When Luke Cage hits Netflix on September 30th, following in the celebrated footsteps of fellow Defenders Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the premiere is going to be a bigger deal than many realize. In today’s world, where issues of systemic racism, mass incarceration, and America’s lingering prejudices have become some of the most talked about issues of the day, there couldn’t be a more relevant time for Marvel to finally drop Luke Cage onto Netflix, marking the first time that an African American superhero has led a Marvel movie or TV series (other than Blade).
Though he played a major role in Marvel’s Jessica Jones series, Luke’s backstory has yet to be explored on screen… but that’s all about to change. Luke Cage comes from a hard world, and he’s faced a lot of hard losses. Between imprisonment, the deaths of his loved ones, racist prison guards, and losing his job, Luke has made it through a lot without losing himself in the process. Today, he stands tall as one of Marvel’s most prominent characters, and in recent years, one of their strongest role models. Read on to find out the 15 Worst Things That Have Happened To Luke Cage.
15. He Grew Up in A Rough Neighborhood
Even when he was young, Luke Cage — whose birth name was actually Carl Lucas — came from troubled beginnings, largely due to the excessive crime scene around his family’s neighborhood in Harlem. Carl is raised by his loving mother Esther, his stern ex-NYPD father James, and his older brother James, Jr., who all try to instill strong moral values in him. Despite the tightness of this unit, Carl rebukes his father’s authority by being a rebellious kid, and he and his best friend Willis Stryker get involved with the local gangs. He spends much of his adolescence in juvenile homes, continually embarrassing his father whenever the former detective has to pick up his son from the police station.
As they get older and more experienced, Carl and Willis join up with a gang called the Rivals, working for local kingpin Sonny Caputo. The Rivals often show down against their rival gang, the Diablos, and commit small crimes and thefts around Harlem. From an early age, Carl is an ambitious dreamer who likes working for himself instead of others, which is at least one quality of his that has never changed. He likes to be the boss. So it’s no surprise that at this point in time, the young Carl entertains fantasies of a wealthy future in the criminal underworld.
14. His Mother Got Killed by His Own Gang
Though Carl rebels against his father’s strictness, he has a good relationship with his mother… until his criminal activities put up a divide between them. The turning point occurs when Esther is murdered by one of Carl’s own gang members. Because Carl witnesses his mother’s death, and as a result becomes roped in with the resulting court case, both Carl’s father and older brother blame him for the event. Carl’s family cut ties with him. James, Jr. even moves both he and his father away, and through intercepting Carl’s letters, leads both his brother and his father to believe that the other has died.
This death has a huge impact on Carl’s future. Though he initially submerges himself deeper into his criminal lifestyle, he soon comes to a realization about how much his lifestyle has destroyed his family, and he is forced to reconcile with the moral consequences of his actions. Carl decides to turn his life around, terminating his relationship with the gang, and begins looking for more conventional employment.
Though Carl does break off from most of his old criminal friends, he nonetheless maintains his childhood friendship with Willis Stryker, who still remains involved in the criminal underworld. As the years go on, this turns out to be a relationship that will do him more harm than good.
13. He Got Thrown in Prison
Willis Stryker doesn’t just continue being a low-rent criminal. He begins rising up through the ranks until finally he even gains the attention of the Maggia (Marvel’s equivalent to the Mafia). The Maggia puts a hit out on Stryker, and he’s only saved when Carl protects him. Though Willis’s life is saved, this event results in Carl losing something else that’s just as important to him — the affections of his then-girlfriend Reva Connors, who can no longer stomach her boyfriend’s violent lifestyle. Losing Reva would be enough to set Stryker off, but to top it all off, Reva then runs into the arms of the now-legitimate, fully-reformed Carl Lucas, and the two fall in love.
Furious at the union of his girlfriend and best friend, Stryker gets revenge by planting heroin (stolen from the Maggia) in Carl’s apartment, and then reporting it to the police. Carl is immediately arrested, put on trial, and then imprisoned in Seagate Prison, a facility off the coast of Georgia that is sometimes nicknamed “Little Alcatraz.”
12. Reva was Murdered
But even locked behind bars, life hadn’t yet rubbed all of its salt into Carl’s wounds. From prison, Carl attempts to get revenge on Stryker by contacting the Maggia and informing them of the heroin that his former friend had stolen from them to frame him. The Maggia initiate another hit job on Stryker, but their attempt to kill him is also unsuccessful — instead, they end up killing Reva Connors, rendering Carl somewhat responsible for the death of his own girlfriend.
