Luke Cage is perhaps one of the more difficult characters to bring to the screen. From his first appearance in 1972 as a blaxploitation-style hero-for-hire to his modern comic-book persona as a more grounded family man, the character’s history is deeply entangled in nearly half a century of how African Americans are depicted in popular media. It has the potential to be a cultural minefield, but showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker navigates it well.
First, they make Luke Cage the son of a Southern Preacher — a departure from his traditional origins, but it gives him a touch of old-fashioned values and making him something of an outsider in the neighborhood he has chosen to protect. As his super-heroing makes him more of a celebrity throughout Harlem, he puts on the public persona of the swaggering, brash character. It’s a tricky balance that could have come off like Dr. Cliff Huxtable trying to be gangsta, but actor Mike Colter makes it work.
As the second season opens we see how Cage has settled comfortably into his role as Harlem’s resident super-hero. So he hunts down neighborhood dealers using his name to sell drugs. He poses for selfies with his adoring public. He gets to break out of the brooding stoic of the first season and strut the streets, being gracious to his fans and intimidating to his enemies. Things are going well with girlfriend Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), and even Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) seems to be trying to straighten up and fly right.
So of course, things immediately start to go sour. Cage’s estranged father (Reg E. Cathey) shows up looking for a reconciliation that Luke doesn’t want. A Jamaican gangster called “Bushmaster” (Mustafa Shakir) with an old score to settle with Mariah, challenges Luke’s territorial claim on the streets of Harlem. And police detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), having lost an arm in the previous Defenders series, is struggling with both the physical and the emotional challenges from that loss.
One common complaint I’ve heard about Netflix’s Marvel series in general is that they run too long and start to feel stretched out. And while that may be true of some, I don’t find it to be the case with Luke Cage. And a big part of that, I think, is due to its supporting cast. There is a rich, extensive community surrounding Cage, and most of them get an opportunity to develop and add texture to the larger story. This is a series that actually seems to like all its characters and genuinely wants to know more about them.
Which is not to say every character gets a perfect arc. Luke’s reconciliation with his father seems cut short in the end, possibly by the untimely death of the actor. Claire’s part in the story is ultimately unsatisfying in its conclusion, though perhaps it is all the more realistic for it. Most glaring is the character arc of Mariah’s daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), whose sudden shift in character development by the end left me wondering if some key scenes had been left out along the way.
Traditionally, the super-hero has been a modern myth of American Individualism, but in recent years we’ve started to see a shift away from that and towards a more communitarian approach. Most obviously, we see this in the CW’s “Arrowverse” shows where Green Arrow, the Flash, and Supergirl each have a team backing them up. Luke Cage takes the different, subtler, more meaningful approach of sticking with the super-hero-as-lone-wolf trope, but giving him a strong and well-developed community in which to operate.
As Catholics, we recognize the family as the heart of all community, which is why I especially like how this series makes that a focus. Cage and his father, and Mariah and her daughter, are given opportunities for reconciliation. Bushmaster is motivated by an old family feud, and Claire’s family history impacts her relationship with Luke in significant ways. For better or worse, all these characters are products of their families, and it’s good to see a series take the time to dig into those stories. While still, of course, giving us all the action we’d expect from a super-hero show.