Warning: SPOILERS for Luke Cage season 1 ahead
Even before Luke Cage arrived on Netflix, the show had long been generating buzz about its potential to offer a different take on the traditional superhero genre. Like its fellow Netflix/Marvel shows, Jessica Jones and Daredevil, Luke Cage is set in Manhattan, NYC, but its emphasis on Harlem as a setting – along with its social commentary, predominantly African-American cast, world building, and hip-hop soundtrack – allows it to feel like a fresh new world, and one that breaks the mold of what audiences have come to expect from superhero origin stories.
Right off the bat, Luke’s (Mike Colter) origin story is complicated by the fact that he has already been introduced to audiences, having appeared in Jessica Jones as an ally and love interest, and so many fans of the Marvel universe are already familiar with his powers and personality. However, Luke Cage does not focus on the events of Jessica Jones, even though they are alluded to, and Jessica Jones pointedly did not discuss Luke’s origins. It isn’t until the fourth episode of Luke Cage that the show explores how Luke got his powers, in the form of a flashbacks that are intercut with the present day, as Luke and his landlady Connie (Jade Wu) try to escape the rubble created by Cottonmouth’s rocketlauncher.
Luke Cage in the comics isn’t wholly altruistic, instead offering his services as a “Hero for Hire,” and in the TV show, he repeatedly denies being (or wanting to be) a hero. While the death of a loved one (a classic superhero origin story trope) spurs him to action against Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali), it feels more like a personal vendetta than a personal calling. For a long time, Luke’s heroism starts and ends with Cottonmouth – it isn’t heroism so much as revenge.
Cottonmouth’s (surprisingly early) death changes this dynamic, and Luke’s fight with Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) is largely fueled not by Luke’s desire, but by Diamondback’s. Diamondback’s jealousy of Luke is all-encompassing: it is Diamondback who hunts Luke Cage with special “Judas” bullets, Diamondback who works to destroy Luke’s reputation by framing him for murder, and Diamondback who seems to want to pursue Luke to the ends of the earth. Luke is not the driving force; his heroism in the case of Diamondback is almost wholly reactionary. By the end of the show’s first season, Luke has clearly grown and changed as a person – but does he aspire to be a hero?
Luke Cage has a number of allies who come to his aid, from his mentor Pop (Frankie Faison) and Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) in the barber shop, to Method Man himself. But his two biggest advocates and allies are, of course, Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Claire “Night Nurse” Temple (Rosario Dawson). Having two major characters who are women of color feels like an accomplishment in itself, but both Misty and Claire also play important roles and push against established boundaries for female supporting characters in superhero origin stories.
Misty Knight is a detective for the NYPD and occasional ally of Luke Cage. She and Luke have differing philosophies about the law and how to seek justice, which means that many times Luke decides to keep her out of the loop. After Luke is framed and on the run from the law, even though Misty believes he is innocent, he tries to evade her. Misty is never quite an antagonist, but she and Luke have a complicated relationship from the start.
Claire Temple has appeared in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, making her the most through-line thread between all of the stories, and it seems likely that she will be one of the instigators or catalysts in the creation of the Defenders. In Luke Cage, Claire gets the chance to be in the action, and she rises to the task. Luke Cage finds valuable time to really focus on how Claire Temple decided to rebuild her life (after the eerie events of Daredevil season 2), and how she chose to become a hero in her own way – by healing, rather than fighting.
Both Misty and Claire are resourceful, intelligent, highly capable in crisis situations. However, the two are distinctly different characters with different specialized skills (Misty’s ability to imagine and analyze a crime scene; Claire’s exemplary scientific and medical knowledge) and different personalities (Misty’s tight-laced and forward nature; Claire’s penchant to improvise and emotional energy). Comic books – and comic book movies – have been criticized for their portrayals of women in the past, and honestly can struggle to create complex characters of any gender. One of the best things about Luke Cage is that Misty and Claire are both excellent examples of fully-formed and complex female characters.
Moreover, Luke Cage approaches relationships and intimacy with maturity. While Misty and Luke do hook up in the first episode, Claire’s arrival does not introduce a love triangle. Misty and Claire do clash, but never out of jealousy over Luke; their arguments stem from their differing ideologies and approaches. It is true that Luke and Claire’s interactions have a “will they or don’t they” vibe, but that relationship is very rarely the focal point of the show. Luke and Claire do kiss in the final episode as he is taken off to prison… perhaps the “real” love triangle (or is it a trapezoid?) will be introduced with Matthew Murdock and Jessica Jones in The Defenders.
One of other most striking aspects of Luke Cage is its villains, – both in terms of how many there are, and how they interact with one another. The term “villain” is used broadly here, and should be understood as an antagonist within the superhero genre. At the show’s beginning, Cottonmouth appears to be the villain-in-chief, with Mariah (Alfre Woodard) acting as his henchman. The shadowy and unknown Diamondback lurks out of sight while his henchman, Shades (Theo Rossi), acts on his behalf.
The sheer number of villains frequently leads to villain-on-villain enmity violence that often has little to do with the show’s emerging superhero. Though the first half of the season sets up a pretty traditional superhero-supervillain rivalry, ultimately Luke Cage doesn’t defeat Cottonmouth; the crime boss instead dies at the hands of his own cousin, after a heated and personal feud. His death had nothing to do with Luke Cage, or even his organized crime, and could perhaps have just as easily happened if Cornell had become a jazz pianist – a dream that we see sadly trodden down in a flashback to his childhood.
Many of the show’s assorted bad guys are, like Cottonmouth and Mariah, more humanized than we’ve come to expect from the superhero genre. Scarfe (Frank Whaley) could have simply been a clichéd dirty cop, but instead the audience is offered glimpses into his sad, lonely home life, and finds out about the personal tragedy in his past. By the time the character dies, it’s hard to really hate him.
While Luke Cage begins with a certain structure between its four principal villains, that structure is steadily broken down as the show goes on, with all of the villains scrambling and fighting to be on top. This is a major part of what makes Luke Cage stand out from the crowd, and feel like a fresh take on the genre. Diamondback is such a threat to Mariah and Shades that they try to team up with Luke Cage – the villain vs. villain feud proving so strong that it upends the classic hero vs. villain story.
Shades and Mariah, who began as the henchmen to Diamondback and Cottonmouth, end up on top, taking over Cottonmouth’s club and illegal dealings. As the new king and queen of Harlem, they are the real winners of Luke Cage season 1, using a combination of intelligence, brutality, and in some cases, dumb luck, in order to bring themselves to the top of the picking order. In many ways, the show is as much a supervillain origin story as it is a superhero origin story,
This approach not only allows Marvel and Netflix to deliver some great new villains (something that both Daredevil and Jessica Jones also excelled at); it also gives Luke’s narrative some breathing room, so that “Power Man’s” origin story doesn’t have to expand to fill 13 hours of television. The first season even ends on an unconventional note: While Luke does defeat Diamondback, he can’t escape his criminal past and he can’t stop the cycle of violence, and he ultimately ends up right back in prison. Luke isn’t much of a hero, and it seems that in the end, he may not save the day either.
Daredevil season 1 & 2, Jessica Jones season 1, and Luke Cage season 1 are now available on Netflix. Iron Fist season 1 arrives on March 17th, 2017. The Defenders and The Punisher arrive in 2017. Release dates for Jessica Jones season 2 and Daredevil season 3 have not yet been announced.