Though not much of Luke Cage’s backstory is explored in Jessica Jones, the series does adapt aspects of this by positioning Reva Connors as Luke’s wife, who is murdered some time before the series begins. Over the course of the series, it is eventually revealed through flashbacks that Reva was actually killed by Jessica Jones, who at the time was under the mind control of the sadistic supervillain Kilgrave. Though Jessica cannot be held responsible for the actions that Kilgrave forced her to perform, this event — and Jessica’s fear of revealing it to Luke and potentially destroying their blossoming relationship — becomes a source of conflict between the two heroes.
11. He Was Abused By a Racist Prison Guard
The man who was Carl Lucas, and would become Luke Cage, has faced a lot of racism in his life. But one of the worst aggressors in all of his years turns out to be the prison guard Albert “Billy Bob” Rackham, who tortures him during his time at Seagate Prison.
Carl is hardly a cool-tempered prisoner. Between the fact that — after finally carving out a new life for himself, moving beyond his criminal past — he is framed by his supposed best friend, thrown in prison, becomes indirectly responsible for the murder of his girlfriend, and is cut off from his family, Carl constantly tries to escape and gets in violent scuffles with the other prisoners. This rowdiness earns him the attention of Albert Rackham (a small-minded and racist guard who routinely abuses Seagate’s mostly African-American prisoner population) who starts to target Carl on a regular basis. Carl is forced to endure these abuses during his imprisonment, though Rackham is eventually demoted when new management takes over. However, this demotion only deepens Rackham’s hatred for Carl.
10. He Got Experimented On
Eventually, Dr. Noah Burstein comes to the prison and begins conducting secret medical experiments involving electricity on any prisoners willing to volunteer. The now-desperate and defeated Carl Lucas agrees to have these experiments performed on him. While the electricity is coursing through Carl’s body, Dr. Burstein leaves the equipment for a moment, and Carl’s enemy Albert Rackham uses the opportunity to tamper with the controls, increasing the voltage in an attempt to kill his least favorite prisoner.
Instead, this alteration ends up granting Carl Lucas the incredible powers of super strength and unbreakable skin. Carl uses these abilities to finally break out of Seagate, making his way back up to New York City. In Harlem, he reestablishes himself with the new identity of Luke Cage, and begins operating as a self-employed “hero for hire.”
Though this experiment ended up being the biggest turning point of Carl’s life, turning him into the superpowered hero that he is today, it’s nonetheless fairly disturbing that the prison was willing to conduct these experiments on its prisoners to begin with. Sure, Steve Rogers got experimented on too, but he volunteered because he badly wanted to serve his country. Luke only volunteered because he’d been framed, imprisoned, forgotten by the world, and had run out of options.
9. His Former Best Friend Became His Arch-Enemy
Once Luke Cage becomes a known presence in Harlem, it’s not long before his embittered old friend Willis Stryker comes back into the picture as well. During the years of Luke’s imprisonment, Stryker has risen to further prominence in the New York crime scene, having become a skilled knife fighter and taken on the nickname Diamondback.
Upon Luke Cage’s return to Harlem, Diamondback hires enforcers to track Cage down and kill him. These outmatched hired guns are quickly defeated by Luke’s unbreakable skin and super strength, of course. After the battle, Luke is then examined by Claire Temple, the nurse played by Rosario Dawson in the Netflix series, who is shocked by Luke’s lack of injuries. Still wanting to strike Luke down, Diamondback kidnaps Luke’s new friend Claire, in an effort to force Luke to come to him. This escapade finally results in a deadly one-on-one confrontation, wherein Diamondback is finally killed by one of his own blades.
8. He Was Framed Again, This Time for Murdering His New Best Friend
Needless to say, though Luke came from shady beginnings, he’s done a lot to make up for it. Whether it’s becoming a hero, or moving in with fellow vigilante Jessica Jones when she becomes pregnant and raising a family together, Luke has worked hard to repair any damage he did as a criminal and become a better man. So, it’s unfortunate that he is so often blamed for crimes he didn’t commit — particularly when it comes from the people closest to him getting hurt.
Iron Fist/Danny Rand, whose series is next on the docket over on Netflix, is Luke’s true, honest best friend. Not in the sense that Willis Stryker was a “friend,” but rather, Danny is the friend that Luke always needed. After Luke’s criminal charges are finally cleared and he legally changes his name to Luke Cage, he and Iron Fist work together under a lawyer named Hogarth (played by Carrie-Anne Moss in Jessica Jones) as the two employees of a new Heroes for Hire agency. Though an odd pair, Luke and Danny form an inseparable bond that has lasted to this day, with Cage’s daughter Danielle even being named after his friend.
