One of the most interesting side effects of film and television’s embrace of the superhero narrative is that we get so many interesting stories about what it means to actually be heroic. Heroism, after all, isn’t about putting on a costume or assembling some gear. Sometimes, as in the case of “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” it’s as simple as stepping outside in a sweatshirt.
The third pillar of Marvel’s “Defenders” franchise,”Luke Cage” hums with confidence from beginning to end, owning everything from its cornier jokes to its biggest action sequences to its boldest racial statements. The season doesn’t necessarily end the way you’d expect, but it knows exactly what it’s saying: Heroism goes beyond superpowers.
Shifting the Marvel spotlight from Jessica Jones to her love interest, Luke (Mike Colter), Season 1 shows the former bartender has relocated to Harlem after the events of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones.” Bulletproof and super-strong, Luke just wants to avoid trouble, but the violence and corruption overseen by city councilwoman Mariah (Alfre Woodard) and her cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) ultimately make that impossible. While Luke might be bulletproof, the people around him aren’t.
There are some moments of “Luke Cage” which play far more comic book-ish than others, but when you dig into the history of the character and see his gaudy, extreme beginnings, you appreciate the subtleties that do emerge.
Netflix’s Marvel series have managed to establish a solid formula for these first seasons: Introduce a central, conflicted protagonist and face them off against a bad guy with his or her own complicated back story. Make the stakes real, the drama personal and, ultimately, make the fundamental arc of the season the character’s journey to embracing their true selves, coming to terms with their powers and what they mean about their place in the world.
Within that formula is an interesting idea about the superhero origin story; how much of it isn’t about the powers or technology, but about identity — how a person defines themselves. The season begins with Luke actively hiding away from the world. We knew from “Jessica Jones” that Luke was living under the radar, but “Luke Cage” explains in full why exactly he made that decision. (Actually, by filling in so much of Luke’s backstory, there are elements of “Jessica Jones” which completist Marvel nerds may find themselves wanting to revisit.) Beyond the practical reasons for his decision to hide, though, there’s also the personal: It’s not that Luke needs to figure out who he is — he just needs to accept what it means.
There’s real beauty to the execution here. Creator Cheo Hodari Coker referred to the series as the “Wu-Tang-ification of the Marvel Universe” at Comic-Con, and, from cinematography to music to production design, you can feel that edge. It’s a tone consistent with what “Daredevil” established in its first season, but it has its own energy and life. And on a writing level, “Luke Cage” is to be commended for keeping the plot fast-paced and lively, avoiding some of the mid-season drags that other Marvel shows have experienced. On a number of occasions, after some big twist, I would question what could possibly come next, and within a scene or two the show would provide an answer courtesy of yet another big play.
Acting-wise, Mike Colter proves to be a real treat, and I never knew how badly I wanted to see Alfre Woodard play a comic book villain until now. Mahershala Ali brings meaningful danger, menace and nuance to his own villainy, and Simone Missick’s performance as Misty is so engaging you’ll wish being BFFs with a fictional character was possible. Plus, Rosario Dawson continues to be one of the very best things about the extended Marvel universe. As opposed to “Jessica Jones,” where she made basically a extended cameo, she’s a major force in “Luke Cage” Season 1, and it’s a pleasure to see her get more to do.
On balance, what proves most memorable about “Luke Cage” in its first season is how much it pushes the boundaries between the Marvel world and the world we currently live in. It begins subtly, with casual barbershop chatter about Phil Jackson and Lebron James, then builds until you see a black man put on a hoodie and you know it’s for a reason. Here in the real world, superheroes are only found in pop culture, not walking down the street. But while Luke Cage isn’t real in our world, in Luke Cage’s world, Method Man is real. So is Faith Evans. So is Barack Obama. And so is Trayvon Martin.
If you’re looking for an example of white privilege, here it is: “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” exist in the same universe as “Luke Cage,” but are far more insular, focused on the characters’ personal struggles. “Luke Cage” does the same, but it also can’t ignore the realities of being a black man in America today. Jessica and Matt Murdock don’t get political, but Luke doesn’t get a choice.
Instead of burying the issue, the show actively engages with it, with literal lines of dialogue like, “There is something powerful about seeing a black man who’s bulletproof and unafraid.” The show is fiercely determined to make it clear that Luke’s powers make him super, but it’s the fact that he is black, proud and willing to stand up for what’s right that makes him a hero. His race is a fundamental part of that heroism.