Before we do this, we need to get something straight: Luke Cage means nothing to me beyond what Jessica Jones and now the Luke Cage TV series have to offer. That might seem like a needlessly harsh statement, but it is an increasingly necessary one in this age of endless remakes, requels and adaptations. It seems as if every single article about practically every single facet of pop culture should start with a brief synopsis of the author’s personal relationship to the material just to establish a baseline.
For example, Luke Cage was launched in 1972 as Marvel’s version of a blaxploitation superhero, thus making Luke Cage, Hero for Hire one of the first comic books to star an African American superhero. To someone who was alive at that time, especially someone of color who read comics, Luke Cage was probably an inspirational figure, cleaning up crime-ridden New York City on contract but usually refusing payment in the end. In the decades since then, Cage has been one of the leading figures for Marvel’s more street-level heroes, and his friendship with Iron Fist and romantic relationship with Jessica Jones, a relatively recent development since that character wasn’t invented until the new millennium, has warmed the hearts of many a comic book fan. He’s even made it into kid’s TV, popping up in recurring roles in the now-cancelled Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (where he was portrayed as an adult) and the currently ongoing Ultimate Spider-Man (where he is portrayed as a teenager).
Now, Cage is again a trailblazer, becoming the first black character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to receive his own solo TV series or film, beating Black Panther to the punch by several years.
But I wasn’t alive in 1972. I’ve never read a single comic book bearing the name Luke Cage, Power Man, Luke Cage & Iron Fist, The Defenders or The New Avenger. On top of that, to be perfectly blunt I am just some random white guy, the kind who will applaud strong female characters and more racially diverse casting but can only ever truly engage with the plight of a woman or unique experience of a black man on a sympathetic instead of empathetic level. Their stories can certainly move me emotionally, but I feel wholly unqualified to speak to that emotion with any real first-hand knowledge.
As such, I have no nostalgic attachment to Luke Cage as a character, and any proclamations I might be inclined to make about the social relevance of certain plot points and/or importance of Cage as a bulletproof black man inevitably comes from a place of white privilege. However, I still remember
That being said, I still remember Jessica Jones‘ version of Luke Cage (Mike Colter) as the noble, unbreakable badass who unwittingly fell for the woman who killed his wife. I’ve been unsure ever since Jones ended if there truly was enough in the comics to warrant a full Luke Cage TV series, especially one bereft of both Jones and Iron Fist.
Now that the show is here I’m dying to see what showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker came up with, and I’m also eager for Coker to educate me on the history of Harlem. My fear is that this will ultimately feel like a retread of Daredevil’s first season, just with a primarily black cast (will the villain just be a black Kingpin?) and Harlem instead of Hell’s Kitchen. Moreover, as a superhero Luke Cage has a slight Superman problem in that he is simply too powerful for his own good, at least in terms of dramatic tension. However, as of this writing I’ve seen the first episode, and it is very good. I’m going to keep watching throughout the weekend.
Here’s how this is going to work: After every episode I’m going to stop to post a spoiler-filled, 5-point reaction, and then move on. Every one of these posts will include a very brief plot recap at the top, and a link to the next episode at the bottom.
Which One Is “Moment of Truth”?: The pilot, the one where we meet everyone other than Luke for the first time.
1. Let’s get all of the names out of the way right now
Like I said, I’ve never read a Luke Cage comic. All of these characters are completely new to me. So, let’s start by getting their names right, at least the names of the characters we met in the pilot:
- Mike Colter as Luke (duh)
- Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, the Kingpin of the story who owns his own Harlem club which he refers to as a “modern day Cotton Club.” He’s in league with a local politician and some mysterious business associate, doesn’t like being called “Cottonmouth,” is scary enough that his own waitresses don’t like being alone with him and packs a mean punch.
- Simone Missick as Misty Knight, the detective who slept with Luke and then lied to him about who she is (she ain’t no auditor)
- Theo Rossi as Shades Alvarez, the mysterious dude with some kind of connection to Luke’s past
- Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, the corrupt local politician who will hilarioiusly hob-nob with some kids prior to an eating contest and then instantly drop her fake smile once turned away from them and washing her hands of their germs
- Frankie Faison as Pops, the barbershop owner
Also, if you didn’t catch his name Misty Knight’s partner his Rafael Scarfe, played by the imminently recognizable Frank Whaley.
