By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
Is it predictable for a comics based column to geek out about “Luke Cage”? Yes. But you know what? It’s still worth talking about. Because regardless of what you think of the Netflix series, it’s impossible to deny how special and bold it is. Much like with “Jessica Jones,” the creators of this series have a keen understanding of how to use superheroes. That ‘superhero’ isn’t a genre in itself, but that superheroes are mythic figures that can be placed into other genres, send the themes and messages into overdrive.
Throughout the Marvel pantheon of heroes over the years few have been able to be a strong a source of explicit, confident and unabashed symbolism and commentary than Luke Cage. The creators of this series knew that a bullet proof black man would be as relevant in 2016 as he would be in the ‘70s with very little change. They just added a hoodie.
But what makes “Luke Cage” the series something frequently brilliant is how it utilizes its hero subtly. By throwing Luke Cage into an otherwise normal gangland series, they created a series about what it means to be powerful and black in America.
The key to series is that, if you were to take Luke out, changing the names of the various Marvel Comics characters, you would still have a pretty compelling tale about gangs, cops and crooked politicians fighting for the soul of Harlem. Lest we forget, Cage is only dragged into the plot when an arms deal goes south and results in the local barber shop getting shot up. From there, the conventions and structure of a mafia-esque crime caper are on display: crooked cops working with gangs, henchmen being offed, surprise assassinations, politicians organizing cover-ups and over the top mob bosses. There’s enough personality, style and engaging characters that you could probably get a pretty solid two-hour film from just the gangland action.
What elevates it from solid to good and then great is the transition of location and context. Instead of centering on Italian Mobsters in a ‘40s New York, “Luke Cage” centers on a predominately black crime organization in modern Harlem.
Harlem isn’t just where the plot takes place, it is a vital part of the plot. One of the biggest aspects of this is the sense of community. Continually emphasizing the day-to-day lives of the citizenry and the stakes that this gangland battle makes Harlem feel like one of the most real locations in the entire MCU. For people who complain that human life is understated in the Avengers, this is serves as an antithesis. But more importantly, the weight of Harlem as one of the gems of black culture in America is hammered home. The references to the famous residents of Harlem are plentiful, a well as countless famous African-Americans. In perhaps one of the least subtle moments of the series, a major plot point is centered around a building named for American Revolution martyr Crispus Attucks. All of this is reinforced as the heroes and villains of “Luke Cage” face off, they are fighting on sacred ground that symbolically stands in as one of the faces of black America.
That leads us to the villains. Despite the impossibly high bar set for villains with the previous two shows, “Luke Cage” manages to confidently match them. Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth is the show MVP, more stylish lethal and confidant mastermind than Kingpin or Killgrave while sharing their charismatic and sociopathic behavior. Once again, they create a villain you empathize with enough that it becomes infuriating when he does something mortifying. But what’s important to the greater discussion of theme is the fact that the specter is raised that he has no interest in crime. His backstory establishes that at one point, he was a promising musical prodigy until he got in too deep with his family crime. Scenes where he sits at a piano, plucking out beautiful jazz are some genuinely chilling scenes. But now that he has gotten to the top of Harlem’s food chain, he is not so subtle about showing it and maintaining it. For him, it’s not about having wealth, it’s about using wealth to appear powerful.
This is best displayed through his base of operations, “Harlem’s Paradise.” Here, the shows impeccable sense of style is most proudly on display, reds and blues dazzle the screen, the main stage always has R&B or funk charging each scene, and everything is vibrant, exciting, and welcoming, a hard contrast from the more drab, dour, colorless pallet elsewhere in the show. Harlem’s Paradise is a bold, in your face celebration of Cottonmouth’s success. And the visual shorthand helps capture the theme perfectly. As Cottonmouth explains while standing in front of a massive Biggie Smalls painting: “Everybody wants to be the king.” It isn’t enough just to be wealthy, you need to make sure everyone knows it as loudly and as flamboyantly as possible.
