The Men of Luke Cage: Power and Nuance
Casting the character of Luke Cage must have been a bit of a nightmare. First and foremost, the character has to be physically impressive. There are many talented actors on both television and film, but few are well over six feet tall, built like a left offensive tackle, and able to act. Mike Colter certainly physically fills the part, but the complex and often contradictory elements of the character are harder to pull off. There are elements of the character to which Mike Colter gives a good deal of credibility; others aren’t as convincing. In short, there are times where Colter appears wooden; however, this may have to do less with his acting rather than the lack of character definition.
It’s when the series delves into the character’s backstory that Colter’s performance seems the most real. There are several scenes at Seagate Prison, in which a framed Cage is incarcerated. It’s a hackneyed trope: the powerful man, who has to act like a bad ass to keep his friends from being hurt. Yet, as Cage delves deeper and deeper into prison, Colter’s performance does a good job of showing his deterioration and portraying a man who’s getting lost in his own demons.
When the story returns to the present, it returns to a Luke Cage who’s become a much murkier character. In the original comics, Luke Cage started out as a “hero for hire”, willing to work within some questionable parameters for not-so-upstanding citizens; in this incarnation, pre-prison, he’s a bit more of a boy scout, one of the ways in which the series veers away from the source material.
Throughout the series, he’s portrayed as a kind of vigilante seemingly motivated by the injustices of the systems. But he’s also a very conscious vigilante; he tries not to kill people, and seems to be primarily concerned with getting rid of the evil Cottonmouth (Luc Owono). It’s a strange hybrid of Captain America and Batman that never really gets resolved.
What Colter and the writers portray well is a man who is almost bored with his superpowers. “I guess you guys haven’t heard about me, have you?” he states right before being shot, which does nothing but ruin his shirt. “I’m about sick of always having to buy new clothes.” While the line isn’t great, the set up and visuals are fantastic: we hear the gun fire and sees bullets bouncing off of him, piercing a heavy bag that starts pouring sand.
The same conflict comes up with his womanizing. He’s introduced as a guy who’s too reserved to even respond to the most overt advances of a very attractive woman, then depicted as a player who’s so smooth he can de-panty a good-looking woman with a few lame pick-up lines. In the end, he becomes a self-styled player who gets good-heartedly rejected by one of the female leads. Colter does a decent job of portraying this contradiction, which could be put down to Cage being an incredibly hot guy who’s so good looking that he never really had to develop a game.
Of course, every hero needs a villain. The main one for Luke Cage is Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Ali, who had a minor role in the The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 and in the Netflix series House of Cards, nails the role. Stokes’ backstory is clarified through the series. In another slight departure from the source material, in which Cottonmouth has his own super abilities, in Luke Cage, he’s more of a Lex Luthor type. What’s fascinating is that ultimately, he’s less limited by his lack of super-power than his lack of passion for his work. While he loves the bling and juice of being a crime boss, it’s a role forced on him.
The entire character requires Ali to portray a contradiction. He’s a man who can see and ruthlessly exploit any weakness in others, but he’s sublimely oblivious to his own weaknesses. Ali portrays this perfectly. Even when he has to handle some heavy-handed, overly sentimentalized, and simplified psychological baggage, he does so earnestly and with grace.
Added to the mix is Shades (Theo Rossi), who played Juan Carlos “Juice” Ortiz in Sons of Anarchy. Shades is on loan from Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) — a gangster who doesn’t appear until episode eight — and is there to advise and consent, as well as playing a prominent part in Luke Cage’s backstory. In the present, he’s evolved from a flunky punk to a much more Machiavellian villain, staying in the background and observing everything that’s going on. Both Cage and Cottonmouth only see force as a way of asserting power; Shades is far sneakier. He uses nuance to manipulate. Rossi portrays this by always having the character slinking in the background, using advice and knowledge to manipulate rather than inform.
The series has several minor characters that could have been drawn as caricatures, but creator Cheo Hodari Coker does a great job of eschewing stereotypes.
The comic Luke Cage came out during the blaxploitation movement in American cinema; the first issue, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (writer: Archie Goodwin; artwork: George Tuska), appeared in June 1972. In a nice Easter egg, the series includes a moment where Luke ends up in his original character’s outfit, complete with metallic headband, and throws it away, saying he looks like a fool.
Indeed, initially a viewer could easily think the series was based on Superfly; as it progresses, however, it’s much closer to The Godfather: Part II. Not just in tone — there’s a lot of tenebrism in both — but in content; even the minor characters have a little more definition than you’d expect.
