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October 26, 2016

From Tiara to Tough Guy, the Rise of Luke Cage

by Ross Kitson

Luke Cage comic book
Image from 
The latest installment in the great Netflix-Marvel partnership is Luke Cage, and it follows on with the mature style that the current TV adaptations of the Marvel Universe have set. Fortunately for my 14-year-old son the producers have opted to run it as a '15' (which is an R in the US) as per Jessica Jones and Daredevil season 1, rather than the uber-violent Daredevil season 2's '18.'

Those who read my posts will be aware that (a) I'm a happy superhero and comic-loving geek, and (b) I'm a big fan of what they're doing on Netflix. Of the latter point, it's telling that the guys behind Stranger Things went through a dozen studios before settling with Netflix. And what further marks of quality do you need beyond House of Cards, The Killing, and Narcos? Truly Netflix is on the verge of rivaling the remarkable HBO and AMC.

What I loved about Luke Cage was that they took a fairly B-movie hero (agreeably who had a boost in recent years by being in the New Avengers team) and did him perfectly. Here was a Black-American superhero, whose origins in the comics were firmly entrenched in the mires of 70s stereotype (afro, tiara, open-neck yellow shirt, lots of talk like 'jive'). The comic had a burst of popularity in the 'Blaxploitation' era, whilst the cinemas were replete with Superfly, Shaft, and Cleopatra Jones, but its odd mix of lighter comedic tone with gritty street-level setting meant that the comic-line ultimately merged with another (Iron Fist) to sustain it. This partnership, of invulnerable dude, Cage, and martial-artist, Iron Fist, was surprisingly readable—and I recall really enjoying it during my childhood in the late 70s to early 80s.

The duo were put out to pasture in the mid-80s when every Marvel comic not involving the letter X or with mature undertones was felt to be passé. Luke Cage was relaunched with a newer modern look in the 90s, and after a few stop-re-starts came under the magical pen of Brian Michael Bendis, whose runs on the Avengers, and gift for big cross-over events brought Luke back into the mainstream (not least in the mature title, Alias, which Jessica Jones is based on).

Luke Cage
Image from http://www.marvel.com 
So how to reflect this chequered forty year history on the small screen? Well, the first move was to give Luke some space and a fresh backdrop. We find he's left Hell's Kitchen (where he appeared in Jessica Jones), and settled in Harlem. This was a smart move, as there are few other areas as intrinsically linked with Black American culture as Harlem. And the writers exploit this to its full potential, using the characters, and the history, and the vibe of the setting to frame the struggle of moralistic Luke against the villains of the tale.

The story is solid enough—nothing exceptional, with the necessary origin episode, some unresolved past issues, a few revelations and surprises, and a pretty effective finale. It shines for me in three ways, however.

Firstly, the series felt far more a part of the Marvel Universe than the prior three Netflix series. The Avengers were referenced repeatedly: the dude with the hammer, the big green guy, and even Captain America by name, are all mentioned. The use of Justin Hammer's tech is a great inclusion. More than the other series it examines the nature and effect of a hero, and a vigilante, whose identity is not a secret.
Mike Colter as Luke Cage

The second stand-out is the music. Just superb. Ideally chosen for the setting of Harlem, it mixes soul with rap with funk. The guest appearances by Method Man and Delfonics set the tone, and the soundtrack had some excellent songs from Issac Hayes, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Rakim, Wu Tang Clan, Gang Starr, and even Nina Simone and John Lee Hooker. Given that the soundtrack was such a big deal with Stranger Things, Netflix's huge success of the summer, I think that we'll find that the soundtracks become significant features in these series.

My final love of the series was the representation of black American culture. Given the style of the series, a black superhero, it could have so easily gone wrong. I was expecting a portrayal of gangstas battling Luke with escalating tech, and some black stereotypes tossed in. But the portrayals in this series were some of the best I've seen since the Wire, with well-rounded and intricate characters providing enough variety. And the writing was saturated with pop culture references, whether the jokes about kung-fu films, Shaft, Different Strokes, Dr Seuss, The Warriors, or the answer to 'who you goin' to call?' being... well... Ghostbusters! And Diamondback's reminiscing about being the Son of a Preacher Man, with Dusty Springfield playing. Just little touches that lifted the entertainment level above Jessica Jones and DD for me.

Luke Cage comic
So, all in all, a huge success and setting the bar even higher for the next series, Iron Fist, which surely has to feature Luke, and the spin-off Punisher series. And in the cinema, we have Dr Strange almost here, and then Guardians of the Galaxy 2, with Spiderman: Homecoming soon after. It's a great time to be a Marvel fan, and DC need to really up their game! Perhaps Wonder Woman or Justice League will be what they need….

Ross Kitson is a doctor, occasional blogger, full-time geek, and sporadic author of fantasy and YA sci-fi. Connect with Ross on Twitter.


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