Unfortunately, when Danny is seemingly killed in action, Luke is the one who gets blamed for it, and he once again becomes a fugitive. Luckily, Iron Fist is later found alive, and these charges are cleared.
7. His Remaining Family was Torn Apart by a Sinister Corporation
Luke’s family already got wrecked enough by his early years in the gang, with his mother’s death carving a huge hole in the family dynamic. But in later years, things only get worse. As stated earlier, Luke’s older brother James Lucas Jr., takes great pains to keep Luke disconnected from he and his father, even going so far as lying to both of them that the other is dead. Year after year, his anger with Luke strengthens, until eventually James becomes involved with a criminal/political entity known only as “The Corporation.”
James Jr. decides to take his anger out on his little brother by undergoing the Corporation’s experimental procedures, and thus being transformed into the protoplasmic supervillain Coldfire. As Coldfire tries to kill Luke, their father James, Sr., is taken hostage by the Corporation. Both Luke and his brother eventually join forces to save their father, and though they succeed in rescuing the older James, Coldfire sacrifices himself in the process.
Initially, Luke and his father reconcile for the first time since Luke was a boy. But later on, because of these events and everything that occurred in the past, Luke’s father once again becomes deeply estranged from his only living son. He even goes so far as to change his name to James Geary, moves away, and remarries. Later on, when Luke’s wife Jessica Jones tracks James down, he still refuses to speak to Luke.
6. His Theater Got Destroyed
Even after forgoing his criminal roots, Luke has always been the kind of man who likes running his own business. Whether it’s a bar, a Hero for Hire agency… or even a theater.
When Luke first opens up his Hero For Hire business, he rents an apartment/office above the Gem Theater near Times Square. The Gem Theater is a quaint little movie theater that shows B-grade westerns, and it’s owned and operated by film student D.W. Griffith, who’s also the landlord. It’s a bit of a busted, rinky-dink place, with a soda machine that dispenses soup cans instead of soda, but it serves the needs of ex-convict Luke pretty well. Luke becomes good friends with D.W., which is a lifesaver, since there are at least a few occasions wherein Luke’s super powered battles cause severe damage to the premises.
Years later, during a period of time wherein Luke has retired from his superhero lifestyle, his involvement with the theater comes full circle when he takes on a new role as co-owner, working together with D.W. Griffith. Unfortunately, the Gem Theater is eventually attacked and destroyed by a supervillain named The Master of the World. This event brings Luke back into the vigilante fold, leading him to join up with his friend Iron Fist’s new Heroes for Hire agency.
5. He Got Fired from Heroes For Hire
Considering that Luke is the one who started the whole Hero for Hire business concept to begin with (though he’s since gone on to become a notable Avengers member), it’s somewhat shocking to imagine that he could get fired from it. But after Luke Cage joined up with Iron Fist’s new Heroes for Hire company, that’s exactly what happened.
The pink slip comes out when Heroes for Hire is bought out by Stark-Fujikawa, the merged company that is formed from both Stark Industries and Fujikawa Industries when Tony Stark is presumed dead, with Kenjiro Fujikawa serving as as CEO. Because of his criminal record, Luke Cage is let go by Stark-Fujikawa, as the worldwide organization doesn’t want to have former convicted criminals on its payroll (it also releases fellow teammate Scott Lang/Ant-Man from his gig). Though this grim reminder of his past is enough to get anyone down in the dumps, the other members of Heroes for Hire also resign in a show of solidarity with Luke and Scott.
4. He Had to Send His Wife and Daughter to Canada During Marvel’s Civil War
Since falling in love with Jessica Jones and becoming a loyal husband and father, Luke’s life has largely taken a turn for the better, which is why most of the events on this list occur in Luke’s distant past. In recent years, Luke has fought hard to make a good life for his family, and was at one point even appointed as the leader of his own team of Avengers. Though the Marvel Universe is full of fractured relationships and traumatic events, the relationship between Luke and Jessica has truly become a nest of stability, love, and understanding.
Perhaps the greatest challenge this family unit has faced comes during the confrontation between Captain America and Iron Man during Marvel’s (first) Civil War, wherein Iron Man and his allies fight for superhuman registration. Luke, unsurprisingly enough, takes Cap’s side of the debate, as Iron Man’s arguments remind him a bit too much of Jim Crow Laws. With Jessica needing to take care of their newborn daughter Danielle, she and the baby covertly sneak away to Canada, away from the battleground area, while Luke joins up with Captain America’s anti-registration troops.
