Marvel’s Luke Cage examines what it means to be a black hero

Netflix’s latest Marvel series, Luke Cage, is out, and it’s already picking up strong reviews. The preceding series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, seem to have been well-received by fans and critics alike, so does the new entry live up to its predecessors?


First, a quick piece of background: Luke Cage, also sometimes called Power Man, wasn’t Marvel’s first major black superhero — that was the Black Panther, introduced in 1966. He wasn’t even the first African-American superhero: when the Falcon first appeared in 1969, he gained that honour. But he was the first African-American character to star in his own book. He’s best-known for teaming up with another street-level hero, the martial artist Iron Fist, which is something we can look forward to in the upcoming Defenders Netflix series.

Luke Cage has always been a character whose stories mostly focused on small-scale, street-level heroism, and even when he went up against bigger Marvel villains like Doctor Doom, he brought the same attitude with him:


So how does the character translate to the screen? Interestingly.

First, the series goes back to the media that inspired the character in the early 1970s: blaxploitation films and crime fiction by authors like Chester Himes (who gets name-checked in the series, along with later authors including Walter Mosley). The result is a superhero neo-noir story with a propulsive, funk-driven soundtrack.

The other major choice Luke Cage makes is to take its role as the first major African-American Marvel production seriously. So this isn’t solely a story about a street-level hero with a mostly-black cast; it’s very much about what it means to have a black superhero, both narratively and in terms of how people would react to the character. Sometimes this can result in a story that’s a little on-the-nose; Luke (Mike Colter) is sometimes prone to spelling out the moral of his actions. But more often the story is content to trust that the audience will realise its cultural context.

Over the years, Luke Cage’s cultural role has changed. In the early 1970s, he represented a youthful generation angry about the injustices of the world around them and excited about the future. 2016’s Cage, however, is wearier and more explicitly old-fashioned, listening to classic hip-hop and clearly frustrated with the antics of the kids these days. It’s a change that has been mirrored in the comics, as Cage has turned from an angry young man into a figure of mature, responsible leadership (albeit still with a bit of a temper)

Perhaps as a result of these influences, Luke Cage is a little slower-paced than most superhero series; it’s much more of a crime drama than an action one. When it does break into a fight scene, though, it replaces the martial-arts action of a show like Daredevil with brutal, bone-crunching fights that really give a sense of Cage’s powerful physical presence.

Previous Marvel series have been notable for their villains, and this one is no exception. Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard are commanding, human antagonists, with Theo Rossi and Erik LaRay Harvey providing the traditional “grinning psychopath” villain characters. Despite the title, this is very much an ensemble show, with a lot of the narrative weight being carried by characters like Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick). The absence of Misty’s traditional hairdo is sad, but we can all remain optimistic for Season 2.


People have compared Luke Cage to The Wire, which might be overstating the case, but it does feature a few recurring actors from HBO’s critically-acclaimed crime drama, including Frankie Faison, Sonja Sohn and Michael Kostroff.

Overall, then, Luke Cage is compelling watching for a number of reasons: Colter’s weary rage, the superb supporting cast, the evocation of the blaxploitation sensibility and the powerful soundtrack (with plenty of performances in the show itself, including a verse seemingly written for the purpose by Method Man). It could maybe have indulged the viewer with a few more action scenes, or even been cut down an episode or so, but it’s a great addition to the Marvel Netflix repertoire and, quite aside from its cultural significance, well worth watching.


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