A superhero grounded in reality—and the gritty city
With the release of Luke Cage on Netflix, one thing is certain: the small screen Defenders series, like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, have far surpassed any of the other Marvel properties in terms of quality. ABC has tried admirably with Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter but the small screen, prime time format has its limits not found in shows produced by the popular streaming service.
The quality of these series can, in some respects, be attributed to the episodic nature of comic books, which translates well to a 13-episode series. It allows for the writers to spend less time throwing punches and saving damsels and more time developing characters and creating a world. Beyond that, however, is the control given to the show runners.
The films are highly controlled and packaged. Despite the talented directors attached to the films, from Jon Favreau to Joss Whedon, none of the Marvel films feel distinct (James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the exception). They each feel like one film, cut into chunks and released every few years. While the films are good, they are also disposable, not unlike most of the weekly comics released by DC or Marvel.
The Netflix series, however, feel more like a graphic novel. Each series is distinct, with unique themes and looks that fit their specific hero like a glove. Daredevil features The Raid style action and choreography, not shying away from strong visuals and long camera shots. Jessica Jones is uniquely dark, exploring themes of abuse and power in complex and powerful ways.
Luke Cage continues this tradition by taking traditional superhero tropes and using them to explore common issues within black communities, peppering the narrative with nods to Blaxploitation films without turning into parody. The result is a solidly executed show that makes Netflix the go-to destination for superhero fare.
Luke Cage is a super strong, bullet proof hero with a past and a desire to keep his head down. First shown in last year’s Jessica Jones, a standalone series with Cage was a necessity. With Marvel, we know that this was the plan all along—fans might call for it, but Marvel knew what it was doing long before it debuted the character. Luke Cage is moved uptown in this series, abandoning the down and dirty streets of Hell’s Kitchen for the historic neighborhood of Harlem.
Harlem faces many of the same issues found elsewhere in NYC—“the incident” (the alien invasion from 2012’s The Avengers) has led to a downturned economy and an uptick in thrilling heroics. Street salesmen hawk DVD’s featuring footage of green skinned monsters and mobsters threaten to take what little the Harlem residents have in the form of King John style “taxes.”
Most of the crime is done through gun running, supplying local gangs with weapons. When a shooting at a barbershop leaves a local legend dead, Luke Cage faces off against the underworld and their shady political connections to make the neighborhood safe for those who live there.
The casting of the show sets it apart from others of its kind. In order to effectively portray a believable Harlem, the show needs a comprehensive and capable stable of black actors. Where else would the showrunners look than David Simon’s The Wire? Actors from The Wire have popped up in a variety of Marvel properties, but Luke Cage seems to have tapped more than the others.
The series features Frankie Faison (“Pop” Hunter), Michael Kostroff (Dr. Noah Burstein), S. Robert Morgan (Oliver), and Sonja Sohn (Captain Betty Audrey), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more show up as the series progresses. Beyond just The Wire alums, the cast is strong throughout, led by the talented and believable Mike Colter as Luke Cage.
The show is also frequently underscored by R&B and hip-hop artists, further solidify the show with its Blaxploitation roots and setting it further apart from the previous shows.
It’s this distinction that makes the series work so well. Luke Cage was created to be a very different superhero than Spider-Man. By allowing the show to be true to its roots and giving the audience a chance to connect with it on its own terms, Luke Cage becomes a stronger representation of the comic book than any of the Avengers style films.
It might not have the flashy special effects but it’s got the soul of the original work.