Marvel’s LUKE CAGE Is Hip to be Square

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It’s been hotly anticipated by many a fan for quite a while. Marvel’s Luke Cage hits Netflix today, and it’s a good bet the binge-watching has already started.

With this entry into the “street level” stories being told on Netflix, Marvel demonstrates once again that they really do understand their characters better than anyone else. Better than Sony. Better than Fox. And better than Warner Bros. understands their characters…

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Luke Cage is a mix of hip-hop urban attitude, blaxploitation films, gangster rap moxie, and cultural commentary. With the setting in Harlem, there are plenty of opportunities for black characters to observe black culture and talk about it without sounding like caricatures of themselves. The sentiments are real, and varied, and they probably show more about the plight of the inner city than any other genre show on the air.

It’s also a show that takes itself seriously, but not too seriously, commenting on the state of affairs in Marvel’s Harlem, or Hell’s Kitchen, or the world in general. One character laments the lack of fathers in black homes. One character comments on the need for youth to learn a good work ethic. Characters come and go with gangster logic — survival of the fittest — and the cold realization that money is green no matter whose it is.

And then there’s Luke Cage.

Cage is a throwback as well as a role model. He respects his elders. He’s a gentlemen to the women around him. He’s loyal to his friends. He keeps his promises. He knows the value of work. He understands the importance of passing along values to the next generation. And even though he doesn’t want to get involved, he also knows that it’s important to do what’s right no matter the personal cost.

And here’s the thing: I like Luke Cage as a role model not because he’s a positive black character, although he is that, but because he’s a decent man who cares about doing what’s right.

Pop (Frankie Faison) having a moment of truth with Luke (Mike Colter).
Pop (Frankie Faison) having a moment of truth with Luke (Mike Colter).

In this day of racial tensions and polarization over ethnicity, we should be looking to find ways to agree on what’s important, and if we can circle around the remote and let Luke Cage show us what it means to care about others, to have self-respect and pride in community, respect for law enforcement, respect for women…

I also like the fact that Cage has always been a black hero. He was black in the comics, and he’s black here. Not some white character who’s been race-bent. Now we just need Icon and Rocket to get a show…

From a production standpoint, everything about Luke Cage is dead-on near-perfect. The cinematography, production design, music, sound mix, stunts … in execution, this show has taken all of the lessons learned in the other Netflix shows and delivers a high-octane mix of action and character moments. From the title sequence to the last frame, Luke Cage is very bit a Harlem show. Street smart in the right places. Acknowledging the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe in a more visible way, not just a throwaway line in one episode. “The Incident” permeates the show, and has its impact on certain characters.

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) faces off against Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali).
Luke Cage (Mike Colter) faces off against Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali).

Mike Colter turns in a strong performance as Cage, giving him both a sense of humor and a sense of sadness and remorse. He’s a reluctant hero, but he steps up when the time comes. His sense of loss is on the surface, but it’s something he’s learned to live with, something that’s just a part of him now.

Mahershala Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is the quintessential villain — motivated by pride as much as greed, he’s built a criminal operation that could rival that of the Kingpin’s. And as his particular circumstances start to spiral, he becomes an even more complex character with deep-rooted motivations for doing what he does.

Without getting too much into spoiler territory, let’s say that Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Stokes may surprise you. Woodard herself doesn’t surprise with her excellent turn as a corrupt political figure who tries to have her cake and eat it, too.

The rest of the cast is just as excellent, with some surprises along the way. Appearances by characters from other Marvel/Netflix shows make good connections, bringing Luke Cage firmly into the universe. Multiple mentions of the events in the films work to make the show part of a whole, but it will be frustrating if that’s all we get.

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) faces a tough choice. Is he a hero?
Luke Cage (Mike Colter) faces a tough choice. Is he a hero?

At some point, the television projects have to connect with the films. And it has to work both ways. I get that the logistics of television productions make it a challenge, but you can’t tell me that somewhere there’s not a white board with all the major story beats plotted out to 2028… and as we’ve discussed on Level Eleventy-Seven, our Marvel podcast, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at a later time and moving closer in tone to the Netflix aesthetic, we can hope at the very least that all of Marvel’s television series can be connected.

Luke Cage is gritty. It’s true to its roots (Easter eggs) and delivers solid characters who aren’t cheaply rendered or two-dimensional. Even characters we’ve seen before get more depth and direction. If you’ve enjoyed the Netflix outings so far, you should enjoy Luke Cage immensely.

It’s very likely the best of the street-level shows so far.

 

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Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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