As far back as I can remember, I have been reading comic books, any and every comic book from both DC and Marvel, and very few heroes resonated with me. I was never a fan of Spider-Man, even though I’m also from Queens. His adventures never felt personal to me. I loved Batman growing up but at times he seemed far too eccentric to identify with. Then my Dad introduced me to Luke Cage.
The very first issue I read, just so happened to be my Dad’s copy of his #1, the seminal one that has been on dozens of prints and t-shirts It was as if this ordinary guy, much like the men in my family, my dad , my uncles and my grandfathers, acted like him, and held the same sepia tones that runs in my family. After that first issue, I was all over every issue, I can find of Luke Cage, even picking up Luke Cage and Iron Fist issues. Eventually I moved away from reading Luke Cage, and got into war comics, like Sergeant Rock and Unknown Soldier.
Fast forward years later, where my love affair with comics had been reignited, and I found the Marvel Noir series, where they introduced a crime noir version of the character, “Sweet Christmas,” I was back in it with Power Man. Unfortunately, until recently, the character was not given enough love to sustain an ongoing series , except for a few failed attempts. So when news came that Netflix was starting a series based on a few more mature superheroes, I was excited to learn that they were going to include Luke Cage, I knew they had to do it right. As the history of black superheroes, including Blade on television, is a very short history, and if there is any hope for the world to see for diverse characters, this show had to work.
When they introduced the character in Jessica Jones, the actor portraying him was pretty much what I expected him to look like, as the only other actor who could play him was Terry Crews, but his resume seemed more astute to comedy, than Mike Colter, whose resume includes Halo and The Good Wife. I knew that they were going the right direction, as they not only picked the right actor, but they also picked a showrunner with a hip-hop pedigree, Mr. Cheo Hodari Coker, (who used to write for The Source and Vibe magazines).
As he said in an interview “this was the Wu-Tangification of the Marvel Universe,” and this creative team made no qualms about that, starting off with each episode title, as they are named after a Gangstarr song, as each episode fell right in with Guru’s lyrics. Then there are subtle Biggie references throughout the series topped off with the iconic painting of the rapper that hangs in Cottonmouth’s office in Harlem’s Paradise. The music sounds like it came from a 1970s score, as Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest weaves funky beds of rhythms and silky voices courtesy of Jidenna and Faith Evans, that prove that Marvel properties can have music you would want to listen to. Can anyone name a movie soundtrack from the MCU, in which was as memorable and enjoyable to listen to?
Another important piece is how the series portrays both Asians and Black women. Miss Connie and her husband Jin are portrayed very realistically and nowhere near stereotypical. As was pointed out in the recent Hamilton documentary by Lin Manuel Miranda’s father that “most immigrants , and all immigrants he met, were hard workers,” and I can say this for myself, as my father and my mother were immigrants as well, and I never heard them complain. The two character’s portrayals were very true to the experience, much like Netflix’s Master of None’s second episode, “Parents,” where they explored the connection and the gap between 1st generation Americans and 1st generation Asian Americans, (incidentally, the same actor, Clem Cheung who played Jin, also played one of the parents).
Now the portrayal of women within this series, is by far eye opening for a TV show. I’m pretty sure this one either came close to or pretty much did pass the Bechdel Test. Let us start with Misty Knight, as her character is to say very least complex and actually not like most female detectives on television, she is focused, strong and always on the job, and despite her one night stand with Luke, it does not affect her decision making nor veers her away from her integrity, diffusing the usually false trope of “a woman makes decisions emotionally,” and the character actually is more like the junkyard dog detectives of the 1970s, much like Popeye Doyle, from The French Connection.
Then there is Clare Temple, as with each new series from Marvel on Netflix, her character becomes more developed, and we learn more about her, as her introductory scene shows her beating up a robber and showing an actually positive relationship between her and her mother played by Sonia Braga. We also find out how brilliant she is, as she assists Dr. Burstein, in removing the Judas bullets from Luke’s body in later episodes. Then there is Mariah, known to comic book fans, as Black Mariah, thank goodness they went the total opposite form the cartoonish version they have in the comics. This version is much more developed, lucid, and more sinister than the comic book version. The character that pretty much made Mariah and Cottonmouth, Mama Mable played masterfully by Latanya Richardson-Jackson, looms large over the series, as you not only understand how these characters came to be but what dreams they deferred on their way to becoming who they are.