At this point, despite having potential to become legitimate, Cottonmouth continues to roll with it because it’s the only way to maintain this level of respect. Even in financial straights, he refuses to sell the club (which, might I add, is used to symbolize who has power depending on who has access to the VIP room). Being black in America means that regular wealth simply isn’t enough, you need the kind of comically overstuffed wealth that makes people fear you in order to respect you. It’s even more effective because at first glance, the $7,000,000 he has in assets doesn’t seem to be that much compared to other NY-based Marvel bads. But he’s so good at walking the walk, you don’t notice.
The same theme of respect carries over to villain number two, Cottonmouth’s cousin Mariah, who might be one of the more morally ambiguous characters in the MCU. She uses blood money to prop up her political campaign, but she seems to be genuine in her determination to improve Harlem and allow its return to prominence. She has maybe one of the most interesting quotes in the series “Before Black Lives can Matter, Black Businesses and Culture must.”
But as Cottonmouth points out, she might try to claim legitimacy, but she’s just as crooked as him, and that’s for the best. Because as hard as she tries to be a progressive, by the books politician, she will continue to be hounded on all sides by “carpet-baggers” from the outside, and at least with this arrangement she’s guaranteed success and respect/fear. From his perspective, being a black politician will just result in people doubting you and hounding you, so you need to become a crooked caricature just to get legitimately beneficial ideas through.
That’s a pretty depressing theme, that for many black people in America, the only chance to get the same level of power and respect as their white counterparts, they effectively need to reach impossible levels of prominence, wealth and status.
That’s why Luke Cage makes such a great foil for Cottonmouth. He’s not just powerful, he is superhuman. And he got said powers completely by accident, while Cottonmouth has spent years fighting for what he has (a rather Superman v Lex Luthor relationship, really). What quickly becomes apparent is that Cottonmouth’s determination to get rid of Luke isn’t just for self-preservation, but a prideful obsession. Even after Cage’s efforts to lock him up prove futile, he literally gets away with murder, finds incriminating information that could subdue Cage and literally everyone in his inner circle tells him to leave Cage alone, Cottonmouth insists on trying to find a way to kill him.
Because Luke Cage isn’t just a threat to business, but the very seat of power that took decades to accumulate. Cage isn’t a costumed vigilante, he’s a guy who just so happens to be indestructible who gets thrown into the spotlight and steps up. He’s as public a figure as Cottonmouth, an idea best captured by the fact that most of their ‘battles’ are in public forums. When this no-frills, sincere man goes in front of a congregation and calls him out, the entire base of Cottonmouth’s power crumbles. Because how the hell is he suppose to beat a superhero?
But even as an unstoppable powerhouse, Luke Cage faces an uphill climb due to his race. Because by the end of the season, he’s technically lost. Going back to prison for crimes he didn’t commit, one bad guy never saw legitimate justice while another gets to continue free, and is hounded on all sides by anti-superhero sentiment. And when someone does find a way to weaken him, Mike Colter sells how miserable it is. Even if you have super powers, even if you do everything right, even if the public backs you and there is undeniable evidence of the system being broken against you and ‘the good guys’, Luke Cage isn’t given the trust, benefit of doubt or respect Ironman or Captain America get. And it’s hard not to make speculation as to why that is.
I am most certainly not the best or most qualified person to talk about the racial implications in “Luke Cage,” but I feel the series makes its messages and themes so clear, explicit and direct, anyone can pick up on them.
Earlier in the year, someone aptly described the theme of O.J.: Made in America as “Being Famous and Black in America is inherently a political statement,” the idea being that given our countries ingrained and subliminal prejudice, rising to prominence in America as a Black person puts you under an intense magnifying glass that others in the same position don’t, and that the goal post is always further ahead. By using the hyperbolized drama of mafia media, neo-blacksploitation and superheroes, “Luke Cage” was able to play that vision out on a massive scale. In their world, the only way to be respected as powerful as a Black person is either being a literal super villain or a literal superhero, and even then, society will find a way to disrespect you. Whether your garish and in your face, quiet and solemn, well meaning, self serving, heroic or villainous, society will hold you different standards, always assume bad intentions, and always insist that you are doing something wrong so you deserve any bad things that happen.
What’s scary is we shouldn’t need superheroes to notice that all of that is already happening.