[This article contains mild SPOILERS for Luke Cage season 1.]
Unlike the large-scale superheroics covered by the Marvel movies (and to a lesser extent, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Marvel’s Netflix shows are much more intimate affairs dealing with street-level heroes. This provides viewers with a much different experience than we’ll get when we’re watching Thor swing his hammer or Doctor Strange wielding the mystic arts against threats from beyond reality. It’s a shift in perspective that’s handled very well, thanks in large part to the world-building that goes into shows like Luke Cage and Daredevil.
With Luke Cage, though, Marvel seems to have mastered the art of capturing the “real world” of the MCU. Perhaps better than any show that’s come before it, Luke Cage has managed to capture the feel of being ordinary humans in a world where the extraordinary exists. It does this by keeping a focus on the little things, building a version of Harlem that lives in the shadows of the heroes and villains who populate the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
All Eyes on ‘The Incident’
One of the biggest clues that the world of Luke Cage is made up of observers instead of participants in the heroics of the MCU is the repeated references to “The Incident”, especially from the young man who’s trying to sell videos of it on the street. We’ve heard it referred to as “The Battle of New York” before, but that was largely a reference to how the media had dubbed it. Ben Urich wrote about it in the New York Bulletin, and it’s been referred to either by that name or simply as “New York” by a few characters on TV and in the movies since then. It’s a nice proper name for the invasion, but it also seems pretty formal. Similar to how people are more likely to say “9-11” than something more formal like “the September 11th attacks”, it makes sense that there would be nicknames for the Chitauri invasion.
More than just using a nickname, however, there seems to be a sense of awe around it even four years later. If there wasn’t an interest in “The Incident” then the bootleg peddler would likely have moved on to something else to sell. The events in Sokovia have happened since then, as have the events of Civil War, but those didn’t happen right there where the citizens of the MCU’s New York (and Harlem) live. Sokovia and the feud between Captain America and Iron Man make for good news, but just like in real life they weren’t local enough to have the lasting impact that “The Incident” has had on the people who live in Luke Cage‘s Harlem.
They Don’t Know What We Know
Early on in Luke Cage, Cottonmouth is bragging about having access to “Justin Hammer”-style weapons that were developed for the military. This likely elicited a few chuckles from viewers, since Iron Man 2 went out of its way to showcase just how incompetent Justin Hammer is and how substandard his weapons were. While Cottonmouth’s bragging may have been played for laughs a bit, in-universe it was sincere; Justin Hammer designed weapons for the military, and those living in the MCU would have no reason to doubt that his weapons were high quality. Even when he got arrested, it was in conjunction with rampaging murder-bots that it took Iron Man and War Machine together to take down. Even if someone had questioned Hammer’s arrest when Cottonmouth brought it up, he could have simply pointed out that he was arrested for making high-tech killer robots and that would seem to drive home the point about the quality of Hammer’s weapons.
The average person in Luke Cage has a skewed perception of the world around them because they’re looking at it from the bottom up. They refer to Thor as “the guy with the hammer” because that’s what they see; they’ve never met him, and the Avengers as a whole probably seems really mysterious. He’s an alien god with super strength and the ability to call down lightning… and he’s got a hammer. Just like with “The Incident”, it’s a simple descriptor for things that are removed from everyday life. Most of the people you see in the show have never met anyone with powers, and it’s pretty obvious as the show goes on. Even Cottonmouth seems shocked when Luke’s abilities are revealed, and up until that point it seemed like very little could shake him. It’s a very real reaction, and not that different to the reaction that people in the real world might have to unexpectedly seeing firsthand something that they’d only heard about or seen on TV.
More Complex Emotions
We saw this a little in Jessica Jones… characters who had deeper and more complex emotions than what you’ll see in the next Avengers movie or on next week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Jessica was living in fear of Kilgrave, Trish was driven to make sure that no one could hurt her ever again and Will is driven by his guilt to make some bad decisions in order to try and stop Kilgrave once and for all. Luke Cage really stepped things up in this regard, though, leaving very few characters who could simply be taken at face value. Even some of the villains ended up getting a sympathetic turn onscreen, especially Cottonmouth; who we learn had strong family ties and could have had a drastically different life if not for the intervention of Mama Mabel.
Instead of cookie-cutter heroes and villains, we get people who want to hide and others who lose control. We get characters who struggle with their identity, and pin the blame on someone else. We find out that the one character who appears to be truly good in the series had a very dark past, and one of the big villains briefly had hopes of going to Julliard and escaping the game. Perhaps the only one who really escapes this is Claire Temple, but that’s with good reason; as the main unifying thread in the Netflix corner of the MCU, she’s already had a few seasons of character development onscreen. Aside from meeting her mother, there wasn’t much else that we needed to learn about Claire.
What Does This Mean Going Forward?
Marvel and Netflix are taking full advantage of the 13 hours of screentime each season of the Marvel shows gets, creating more realistic settings and deeper characters than we could expect from the movies or even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with its week-to-week storylines. We can expect the same from Iron Fist as well, though it may be a bit different than what we’ve seen in Luke Cage – simply because its main character has a bit of a different origin story than Luke, Jessica and Matt did. Danny Rand comes from money and will spend his formative years isolated from humanity, so we can expect a few different kinds of character development from that show.
Having such intensive world-building and character development now really sets the stage for The Defenders, though. None of the heroes or supporting characters we’ve seen thus far had any aspirations of becoming Avengers, after all, and are just trying to do what they do within their own neighborhoods. Despite the occasional alien-derived weapon or army of supernatural ninjas, these are still fairly personal stories detailing the lives of only a few people. When the coming threat in The Defenders finally arrives, these stories will allow the show’s creators to skip the world-building and focus instead on bringing the team together to face the conflict ahead.
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.
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