Luke Cage Review

October 11, 2016 by Steven Strom

A smart, nuanced take on the hero America needs right now.

Luke Cage was a late addition to my Marvel Comics knowledge.

Having missed most of the era defined by the crossover Civil War, the Luke I first met was a businessman, father, and husband first, and if not a superhero second, at least someone who doesn’t put it ahead of his other responsibilities.

Long, long before my time, however, Luke Cage (a.k.a. Power Man, a.k.a. Carl Lucas) was a hokey, perennially angry attention grab meant to bite at the popularity of 70s blaxploitation movies.

The Luke starring in Marvel’s titular Netflix series isn’t either of these men. Despite my longing for an on-screen version of the man who headlined The Mighty Avengers, I’d say that's for the best. This latest version of Luke is a smart update for a very visibly awful era, even though it’s the neighborhood that surrounds him that steals this show.

The focus on Harlem is clear from opening credits. The accompanying graphics show its landmarks projected onto Luke’s bare skin. At the start of each intro, though, just for a second, they look as though they’ve been etched into him -- as if to signify that this is the one thing that can make it through Luke’s trademark unbreakable skin.

The 13-episode season is then quick to give Luke roots in Harlem, where he works as a custodian for Pop's Barbershop. Pop himself has much deeper ties to the neighborhood, where his shop acts as neutral territory ("Switzerland") between the various gangs. Gangs like the one led by Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, who inevitably crosses paths with Luke in the worst way.

In the opening moments of the opening episode, Luke is a background character. Pop, his customers, and employees fall into a patter about African American icons, while our hero keeps his head down --  literally, sweeping up. It's a scene we see repeated throughout Luke Cage: with characters slinging names of black authors, actors, and heroes with shared understanding -- and no hand-holding for viewers unfamiliar with their names.

Meanwhile, Cottonmouth's nightclub/legitimate front -- Harlem's Paradise -- plays host in every episode to black musicians like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Jidenna, and The Delfonics. The non-diegetic music sports Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and often the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan.

As the first real black headliner among Marvel cinema since Blade: The Series, Luke Cage is in a strange and vital spot. He needs to stand among the crowd of blind super-lawyers, undead ninjas, and space gods. Yet it would be false to claim him as the first black American to contribute to the cockamamie Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Luke Cage (the show) knows this, and these scenes of familiar, shared history serve to say that African Americans been here the whole time -- working, contributing, and dying for it -- and continue to do so. Not just since the beginning of the Heroic Age, but since the start of this nation.

This isn't just an indisputable fact. It's an established part of Marvel Comics continuity.

The show is so deft at making Luke a part of a whole that he's often outshined by the world around him. Besides the dense history, Mike Colter's portrayal of Cage competes with more textured villains than we're used to from Marvel Netflix series. Cottonmouth's ambitions are large, and as couched in history as everything else on the show. Yet he doesn't have Kingpin's unlimited funding, the Purple Man's superpowers, or The Hand's magic. Instead he relies on the limited backing of his cousin, councilwoman Mariah "Black Mariah" Dillard -- who herself has a layered agenda of fighting gentrification to "keep Harlem black."

That's not even mentioning Simone Missick's Misty Knight, who downright steals the show for much of the time she's on-screen. While Luke is just starting to navigate his new role as a public superhero, Misty has already been a black woman detective in the NYPD for years. The repercussions of that aren't lost on the script, and Misty is -- necessarily -- impressive enough to make it work.

Luke doesn't have the friendly and familial ties that make him the dad of New York in modern Marvel books. The show even removes his origins in Harlem, instead writing him as being born in Georgia. He's also not the larger-than-life persona James Owsley (now Christopher Priest) made work in the 80s as the un-chill half of Power Man and Iron Fist.

Instead, he falls comfortably into the role of the hero that Harlem (and, frankly, everyone) needs in 2016 -- a bulletproof black man in a hoodie.

This Luke is charming, which was an easy sell for me, coming from someone fine-as-all-get-out as Mike Colter. To that end, I only wish there were more scenes with him wearing a suit...

Hilariously on-brand fight scenes show him beating Cottenmouth's cronies by letting them break their own hands on his granite jaw, or knocking them out with a finger tap to the head. Colter no-sells assault rifle rounds, and dropkicks in a way that put the biggest comic-book-reader's grin on my face. After which he might ask one of the show's women out for, uh... coffee. It works, even if it doesn't steal the show.

Before the effortless skull-cracking, and not-actually-drinking-coffee begins, however, there's one moment in which Luke breaks character with his later self.

After Cottonmouth's violence enterprise finally cleaves too close to home, Luke sets out to destroy the villain's "Fort Knox" -- a fortified building named after Crispus Attucks. Luke gets spotted on the way in, and held at gunpoint (a gesture the world doesn't yet know is useless against him). What follows is a rare glimpse of this Luke losing his cool. Except, instead of the directionless bluster seen in the character's earliest incarnation, this anger has a purpose.

He lectures his attacker, a young black guy, on Attucks. Between them Luke calls him "one of our greatest heroes." It's clear from the jump that Luke isn't angry about having a gun waved in his face -- he's bulletproof, after all -- but that his would-be assailant doesn't feel the same connection that Luke feels with him.

Besides being the one in-depth history lesson on the show (growing up in the North Dakota school system, I'd never heard the name Crispus Attucks before that episode), it's the one moment where Harlem truly does feel etched into Luke's skin -- If not the neighborhood itself, then what it represents to him.

The rest of the show goes out of its way to say what that is: Harlem's people, its culture, and history. It's that one moment, however, that makes this latest Luke Cage work. What it says about him specifically, about comics, and about TV in this moment in history.