2. Can you tell that the showrunner used to be a music journalist?
Prior to writing for the screen, Cheo Hodari Coker worked as a film writer at Premiere Magazine and music journalist for The Los Angeles Times, and among the screenplays he’s written since transitioning from reporter to filmmaker is Notorious, the Biggy Smalls biopic. That might be why the pilot features Raphael Saadiq bringing his retro-soul sound to a small Harlem club, or the villain standing directly under a gangsta portrait of Notorious BIG prior to beating one of his underlings to death. However, um, maybe pull back a little next time, okay? We don’t need people saying things like “That Stone Rollin’ album was legit” about Saadiq. That actually is true – seriously, Stone Rollin‘ is an amazing album – but dropping Saadiq into your pilot is already borderline Peach Pit After Dark territory (e.g., this week, Valerie Malone somehow booked R.E.M.!). You don’t need to also drop an album name in there as a further awkward endorsement.
3. Not exactly subtle, this show
THR’s pre-air review argued: “Like Jessica Jones before it, Luke Cage is aggressively unsubtle, but it’s also aggressively smart. Sure, having Luke Cage wandering around, wearing a hoodie as an act of defiance, reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man feels a bit on the nose.”
They failed to mention the Notorious BIG portrait, which similarly feels unsubtle and on the nose. I’d have rather met Mahershala Ali’s Stokes unencumbered by such heavy-handed imagery (it’s at least better than him having a Scarface poster behind him), yet at the same time I suspect I’m underestimating the power of such imagery in the African American community and to those more familiar with rap and hip-hop culture. In fact, I’m certain of it.
4. That’s a lot of sideboob
These Netflix Marvel series deserve their own rating of PG-15, considering the way they jump over the line of PG-13 but stop short of R. As such, it should come as no surprise to see just how much skin graces the screen during Luke and Misty’s love scene. Luke and Jessica had some epic fuck sessions together on Jessica Jones, and Matt and Elektra practically enjoyed their own little erotic film during their sensual love scene on season 2 of Daredevil. However, last weekend Netflix premiered its’ new Red-Shoe-Diaries-for-Hipsters series Easy from Joe Swanberg, and I was startled by just how little warning viewers were given that the show featured full nudity. Similarly, I was a tad startled that Luke Cage comes with no warning for just how much we end up seeing of Knight’s body. I don’t mean that from a prudish standpoint, more from a “Man, glad I didn’t watch this with my nephew.” However, at this point surely the assumption is everyone understands these Netflix shows are meant for slightly more mature audiences.
5. The Tenuous Connection to the MCU
This is a conflict which has already inspired and will continue to inspire many thinkpieces, but the TV and film sides of Marvel are at odds with each other right now. Kevin Feige successfully broke Marvel Studios free of Ike Perlmutter, but that left Jeph Loeb behind to run the TV division under Perlmutter’s strict control. As such, the films and TV shows all take place in the same universe, but just barely, largely because the film and TV people don’t work together. Beyond that, the Netflix shows only technically exist in the same world as Agents of SHIELD.
I mention that last point because for over a year now the world of the MCU has been aware of the existence of superpowered Inhumans (the causative agent giving normal people superpowers ended up in the watter supply) on Agents of SHIELD, yet upon witnessing Luke Cage’s superpowers at the end of “Moment of Truth” the one thug left standing acted with complete surprise and pulled an Iron Man 3 (e.g., “Look, I don’t even like these people. They are so weird”) before hightailing it out of there. He didn’t scream anything like “You’re one of them Inhumans!” or “What are you, an Avenger?” because the scene works better if his reaction is not tied to the truth of a larger cinematic universe but instead to the truth of the dramatic situation, namely that big dude just did something impossible. Yet you’re almost punished if you are someone who watches all of the movies, TV shows and Netflix series because those connections you know could be there never will be, outside of some random street bootlegger hawking HD footage of “The Incident” (i.e., the final fight in the first Avengers film).
On to the next episode: “Code of the Streets”
Or you can use these direct links to my other reviews:
- EP3: “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?”
- EP4: “Step in the Arena”
- EP5: “Just to Get a Rep”
- EP6: “Suckas Need Bodyguards”
- EP7: “Manifest”
- EP8: “Blowin’ Up the Spot”
- EP9: “DWYCK”
- EP10: “Take it Personal”
- EP11: “Now You’re Mine”
- EP12: “Soliloquy of Chaos”
- EP13: “You Know My Steez”