On 30 September, Netflix unleashed the latest installment of the growing Marvel-Netflix universe, Luke Cage. Like its predecessors, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the 13-episode first season follows the adventures of the titular superhero as he strives to bring some justice to the rough streets of Harlem. Where Daredevil has enhanced senses and Jessica Jones superhuman strength and endurance, Luke Cage has something much more meaningfully tied to his identity as a black man: unbreakable, bulletproof skin.
The series, starring Mike Colter, drops at a time when police violence and atrocities against the African American community have become burning issues that are at the forefront of many political, and civic conversations. One might be forgiven for thinking that the creators had a hard task ahead of them: to ensure the show didn’t seem wildly exploitative of real-world tragedies while still acknowledging the sheer power of a symbol like Cage and the context in which he operates. Indeed, there were rumours that the show would be delayed or its release rescheduled if another tragic shooting were to take place. But show runner Cheo Hodari Coker has lived up to the high standards set by his predecessors in the Marvel-Netflix powerhouse, delivering a season that not only tells a compelling superhero story, but makes sure the focus never wavers from the community in which he operates: the historically black neighbourhood of Harlem in New York City.
Luke Cage became part of the Marvel-Netflix-verse in Jessica Jones, where he functioned as the titular character’s love interest as well as the living, breathing testament to her greatest trauma. The Luke Cage series begins shortly after the events of Jessica Jones have come to an end. Luke is back in Harlem, where he works two jobs: as a janitor at Pop’s barbershop, a “safe space” in the troubled neighbourhood that is watched over by the eponymous Pop, and a dishwasher at a much more upscale location: Harlem’s Paradise, a club owned and operated by the notorious Cornell Cottonmouth Stokes (played by Mahershala Ali from House of Cards). As happens in most superhero movies, the big bad world, in this case, one of gangs, gun fights and political corruption, flings itself at those Luke cares about, and he has no choice but to step in and try to “do the right thing.”
The Harlem that Luke Cage brings to life is a hard world, riddled with violence, fear, and political corruption. It is also a place of aspiration, where dreams continue to rise, refusing to be quashed even by the snapping of bones or the spilling of blood. The heady combination of power and idealism has its dark reflection in the cousins Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a councilwoman determined to “keep Harlem black” and retain her place on the political circuit, no matter what the price. The liaison of political and criminal power was touched upon in Daredevil, whose second season devoted itself largely to showing how broken the system of governance and law enforcement is, but that theme takes on a particularly human face in Luke Cage. Luke is vulnerable to it in a way that Matt Murdoch simply isn’t – a fact that’s painfully illustrated by the manner in which he gets his powers in the first place.
Colter shines as Cage, portraying the hero’s struggles with a quiet dignity, providing a centre of calm in the maelstrom of gunfire and violence that surrounds him. He is an aspirational figure, one who keeps his cool and even has the heart for silly, corny lines when the bullets have faded, or when he lies broken on the floor. Rosario Dawson reprises her role as Claire Temple from the preceding Marvel series, and her fans would be happy to learn that, as ever, she owns every scene she’s in, and takes quite the journey herself, from a nurse finding her feet in the world of super humans in Daredevil to a character who is making her own tough choices in Cage.
But the breakout character of this particular run of episodes has to be Simone Missick’s Mercedes Misty Knight, a hardworking, intelligent detective, set on protecting the Harlem she loves, even if it means taking a little professional risk now and again. Missick steals every scene she’s in, and it takes all of five minutes of screen-time for viewers to fall in love with and root for this character, a smart, capable black woman who refuses to take nonsense, no matter how high the person dishing it out happens to be.
Luke Cage runs on a great storyline, full of twists of plot you might never have seen coming. It’s weighted with some amount of pathos and pain, but the sunlight does shine through – in the characters’ humour, in the amazing soundtrack and music that is showcased, in the fact that at the end of the day, no matter how hard things get on the streets, life does go on. “Forward, always forward,” Pop tells Luke at the start of the series. Luke Cage surges forward with power, grace and undeniable style, and takes viewers right along with it.