Marvel has done it again with Luke Cage. They’ve created a show that doesn’t stand to fit in to the MCU, but still resides perfectly within it. It shines a spotlight on issues in our own world, creating a backdrop for superheroes that we can believe. The threats that Luke Cage is up against are, in many ways, the threats that face communities today.
The show follows a slow pace, but this is to its benefit. It rests in reality. It sits squarely within a world that even with the inclusion of superheroes isn’t all that different from the world we live in. The deep coloration and cinematography create a gorgeous backdrop with the soulful soundtrack of Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad feeling heavily reminiscent of the 70s when Power Man first took to the comics’ scene. There’s a feel to the show that drives it.
The show opens with people in a barber shop. Living their lives. Talking about basketball, cursing, and Al Pacino. These people are at peace in their little world, forgetting for just a moment the dangers that lie outside. This shop is central to the show.
If Batman has a batcave, Luke Cage has this barber shop. The opening credits draw you into the funky world of Harlem, where minorities are majorities, mob bosses exist, crooked and above-board cops work side-by-side without knowing it, and the city needs heroes. Not ones who fly in to fight aliens in “the incident,” but ones who can provide hope. Ones who already belong, who have a stake in this game.
That’s Luke Cage.
Because he was introduced in Jessica Jones, this show isn’t quick to provide backstory. That will come with time. Instead it picks up with a reluctant hero. A man who is simply trying to make an honest living, keep his head down, and not make a splash. He’s clearly still reeling from his wife’s death and his own traumatic history, but he isn’t allowing that to affect his everyday life.
Here he sweeps up and cleans rags. We quickly realized that “Pop,” the owner of this shop, knows about Cage’s abilities, and wishes he would do more with them. If you know the heroes journey, you realize this is the wise old man. Of course, Cage dismisses this, explaining that he doesn’t want that and heads off to his second job at Harlem’s Paradise.
This secondary job is what introduces us to the major players in this season. Here we meet Misty Knight, a cop; Stokes or Cottonmouth depending on his mood at the time, the mob boss; and Councilwoman Mariah Dillard, cousin to Cottonmouth and crooked leader of Harlem, who is so convinced of the righteousness of her endeavors for Harlem that she hardly bats an eye at the violence that surrounds her.
This is a slow boil show. We see Luke Cage in action in the second episode, rising to the occasion once a tragedy has occurred, but he doesn’t fully become the hooded hero of Harlem until the fourth episode when he quite literally rises from the ashes, stands before a live camera and says, “I’m Luke Cage.” It is also in this episode that his backstory is finally revealed and it feels fitting to give us insight into how he became this hero, and end the episode with his acceptance of it.
As we discover in the flashbacks, he was falsely interned in Seagate Prison (an important location in Marvel comics, where such baddies as Justin Hammer and even the Mandarin are kept), where experiments were secretly occurring, because no one will investigate the conditions prisoners are kept in within a private prison.
We also see that Cage has history with another character, Shades, who has been working with Cottonmouth, but his own story and significance is still unclear, even halfway through the show. We also see his wife, Reva, and your heart is ready to break all over again when you remember what befell her in Jessica Jones. Their connection feels a bit forced in this show, but knowing what befalls her and seeing the devastation that has caused for Cage makes it easy to forgive.
However, her roll in Cage’s past also begs the question of her connection to the Purple Man and even Jessica Jones herself. What does she know of the Marvel Universe, and how can she so easily accept Cage’s newfound powers? Perhaps this is a question better left for later episodes or shows. We’ll have to wait and see.
Misty spends most of the show uncertain about Cage. Is he someone connected to all the problems in Harlem? He certainly seems to turn up at crime scenes without a solid explanation. But with the events of episodes four and five she seems to realize that Cage is not causing the crimes, he is trying to stop them.
However, as a believer in the system – although she is likely to lose some of that faith in the second half of the series – of justice, they quarrel over his role. Ultimately, they come together in episode six as Cage attempts to save her injured partner and proves that he is trying to help the system, if that system is honest.
While up until this point, we have seen Cage literally battle Stoke and his cronies, sometimes to comedic effect (Cottonmouth literally uses a rocket launcher on the building that Cage and his landlady, Connie, are having dinner in), in episode five, they battle for the hearts and minds of the people, both standing to speak at the funeral of Pop.
Both individuals want to save Harlem, but for Cottonmouth, he believes that he has a right to decide what that Harlem should look like, and he believes that all of the violence is necessary to ensure it thrives. Cage, however, can stand in front of these people and encourage them to rise up to the occasion. They are Harlem. It is their neighborhood and their birthright. No one, not even Cottonmouth, should control how they move forward in their home. Pop wanted a better and safer Harlem for the people, because they deserve that.
In the last episode of the first half (episode 6), or at least what I’m calling the first half, Luke Cage has succeeded at his goal. Bring down Cottonmouth. Bring justice to Pop. He and Claire Temple* (who has appeared as the nurse in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones) hold a conversation in which he says he thinks he’s moving on. He did what he set out to do.
Of course, Claire has a better idea. She excels at encouraging heroes to be better and to keep pushing for what is right. I sense a team-up of some kind in the remainder of the season, but just who with, I don’t know yet. All I know is that this first half, which so neatly ties up the original motivations, feels like a season finale, leaving questions for another day, or in this case, another episode. Part 2, here I come.
Cage is moving always forward. Forward. Always.
*I affectionately call her not-Night Nurse. Clearly she was being set up as that character, a nurse who helps heroes, when the powers that be decided to introduce that specific character into the upcoming Doctor Strange. But that’s no-never-mind to the writers of the Netflix shows. She’ll keep being a nurse to superheroes, she just won’t be Night Nurse. She’s not-Night Nurse.