Marvel's Luke Cage: Our impressions

Always forward, forward always

Netflix’s partnership with Marvel Entertainment has three seasons of two different shows under its belt, and it’s safe to say that the arrangement has been a successful one.

And Marvel’s New York City has a brand new hero today, as Luke Cage hits Netflix and becomes the first show or film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature a character of color as the lead.

Polygon’s Entertainment writers, Julia Alexander and Susana Polo, have seen the first seven episodes of Luke Cage, and are here to tell you one thing: It’s good.

The villains

Susana: In the first half of its season, Luke Cage continues the Marvel/Netflix commitment to grounding its supernaturally abled characters in mundane detail.

OK, it might be more accurate to say that it continues Jessica Jones’ commitment. We’re looking at you, army of immortal ninjas from Daredevil season two. But Cage presents its audience with what might be the most sympathetic and compelling villains yet — and that’s really saying something after antagonists like Vincent D’Onofrio’s electrifying Wilson Fisk and David Tennant’s terrifying Killgrave.

Luke Cage

Supervillain origin stories are as big a part of superhero stories as superhero origin stories, and the Netflix series don’t skimp on them. But by the time we see him as an adult, Killgrave’s crimes far outweigh his early victimization, and Fisk may be great to watch, but we’re never encouraged to identify with his goals. But Cottonmouth and Black Mariah, aka Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard, are absolutely presented as people who are trying to do noble things with evil tools — tools that were the only ones available to them.

They’re just as much the main characters as Luke himself is, much more so than in Daredevil or Jessica Jones, and I found that incredibly fascinating.

Julia: Television has a tendency to make villains as evil as possible. The idea is that life, especially in a superhero world that is so heavily driven by undeniably right and wrong moral standards, is black and white. Since there’s no room for grey area, we’re often served with two-dimensional villains. That’s not to degrade the actors playing them — like you said, Susana, both David Tennant and Vincent D’Onofrio were fantastic — but there are more moments than not when they feel pulled out of a Scooby Doo episode.

In Luke Cage, black and white becomes grey. Sure, by all technicalities, Stokes and Dillard are a crime family, but they’re not monstrous people for the sake of being cruel. Their evilness comes from the need to survive. Their surroundings and the world they grew up in made them fight for everything they had, and when they couldn’t achieve the same level of success as others because of societal reasons, they turned to a life of crime. They thrived, and through that became the family that we’re introduced to in the show, but they were just people trying to make it to dinner every night.

It’s because of this backstory we’re given that we have a level of empathy for the villains in the same way we reserve empathy for the superheroes. Especially a hero like Luke Cage who’s reluctant to take on the role that he inevitably does. Having empathy for more than one character on a show — and in turn, having empathy for someone who on the surface does not deserve it — makes everything that much more engrossing and disturbing. You’re engaged with every single character, and even though you know it’s wrong, there’s a part of you that’s cheering on the bad guys.

Luke Cage

I want to make this clear though: the Cottonmouth and Mariah are terrible people who do terrible things and should be righteously punished for those things. This isn’t an anti-hero situation where Tony Soprano or Walter White are both the protagonist and the antagonist at the same time and you end up rooting for them in every single episode. They are clearly the villain, but because they’re given a three dimensional story arc and a really intriguing backstory, they don’t feel cartoonish. Instead, they’re treated with the same importance that the main protagonist — in this case our hero, Luke Cage — is, and it makes the show feel that much more authentic.

Which is not to say that the classic Marvel style of the "hero versus villain" scenario, which can feel a little forced and juvenile at times, doesn’t exist in the show. It most definitely does. There are moments where the comic book nature of Luke Cage comes through strong, much like it does in Daredevil, and while I’m not a fan of it, I know that some people might be looking forward to that classic narrative style peeking through every once in a while.

it feels like a marvel show

Susana: There are definitely some moments in the first half of the show that feel more like nods to the bombastic attitude of the superhero genre than the characters acting as they’ve been set up in Luke Cage. And even though the main thrust of the plot — Luke’s big moment of motivation against the villains — is firmly established by the end of the second episode, the show can feel sleepy at times. At least, it sometimes did to me, but I could very well be still coming down off the tension high from Jessica Jones’ barely-time-to-breathe first season.

There were times when I felt like Luke’s early-season aimlessness was out of place after what we saw of him in Jessica Jones: a successful business owner confident enough to begin building a romantic relationship with another person. I had to keep reminding myself, no, this was a Luke who’d discovered that his wife’s death was actually a murder, who’d had his willpower taken away by the man ultimately responsible for that murder, and whose hard-won financial stability had literally gone up in flames, and on top of that, he was still a wanted fugitive. As much as I think the show’s shared focus with its villains is a thing that makes it great, I wish we’d spent a little more time with Luke so far.

