Luke Cage May Have Bulletproof Skin But His Power Comes From Harlem

Credit: Marvel/Netflix
Credit: Marvel/Netflix

Before I get started, I just want to say that this review contains spoilers!

So leave now if you don’t want to get spoiled.

“There’s something powerful about seeing a black man as bulletproof and unafraid,” says Method Man from Wu Tang Clan in the twelfth episode of Luke Cage.

I think most of us can agree with that statement.

Luke Cage pulls no punches with its incredibly relevant political commentary. With all the tragedy and senseless violence going in the world, especially in the USA, there’s something empowering about seeing Cage with his bullet-ridden hoodie refusing to stay down. This image only becomes more iconic when we see the men of Harlem take a stand and walk around in their own bullet-holed hoodies to protect the bulletproof man from police. Luke Cage becomes a symbol of hope to the people. It’s amazing to see that hoodie used as his superhero costume. Even if it takes Luke awhile to embrace this hero status.

At the start, Luke is the definition of a reluctant hero. He really doesn’t want to to be made into a symbol. He wants to be left alone. The first season is a showcase of how this man evolves from the reluctant hero to the hero of Harlem.

Let’s first talk about Harlem. Luke Cage has a lot of amazing things going for it. The show is unapologetically black as it should be. I loved it. I know that as a white privileged female I could not grasp the full weight of this show. It did provide a much needed different point of view. One that we don’t get when the majority of our media focuses on the white characters. Diversity may seem like a buzzword that the press throws around, but it’s not. We needed to see different stories told from these different point of views. Diversity is showing where people come from, their history, and what they take away from it. We are in a world where everyones’ story deserves to be heard, where everyone deserves a superhero from their background. Luke Cage does an amazing job showing that to the audience.

Sorry, back to Harlem. The real heart of Luke Cage’s powers comes from Harlem. The people of Harlem rally around him, those who know him, and they shield him and support him. Luke may, himself, be bulletproof. He draws his real power from his desire to protect and serve the people of his neighborhood. They inspire him and challenge him in addition to the shielding and support. The setting of the show is not just a backdrop, but a character of its own. When Luke leaves Harlem, the show kind of loses something in the process for a few episodes. Maybe it was meant to see how connected the character and location are. We need Luke Cage in Harlem to really bring the show to life because of how alive it is.

There are no weak characters in Luke Cage.  Mike Colter makes Luke Cage the embodiment of “speak softly, but carry a big stick.” He rarely raises his voice in the series, but you are definitely listening. Colter gives a commanding performance, but he doesn’t overwhelm the others. He’s the binding force for the show. His presence is felt even when he isn’t on screen. He shows us the depth of Luke’s struggle with his own identity. His fight to stay true to himself, whether in prison or out on the streets. It was just really interesting to watch him grow throughout the first season. I hope we get to see more of this growth and change when we hit The Defenders.

The antagonists of the story bring their own energy to the table from Woodard’s calculating Mariah Dillard and Ali’s slick Cornell Stokes and Rossi’s unflappable Shades. To call them evil is a disservice, they do horrible things. They shouldn’t be painted with just moniker of “bad”. They are all calculating, loving, caring, and complex humans. After the weirdness with Daredevil‘s Hand and the one-dimensionality of Jessica Jones‘ Kilgrave, it was nice to see some complexity from the antagonistic forces. (Also I’m shipping Mariah/Shades forever.) I do admit that I was sad to see Stokes killed after building him up so much, but also super impressed by the flat-out ballsy move on the show’s part. (I haven’t forgotten about Harvey’s Diamondback, I’ll get to him in a second.)

Dawson and Missick rounded out the main cast. They were revelations to watch on screen. I could wax rhapsodic on Claire Temple all day. She’s just as badass and competent as always. I think that this show gave the audience an opportunity to truly see how clever and resourceful and powerful she truly is. Claire especially shines in the eleventh episode of the season. She really earns her name of “Night Nurse”, which she is actually ready to embrace. Truthfully, I think we should give her her own series. I would watch the hell out of that.

There have been rumors about a potential Misty Knight spin-off. After the performance Missick gave, I am totally here for it. Misty Knight is a complicated yet wonderfully flawed character. You root for her, even if you don’t 100% agree with her decision making. Missick makes sure to show all of Misty’s sides, from the badass basketball playing detective, to the scared and self-conscious woman. She juggles all of these aspects almost effortlessly, which makes her a stand-out. This is in a show of stand-out performances. Missick is just magnetic on screen. One of my favorite parts of the entire series is when  Misty is in psych evaluation in episode nine (“DWYCK”) because it’s so interesting to see her explore her own psychology.

So where does the show not hold-up?

Yeah. Let’s talk about Diamondback/Willis Stryker (Erik LeRay Harvey). After Stokes is killed in episode seven (“Manifest”), I just assumed that Mariah would become our primary antagonist. Mainly, because Mariah has become my favorite antagonist in the MCU. I just love her brilliantly brutal manipulations. Then Diamondback, who was mentioned and represented through Shades, comes on the scene.

Woo-boy. He comes in a big way.

And things get…complicated? It’s a similar issue that I had with Daredevil in season two. I feel like two separate seasons of the show were being smushed together. While Harvey was great as the psychotic Diamondback, the show lost some of that wonderful grounded menace that was built throughout the first seven episodes. It didn’t get goofy, but it got weird. Especially since Stryker would start to psychotically cackle and quote Bible verses, it just seemed jarring. I think the antagonist should have matched the tone that the show was trying to set. Maybe if they built Diamondback up like they did the Kingpin or something? I would have been a bit on board for it. I have a feeling there was plan for the show where Diamondback was the main antagonist that didn’t get entirely scrapped.

But outside of that, admittedly large, flaw, I really enjoyed Luke Cage. Much like the brutality and aftermath that permeated Jessica JonesLuke Cage brought something new and mature to the table. It refreshed the superhero genre in a way that hasn’t really been seen onscreen before. It definitely felt like a welcome breath of fresh air. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker knew what he wanted and executed it, for the most part, pretty well. It was an interesting ride visually and musically. Seriously, nothing sounds like how Luke Cage sounded. This show is, bar none, the prettiest one in the Marvel/Netflix line-up. It deserves some kind of award for it.

(Seriously if this gets an Emmy nod for best title sequence. I will REALLY be siding the voters hardcore.)

I give Luke Cage an A-. It’s definitely worth a watch.

Bec Heim