Thoughts are based on the first 7 episodes released by Netflix to critics.
There’s a sign on the wall of Pop’s Barber Shop, a home base for Luke Cage (Mike Colter) in Harlem, that states:
Everyone else does.
Pop (Frankie Faison) sparks a conversation with a group of young black men about what it takes to get added to the list while he defends the inclusion of Pacino (because of The Godfather cred) and Riley (an esteemed NBA coach). Above all, Pop states the integrity and decency of the people listed is just as important as their achievements. Pop shakes a ‘swear jar’ and asks his customers to pay up for using curse words in his shop to emphasise his point about the decorum needed to defy the stereotypical thug label given to black men in America—the can shakes loud in 2016.
Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage circles back on Pop’s list a few times in the first-half the character’s new solo series (Cage appeared in Jessica Jones last year). What’s striking is how short the list is; only four black men, and it’s a haggard looking list that Pop is in no rush to update. Pulling back on this artifact within Luke Cage, and to the wider world of comic book adaptations, the list of black superheroes is short, too. And we’re talking about a lead character, not side characters or a part in an ensemble. You’d have to go back to 2008’s Hancock to find the last one, and the franchise that paved the way for the dominance of superhero blockbusters, Blade, bowed out with Blade: Trinity in 2004.
The responsibility of the need for a black hero, right now, looms large over Luke Cage from both inside and outside of the show, but writer and showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, compresses a thoughtful origin story in seven episodes that answers the question: how does a black man decide to choose to do good in a culture looking for any excuse to paint him as the villain?
Coker follows a similar path forged by the other Marvel/Netflix series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, by flipping between flashbacks and the prime storyline. Cage is trying to re-build his life in Harlem while coming to terms with his powers and how to put those skills to use. In seven episodes, Coker crafts a sublime origin story that forges Cage’s status as a vigilante and how he comes to terms with the mantle. The more comic book-y side of Cage’s origin, told in flashbacks, grounds his journey in the destruction of black bodies in the prison system. Cage, against his will, becomes a science test subject. Instead of mutation or death, Cage is gifted (or cursed) with being indestructible. I couldn’t help but hear the words from Ta-Nehisi Coats’ (currently writing Black Panther comics for Marvel) Between the World and Me (essential reading) echo throughout these scenes:
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape.”
The bulletproof black body of Cage is a powerful statement, but Coker allows time for his leading man to ponder how he can be a force for good. Coker portrays Cage as a thoughtful pacifist. Cage is so bored by the violent outbursts of his foes that he calmly walks through these sequences. Cage works to set an example rather than play to black stereotypes—he’s rising to the caliber of Pop’s list that’s crying out to expand, it needs to expand. In Luke Cage, character beats take preference over beat downs. It’s now clear the Marvel/Netflix series are like Broadway theatre productions compared to the films, which roll into town each year like a circus.
The depth at work is never more evident than in the development of the villains in Luke Cage. Increasingly, the legacy of these shows is their memorable rogues gallery. Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) is given, roughly, the same amount of screen time as Cage, as well as his own poignant flashbacks. Cottonmouth is a nightclub owner who dabbles in the distribution of guns and other illegal operations. If Cage is trying to rise above the cycles of violence and oppression in his community, Cottonmouth is profiting from it and being influenced to ensure it continues. The ideals at odds between Cage and Cottonmouth are far more fascinating than the world-ending plots of a majority of the forgettable Marvel big-screen baddies. Like all great villains, Cottonmouth’s story is laced with tragedy and shattered dreams, showing the default thug life is such an easy pit to fall into; a type of societal conformity to the worst expectations.
One subtle point of difference Luke Cage has to its siblings is the use of live musical performances in Cottomouth’s club, often referencing plot points and driving the story forward. So far, Faith Evans, Raphael Saadiq, Charles Bradley and Jidenna (prepare to download his song Long Live the Chief) have appeared to hold up a mirror to the plot in a musical fashion that has never been used quite like this before in a comic book adaptation (Guardians of the Galaxy did, but like a jukebox musical).
Luke Cage makes a striking first impression seven episodes in. The first half of this 13-episode run can be defined as the ‘origin’ of Cage but these foundational stories in comic book adaptations haven’t been this dynamic and politically charged for a long time. Luke Cage, so far, is worthy of free haircuts for life.
Cam Williams – Follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW
‘Luke Cage’ premieres on Netflix 30 September 2016.