In lieu of making you wait until the end or the midpoint for your answer to the titular question, I can answer it right now: Unless the sequence depicted in these behind-the-scenes shots doesn’t actually make the final cut of the series, Luke Cage already is the most politically-charged production yet to be associated with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Lest that sound like some kind of backhanded softball of a compliment, remember that we’re talking about an ongoing multi-production project that followed up the biggest (at the time) worldwide box-office hit ever made with spin-offs wherein the walking personification of The American Ideal essentially declares war on The Patriot Act, and another where a villain framed as a suped-up successor to Osama bin Laden turns out to be a phony threat concocted by an American weapons manufacturer. That doesn’t necessarily mean Marvel is “braver” about this business than anyone else – it’s possible, after all, that you simply can’t not be political when one of your key figures is literally wearing the American Flag as his work uniform – but it’s hard to remember a popular movie franchise that’s (successfully) leaned this hard into real-world relevance.
Sure, Star Wars was all about Baby Boomers coming to grips with the complicated aftermath of Vietnam, but couched in metaphor and analogy. The X-Men movies are almost comically explicit about zeroing in on “The Mutant Problem” as a metaphor for gay rights and the struggles of gay youth in particular, but apart from Matthew Vaughn’s one-off anomaly First Class the franchise is oddly drained of tangible sexuality of any sort (despite one of its main characters being perpetually naked). The Dark Knight talks a big game about “security” and “terrorism” without making much of a salient point (see also: The Hunger Games). For contrast, imagine Harry Potter and friends having to fend off a mob of religious extremists going all torches-and-pitchforks on Hogwarts for indoctrinating children into witchcraft, and you’ve got a handy illustration of how far ahead of this one particular curve the MCU just happens to be.
And yet, as far as Marvel has already gone (intentionally or otherwise), when this scene plays out in Luke Cage – when a black man wearing a gray hoodie confronts a pair of police officers and is fired on, only to have the bullets bounce harmlessly off his skin – it will be the most iconically political tableau conjured by any Marvel production to date. This might be why Disney didn’t seem too bothered by these particular set photos emerging out when they did.
Marvel has been more open to being “topical” than much of the rest of the blockbuster field, but much of it is still couched in some level of plausible deniability: Captain America found a Hydra sleeper cell in S.H.I.E.L.D. as opposed to fighting the “actual” NSA. Daredevil fights gentrification in NYC, but a version that’s framed as the vengeful scheme of one evil crimelord and divorced from the race and class issues that inform the reality. On the flip side, Jessica Jones’ nemesis Kilgrave is a walking sci-fi metaphor for rape culture (a mind-controlling monster whose very existence is doubted by the rest of the world) but he’s also literally a rapist; while the sexual and racial discrimination faced by various characters in Agent Carter are pointedly products of their post-WWII setting, as opposed to a supervillain plot.
But at least in terms of visual-cues, this first glimpse of Luke Cage is on a whole other level. The uniformed white officers? The police cruiser visible in frame? Cage, a character typically associated with a more… flamboyant fashion sense wearing a hoodie – the clothing adopted by the Black Lives Matter movement as a symbol – and in gray, like the one worn by Trayvon Martin in his most famous photograph? Even if topical visual-cues like these weren’t specifically “put in” to make a point, leaving them in almost has to be, given how carefully Disney and Marvel manage their own publicity.
The fact of the matter is, they almost don’t have a choice: Much like with Captain America’s name and uniform, a character whose four-word summation is “bullet-proof black man” makes a statement simply by existing – you might as well lean into it. But by letting Luke Cage’s exploits act as an exploration of hot-button topics of race, class and law in a superhero context, Marvel would also be following the edict that has thus far defined them as a studio: Faithfully translating their characters from page to the screen. Luke Cage the show cannot be “made” political because Luke Cage the character has always been political – it’s endemic to his origins, both in the world of the comics and in the real world of the publishing offices where he was conceived.
Marvel did not set out specifically to create a superhero grounded in the world of racial politics. The urge that drove the 1972 creation of Luke Cage was more basic: Marvel chased pop-culture trends relentlessly when it came to keeping its comics current, and in the early 70s few things were more freshly-trending than “Blaxploitation,” the nickname given to a subgenre of movies (mainly low-budget, independent or “grindhouse” affairs, at least at first) set in predominantly black urban communities with tough action-hero leads and gritty, edgy storylines which – along with the disco and soul movements in the music industry – “rebranded” the mainstream cultural perception of black identity in America to a startling degree.
