Through its comic books, films and TV shows, Marvel has created a vast universe where characters cross over, storylines overlap, and everything connects. Marvel has also woven many standalone elements into that framework, giving them the option to expand upon or totally ignore other realms or characters depending on whether or not they fit into the narrative. For fans of the comic book superhero genre, Marvel continues to be the dominant force; the one company who can be relied upon to produce movies of a decent caliber, comic books that people want to read and, more recently, TV shows that keep audiences gripped.
For some people, though, Marvel as an over-arching franchise is something they can take or leave. There are those that, if asked whether they were Team Cap or Team Iron Man, would choose Team Neither. So why, then, are these people watching and enjoying Marvel and Netflix’s TV offerings?
Daredevil was the first Marvel TV show to air on Netflix. Starring Charlie Cox in the central role, the show explored a politician's corrupt reign over Hell’s Kitchen, and Matt Murdock’s attempts to stop him. Murdock has supersonic hearing, which puts him at a massive advantage when assuming his alter ego, Daredevil, even though he is also blind. His ability to hear danger and threat approaching, plus his years of ninja training have given him the skills needed to take out practically any villain, and he seems to encounter a lot of them.
What makes Daredevil so good (aside from the action) are the relationships between characters and the emotionally-engaging storylines woven in among the fighting; the ‘normal’ side of life, if you will. Watching Murdock trying to juggle being a superhero with his life as a lawyer and setting up a new practice with his two best friends is, for a non-comic book fan, the more interesting part of the show. With Daredevil, Marvel has proven itself across two seasons as a franchise capable of producing great drama, light humor, and complex, multi-layered characters.
Interestingly, Daredevil season 2 focused much more on Matt Murdock’s superhero goings on, which was possibly why those who are not fans of the genre didn’t enjoy it quite as much. Even so, the continued exploration of Murdock’s relationships was still fascinating to see unfold. By the end of the season, it seemed that being a superhero came at a cost, and to Murdock that cost was losing some of the greatest friendships he had.
Friendship also played a strong role in Jessica Jones. Starring Krysten Ritter as the eponymous detective with a penchant for whiskey, Jessica Jones wouldn’t be anywhere without her best friend, Trish Walker. Jessica has superpowers, but she’s a reluctant superhero at best, and a deeply flawed character. Trish also has her issues, but the bond between the two women is unbreakable, and that, along with Jessica’s romance with Luke Cage, makes it a fantastic show to binge watch. Jessica Jones also explored themes of abuse; Jessica’s time spent locked in a damaging and deadly relationship with Kilgrave (David Tennant) brought up many questions surrounding the subject of mental and physical abuse, and how the victim is affected in later life. It's Marvel’s determination to confront difficult subjects head on that makes people watch their shows. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones are gritty, real-life dramas… with lead characters who also happen to have some superpowers.
After making a very successful and popular debut in Jessica Jones, Luke Cage now has a series of his own. It is perhaps this one, more than any previous Netflix offerings, that casual viewers are most excited for. Luke Cage is an interesting character; a quick google search will reveal that in the comic books, a botched science experiment left him basically unbreakable. That means bullets bounce off of him, a punch to the side of his head will break the attacker’s fist, and he can emerge from pretty much any wreckage unscathed.
Cage also had a wife, Reva, who was killed by Jessica Jones while she was Kilgrave's thrall. So, when Cage hooks up with Jessica Jones, you know it’s going to be messy right from the start. He ends up leaving Hell’s Kitchen after his bar is blown up, and he heads to Harlem, where Luke Cage picks up.
Keeping in mind his past, it’s unsurprising that Luke wants to keep a low profile. He takes a job sweeping hair in a barber’s shop, but soon becomes aware of some shady underground dealings and he can’t help but get involved. Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes runs a nightclub, but is also a gunrunner and all round nasty guy. As it turns out, his cousin, Mariah Stokes, is a local politician who, on the surface, is all about cleaning Harlem up, keeping the streets safe and making it a nicer place to be... but she’s also very close to Cottonmouth. The villains in all Netflix/Marvel series so far have been exceptionally compelling to watch and Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth is no different. His character is unhinged and very dangerous, yet also thoroughly charismatic.
Corruption in politics is nothing new, and as a bystander to that it can be frustrating to feel like there’s nothing anyone can do to change the system. Luke is unapologetic, unafraid, and he fights for justice on behalf of those who can’t. His invincibility helps, of course, but Luke, like Jessica Jones before him, is a reluctant superhero, and a flawed one at that. That’s what makes him so compelling; he’s a normal, run of the mill guy with a good heart, who pushes his own heartache aside in favour of defending the vulnerable. He’s not perfect; he makes mistakes, and has fears and misgivings like the rest of us. The difference is, Luke Cage uses that fear to fight back.
Luke Cage isn’t like watching a superhero show at all - at least, not how one might imagine a superhero show to be. Yes, there’s a lot of action, but there’s a lot of depth, too, and the violence is justified (well, as justified as it can be). Luke Cage is gritty, raw, and bold. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has spoken about how he deliberately chose to put the hero of the piece in a hoodie, since in today’s society many people are conditioned to see a black man walking the streets wearing a hoodie as a threat.
It is these things that non-superhero fans notice as they watch the show. The setting, the soundtrack, and the characterization all stand on their own so well that it feels like the show could work even without the superhero elements. Luke Cage is a man who is still grieving, still trying to find peace in his life, and trying to right other people’s wrongs. If you don't consider yourself a superhero fan, watch Luke Cage. It's unlikely that it'll change your mind about the superhero genre as a whole, but invincibility aside, Luke Cage is a fantastically entertaining drama series, and worthy of your time and attention.
Luke Cage, Daredevil season 1 & 2 and Jessica Jones season 1 are now available on Netflix. The Defenders and Iron Fist arrive in 2017. Release dates for Jessica Jones season 2, The Punisher and Daredevil season 3 have not yet been announced.