Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’ is landmark for social relevance, Black representation

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After the well-received debuts of Marvel’s Netflix series “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones,” its next project, “Luke Cage,” fostered high expectations in both its thematic content and the praiseworthy acting of the show’s eponymous lead by Mike Colter in his guest performance in “Jessica Jones.” Just as the two previous Netflix shows tackled issues that were more personal and realistic in scale compared to alien invasions or government conspiracies in Marvel films, “Luke Cage” functions as a social commentary of the flawed systems that gave rise to unlawful police killings of Black men and women.

The show’s titular character, Luke Cage, is a Black superhero with impenetrable skin — largely unaffected even by bullets — which creates a poetic quality in its timeliness in relation to current events. The character’s creation in 1972 was a product of an era of Blaxploitation, evident from both his garish costume — featuring a bright yellow, open-chested blouse, a steel tiara with a matching chain-link belt and an ostentatious afro — and the cringe-worthy catchphrases and non sequiturs. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker incorporates them into the narrative through cinematography, musicality and good-natured mocking nods toward the character’s legacy.

The show’s pacing is markedly slow, and as a result, it feels as though the series would have benefited from a condensation of the plot or perhaps a smaller emphasis on hit or miss side characters. The expository tendencies of “Luke Cage” are not the only times when a Netflix series has struggled with the prosody of its plot; the same can be said of both “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones.” This becomes indicative of a problem that has less to do with the screenwriters or showrunners but rather a problem with the structure to which the shows are adhering.

The focus of the first half of the season also seems to follow formulaic motifs — reluctant outsider attempts to take down criminal empire while being inhibited by the corruption of law enforcement — yet the prevalence of these tropes are elevated by the stellar performances of the show’s leads in the aforementioned Cage (Colter), Misty Knight (Simone Missick), Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali). The second half of the season is when the problems with the series surface the most. The tried comic book tropes create logical fallacies and loopholes that work as a detriment to the show.

Dillard and Stokes become the main antagonists to Cage and follow the trend of compelling villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon from the other Netflix series, such as Kingpin and Kilgrave. Through these two characters, Coker places the cultural importance of the Black community at the fore, which is only aided by the show taking place in Harlem. Stokes owns a nightclub called Harlem’s Paradise — a central location in the show’s narrative. It is not only the site of Stokes’ criminal activity but also the center of musical expression; often at the beginning of each episode the club features musical performers such as hip-hop artist Jidenna and soul and R&B vocal group The Delfonics. These cameos are appended by constant references to important figures in the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes and Billy Strayhorn, to name a few.

Toward the end of the series, the show’s criticism culminates into moments of high tension during which the police employ widespread tactical racial profiling in order to find Luke Cage, reflecting the seemingly commonplace tragedies that incite fear in and violence against Black communities. The costume that Luke Cage dons is not consistent of tights or gaudy metal bracelets — it is a gray hoodie, oftentimes riddled with bullet holes. It is the show’s payment of solidarity and outrage toward tragedies like those of Trayvon Martin and Terence Crutcher, who died just a few weeks before the release of the series. What the show lacks in its pacing or dialogue, it more than makes up for it in its poignancy and importance not only as a social criticism but also as a conduit of representation.

Contact Josh Gu at [email protected].