Initially, I wrote this thought piece back on September 30, 2016 after watching Luke Cage on the night of its release, but since that time, I lost the manuscript to the write-up and classes overwhelmed my time. However, since the release of Iron Fist, and the rediscovery of the old manuscript, I thought it important to release this with the recent write ups I did regarding the controversy around Iron Fist and representation.
Apart from Black Panther and a few others, one of my other favorite Black superheroes from Marvel has made it to live action and that is Luke Cage. Fair warning, from this point on, there will be spoilers and, at least one important spoiler for Jessica Jones if you haven’t watched that yet.
One quick warning before you read further, some of the screen shots used below were taken on a less than desirable internet connection, thus, their quality is not up to par. However, I did not have the time to redo them. Also, if this appears without images other than the above one, refresh your page.
Marvel Original Comic Universe and Marvel Cinematic Universe/Netflix Comparison
First, let’s cover some notable comparisons between the show and the comic. I’m not covering these differences to spite the show nor to complain about the differences. I’m covering them because I think they’re interesting. In fact, all of the differences work well in Netflix’s Luke Cage. Each of the changes fit the new direction of a contemporary Luke Cage reasonably well.
In any case, for those of you who had the luxury of reading old Luke Cage comics, you will be aware of a few things. First, Luke Cage was a play on the 1970’s Blaxploitation era, in which movies were purposefully made to mock the exploitation of Black people in the entertainment industry. Hence, the reason many of them had over-the-top plots and used terms like “honkey” and “cracker” while emphasizing ridiculous stereotypes of interactions between Black and White people, while often making the villain a White person. Thus, early Luke Cage utilized and wore 70’s slang and clothes. This version of Luke barely evolved over the years until the mid-90’s when he would undergo a relative change in the series, Cage. During this series, he dropped the iconic costume of the 70’s and dawned an upgraded look where he began combating his foes in gear closer to average looking clothes. Also, in the Cage series, he rediscovers his family and his brother gains superpowers to become Coldfire. However, he supposedly perished in a confrontation with a corporation holding their father hostage. This would grow over time in with two image changes of the character in the early 2000’s and somewhere around 2010ish is when the Cage character received a full evolution under the pen of Brian Michael Bendis. This is when Luke became more of an Avenger than a Hero for Hire. It is this modern rendition Netflix and the MCU utilizes as the template for their Luke Cage.
He was framed, but this occurs in both the Marvel Original Comic Universe (MOCU) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In the show, however, he started off as a law enforcement officer. This is evident in several points in the show, but after Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes discovers his background, he mockingly provokes Luke with the statement, “You’re no longer the Sheriff anymore,” alluding to his history in law enforcement. Equally, in a flashback on the show, crooked Prison Guard Albert Rackham informs Luke’s fellow inmates he was a former law enforcement officer when Luke first arrives to the penitentiary. In the comic, however, Cage and Willis Stryker committed petty crimes and gang activity until Cage attempted to change his life. He was framed by Stryker both in the comic and the show. Granted, there is mention of, at least, one petty crime committed by Stryker and Cage in the show, but not a lifestyle. It seems it was more the activity of rebellious and bored teens rather than the activity of career criminals. Instead, both boys are said to have been football stars together, etc. In regards to any other changes regarding Luke Cage and Willis Stryker’s earlier history, most would be aware of this by now, but Luke and Willis are half-brothers in the show, whereas in the comics they are mostly just friends prior to Luke’s incarceration. Oh, and if you weren’t already aware of it from watching Jessica Jones and Daredevil, Claire Temple is being played by Rosario Dawson, an actress with Puerto Rican, Irish, Afro-Cuban, and Native American in her background even though the character is originally Black in the comics. There is no denying that Dawson is a great actress. However, where was that same outcry and energy that was put into arguing to replace the White lead in Iron Fist who is originally White in the comics with an Asian-American for the show at for Claire? Just saying…
In the comics, Cottonmouth is an older man, and Cottonmouth is also his last name. Whereas in the show, Cottonmouth is a nickname Cornell hates. Also in the comic, Cottonmouth and Black Mariah aren’t related. She was an extremely obese woman whose weight was used to help her deliver heavy blows and catch her enemies off guard. She could even contest Luke’s strength in the comic, but to a limit. Still, unlike Alfre Woodard’s Black Mariah of the Netflix/MCU series, the Black Mariah of the comics started off a criminal. The Mama Mabel character in the show seems to have inherited most of the original Black Mariah characteristics, at least, until the current Mariah Dillard embraces her villainy.
