflix original series that arrives today, takes a stab at the idea: Cage, a character that first appeared in Marvel Comics in 1972, is a Black man who has impenetrable skin and superhuman strength. He emerged on TV last year as a guest hero/love interest in Netflix’s previous Marvel series Jessica Jones. But with Chadwick Boseman’s stellar performance as T’Challa, the Black Panther, in Captain America: Civil War, and almost daily headlines of Black people being killed by police, the timing seems even more perfect for a character like Cage to make his mark.
Marvel’s Luke Cage is set in Harlem, and it feels like it. An old barbershop is the pillar of the neighborhood with conversations about hoops and classic Black wordsmiths like Walter Mosley and Donald Goines. A jazz club run by Cage’s nemesis, Cottonmouth, shows Black people dressed to the nines while watching performances by Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans and Jidenna. As former music journalist and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker revealed in interviews, each episode is named after a song by the rap group Gang Starr.
From the moment it begins, Marvel’s Luke Cage is very, very Black.
Black Lives Matter is dropped by a crooked politician (veteran actress Alfre Woodard) as early as the first episode. The N-word is part of the lexicon as well, and not all of the characters are cool with it. Some of the cultural gems in the show feel like Coker is making a point to use his platform to slip in some knowledge. For instance, Cage literally carries around a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with him from place to place. It can be a bit overbearing at times, but it’s overbearing in the way that your super woke neighbor or uncle is always ready to educate. And in a superhero universe where Black characters—much less authentic Black environments—are hard to find, this is a good problem to have. Aside from all of the specific parts of the show, it’s frankly stirring and fulfilling to see so many Black people on the screen at once in a superhero series.
As with most of these original Marvel shows, the best character in Luke Cage is arguably the villain, Mahershala Ali, who plays Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. In Netflix’s other hit series, House of Cards, he plays a stern lobbyist with a soft side, but in Luke Cage, Ali is a ruthless gun dealer who handles his business from a VIP balcony in his jazz club.
In short, Cottonmouth don’t play. His laugh can be ominous at one moment, and used to hide his discomfort in another. Viewers soon find out there are levels to Stokes, as he serenely plays piano in one scene, and beats someone to death with his bare hands in the next. Still, Cottonmouth isn’t just a stereotypical bad guy, his expertly written back-story shows what makes him such a complex and complicated character.
In one memorable scene from the first episode, Cottonmouth steps forward, his head perfectly filling the tilted crown of a portrait of Biggie Smalls that hangs on his wall. While speaking to someone who betrayed him, he delivers a line that shows why he’s the boss. “Everybody wants to be king,” he says, “but nobody wants to do the work.” Though Cottonmouth is rarely tasked with actually showing the vulnerabilities of other Marvel villains, like Daredevil’s Kingpin, he’s always the most engaging person in the frame whenever he’s on the screen.
Woodard plays Cottonmouth’s cousin and reluctant business partner Mariah Dillard, an image-conscious politician who drops insincere Black Lives Matter rhetoric on camera and while shaking residents’ hands before washing away their lowly presence with a squirt sanitizer. Mariah, a career legislator in Harlem, is willing to get her ambitious community projects funded–no matter the questionable costs; she just doesn’t want to know the details. Though she’s not as straight-laced as she seems, Mariah tries to convince her cousin to leave the criminal world to go legit, but she still benefits from his riches from such endeavors. Throughout the series the two play off each other, seesawing power dynamics and trading contrasting ideas of pro-Blackness to back their varying approaches.
Mike Colter reprises his role from Jessica Jones as the title character in Luke Cage. In action scenes he’s every bit the badass superhero we want him to be, playing O.D.B. in his headphones as he dismantles crews of henchmen by tossing them through windows and bludgeoning them with car doors.
— Luke Cage (@LukeCage) July 22, 2016
Despite his powers, he barely gets by while working two jobs and getting paid under the table, and in a post-Trayvon Martin world, he fearlessly and confidently wears hoodies while handling his business around Harlem. Coker told EBONY.com that the choice to dress Cage in hoodies weren’t a coincidence. “I wanted people to understand that you can’t judge a book by its cover,” he said. “Heroes wear hoodies too.”
In the series, Colter’s charisma and emotion varies. In some scenes he convincingly delivers a zinger or conveys hurt and worry; but at other times he comes across as a bit stiff, his demeanor being just as impenetrable as his superhuman body. But the care for people he loves is unmistakable, and none of his shortcomings stop viewers from being invested in the hero, thanks to the show’s expert writing. Colter’s larger-than-life presence, as well as his progression throughout the season, keeps fans invested in his story. Additionally, the recognizable Frankie Faison (The Wire, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal) excels as Cage’s mentor and barbershop owner Pop, and Simone Missick slays as the savvy and beautiful detective Misty Knight.
Luke Cage is an effectively told story with just the right amount of surprises to keep people tuning in. The series hits the ground running in the first episode, with a deal gone bad impacting the immediate world around each of the show’s major characters. From that point, the plot continues at a pleasing pace; each of the episodes holding its own weight and progressing the story just enough that viewers will feel satisfied once the credits begin to roll. Infused with hip-hop, authentic cultural references, and unapologetic Blackness, Luke Cage is just the hero we need for these troubled, complicated times.