It would be unfair to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are universal lightweights when it comes to engaging with “heavy” subject matter, given that Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its direct sequel, Civil War, both frame their superheroic action around harsh critiques of present-day U.S. national security policy. But there’s no denying that, at least so far, it’s the harder-edged Netflix dramas where the MCU overall prefers to strut its social-conscience: Daredevil battled ninjas, thugs and The Kingpin; but he was really at war with neighborhood gentrification. Meanwhile, Jessica Jones frames the supervillain Kilgrave as sexual assault personified.
The next series on the schedule, Luke Cage, now looks poised to continue that trend; as new set photos show Cage (Mike Colter) in a super-powered standoff – not with supervillains, but with the NYPD.
The photos, taken by Steve Sands and originally posted to Getty Images, appear to show Cage being accosted by a pair of uniformed New York City police officers. He has his hands up, the police have their guns drawn, and subsequent images show a struggle breaking out and Cage ultimately overpowering them – with bullet holes on his sweatshirt.
Nothing is yet known about the story of Luke Cage, save that at least some of it supposedly takes place prior to him getting his powers, but it’s hard to miss the reference to current events in this sequence. While favoring t-shirts and tank-tops in his debut in Jessica Jones (and the color yellow in the comics), here Cage is clad in a grey “hoodie” while grimly striking the universal “hands up” gesture when confronted by armed police. Marvel doesn’t typically deal in subtlety (hard to do when your universe’s moral center literally wears the American Flag) and the setup feels very much calculated to recall the ongoing “Black Lives Matter” protests regarding police shootings in the U.S., which incorporated both that specific clothing item and the gesture into its iconography.
While it’s certainly possible that the staging of the scenario is a coincidence (a bulletproof Black man in a hood opposite armed police is the sort of thing that probably makes a statement whether you want it to or not), as a character Cage has always been partially grounded in politically-charged stories involving an uneasy relationship with law-enforcement. In the comics, Cage originally received his powers while volunteering as a scientific test-subject in prison after being wrongly convicted, and the character’s creation was heavily inspired by the popularity of 1970s blaxploitation action heroes like Shaft, whose exploits mixed big-screen action with the gritty realities of life in marginalized urban communities.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Marvel intends Luke Cage to be some kind of political screed, but it’s also unlikely that the series won’t at least touch on the unique challenges facing what will end up being the first black hero to headline his own franchise in the Cinematic Universe (Black Panther isn’t set to debut until 2018). It’s already known that Cage will have traditional villains to battle in addition to scuffling with the NYPD, as comics enemies Colonel Cottonmouth and Shades are already part of the main cast. He’s also expected to interact with long time comic-book sidekick Iron Fist, who is set for his own series following this one and whose actor has supposedly already been cast. The pair are then scheduled to join Daredevil, Jessica Jones and (potentially) others for a team-up venture called The Defenders at an unspecified later date.
Whatever else Luke Cage ends up being about, these images give a clear indication that Marvel isn’t shying away from tackling the hot-button topics and darker subject matter that have made their Netflix series a smash hit with audiences and surprise darlings among critics. As the MCU careens toward the cosmically-scaled Infinity War, it’s good to know that some of its heroes will still be dedicated to taking on street-level problems faced by everyday citizens and relatable to everyday audiences.
Daredevil season 1 and Jessica Jones season 1 are now available on Netflix. Daredevil season 2 will debut on Netflix on March 18th, 2016, followed by Luke Cage season 1 later in 2016. Release dates for Iron Fist and The Defenders on Netflix have not yet been announced. Screen Rant will keep you updated on the Punisher spinoff as development continues.