In the MOCU, Cage is from Harlem where he was raised there as opposed to Georgia in the show. In the comic, he was sent to Seagate Prison, which in the first issue of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, the geographical location of the prison was only said to be on the southeastern coast. This implies the prison may have been located anywhere from Virginia to Florida.
Misty Knight doesn’t meet Luke Cage first. Her first appearance in Marvel Comics occurs in Marvel Premiere #21, an Iron Fist comic, where she has a brief fight with Iron Fist due to a misunderstanding regarding the disappearance of Colleen Wing and her father, Professor Wing. However, in the comics, the first woman Luke gets involved with is Claire Temple. As opposed to Netflix/MCU’s version of Claire, the MOCU version is a Doctor and he meets her in Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #2. Claire works for Dr. Burstein at the time, the man who gave Luke his powers in Seagate Prison. As opposed to the Netflix/MCU’s version of Claire who originally appeared in Daredevil as a nurse who lived in an apartment Daredevil found himself at while injured. Thus, Claire had no knowledge of Dr. Burnstein until she meets him in Luke Cage.
Although, Luke was interested in her as well at first in the MOCU, Reva Connors started off as Willis Stryker’s girlfriend until she got tired of the crime life of her boyfriend and began to confide in Luke. Her decision to seek refuge with Luke lead Stryker into the decision to frame his best friend. In the MOCU, she is killed during a gang shootout while she’s riding in the car with Willis. In fact, it’s insinuated in the comic by one of the shooters that Stryker is using her as a shield, so the shooter shoots Reva, and she dies in the subsequent car accident while Stryker survives as opposed to the Netflix/MCU version where Reva dies at the hands of Killgrave who utilized a mind-controlled Jessica Jones. As far as her involvement in Luke Cage’s history on the show, you’ll have to find out the changes regarding her by watching the show. I’ll simply say that some of her history has been merged with the history of Claire in the comics.
Most importantly, in the comic, Luke volunteers for the experiment which gives him his powers. He volunteers in order to gain favor for parole in accordance with Dr. Burstein’s promise. However, both the show and the comic have Rackham causing problems and changing the parameters of the experiment and ironically grants Luke his powers as opposed to killing him.
Thoughts on the Show
The show was well done in my opinion. Mike Colter had already started off as a great live action version of Luke Cage in Jessica Jones. He continued doing a great job in Luke Cage. Simone Missick does a great job as Misty Knight, although I have some complaints about the character, none of them are due to her acting and more with the writing. Thankfully, these complaints aren’t a deal breaker for the show. Not for me, at least. Of course, Rosario Dawson reprises her role as Claire Temple. Still, Claire’s mother in the show indicates Claire in the MCU is at least half Puerto Rican and possibly, half Black with the way she acknowledged Claire’s attraction to “someone who looks like her father.” Aflre Woodard plays a completely different character from her cameo in the third Captain America named City Council Woman Mariah Dillard, cousin of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. Her role shouldn’t be confused with the character she played in Captain America: Civil War named Miriam Sharpe, a mother who lost her son during the Battle of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron. My wife and I were trying our best to figure out if that role was just a ploy to get the gears in motion for Iron Man or if it was just a minor blip on the MCU’s part. Either way, she still does a great job as Council Woman Dillard in Luke Cage. Her type of crazy is scary.
Mahershala Ali plays the convincing crime lord, Cornell Stokes, and Frank Whaley handles his role well as Misty’s partner, Rafael Scarfe. Theo Rossi plays a sneaky and manipulative Shades while Eric LaRay Harvey handles the final half of the show as the villain, Willis “Diamondback” Stryker. Essentially, Stryker is the merger of two villains from Luke Cage: Hero for Hire and Power Man comics. Of course, the first is Stryker and the other is John “Power Master” Mclver. This becomes evident by the end of MCU/Netflix’s show, and if you’re aware of Power Master’s rise to becoming a superhuman through the exploitation of Dr. Burnstein’s methods that gave Luke his abilities then you will recognize what I’m talking about.
Still, there are also notable cast members such as Ron Cephas Jones as Bobby and Frankie Faison as Pops, a mentor for Luke in the earlier episodes. Overall, I felt everyone did a good job in their roles.