Though frequently parodied today (see: Black Dynamite, Undercover Brother) at the time the genre, especially in its early days, was a vibrant new phenomenon in popular culture that placed black characters, culture and a facsimile of contemporary black life at its forefront to a degree not seen onscreen since the “race films” of the earliest days of cinema (black filmmakers were, of course, another story).
While initially aimed largely at the audiences it portrayed (however caricatured, especially later on) onscreen, Blaxploitation films found a surprisingly receptive audience among white youth culture. And while there was certainly more than an element of cultural-fetishism and “race tourism” in this crossover appeal; the conflation in the mainstream American imagination of black urban identity and the cutting-edge of fashion, music and culture was also the unexpected side-effect of history: The culmination of the so-called “Great Migration”of black communities from the American South to northern cities throughout the early to mid 20th century. Originally driven by economics, the cultural shift had placed large black communities in the center of geographic hubs of art, entertainment and culture like New York and Los Angeles – meaning that if you wanted to see movies that reflected the latest in cosmopolitan “cool,” you were passing over white-starring features in favor of Shaft, Superfly or Foxy Brown and their contemporaries.
Marvel wanted a piece of that action. So, while the bulk of Marvel’s 70s trend-chasing involved cashing in on the martial-arts genre, there was also Luke Cage – whose entire initial conception looks and feels (especially today) almost like a parody of what largely white, mostly older comic book writers would come up with as a superhero answer to the likes of Shaft. From his flashy disco-inspired costume (he basically wore loud-ish nightclub wear with the “superhero” touches of a chain for a belt and a metallic headband) to somebody’s idea of reader-friendly “jive talk” (“Sweet Christmas!”) there’s a lot that’s dated and “problematic” about Luke Cage’s earliest incarnation – but there was also quite a bit right, starting with a backstory that grounded the character’s history and motivations in issues of systemic poverty, community violence and a corrupt police system.
In his (still largely unchanged) origin, Cage’s real name is Carl Lucas. Incarcerated for drug-possession “with intent to sell” in Seagate Prison, he’s actually an innocent man: His best friend from childhood, Willis Stryker, framed him out of jealousy over a woman. Targeted for constant abuse by a gang of racist prison guards, he gets a chance at payback by volunteering for a scientific experiment involving an electrified chemical bath and “Stark technology” – which, for those of you keeping track, means 1970s Marvel was apparently cool with experimenting on prison inmates being part of Iron Man’s official canon.
The racist guards attempt to sabotage the experiment and kill Lucas, but the scheme backfires: Instead of killing him, the treatment gifts Lucas with superhuman strength and bullet-proof skin, allowing him to throttle his would-be murderers and literally punch his way through the prison walls to freedom. Shortly thereafter, the now-fugitive Lucas uses his newfound strength to foil a robbery and decides to don a flashy outfit and rename himself “Luke Cage” in order to blend in with the superhero scene – reasoning that while authorities might still be looking for a super-powered escaped convict, with a costume and nickname he can move about as just one more weirdly-dressed crimefighter among dozens inhabiting New York City at that point.
The idea that a black man is going to look less suspicious walking the streets dressed like a circus performer than just simply as a black man is likely Marvel having fun at its own expense (Archie Goodwin was Cage’s first writer,) but there’s an element of likely-unintentional social commentary at play, too. It’s not uncommon for black celebrities to point out that their individual fame gives them privileges (like, say, presumption of innocence) that their white contemporaries have been born with, which isn’t far removed from Cage having to be superhuman in order to walk around unmolested. If nothing else, it’s a nice curative to the character’s more uncomfortable early gimmick: That whereas other superheroes will do their thing mainly out of duty or some higher calling, Luke Cage would be in it for the money as “The Hero For Hire.”
It’s unlikely that anyone writing for Marvel intended that particular part of Cage’s gimmick to position him in the racist trope of the greedy black hustler. Nearly all of the racial or political “issues” inherent to Cage’s early existence feel imported as part of the Blaxploitation aesthetic, which commonly used racism as a shorthand for giving its heroes a permanent chip on their shoulder. When 70s Marvel did opt to tackle race-issues head-on, it was usually in “message moments” like Captain America’s frequent battles (often alongside The Falcon, at this point in continuity) with white-supremacists like the Sons of The Serpent, which bent over backwards to remind readers that The House of Ideas was on the right side of history. Instead, the “Hero For Hire” setup appeared to mostly cast Cage as a present-day inheritor to the morally-dubious private-eye heroes of pulp detective stories a la Mike Hammer.
