New York City is a place that needs no introduction; neither in the real world nor in Marvel's fictional universe. Its five boroughs are home to some of the most famous Marvel superheroes (and villains), yet every superhero/comic book story set there has its own unique flare. Stan Lee, the man who has become synonymous with Marvel, has said that Spider-Man's New York setting was a matter of convenience more than anything else. Having grown up in New York City himself, he used his surroundings to build authenticity into his characters. Lee doesn't have much of a say in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it's clear to see that Marvel's Netflix properties have held on to that authentic New York City vibe that helped make the web-slinger a household name.
While Daredevil and Jessica Jones may have set the tone as the first two Marvel/Netflix series leading up to The Defenders, Luke Cage has presented its own piece of the puzzle - where Harlem and its culture are put on display for the world to see. Adapting what are relatively lesser-known characters, Marvel and Netflix were taking a gamble with their big project to give audiences a new look at these characters. It would have been easy to throw big name actors and directors (like Quentin Tarantino) at these shows, but the end product may not have been nearly as authentic as the show that is available now.
Cheo Hodari Coker, Luke Cage's showrunner and creator, has given fans 13 episodes of one of the most realistic superhero comic book-to-TV experiences. From the carefully selected music, harsh dialogue, references to real world events, and most especially in never stepping into cultural appropriation, Luke Cage is not a superhero story so much as it is about a man embracing who he is and making the choice to stand up for the voiceless. Though many of the heroics are over-the-top (yet still very symbolic), Luke Cage feels more like a crime drama/cop procedural that happens to have someone with super powers.
Authenticity and History
Luke Cage is very much steeped in the black experience, and we see the range of reactions that different characters have to being called the N-word and in others' use of it. The word itself is always a talking point because tensions arise given who is saying it to whom and in what context it is used. The series does not shy away from its use of the word even though the profanity stays in the PG-13 range. It's sure to make some viewers uncomfortable, and though wildly different for a Marvel property, it still felt appropriate in the dialogue.
Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) in particular uses it as a cautionary tale, recalling the way Mama Mabel used to dole out advice. His stubbornness and pride are what kept him from letting go of the family's legacy, Harlem's Paradise. This struggle to rise above the other people's preconceived notions based on the color of his skin paint a picture of a man trying to reconcile his past and future. An exchange between Cornell and his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard) sum up the two mentalities behind the n-word.
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes: “But when the smoke clears, it’s n****s like me that let you hold on to what you got.”
Mariah Dillard: “You know I despise that word.”
Cottonmouth: “I know. It’s easy to underestimate a n****. They never see you coming.”
Some viewers will mistake a predominantly black cast as a lack of diversity, but they wouldn't have been watching the same series as the rest of us. The characters in Luke Cage are all uniquely different in their motivations, in their beliefs, and in their execution of what they each believe to be the best course of action. The conversations between Harlem street kid turned cop, Misty Knight (Simone Missick), and Harlem royalty turned politician, Mariah Dillard, showcase two strong personalities that both want a better Harlem but have very different intentions for making it happen.
Luke Cage does a fantastic job of showing a range of blackness, from nameless faces going about their business on the sidewalks, desperate people looking to save their livelihood, mentors, heroes, villains, entrepreneurs, and everything in between.
We've seen all kinds of famous landmarks in the MCU, but Luke Cage gives viewers the history the names behind the buildings and the parks that the characters frequent. While there is no actual Crispus Attucks building in Harlem, he is widely known as the first person killed during the Boston Massacre. After being called the n-word in the second episode, Luke (Mike Colter) explains to a young black kid the importance of whom Attucks was and why it's so disrespectful to throw the word around arbitrarily (Coker referenced why he chose to use Crispus Attucks as a spark in an interview with Bustle, saying "I wanted to talk about the first person to die for a revolution and what that meant, and what he sacrificed"):
"You see a n**** standing in front of you? Across the street from a building named after one of our greatest heroes? You even know who Crispus Attucks was? A free black man, the first man to die for what became America. He could have acted scared when those Brits raised their guns. Blended in with the crowd, but he stepped up! He paid with his life. But he started something."
There's a sense of pride and community to Luke Cage that just isn't present elsewhere in the MCU. The show deftly intertwines fiction and reality to the point that viewers could easily forget that Luke Cage does, in fact, have super powers until the bullets start flying.
Barber Shops Really Are Switzerland
When you grow up in a predominantly black neighborhood, there are two places that are considered sacred -- the church and the barber shop. For people who have never set foot in a barber shop, it's easy to dismiss the importance of the place as a foundation. It was a place where young ones could get seasoned advice on any topic for the price of an $8 haircut, and a place were trouble makers could get a second chance. Barber shops were always filled with black men who had seen more than they've let on and were willing to give young men some tough love. It was a place without presumption where nothing was ever sugar-coated: These men told it like it was.