The Issues I Have with the Show
Issue 1: Misty Knight
My first issue with the show, however, is with Misty Knight in regards to the plot. I call her the “hot and cold” character because at times she comes off frustrated and upset with Luke for no apparent reason, and at times, she seems to be moving past this odd emotional state into a moment of thinking logically as a detective. What I mean by that is initially, she’s understandably suspicious of Luke, but at points she acts as the voice of reason on the police force, attempting to point out Luke’s innocence, yet again, at times she suddenly acts as if she knows, if not believes, Luke is guilty of some crime he was framed for when she just got finished defending him to everyone else. She seems in between two characters-one who wants to hate and distrust Luke just because and one who wants to trust and respect Luke due to far more evidence than the former. To put it simply, her character flip flops a lot in regards to Luke and the situation around him. While some may want to say “that’s normal,” and while the show does attempt to explain this inconsistency in her character by stating it is a control issue which arises later on during an altercation with Stryker, she starts this flip-flop pattern far earlier than Stryker’s debut on the show.
Also, I wouldn’t say her character was acting normal, especially when she is presented by the writers as one of the best detectives in her precinct. My wife and I decided to conclude that her issues seemed to stem from a bad decision she acted upon when she first met Luke. This decision involved intimacy with Cage when she was on a stake out mission at Cornell’s club. I felt the earlier problems with her flip-flopping character would have been better explained if her character (or the writing in the story) admitted this like her flip-flopping towards the middle-latter half of the show was explained to be due to obsessive control issues. The conclusion my wife and I formed isn’t far from canon as Misty revisits the intimate moment she had with Luke as one of the reasons for her loss of control when it comes to him when her outburst towards Claire, who calls her on her inconsistency, causes Misty to be put under temporary investigation. Still, I didn’t understand why she consistently pointed the finger at Luke when she was the one with the issues. Overall, I have to chalk this up as Misty ham-fistedly being the character that was supposed to be anti-vigilante and anti-superhero in the beginning. Plus, I have to conclude this is the usual failed attempt at creating a strong-headed, intelligent, independent and overall strong female character in the midst of superhuman heroes, heroines and villains.
Her Anti-Vigilante position is evident in a conversation she has with Scarfe about vigilante activity. Scarfe doesn’t care if a vigilante makes his job easier while Misty is going on and on about the law and how vigilantism and super-heroism makes police obsolete. Thus, I think the writers wanted an anti-super vigilante character who was a main character and forced it out of Misty which made her seem awkwardly confused at times for a top detective. Granted, I get the MCU wants to continue this notion, at least in the Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Punisher and Iron Fist portion of the universe that people are still getting used to the revelation of enhanced super people running around, but still, I don’t really understand forcing her character to be so uncomfortable with it to the point of flip-flopping about it. For instance, when Luke is framed for a crime, Misty confronts him and Claire. Claire says the accusation is completely silly because she was with Luke the whole time. The moment Misty receives a call from her law enforcement peers regarding planted evidence, cause it WAS planted, she proceeds to arrest Luke. Mind you, she went there to confront him with the solid theory that he was innocent as opposed to her entire precinct believing him to be guilty because they simply believe what they see and hear. Yet, before this she argued with her entire precinct with sound deduction regarding how the cases Luke is suspected for do not fit his modus operandi. You know, she used logic, deductive reasoning, she was being a detective, yet suddenly she shifts gears for no apparent reason, throws out all that reason, that information, what she has experienced and know and just becomes anti-Luke in a single instant with no apparent evidence to support her decision to do so.
This was not the way to write a strong, independent female. To be fair, her character wasn’t horrible, but it amazes me that she has received glowing reviews throughout the internet. Again, let me reiterate, she wasn’t horrible, but I’m worried this may become formula for the MCU, at least the Netflix side since something similar happened to Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, but not to the extent it happened to Misty in Luke Cage. There were enjoyable things about Misty like when she and Claire finally meet and she realizes Luke has pretty much moved on. There’s no obvious jealousy between the women. They just get right down to business dealing with the enemies in front of them. No “cat fight” over the male love interest apart from the disagreement as to whether Luke is innocent or not. Otherwise, in relation to their romantic feelings for Luke, they actually act like reasonable adults in a life-threatening situation and discuss it in line with the problems they’re already dealing with. It is at these times, in my opinion, Misty shines and shows the qualities of an intelligent and strong woman.
Issue 2: Unnecessary Racial Commentary and Implied Black Lives Matter Association
The show hints at invoking the Black Lives Matter and/or the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” cause. I would say both of these causes are misguided if not controlled manipulation of the Black and Progressive minded communities. I’m not going to rail on this entirely too much, but suffice to say I don’t agree with the Black Lives Matter movement in the sense that excessive force which often leads to death is only done to black people. My main issue with this is that it will turn off people who think like I do about BLM and are tired of the racial division in American who simply wanted to enjoy a Luke Cage story. I understand Marvel has always dealt with some social and political issues through the likes of X-Men, Civil War, etc. Still, even some of those such as Civil War were hit and miss because of the forced commentary on real life political issues and how it wounded the overall writing in the story.