Women in the Luke Cage Universe: Subverting Expectations
Marvel is a comic book company that’s also become a movie and television production company. With most comic books written for pre- to post-puberty men, providing escapist fantasy in which people are given a wide range of power, it’s surprising how many times Marvel’s assorted properties manage to break or subvert embedded media tropes.
Consider, for example, Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) in Brian Singer’s X2: X-Men United. Aside from shapeshifting, it’s established that Wagner is a seriously devout Catholic. The classic movie archetype is to treat religious people as either shameless hypocrites, insane zealots, or simple rubes; Wagner is none of these.
Additionally, a surprising amount of Marvel films and television series pass the Bechdel Test. While a few Marvel products fail this test — Deadpool for one — films such as Captain America: Civil War, Thor, Iron Man 3, and Guardians of the Galaxy all pass.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that Luke Cage features several female characters — both good and evil — who talk to other women about things other than Cage himself. One of the strongest characters in the series is city councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). She first appears as the legitimate and practical partner to her gangster cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). From the start, the character is written and played perfectly to suggest a woman as evil as her cousin, just far better at covering it up.
One simple scene conveys this split brilliantly. Dillard attends a charity event, smiling for the camera and joking with the kids, portraying a deep affection for each and every child. She then turns, walks a few feet, and her assistant squirts her hands with copious amounts of hand sanitizer. This added detail, plus the way Woodard obsessively rubs it into her skin, suggests the level of contempt and disgust that she harbors for her political props.
As the series continues, she and Cottonmouth become like Adam and Eve. Much of the action takes part in Stoke’s Harlem’s Paradise nightclub; even the club’s name suggests a reference to the Garden of Eden. Introduced to their partnership is Shades Alvarez (Theo Rossi) who comes in as an agent of Diamondback. Diamondback doesn’t make an appearance; he’s portrayed as a gangster on par with or above Cottonmouth. Staying with the Eden theme, Rossi infuses Alvarez with snake-like qualities, slithering more than walking through each of his scenes. Of all the characters, he’s the most cool and collected. Early on, he seems to recognize Cottonmouth’s weakness: the honesty in Cottonmouth’s brutality.
On the other hand, Councilwoman Dillard’s strength is her poker face, even as she’s prone to the same acts of rage as her cousin. Instead of picking up a gun and shooting whomever annoys her, she becomes very still. As the show goes on, we learn of both their backstories; there are deep-seated reasons for his rage and her control. It’s one of the series most melodramatic moment, sold by Ms. Woodard’s virtuosic performance.
The second most prominent woman is Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick). Throughout the first half of the first episode, it seems unlikely she’ll develop past her double entendre name. As the show goes on, however, she becomes a much more rounded character: an abused, honest cop that’s a devoted agent of the system. Even when that system betrays her, she still believes that only the rule of law can win back the streets.
She shines particularly in the scene in which she and her partner discuss detective Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), a hook-up she has early in the series. One of the most unpleasant tropes of western culture is the notion that any woman who has any kind of sexual appetite needs to be existentially punished. Additionally, any women who dares engage in consensual anonymous sex must be a slut. Knight is portrayed as neither. Remarkably, her smart aleck, joke-cracking, and judgmental sidekick just laughs the incident off, while Knight reacts with a bit of embarrassment at getting caught. It reads more as a “who took the last donut” moment than a scene of complete moral condemnation.
Finally, there’s Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Ms. Dawson’s been the glue in the Marvel Netflix universe, appearing both in Jessica Jones and Daredevil. In Luke Cage, she shows up as a kind of deus ex machina to provide Luke with direction when he needs it. In one of the series funnier scenes, Luke, who fancies himself a player, asks her out for coffee. She immediately tells him she isn’t going to sleep with him. As Luke stumbles over his words, she tells him that that morning he didn’t touch his coffee and only drank his orange juice.
Not only are the women of Luke Cage fully rounded characters, they all have encounters with other women that have nothing to do with the eponymous hero. Councilwoman’s Dillard main adversary is female reporter Thembi Wallace (Tijuana Ricks). Detective Knight serves under and engages with two female captains: mentor Captain Betty Audrey (Sonja Sohn) and Inspector/adversary Priscilla Ridley (Karen Pittman). Finally, Clair Temple has a good relationship and several significant discussions with her mother Soledad Temple (Sônia Braga).
There’s something wonderfully subversive about a show that’s geared toward teenage boys — complete with a powerful, bulletproof player as the main character — that not only aces the Bechdel Test, but portrays adult and complex ideas about female sexuality. No one would ever suspect a series based on Luke Cage, aka Powerman, to be progressive. If Luke Cage can manage it, what excuse do other series have?