But while “somebody paid him to” made for good quick-start plotting to get Cage into scraps with C-list foes like Gideon Mace, Lionfang or Chemistro (along with more specifically Blaxploitation-inspired enemies like druglord Cornell Cottonmouth and his minions Mike, Ike and Mr. Slick) and set up interesting scenarios like being hired by J. Jonah Jameson to track down Spider-Man; it also proved occasionally problematic for sending him off on more traditionally superheroic endeavors. A particularly memorable storyline had Cage hired by a mysterious foreign agent to bust up some gone-rogue robots, only to later discover that his employer was actually Doctor Doom – who’d flown home to Latveria rather than pay for the job. Cage follows him home (with help from Mr. Fantastic) and opts to pummel him until he gives up what’s owed, pausing briefly to deal with more rogue robots. Eventually this leads Doom to concede hard-won respect and hand over the cash ($200 – no, really) after which Cage takes his leave. Fun stuff, sure, but it’s hard to ignore that Luke Cage here had the ability and opportunity to end one of the Marvel Universe’s biggest global threats and opts not to… because he got his.
Problematic or not, Cage was popular with readers and his solo book sold reasonably well, though Marvel moved away from the Blaxploitation-riff angle fairly quickly in favor of positioning the character as a more traditional superhero; even giving him a new codename as “Power Man” – which never really stuck. For a time, he was even ubiquitous enough to become a short-term replacement for The Thing in the pages of Fantastic Four and an occasional member of The Defenders, one of Marvel’s space-filling team books of the period whose lineup typically consisted of Doctor Strange, The Hulk and whoever else wasn’t otherwise occupied at that moment. But his prominence actually increased when his solo series ended and was replaced by Power Man & Iron Fist, which found Cage teamed with supernatural martial-artist Danny Rand as a muscle-for-hire duo employed by powerful attorney Jeryn Hogarth (whose gay, gender-flipped Cinematic Universe incarnation Marvel/Netflix fans have already encountered, as played by Carrie-Anne Moss in Jessica Jones.)
There’s a certain amount of “oh, of course” eye-rolling to Cage’s shift from self-made independent operator to nicknamed tag-team partner to a white kung-fu master (one of the many reasons fans have been prodding Marvel to cast a nonwhite lead for Iron Fist), but there was a touch of symmetry to the pairing: Iron Fist launched around the same time as Luke Cage: Hero For Hire did and under similar “cash-in” circumstances, with Marvel eager to get in on the martial-arts movie fad that was sweeping early-70s youth culture and was (in a lot of the public mind) joined at the hip with Blaxploitation; owing to a historic early popularity of self-defense arts in urban black communities and to Asian kung-fu movies and black-cast films often occupying the smaller, independent movie houses – a cultural phenomenon that would later be mined by films like Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon and hip-hop groups like The Wu-Tang Clan.
Power Man & Iron Fist, which also placed Luke Cage adjacent to one of comics’ rare interracial romances between Danny Rand and bionic policewoman Misty Knight (herself set to appear in the Netflix series), sold better than either character’s solo series and ran respectably for several more years. But after that, Luke Cage’s role in Marvel rapidly lessened throughout the 80s and 90s – likely because, ironically, the diversity push he was the early spearhead of was seen to have produced “enough” non-white Marvel heroes (even, for a time, a black female Captain Marvel named Monica Rambeau) that a character who was mainly differentiated from his contemporaries by virtue of his ethnicity felt less novel.
Outside of a failed attempt at reviving the “Heroes For Hire” brand in the mid-90s, Cage largely became a figure of memory (and, rather unfairly, ridicule) and/or opportunities for writers to show off their “obscure” reference-ability in the Marvel canon. At one point he turned up as part of “Fade to White” (seriously), an infamously-terrible Punisher storyline wherein Frank Castle is forcibly altered to appear black via plastic surgery by his nemesis Jigsaw. For years that was it for Luke Cage – until he turned up as a surprise supporting character in Brian Michael Bendis’ adults-only Marvel MAX comic Alias – a.k.a. the debut of Jessica Jones.