The implication is seen between the symbolism of Luke in a hoody with the police pursuing him for the wrong reasons (He was framed. Thus, he’s an innocent Black man and the police are out to shoot to kill since he was framed for murder) along with all the dialogue and editing of interwoven scenes in between. In fact, one scene goes so far as have the police stop him and his response is, “He’s minding his business” yet the officer still asks for identification to which Luke responds, “To walk?” and the officer responds, “Turn around, take off your hoody.” Luke responds, “May I ask why?” to which the officer responds, “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” He obeys their request and another officer pulls up Luke’s image on a cellphone indicating they pretty much profiled him. It’s at this moment the officers draw their weapons, remember, Luke is super strong, but it is not implied they are aware of this. Still, one of the other symbolisms I noticed in the show…this all occurred in a White neighborhood. You notice the onlookers are predominantly White. Nevertheless, this results in an altercation where Luke assaults the officers out of desperation. There is another problem with the scene, after Luke knocks out the White officer, the Black officer seems to ignore the fact Luke is holding his partner and starts firing at Luke who takes it upon himself to defend the White officer indicating Luke is not attempting to harm the officers, but attempting to stay free to clear his name. Still, Luke pushes the Black officer hard enough to send him flying into the patrol car window several feet away. All of this is caught on their dashboard camera and later used to emphasize the danger of Luke Cage who is now recognized by the larger public as superhuman, if not before.
Thus the hoody, the innocent Black man, the profiling of an innocent Black man, the incompetence of the officers to shoot first and ask questions later are all symbolism of what people perceived to be happening between United States Law Enforcement, mainly local Police and Black people, mainly Black males. It’s further implied in Method Man’s rap creatively embedded in the storyline where he mentions “Give up my life for Trayvon to have one.” It encourages large black males to wear hoodies creating false sightings of Luke while the same hooded large black males mock law enforcement. For me, it is the whole hoody theme which is heavy symbolism to Trayvon Martin and BLM during the time Luke Cage was released. Someone could, of course, sum it up to just the hoody being a convenient coincidence, but again, the scenes and dialogue around this segment of the show indicate otherwise. However, it should be emphasized that in the narrative of the show, Luke is indeed innocent of the initial charge that landed him in Seagate, and now the current charges which have police pursuing him. Not to mention again he served in law enforcement prior to his original incarceration. Still, maybe if this show was released prior to the “Hands up don’t shoot” mantra of the Progressive and Black communities, it would have simply been interpreted as an innocent man attempting to stay alive to clear his name in which the community he had helped up until this point took his side as they believed him to be innocent. I can’t really say at this point if there could have been any other way to portray it other than maybe lighten the emphasis on references to real life police shootings.
Furthermore, as seen with the pre- and post-controversy with Iron Fist, it created a situation in which certain members of Western society believe everything after this will have to be “relevant” to some sort of social controversy. With the implication said social controversy is wrapped around White versus Non-Whites or from a general point of view progressive versus regressive. No, everything doesn’t. Luke Cage didn’t necessarily have to do it. Given the fact Luke Cage is a Black superhero who starts his super-heroics in a predominantly Black area of New York, it is expected some Black social issues will creep into the storyline. Yet, they didn’t have to be the polarizing ones and definitely not the uninformed or media hyped version of them. Does police brutality exist? Yes, but does it only exist for Black people or overwhelmingly disproportionately towards Black people? I would say emphatically, No! Anyone who attempts to do some marginally unbiased research into the issue will discover this. Also, it doesn’t help making all police out to be murderous monsters neither in real life nor in creative mediums packed with social commentary on real life. To me, this is the media hype and uninformed portion of the story. Beyond this, I don’t want to get caught up in this on Media Observers. I plan to talk about it elsewhere.
With that said, I’ve glanced around at some complaints for the show, and most people are complaining about weak writing. While the above two complaints, most specifically the handling of Misty’s character, is a clear indication of some weak writing, I would submit to many people that much of Luke Cage’s story is pulled directly from the early issues of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire. As mentioned above, Luke Cage was initially a play on Blaxploitation films, so it was always going to be a risky transition from comic to live-action. I do admit that after switching over to finish Daredevil Season 2, I noticed far more action than in Luke Cage. This would lead me to believe the writers were too busy trying to make a particular statement due to Luke’s Blackness rather than just write a story about Luke Cage. Which goes back to my issue with them invoking the BLM cause. Sure they made it fit, but it calls to question if they were too busy trying to make it about his “blackness” rather than tell a story?
