The way Marvel’s Luke Cage at once embraces blaxploitation tropes and transcends them completely isn’t necessarily its triumph. It is, however, the element that speaks most directly to what the series, based on the Marvel Comics character that first appeared back in 1972 with Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, is attempting to accomplish. Cage, as portrayed by Mike Colter, is a wrongly convicted ex-con and certified ladies’ man who makes rent and some meager pocket change by sweeping up hair at a barber shop and doing dishes at the restaurant owned by Harlem crime lord Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). He’s also attempting to be a role model and a hard-working member of his local community in the aftermath of his time in jail and the life he left behind when his wife was murdered. Above all else, Luke Cage is about what, if any, qualifications there are for being a hero.
The show’s bedrock is Pop’s, the local cut shop where Cage trades stories with the store’s namesake (Frankie Faison). Pop is one of few who know that Cage has become super-strong, bulletproof, and essentially indestructible—gifted with some sort of cellular regeneration following his time in prison. Like Cage, Pop has a criminal past, and he’s also taken his experiences as a way to shepherd and guide the next generation. Pop can also see that Cottonmouth’s game is to own Harlem’s criminal enterprises, specifically the gun trade. In the middle of these polar opposites—the cut-and-shave old-timer versus the new-school, cynical warlord—is where Luke Cage toils with its moral knot. Is it better to languish with a clear conscience at a small, physical job that doesn’t guarantee you a hot meal every day or does one take to a luxurious life of crime in which one’s existence can be ended over a simple business decision?
The series struggles to make Cottonmouth more than just a contentious, high-ranking criminal with little compassion and tremendous self-interest. There’s an early scene where the character explains the symbolic nature of his Notorious B.I.G. painting, which pictures the late Christopher Wallace with a crown on his head. Ali, a deeply charismatic actor, savors the language as he speaks about how everyone wants the crown, but few are fit for it. In such moments, the show’s writers brush up against something poetic, even aching, about making money the way a person like Cottonmouth does, with the man standing before his painting so the crown on Biggie’s head looks as if it’s perched atop his own. But beyond his verbal eloquence and wit, Cottonmouth doesn’t quite transcend the familiar archetype of the sophisticated, powerful nemesis, dedicated to little more than the fiscal expansion of his empire. The series conveys his vast ambitions as being directly tied to his willingness to betray, kill, and extort others for his gain.
Cage’s passion is Harlem’s local community, but unlike Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage makes no considerable effort to introduce us to the members of that community, or immerse us in their much-talked-about efforts to keep neighbors close-knit. With the exception of Pop and flirty detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), the only prominent person who both represents the everyday denizens of the neighborhood and speaks with Cage is his brassy landlady, Connie Lin (Jade Wu), who owns and operates the Chinese take-out joint beneath his apartment. Otherwise, there are very few scenes where we see how Luke is anchored to the community in any physical way, beyond receiving some consideration on rent for protecting Connie’s business from Cottonmouth’s own protection racket.
“Hero for hire” is the crucial role Cage takes in his community, disarming a young mugger with a speech about Crispus Attucks—the black man considered to be the first death of the American Revolutionary War—and beginning a small campaign to destroy Cottonmouth’s homes where he stores product or money. Would that there were more scenes of Cage’s interactions with his neighbors and other members of the community, but the aforementioned sequences speak directly to his loyalty to, and love for, Harlem.
The show’s most compelling, complicated character is Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), Cottonmouth’s double-dealing politician cousin, who’s depicted as being both ambitious about keeping a robust and fruitful African-American community in Harlem and okay with some blood being spilled to guarantee that. It’s in sequences like Cottonmouth and Mariah’s park-bench discussion about the role of crime and corruption in the forward movement of society, especially for African-Americans, that Luke Cage displays its more urgent and philosophical side. In moments like these, the series confronts gentrification, gun control, and criminal justice reform, though there’s a constant sense that the writers are only dipping their toes into these murky waters.
The show’s most potent romance is seen entirely in flashback and grows out of Cage’s battle to stay sane and alive while in prison, under the violent, dictatorial order of a vicious, manipulative white police guard. The scenes between Cage and Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley), his future wife, are powered by intimate conversations that touch on issues like recidivism versus rehabilitation, giving due credit to the counselors who try to help inmates who have given up on life after prison.
Not unlike Daredevil, one of the key allures of Luke Cage is its evocative, shadow-ridden visual palette. Victor Frankenstein director Paul McGuigan sets the colorful and uniquely theatrical aesthetic tone of the series, as well as a tempo for the kinetic pace in the opening two episodes. Backed by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Mohammad’s soulful, propulsive score, there’s rarely a moment where the writing feels too weighed down by the intricacies of the plot or the vastness of the characters’ backstories. Even when the arc of an episode or a whole storyline feels too predictable or overworked, the fleet-footed, thoughtful editing keeps the series feeling fluid and lively.
Luke Cage succeeds where so many Marvel ventures have failed in finding a unique, if not perfect, pitch between seeing the hero at its center as an icon for social good and understanding him as a human being, and it’s important that the writers don’t ignore or sublimate the fact that he’s also African-American. Much like how Jessica Jones was attached to the idea of victim rehabilitation after psychological and physical abuse, Luke Cage consistently emphasizes the need for spreading awareness of African-American history, as well as the societal smear of being labeled a criminal and the undeniable hope that comes with real leadership in local communities, often by people not half as indestructible as the hopeful, fantastical Cage.