Marvel’s next man up, Luke Cage (Photo Courtesy: Netflix)
Starting this weekend, Marvel’s latest superhero to capture pop culture curiosity, Luke Cage, hits Netflix with his own self-titled series. Luke Cage, a superhero inspired by the 1970’s wave of blaxploitation movies, is the story of a bulletproof resident of Harlem, New York who returns home to protect his neighborhood in a similar vein to how Daredevil hovers over Hell’s Kitchen. While it is a Marvel property and part of a much larger expanded universe, “Luke Cage” is about as far as you can get from what Marvel fans are used to seeing every few summers. The Avengers aren’t swooping in to save Harlem from being taken over by crooked politicians and gangsters in three-piece suits, but it has to be done. Luke Cage is about the guy who steps up to that plate.
In November of 2013, Marvel and Netflix announced that they’d be forming a tag team to bring more comic book style content into the world by producing four 13-episode series over the next four years culminating with an “Avengers”-for-the-small-screen limited series called “The Defenders.” For all my non comic book heads out there, in the 70’s and 80’s, The Defenders were the Marvel practice squad – the home of such household name brand superheroes like Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and Gargoyle. Opting not to push their luck, Marvel shuffled the deck a bit and went with a cast of known but not over blown Ready for Binge Time Players in “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Iron Fist,” and “Luke Cage.”
Since launching Marvel Studios in 2008, anything with the word Marvel attached to it has yet to catch as much as a glimpse of pop cultural side eye. They take the most ridiculous premises, seldom read properties, and on the cusp actors and turn them into mega stars. Robert Downey, Jr. couldn’t get a movie studio to insure him on set, Jeremy Renner was making more money flipping houses than he was from acting roles, and Chris Pratt was a doughy goofball on the best NBC show nobody watched before they each got a spin through the Marvel Machine. Now they all carry movie franchises that make more money than the Gross National Product of entire nations.
Seeing that the entertainment model was moving out of cinemas and into living rooms, Marvel investing time, money, and creative resources into new ways to deliver their content which has brought the same kind of success they’re seeing on the big screen to any device their audience can hold in their hands. Marvel’s deal with Netflix has allowed them branch out into a medium much closer to what brought them to prominence in the first place – long form episodic storytelling.
To mirror what has worked on TV, they opted to go with some tattered capes as opposed to gloriously flowing ones. What works on TV is grit; people want to see the cracks in the armor and how they got there, and to paraphrase my man Patrick Kinsey in Gone Baby Gone, Marvel chose the characters that started in the cracks and then fell through.
The characters included in their Netflix deal around aren’t the costumed superheroes people shell out cash to see at the movies, but characters that are trying to get by living in the wake of what happens after heroes and villains do battle in New York City. When Captain America is feeling a little run down after a battle with The Winter Solider, he can take a few days off if he wants. Such is the benefit of being super soldier who was frozen in ice and thawed out to battle whomever or whatever threatens our way of life. When Jessica Jones or Daredevil are licking the wounds of last night’s attempt to clean up the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, they have to do it at their day job because in the world of Netflix’s Marvel, rent is due on the first of the month.
The first three series produced thus far – two seasons of “Daredevil” and one of “Jessica Jones” – has done wonders for both sides of this deal. Netflix keeps growing their content library and Marvel keeps getting to make stories in interesting ways. Starting today, September 30th, the third of the four planned series, “Luke Cage,” looks to push the Marvel Streaming Universe forward much like “Guardians of the Galaxy” did at the movies a few summers ago. Where “Guardians of the Galaxy” introduced new fans to characters they didn’t yet know they cared about, “Luke Cage” is going to introduce fans to a character they definitely should.
With the model so repeatedly proven successful, Marvel has the chance to stretch a little bit, and the entire superhero genre is going to be better for it. So much of the origin stories and subtext for anything comic book related – especially for Cage’s Netflix teammates Daredevil and Jessica Jones – is based on a person with extraordinary powers spiraling downward while trying to keep their city from turning into rubble. Luke Cage is the exact opposite in that this is a story about a character rebuilding the world around him as he rises up.
Strip all the superhero nonsense away – Cage has unbreakable skin; an unfortunate side effect to a governmental experiment gone wrong – and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker still has more than enough to work with in bringing a black superhero to television. His x-factor here is in the neighborhood – Harlem, New York. Like Boston did for movies like “Mystic River, “The Town,” and “Gone Baby Gone,” Harlem plays just as big of a role in “Luke Cage” as the costumed vigilantes scurrying across the rooftops. Every street, every corner, every crack in the sidewalk has a story behind it. The weight of history meeeeeeans something. Every action, decision, and alliance adds much more depth to the plot when environment has seeped into the bones of every aspect of the story. It’s not just about the choices Cage makes in his superhero story, but what those choices mean this version of Harlem.
In describing his pitch to Netflix, Coker opted to focus on the neighborhood noir aspect of the source material as opposed to Power Man / Hero for Hire origin story of the character. In his interview with Time, Coker described his vision of the role that Harlem would play in “Luke Cage” as being, “like what The Wire did for Baltimore.” Imagine Omar Little impact in “The Wire” and ask if he hadn’t decided to Robin Hood it out in West Baltimore what that would have meant for McNulty, Kima, Bunk, or the kids from season four.
Are you in on this yet?
What is so engaging about the superhero mythos is the process protagonists have to go through in order to become their true selves; constantly having to take off one skin to wear another. Ironically, Luke Cage’s superpower is his skin, and because of that, he just “is.” His only costume (Marvel thankfully retired the look Cage came in with) is a black hoodie and occasionally bullet hole ridden clothes. Like “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” and the upcoming “Iron Fist,” “Luke Cage” takes place in the same universe that houses a giant green rage monster and a Norse God of Thunder that carries a magic unliftable hammer, but he is not a superhero in the same way. The rest of the Marvel Universe uses their powers as a way to deal with the unfortunate happenings that made them ‘super.’ For characters like Iron Man and The Hulk, being a superhero is like therapy with laser beams and Hulk Smash sonic claps with the ‘breakthroughs’ being bad guys going through walls. Luke Cage is different; his powers aren’t a way for him to push back against his issues, they are a way for him to push through them.
“Luke Cage” has the benefit of being the third of the Marvel Netflix projects to launch. With the success of both seasons of “Daredevil” and the critical attention and leeway earned by “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage” makes his entrance in front of an audience already sold on the concept of gritty superhero TV shows; the creators don’t have to spend one minute setting up the pulley system needed to suspend the audience’s disbelief. With that being the case, “Cage” hits Netflix as a much more realized experience from the visual storytelling to the background music.
The soundtrack of “Luke Cage” – expertly crafted by Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge from A Tribe Called Quest – does a lot to build out the environment and tell the audience where this series sits in contrast to the rest of the Marvel Universe. The Harlem surrounding our hero borders the boroughs we grew up hearing Nas, Biggie, and The Wu-Tang Clan rap about.
Just like on albums like “Illmatic,” “Ready to Die,” and “36 Chambers,” once you strip away the scene painting of what these characters had to do survive, we’re left with stories of how good life will be once they make it out of their surroundings with a promise to come back to fix it. That’s a different type of superpower that is so seldom seen and so worthy of exploration.