Small screen: Luke Cage is a new kind of superhero
“The world is ready for a bulletproof black man,” Cheo Coker, creator of Luke Cage, said back at the show’s panel at this year’s Comic-Con. The exact sentiment is echoed by a character in one of the show’s bottom episodes, as Luke Cage, the titular hero with elastic, bulletproof skin, gets into (yet another) violent skirmish in the streets of Harlem. Cage, the first black superhero to headline his own television show, withstands shootings so often across the series’ 13-episode lineup that him having to buy new clothes not riddled with bullets like Swiss cheese becomes a recurring joke.
Back when the original comics were published in 1972, it’s doubtful the creators were entrenched in a political landscape as loud as #BlackLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter ring today. Coker expertly contextualized the show into today's social and political landscape, weaving in important plot lines involving crime, race and violence, while never losing the shiny comic book sheen that’s expected of Marvel superhero property. Luke Cage may have started as a simple concept (man is shot at, man deflects bullets, repeat), but the show’s astute contemporary awareness evolved it into so much more.
Cage, as defined by the show’s star Mike Colter, is humble, low key, and doesn’t want the crime-ridden streets of Harlem knowing about his power of invincibility and super strength. In fact, he’s only confided in Pops, a fatherly figure for the entire community whose barbershop is referred to as ‘Switzerland’ – uninvolved in the gang wars surrounding it. Luke may sweep hair off the floor by day, but by night, he… well, he’s a dishwasher at a nightclub. Again, Luke prefers to keep his head down, even though the owner of the nightclub, known as Cottonmouth (Mahersahala Ali) is one of the biggest crime lords in the city.
Cage is quickly dragged into the ring, though, when a series of events draw him personally into Cottonmouth’s line of vision. As Luke tackles things by force, Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) prefers a more intellectual approach. Missick’s performance, fluidly weaving between a sharp-tongued wisecracker and driven detective, make her and her partner Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley) highlights of the show. Both actors’ performances stick out especially next to Colter, who sometimes underplays his already restrained role. While the flashes of “strong angry man” rage and dashes of humor we see from Colter are fun, the cast’s side characters shoulder the bulk of the emotional weight.
The supporting cast is more than ready for the challenge, though. Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave) makes a particularly chilling adversary as Mariah Dillard, a city councilwoman in cahoots with Cottonmouth, her cousin. Theo Rossi (Sons of Anarchy and When the Bough Breaks) plays Shades, a slippery street criminal always three steps ahead who was involved in Luke’s past. Rosario Dawson returns as Claire Temple, a staple to Netflix’s Marvel universe as a nurse to the frequently-injured heroes. Here she plays her most significant role yet as Luke’s only consistent ally in a plot that has characters swapping allegiances as often as Luke changes shirts.
And that’s the beauty of Luke Cage. Just when the show seemingly establishes a status quo, something happens that flips the show on its head like a common thug engaging in combat with Luke. The first few episodes of the season play out a little too similarly to the first season of Daredevil, the first entry into Netflix’s Marvel fare, in that they feature lengthy and sometimes tedious scenes of the central villain (Cottonmouth in this case) spelling out their plans while the hero combats them from afar. After Daredevil, the formula quickly grows tiring and repetitive, but Coker and the writers have enough tricks up their sleeve to consistently shuffle the playing field, establishing (through example) that absolutely no character is safe.
That lack of safety extends even to Luke himself. After a few battles that play out how, say, a battle between Marvel’s powerless archer Hawkeye and DC’s Superman would (which is to say, no one stands a chance against Luke), the show invents new ways to expose his vulnerabilities. A particularly nail-biting arc midway through the season features the hero mortally wounded for several consecutive episodes as he and Claire look for a cure (no beneficial medical supplies can pierce his skin, either). Plays like this give the show’s copious action scenes a much-needed adrenaline boost (despite their truly awful special effects).
The show thoroughly outclasses Daredevil, which starts strong before teetering out to an anticlimax, by stepping up its game each episode after a somewhat dawdling beginning. Without a plot that moves and strikes like a snake, the show wouldn’t have achieved the political impact it currently bears. Forced into the spotlight, Cage fights to do what’s best for Harlem and his peoples. The show would’ve been a success just as a usual superhero offering, but Cage is intelligent, timely and political as well, using its platform as the first superhero show lead by a person of color to do exactly what we needed it to do. How’s that for bulletproof?