Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix is not your typical comics-to-screen project. It contains heavier amounts of profanity (including the first Marvel use of the “n word”). It takes place in Harlem. It gets heavily political, rather than merely nodding to current events. And it feels very real.
A lot of people didn’t know about Luke Cage like they knew about Iron Man, Hulk and the X-men. To many comic fans, especially African Americans, Luke Cage is more than just a black superhero or a product of blaxploitation 1907s. Cage was the first black character to have his own comic, for one. His was also a conscious creation. An innocent black man imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, he undergoes an experiment that makes his skin (a surface identifier of his race and identity) invulnerable and his muscles super strong.
As rapper Method Man comments on the character, “there’s something powerful about a black man that’s bullet proof and unafraid.” And from its beginning Cage’s comic portrayed a New York more crime-ridden than other comics in its time. He is a hero of the streets, not just of a city. Luke Cage, not just a black man’s hero, not just a ghetto hero, but a man symbolic of a statement about oppressed people seeking empowerment.
While the script isn’t always the freshest, the characters are complex, avoiding too many stereotypes and instead portraying a superhero world inhabited by three-dimensional developments of two-dimensional comic book characters appropriated to our times. Cage isn’t just battling enhanced egomaniacs, but struggling against corrupt politicians, corrupt police, racist institutions, youth attracted to crime, and a divided public image. He fights not just to keep crime off the streets, or hope in the streets, but the dream of every minority who has ever lived in a poverty-stricken inner city neighborhood.
According to the show’s origin story, when Carl Lucas used his newfound powers to escape from prison, he creates a new name for himself, which, although a common superhero trope, is also a common trope in African American culture referencing the regaining of one’s name as a response to the name-stripping of slavery—one reason why so many rappers choose to go by something other than their given name. Rather than donning a superhero sounding name (like Powerman, one of his names in the comics), he adopts a new, symbolic alias: Luke Cage.
The first name is from the Bible passage that inspired him as child, Luke 4:18: “The spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free…” The last name recalls his imprisonment. He is no longer a caged man. As a hero, he’s not named for his powers, but for his call to freedom. At first, this freedom is his new life, justly out of a prison he didn’t deserve. But as the season evolves, his freedom and power….sigh…”comes with great responsibility,” and he confronts his ability to bring freedom to his own town, freedom from oppression, corruption, poverty, doom. His powers might not just be a stroke of luck to free him. Just maybe, they are a chance to proclaim to Harlem that the streets can have prosperity, freedom, vision, and freedom. How? by being protected, empowered, and inspired by a black man who can win any fight and can’t be put down by bullets.
Even when empowered, Cage does not cease to be an everyday black man in Harlem. He has to work two jobs to pay rent, and doesn’t live in a penthouse or dwell alone in some sewer. He even denies that he’s been given a gift, and takes half a season to truly start behaving as a vigilante. His problems are still very real. And while physically invulnerable, he still pays a psychological and emotional cost in taking on the mantle of a hero.
When a thug tries to rob him in Jackie Robinson Park, he challenges the thug to “take a look around” at “our legacy.” He then crushes the piece like some old homework. As Lorraine Ali explains, “[Luke Cage] is as much about defending his Harlem neighborhood from bad guys on both sides of the law as he is about explaining why Harlem and its culture are worth defending.”
This touches another key aspect of the show. It’s not just about telling cops to stop killing black people, but about telling black people to stop killing each other. Why? Because you’re a living legacy. If you believe you really matter, show it. Don’t peddle drugs around, don’t pimp, don’t join a gang, don’t rob people, work a decent job, dress like a gentleman, speak like a gentleman, treat a lady with respect, and don’t shoot each other.
It certainly makes a powerful statement that Luke Cage wears a hoodie, one decorated with bullet holes. In one striking scene (SPOILERS), we are treated to Method Man spitting a tune about Cage to a montage of Harlem denizens sporting Luke Cage merchandise—replica hoodies torn with bullet holes. As cops drive by, boys in holed hoodies flash their unarmed bodies at the vehicles, as if to say “what not? We have a man you can’t put down. He is powerful. We matter.”
But it’s not just about cops. It’s about black men’s responsibilities to each other. As we’ve seen with the #blacklivesmatter movement, inner cities are now a political battleground for liberals who blame cops for everything and conservatives who blame inner city blacks for everything. Marvel’s new show doesn’t take easy sides, but explores all these issues. Black lives matter, black neighborhoods matter, black culture matters, and black superheroes matter. And Cage himself embodies these moral struggles, exercising his power to do justice while having to face the consequences. He has to stop his enemies without doing too much harm. On one occasion, he makes the hard decision to evade the police to save someone by throwing a cop into a car, an act which is caught on camera, making him both a hero and enemy in the lives of citizens. Audiences are challenged on whether we should cheer his actions.
Marvel’s latest show reimagines a more obscure character from comic history to challenge us to look at the history of Harlem, and of Black America. It’s also about the hero’s insane half brother dressing in a power suit and quoting the Bible out of context before getting into a fist fight.