Chico (Brian Marc) and Luke aren't really so different in that they're both looking for a way to outrun their pasts. Chico thinks that coming into money could be his ticket out, while Luke is just trying to blend in and live a normal life. Pop's criminal past makes him sympathetic to these types of characters. Despite all the people he'd hurt while acquiring his nickname, he is now seen as a pillar of the community. Whether its penance or some other motivation, Pop knows what atrocities are waiting for some of the kids in the streets, and sees his shop as a respite and a way to keep kids out of trouble.
The legend of a barber shop is not some falsehood or assumption they operate in a bubble outside reality. They are places of refuge, of sanctuary, where boys and men of all ages can go when they need to feel like they belong, like someone cares. That's not to say that there's no tension -- we see it in a less serious way when the series opens on the discussion of the NBA and more heartfelt when Pop explains why Luke needs to bring Chico back. Disagreements are common in the barber shop, but there's an unspoken trust that what happens between those walls stays there. Luke Cage isn't the first to place the barber shop on such a pedestal, but it does so without the pomp and circumstance of caricatures like we've seen in the films Barbershop and Coming to America.
Since launching Phase 1 with Iron Man, Marvel has worked to build a continuity that spreads to every branch of its films and TV shows on network and Netflix. While MCU continuity is apparent in references throughout Luke Cage, like "The Incident" from The Avengers, and of course references to other Netflix series, Luke Cage also brings in real world events. When Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) has Damon Boone (Clark Jackson) as a hostage, he refers to him as "Diet Obama." There's a conversation between Misty and Scarfe (Frank Whaley) where he questions Cage's innocence because he keeps running from the cops, and her response is pretty much why wouldn't a black man run from the police given the climate of today.
Without explicitly declaring it, the series’ trademark bullet riddled hoodie is a direct reference to Trayvon Martin, the teenager that was gunned down in a Florida neighborhood back in 2012. Luke Cage is not overtly political, and it is not part of the Black Lives Matter movement, but it does leave fans to answer the question as to whether or not America is ready for a bulletproof black man. Even though the series operates independent of these movements, it does not deny that main characters inherent blackness does have an impact (no matter how intentional) on the world around them.
Marvel had taken some heat recently for what was seen as "surface level diversity" while ignoring the fact that diversity behind the pages of the comics is just as important. While the Luke Cage writer’s room was diverse, hiring a black showrunner arguably added a level of depth that allowed for the series to be an appreciation of hip-hop and black culture instead of an outsider's interpretation of that reality.
Music and Literature
The music is almost its own character in Luke Cage, and one of the most striking images in the show is the portrait of rapper Notorious B.I.G. that hangs in Cornell's office at Harlem's Paradise. The piece is a fixture in the nightclub even as talents like Raphael Saadiq kicked off the live sets in Harlem's Paradise with Faith Evans, Charlie Bradley, Jidenna, and The Delfonics sprinkled throughout the season, leaving Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings to bring it home in the finale. Even the appearance of Method Man on Sway in the Morning's SiriusXM show spitting "Bulletproof Love" was a nice mix of real world issues while also voicing support for Luke Cage. The heavy musical influence has a lot to do with Coker's background as a journalist in the music industry, and he uses each choice to showcase a different vibe while not so subtly pushing the story forward (always).
Invisible Man is a book that Luke keeps nearby throughout the series. The Ralph Ellison novel tells the story of an unnamed black man who narrates life in the late 1940s as a black American, who was born in the south but eventually works his way up to Harlem. Other pivotal black writers like Langston Hughes, Walter Mosley, Zora Neale Hurston, Chester Himes, and Donald Goines also pop up in conversations between Luke and Pop. Many of these influential authors weaved moving stories centered on characters that trying to figure out what kind of person they wanted to be.
Make no mistake, the emphasis on the setting in relation to the overall story was definitely intentional and always meant to take the focus off of super powers and turn the superhero genre upside down. Hip-hop, black history, and hope for a better tomorrow are infused in such a way that ensures Luke Cage has carved a new path that no other Marvel series or film has been able to do. These characters are relatable and there's empathy to be found even in a villain like Cottonmouth.
Yes, Luke is bulletproof, yes Diamondback's suit was ridiculously cheesy, and yes, rocket launchers taking out buildings north of 132nd might be pure fiction. Nevertheless, the nuanced layers of storytelling and everyday normalcy set in the streets of Harlem in Luke Cage are still powerful enough to make it seem like you may have walked past any one of these characters on the way to catch a train headed downtown.
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.