There’s a prevailing notion that Cage’s re-emergence as a continuity-nod hookup for Jones in Alias (in the comics, Jessica’s backstory explicitly ties her to dozens of other Marvel heroes and events to cement the idea of her as a “fallen” once-semi-noteworthy traditional superheroine) took him overnight from caricature to three-dimensional character, but re-reading the material doesn’t bear that out. For all that Alias got right, Cage’s comeback ends up framing him in a stereotypical mold as retrograde as his tacky “urban” slang: The superhumanly-virile Black male serving as a white woman’s on-demand sex-engine. And while the return got fans interested enough in Cage conceptually (at this point, more knew him by reputation than memory) the solo Marvel MAX Cage series that followed did him few favors, recasting The Hero For Hire and his world in terms of “gangsta” stereotypes which (courtesy of grim n’ gritty specialist Brian Azzarello) frankly made Cage’s Blaxploitation-infused 70s exploits look like an Oprah’s Book Club selection by comparison.
Whether through fan response, Bendis’ own authorial conscience, or long-term planning, as a supporting player in Alias Cage developed into a complex character and once again fan favorite, a stature which only grew as The Pulse (the “all ages” continuation of Jessica Jones’ story) integrated him further back into the mainstream Marvel Universe. Suddenly, it felt like the things that once seemed quaint about his characterization – an otherwise ordinary black man trying to make his way in America in spite of a checkered past who just happens to also be a bullet-proof superhero – were relevant all over again. By the time Bendis was tasked with remaking Marvel’s premiere super-team as The New Avengers, what once might have been thought unthinkable (Luke Cage as an Avenger) felt all-but obligatory.
This contemporary Cage is often mistaken for having dropped the “political” aspects of his origin, but there couldn’t be a less-accurate summation. Yes, he doesn’t battle white supremacists or literalized urban-violence boogeymen nearly as often these days, but Luke Cage has always been a political character just by virtue of existing. As a father to Jessica Jones’ child, his very presence as a “dad” who’s still very much finding his place in life places him in stark contrast to Marvel’s preferred division of its male heroes into father-figures (Mr. Fantastic, Captain America, Professor X) and rebellious sons (Spider-Man, The Hulk, basically all of the X-Men). More broadly, as the black father of a biracial child his presence both makes a statement, and makes that statement a part of every story he participates in. It informs the side he took in the Civil War, how he responds to catastrophes like the Secret Invasion and World War Hulk, and it’s continued all the way up through the present.
To be certain, it’s this modern, fleshed-out Luke Cage whom TV audiences met through Jessica Jones, and it will be this “complete” Cage who’ll face down those cops (and heaven knows what else) in his own series. But make no mistake: This Luke Cage carries with him the baggage and the legacy of a character who was “about something” from the moment he first appeared in a comic-book – even if his creators were mainly looking to imitate a trend of popular movies.
There will be talk, no doubt, of Marvel “dragging” politics into their superhero universe. We’ll hear talk of “indoctrinating” young fans of the Marvel movies. Someone (because there is always someone) will think it terribly clever to ask what sense it makes for anyone to concern themselves with conflicts of black and white in a superhero universe where a not-insubstantial number of characters are green or blue. Fandom is always all too happy to praise the places where it’s favored stories and characters have served as allegory for the failings of reality, yet curiously resistant to seeing that reality dealt with directly. The scenario of a made-up security force like The Sentinels assailing a made-up minority like Mutants allows one to examine (and be outraged by) the idea of oppression without having to also examine ones own place in an actual oppressive system – it filters the idea through a prism, while Luke Cage walking the same path as the names adorning #BlackLivesMatter signs is a mirror that reflects it back.
And that’s the plain and simple reality of it. Luke Cage will not “need” to have the Hero For Hire say word one about race, or politics, or any “issue” of the moment (though he probably will, all the same). He won’t need to throttle Klansmen or Neo-Nazis, strike back at broader police corruption, or even name any of his life’s grievances in order to stand for something (though it’d be interesting if he did). A black man in America whose skin can’t be pierced by bullets and whose shoulders can’t buckle under the weight of white expectations will always “make a point” simply by making himself known.
“Sweet Christmas,” indeed.
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 Jessica Jones season 2, Iron Fist, and The Defenders on Netflix have not yet been announced. We’ll keep you updated on the Punisher spinoff as development continues.
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