3. His Bar Was Blown Up
And now that we’re talking about Jessica Jones, the love of Luke’s life, we can circle back around to Marvel Cinematic Universe, and everything that’s happened so far on Netflix. While we still have a lot to learn about how the cinematic Luke’s past compares to his illustrated counterpart, we can definitely say that the Luke that we meet on Jessica Jones has already suffered from some similarly terrible events to his comic book counterpart.
When Luke is first introduced, he’s shown as the subtle, introverted, but aggressive owner of his own bar, a self-made man still in mourning after the murder of his wife Reva. He and Jessica Jones are immediately attracted to one another, and the two enter into a sexual relationship that soon leads to deeper feelings, resulting in Jessica being torn by the desire to draw closer to Luke and the guilt of knowing that, during the time she was being mind-controlled by Kilgrave, she was the one who killed Reva.
However, Luke’s involvement with Jessica also leads to him meeting Kilgrave, the one villain he can’t just punch his way through. Kilgrave has no problem getting inside Luke’s head, and he forces Luke to blow up his own bar.
2. He Was Mind Controlled by Kilgrave
Destroying the same business he’d worked so hard to create is already pretty severe, but as we later find out, Kilgrave — who possesses a deeply twisted obsession with Jessica — isn’t done messing with Luke’s head.
Luke and Jessica, who’d previously had a falling out after her involvement in Reva’s death is revealed, start growing closer again after the explosion, with Luke explaining to her that he now understands what it’s like to be controlled by Kilgrave. Together, the two of them work together to track down the supervillain, eventually cornering him in a nightclub. It is here that Kilgrave reveals, to Jessica’s horror, that he’s actually had control over Luke’s mind this entire time. In fact, every moment of Luke and Jessica’s resumed relations, after the bar explosion, are entirely the result of Kilgrave’s mind control, with him going so far as to feed dialogue directly into Luke’s mouth. Kilgrave then forces Luke to try to kill Jessica, resulting in a deadly confrontation that ends when Jessica shoots him in the head with a shotgun at point blank range. She then rushes him to the emergency room, where he’s cared for by Claire Temple, the official vigilante nurse of Hell’s Kitchen.
Though it’s clear at season’s end that Jessica is still in love with Luke, they don’t get another chance to interact. With Luke now getting his own series, and with both of them set to feature on The Defenders, only time will tell where their relationship unfolds from here. If there’s one thing that their comic book story has taught us, it’s that even if they squabble and swear at each other, they probably won’t stay apart for long. These characters need each other, and we should count on seeing them reunite by the time The Defenders hit Netflix.
1. He Used to Have Terrible Fashion Sense
Though all of the events on this list are obviously deeply traumatic, perhaps the worst thing that ever happened in Luke’s life was the day where he found out that his original outfit wasn’t as stylish as he thought it was. Back when he first became a superhero, Luke hit the streets in the now-famous bright yellow collared shirt, chain-link belt, and tiara/bracelet combo, busting any criminals that got in his way. The truly tragic thing about Luke’s fashion faux pas is that it’s obvious that his outfit wasn’t just thrown together. Everything about it is very specific. He really tried to make it work.
Clearly, whenever Luke found out that his costume wasn’t as cool as he thought it was, the realization was so tragic that he decided to throw away the notion of wearing costumes altogether. Even as an Avenger, the Luke of recent years has tended to just stick with street clothes, even when — as his Netflix counterpart complains, in the teaser for the new series — he has to keep buying new ones whenever the old ones get shredded by bullets. At most, the modern day Cage wears a yellow t-shirt and gauntlets, sometimes with a slick pair of shades. These days, he’s one of the most badass looking superheroes around. Regardless, when a guy is as cool, deadly, and intimidating as Luke Cage, who cares what kind of costume he’s wearing?
Will he don the old tiara in the Netflix series? If Jessica Jones is any indication, we wouldn’t bet on it. But still, a yellow t-shirt homage wouldn’t be so surprising. Either way, this super-’70s costume is outlandish enough to have now made the move to corny-cool-nostalgia territory, so when the Luke Cage premiere makes a big impact later this month, don’t be surprised to see yellow-collared shirts and pirate boots everywhere come Halloween. Who knows, maybe it will start some new trends.
Did we miss any of Luke Cage’s most tragic moments? Let us know in the comments.