My favorite scene out of the whole series, is when Mariah and the mother of a young boy who gets beat up by a detective while under police custody while he was being investigated about Luke’s whereabouts, who just so happens to go to night school to become a lawyer, confronts Misty and her female captain, about the incident, never mind that you have four women in a scene alone together, but each were portraying a strong black woman, with a job and goals, as portrayals like these are few and far between, truly a treasure of a scene.
Now let me talk about the big bad guys, each of them a strong change from the comic book portrayal, not only by look but also character motivation. There’s Shades, who is totally different from his comic book incarnation. In the comics his shades actually become a weapon, much like Cyclops. Instead, in this portrayal he’s named that because of his affinity to wearing sunglasses. But he’s just as insidious as his comic book portrayal and proves to be the kingmaker before the season ends. Now, the one character, which occupies the role of nemesis for much of the season is Cottonmouth, who doesn’t have razorsharp teeth, but is ruthless, and rules Harlem with an iron fist, he reminds me of Nucky from Boardwalk Empire, got his hand in everything, steal power from his mentor (Pops) and has no hesitation to kill or mame anyone who gets in his way. Lastly, there is Diamondback, who is probably the most complex of the three as the underlying truth of his and Luke’s connections are the bane of his ill will towards him and his youthful indiscretion, of a prior betrayal. When he enters the series no one would ever think that he knew Luke prior to this confrontation (unless you read the comics). When they delve into their backstory is the exact moment, I found myself forgetting that this was a Netflix Marvel story, and saw it purely as a story, a damn good one, at that. The truth that they are blood brothers, prove to be too much for Luke. There’s also the experiential weapon that Diamondback wields as he carries a Bible just like he carries a gun. When Luke finally connects it all, the viewer gets a glimpse of how the two men saw the same scenes differently, and although Luke was considered the legitimate son, he assures Diamondback he was treated not so well himself. This level of story development would never have been seen on network TV, that is why Netflix’s flexibility is what makes this series so astonishingly good.
With the advent and introduction of shows like Empire, and Black-ish, America has gotten a more well developed view of what Black Americans must face every day. But until shows like Atlanta, Queen Sugar, and Luke Cage, we now get to see some of Black America’s realities explored. Luke Cage, does not shy away from the issues from police brutality to stop and frisk, America gets to see just how those without privilege actually get treated, even if you have superpowers. This ended up creating a movement within the TV show which culminates with Method Man talking about how Luke Cage saved him and creates a folk hero rap song “Bulletproof Love” telling the world and the streets that everyone has Luke Cage’s back. This amount of love for a character has not been seen in the Marvel Universe, in the movies or television, in fact it is mostly venom that’s aimed out the “heroes.” Luke’s universe, like the rest of the Netflix shows, does not involve the bigger stages we see in the films, instead it just focuses on Harlem. That focused setting helps makes the series the best so far.
I did not want to end this review, without talking about the relationship of Luke and Pops. This by far is the most positive relationship of the whole series and is definitely a form of a father-son relationship. Pops’ wisdom and emotional intelligence only makes Luke a better man, and as his stance as “Switzerland” of Harlem is upended, that’s the point where Luke actually becomes the hero in his journey. We see Luke evolve as he cannot stay out of any wrongdoing anymore. Overall, it’s probably one of the best portrayals of a positive male relationship in a while.
I often describe the series to friends since I binge watched it as “The Wire meets Barbershop,” which is the snapshot description, but not for the reasons most would think. I think it’s like The Wire, as it digs into the ills of society, and shows the world that not everything nor its inhabitants are black and white. It is like Barbershop because of the many issues that are discussed and how it shows what people would do when their backs are against the wall. Overall, it exceeds both of these, and more than sets the example for other comic book based series, that one does not need to appease to a wide appeal.