I don’t want to come off as overly critical. I actually liked the show. However, I’m willing to admit where the show needed and should garner some work in the future. I think as the character goes forward on his own, he needs to pull more from modern Luke Cage in which he is still obviously a Black superhero, but seamlessly interacts with the likes of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and other Avengers. The other problem I saw in the show is the over emphasis of superhuman versus non-superhuman, but overconfident villain. I believe in some circles of fandom and particularly average viewers, the whole super-powered person versus overly confident, but intelligent non-super-powered villains is tiresome. I’m not saying it can’t work, but I suspect for some this also caused Luke Cage to be underwhelming for them. Fortunately, it appears the second season of Luke Cage will probably not suffer from this problem at its core.
Things I Enjoyed
I enjoyed the fact Luke Cage was modernized, intelligent, well-spoken and mature. He wasn’t a cartoon caricature of the 70’s Blaxploitation, and he wasn’t overly urbanized either. He was in touch with urban culture enough to give props to Method Man for P.L.O. Style and to shoot the breeze in the barbershop with the fellas talking about sports and other stuff. Yet, he’s mature enough to make an attractive, mature woman such as Misty Knight feel more desirable than the younger ladies Cornell prefers. Although, he wants to run from the possibility of getting exposed as an escaped ex-convict, he is mature enough to stick around and overcome the odds against him and at the consummation of these events, return to legal custody to sort out all of the legal issues rather than keep running.
Claire had a stronger part in Luke Cage than she had in Jessica Jones, Daredevil or Iron Fist. This is apparent since she becomes his love interest, but she wasn’t simply there to mend his wounds and give him a philosophical argument about whether to kill or not like she did with Matt and Danny. Her position on this hasn’t changed unfortunately for some situations, but she provides far more to the story than simply being the “Night Nurse” or the medicinal person for super-people.
Seeing Misty Knight in live-action has me hoping to see her go further into the “Daughters of the Dragon” story with Colleen Wing. Despite my complaints and frustrations regarding Misty’s flip-flopping in Netflix/MCU’s Luke Cage, I do think she brought a lot of positive aspects to the story. While at times she seemed inconsistent, she bridged the necessary gap between Cage and the Police. Simone Missick’s acting was on point and once she fell in with Claire and Luke in the final arc of the show, they formed a formidable team together despite her serious injuries.
The subtle connections to the rest of the MCU through Willis getting the Judas bullet from Justin Hammer’s corporation, which links to Iron Man and by extension the Avengers. This was nice to see. Subtle mentions early on to Daredevil such as what happened to Kingpin in season 1, and Jessica Jones in what happened between her and Luke by Claire were nice too. With this said, here’s an interesting Easter egg: in one of the Agents of SHIELD season four episodes, it appears a Judas bullet was used in an attempt to kill Jeffrey Mace AKA Patriot, who is supposedly an Inhuman with superhuman strength and a high level of invulnerability, but only because of a government issued serum.
I enjoyed the urban culture portrayed in the show, particularly the familiar music. One of my friends argues this is one of the reasons the show has done well amongst Black viewers of our age bracket since it reaches back to the mid to late 90’s era of hip hop culture. I don’t think it’s enough to turn off fans that didn’t grow up with that era of our culture, but it is decent enough.
I enjoyed his Blackness that was just there. Granted, I know this was also a complaint about the unnecessary elements, but given Luke Cage was created for this reason it was a necessary aspect of the show. While I question if some of the writing focused too hard on trying to emphasize this, it was also good to see it portrayed to some degree. I’m not trying to contradict myself here about the unnecessarily controversial aspects. I’m talking more about Luke, the character, just being a mature, powerful Black man despite the circumstances around him. He treated women with respect even while finding them desirable. He spoke to them with respect. His character, as a Black man, did not harbor any ill will towards anyone of another color. For example, he protected the Asian couple from Black thugs. The Asian couple ran a restaurant under the apartment he rented from them, and he responded negatively to the mistreatment they were forced to endure from Cottonmouth’s hooligans. These things made him a well-rounded character.
Overall, I liked the show. Luke Cage is worth the watch if you haven’t already watched it and the spoilers you’ve read thus far haven’t ruined it for you. However, I do have my concerns. Given the gamut of Luke’s adventures in the MOCU, I hope that if the next portion of the show after The Defenders doesn’t take place primarily in Harlem with a predominantly Black or non-White main cast and lacking relevant social commentary in relation to at-that-then time social issues, then people will enjoy it for what it is-simply a superhero adventure story pulled from the pages of Marvel to televisions. Some people couldn’t seem to do that with Iron Fist. Just saying.