Marvel and Netflix’s Luke Cage bears no shortage of resemblances, good and bad, to the classic Blaxploitation genre to which it so lovingly pays homage. It’s stylish, swaggering, and full of great music and charismatic performances; it’s also intermittently nonsensical, politically murky, and frustratingly inconsistent. The show resides in the same fictional New York that was destroyed at the end of the first Avengers movie and that’s since hosted the Marvel-Netflix collaborations Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the latter of which first introduced us to Luke Cage’s titular hero. Cage himself, gamely portrayed by Mike Colter, is a seemingly indestructible man blessed with unbreakable skin and superhuman strength. He’s also a proud resident of Harlem, and the preponderance of black and brown faces on Luke Cage offers a welcome reprieve from the rather overwhelming whiteness of a lot of superhero fare.
Luke Cage first appeared in Marvel’s pages in 1972, at the height of the Blaxploitation craze. He was the first African American superhero to headline his own Marvel comic, initially titled Luke Cage, Hero for Hire but soon changed to the technically-accurate-yet-groan-inducing Luke Cage, Power Man, and he’s now the first black Marvel hero to headline his own screen entertainment since the Blade franchise. Netflix’s Luke Cage was created by Cheo Hodari Coker, who’s clearly steeped in the comic’s history and festoons the show with Easter eggs: One character offhandedly refers to Cage as “power man,” there’s a terrific visual joke grounded in the character’s original 1972 costume, and we even get to hear Colter utter Cage’s 1970s-era catchphrase, “Sweet Christmas!”
The storyline of Luke Cage’s early episodes bears little direct relation to the events of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which is mostly a good thing: Rather than trying to rope together the increasingly diffuse and increasingly hard-to-follow goings-on of the Greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, Coker and his team have crafted a show that breathes its own air and stomps about on its own feet. The show’s main antagonist is an embattled gangster named Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, played by the electric Mahershala Ali, who, between Luke Cage and his much-lauded turn in forthcoming Oscar hopeful Moonlight, appears on the verge of full-blown stardom.
Cottonmouth seeks to rule Harlem the way that unstoppable force Wilson Fisk ruled Hell’s Kitchen; Cage is the immovable object committed to standing in his way. Caught in the middle is Stokes’ cousin Mariah Dillard, played by Alfre Woodard, a powerful and ambitious councilwoman with a Machiavellian streak, who seems genuinely torn between her cousin’s vision of Harlem as a lucrative underworld fiefdom and Cage’s vision of it as a peaceful bastion of culture and history. Woodard is a particularly inspired bit of casting, a great actress who’s often typecast in parts defined by matronly kindness getting a chance to sink her teeth into a character who wears such trappings like a crocodile’s smile. Nibbling around the edges of all this intrigue is talented detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), an occasional love interest of Cage who’s fighting the corruption of both the underworld and her own department.
Before entering the world of TV, Coker was a highly regarded music journalist whose 2003 book Unbelievable remains the definitive biography of Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G. (In 2009, Coker adapted the bio into a screenplay for the biopic Notorious.) One of Luke Cage’s greatest triumphs is its use of music, which resonates more prominently and energetically than in any previous Marvel screen property. The show’s score is crafted by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and evokes the greatest scores of classic Blaxploitation while still managing to sound current and fresh. Cottonmouth Stokes owns a nightclub, an inspired narrative touch that allows Coker and his writers to include in-show performances from the likes of Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, and Charles Bradley. The show’s sixth episode boasts a striking montage sequence set to the strains of the Stylistics’ 1971 hit “People Make the World Go Round”; Cottonmouth’s office houses both a Fender Rhodes electric piano and a massive framed print of Barron Claiborne’s iconic portrait of Biggie Smalls himself.
If Luke Cage’s musical world rarely hits a false note, the show’s story world unfortunately hits its share, although some of that is admittedly inherited. To put it bluntly, Luke Cage isn’t exactly the most inspired creation in Marvel’s storied annals: A superhero whose powers consist of being super-strong and effectively invincible doesn’t exactly scream invention or promise all that much in the way of narrative tension. It’s also a bit unclear what the show’s stakes are, aside from finding a way to put this character through his paces on the way to next year’s Defenders team-up. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones featured top-notch villains, most notably Wilson Fisk and the Punisher in the former, and the terrifying Kilgrave in the latter. Cottonmouth, despite Ali’s terrific performance, is impulsive and inept, and under the thumb of more powerful men than he—one imagines that, even without Cage’s interventions, Cottonmouth would find a way to sabotage himself.
As Marvel’s first predominantly black on-screen offering, Luke Cage will likely draw attention for its politics, and sometimes maybe too much. I personally found the series pretty uneven on the sociopolitical front, which is mostly fine—again, it’s a show about a guy who’s invincible. For all the show’s smart and well-earned invocations of Harlem history, a scene that shows Luke’s bed strewn with a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—arguably the greatest novel about race ever written—alongside Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers lands somewhere between glib and crass. And the show’s depiction of Harlem as a gun-addled war zone is as fanciful as Daredevil’s depiction of Hell’s Kitchen—sorry, “Clinton”—as a pit of depravity, but it’s less laughable in the real-life context of a presidential candidate peppering speeches with references to contemporary black communities being “worse than war zones.”
A fair amount of attention has also been devoted to the show’s deployment of the N-word, a new frontier for a Marvel screen property. (Can you even imagine?) As a white person, my policy on that word is twofold: I have no desire nor right to say it myself, nor do I have any desire or right to tell black people whether they should or shouldn’t. If Cheo Hodari Coker, who is black, wants to put that word in his character’s mouths, that’s fine with me, and as a critic I felt he did so thoughtfully, and without any gratuitousness or sensationalism.
And yet I couldn’t help but notice that during an action sequence scored with the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic “Bring da Ruckus,” the show opted to use a version in which RZA’s iconic refrain “bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus” is edited to remove “motherfuckin’ ”; in GZA’s verse, the same word is edited out. This means that someone, either at Netflix or Marvel—and I’d guess that it wasn’t renowned hip-hop journalist Cheo Hodari Coker—felt that it was just fine for Luke Cage’s audience to hear black men call each other the N-word but beyond the pale for them to hear black men say the word “fuck” on a record that came out 23 years ago. If only Luke Cage were real; I’d like to hear his thoughts on that particular call.