The show can feel sleepy at times

As a fan of comics, television and writing, there usually aren’t many aspects of a superhero show that I can’t speak to, but if there’s one thing in Luke Cage that I enjoyed but do not have any proper context on, it’s the show’s music. And I don’t mean just its non-diegetic soundtrack, but the numerous musical acts that are featured on the stage of Harlem’s Paradise, Cornell Stokes’ beloved nightclub.

The music

Julia: Music in television is crucial on every level. Think of any series that you’ve been hooked on and the soundtrack that accompanies those episodes. Music can create a moment that’s remembered for years. It’s the playing of Imogean Heap’s "Hide and Seek" during the season two finale of The O.C. or the use of Sia’s "Breathe Me" during the finale of Six Feet Under. Music isn’t just an added benefit to creating a memorable television series, but it’s 100 percent necessary.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the best parts about Luke Cage is the authenticity showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker brings to the show by staying true to the area that they’re based in. Bringing on legendary producers and artists like A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and A$AP Ferg adds to the true nature of Harlem’s hip-hop community and that comes through clearly in the songs that appear in the show.

But the use of hip-hop is more than just a tool to be respectful and honest with the community that lives in Harlem. Much like jazz artists of the 1920’s and ‘30s, hip-hop became an anthem for a community of people who had been unrightfully ignored for so long. Hip-hop became the new version of the American dream, and like the birth of the idea in the ‘20s and ‘30s, that American dream sprung from a life of crime.

Luke Cage

The idea was to better your life however possible if the tools weren’t being given to you to do it the societally acceptable way. Think of the rappers that changed the game in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and more specifically, the New York scene that was vibing at the time, and it’s similar stories. Jay Z, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest and so many other artists turned their internal vulnerabilities about their lives coming up in Brooklyn, Queens and Harlem into music that resonated with millions.

A big portion of Luke Cage is examining the systematic unfairness and injustice that communities have to deal with, especially in impoverished situations. Coker’s commitment to making sure the music reflects the subject matter feeds into the realness that Luke Cage offers. It’s an aspect of the series that continuously catches me off guard — in the best way possible — and engages me in a way that most other series never get a chance to explore. Music isn’t just crucial to the series as an additional form of entertainment, although there are a couple of great surprises throughout, but it’s a secondary form of storytelling. Much like Biggie Smalls and Jay Z’s rise to power, creating the empires they did, Luke Cage’s growth and the trials and tribulations of the Stokes family are all reflected in the music that appears.

Actually, one of the really interesting aspects of the music and how it ties into the series is how it co-relates to the theme of gentrification that underlines most of the show. It’s an important topic that Coker spends a lot of time both indirectly and directly addressing. Susana, I know you have quite a few opinions on how gentrification is used in the series. What did you think of the portrayal?

gentrification in harlem

Susana: Alright, here’s what I found to be so interesting in the show’s use of its setting, i.e., a community struggling with gentrification. It’s that it does it so much better than Daredevil, and the reason why is incredibly simple: Luke Cage has a black cast trying to save a black community.

One of my favorite reactions to see when the first season of Daredevil came out was folks who thought it was underwhelming that Kingpin’s evil mission was just to push tenants out of substandard housing so he could bulldoze it for expensive new apartment buildings of his own. I would respond by linking them to the section of the Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan Wikipedia article that describes the Windemere apartment building.

Luke Cage has a black cast trying to save a black community

But try as it might to push the idea that its heroes were fighting back against gentrification in its first season, Daredevil was never able to present the idea of a historic neighborhood culture under threat from outside forces with any nuance. Matt and Foggy’s philanthropic aims are noble, of course, but it’s repeatedly established that their talent and the education they’re lucky to have would make it easy for them to walk away from the neighborhood if Nelson and Murdock fails — which is precisely what happens at the end of Season 2. In Season 1, Karen repeatedly wonders if she shouldn’t just move out of the neighborhood she feels so unsafe in after being attacked in her own home.

Daredevil’s narrative focus was, necessarily, on characters who were not indelibly tied to the neighborhood, either socially or financially (Matt’s abstract obsession with protecting "his city" not withstanding). And they are also white characters, presented against a slew of secondary characters of color like Ben Urich, Mrs. Cardenas and Claire Temple — who they were often trying to "save" from one threat or another.

But in Luke Cage, it’s actually the villains who are most concerned with pushing back against the gentrification of Harlem, and the show never misses a moment to remind the viewer of the neighborhood’s real life history as fertile ground for black political and artistic achievement — a history that Cottonmout and Mariah, as a decades-old Harlem crime family, feel personally tied to. Nothing that they have built is extricable from Harlem. Mariah Stokes’ big evil plan for her mob money? Gaining the political clout to create a new, massive complex of low-income housing for Harlem residents and businesses.

It’s Luke Cage’s dedication to the three-dimensionality of its villains makes them engaging and sympathetic — and it creates a narrative foundation strong enough to support dallying with the incredibly complex idea of gentrifying urban spaces in a show about a guy who punches people really hard and will eventually be best friends with a magic ninja.

If that’s not enough endorsement for anyone reading this, let me put it more clearly: Luke Cage is a show you should be watching.