Meet the latest Marvel superhero to hit Netflix: Luke Cage, a mysterious and indestructible avenger raising hell up in Harlem, the bulletproof man who twists thugs’ guns into pretzels. As one of his enemies says, he’s “half Houdini, half Ali.” And the man has got a lot of enemies, because he’s had it up to here with the unrighteous fools trying to run this neighborhood. So he walks the streets in broad daylight, looking for the next ruckus to bring. Netflix’s excellent Luke Cage is its latest addition to the Marvel universe, building on the success of Daredevil and Jessica Jones with an even more charismatic hero. In one showdown scene, somebody asks him, “Don’t you need a gun?” Our hero scoffs at that: “I am the gun.” And a few knocked-out knuckleheads later, Luke walks away triumphant.
We got to see Luke Cage briefly in last year’s Jessica Jones, though we didn’t see nearly as much of him as Miss Jones did. Mike Colter not only has the muscle to bring this guy to life, he’s got the stoic sense of grief, a man in a hoodie who feels sorry for the clowns who keep thinking they can finish him off by popping a cap in him. It’s a bold step forward for the suddenly booming world of superhero TV, partly because 2016 is a year when there’s even more resonance in the fantasy of an American black man who can’t be gunned down. He’s a black life that not only matters but can’t be snuffed out by bullets, so he reluctantly takes on the responsibility that goes with his superpower – defending the other black lives he sees at risk.
When we first see Cage, he’s trying his best not to be Power Man but the invisible man, an ex-con with a tragic past, sweeping up at Pop’s Barber Shop and grieving over the death of his wife. As he says, “What if my ambition is to sweep hair, wash the dishes and be left the hell alone?” He wants to keep both his superpowers and his mournful memories secret, but as somebody here says, “Ain’t no secrets uptown.” So he can’t stay out of the good-vs.-evil game. As Frankie Faison’s wise old barber-shop sage says, “You know how the wind feels fluffy, like you could stuff it into a pillow case right before a big thunderstorm? Harlem’s the same. Trouble smells a certain way. You can touch it.”
The character originated in 1972 as Marvel’s attempt to create a blaxploitation star, in the wake of Shaft and Superfly, but this version is saturated in hip-hop ambience (every episode is named after a Gang Starr song). Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker is an old-school hip-hop journalist; he reviewed Biggie’s Ready to Die for Rolling Stone back in the day. It’s full of clever allusions to the other Netflix Marvel adaptations — especially Rosario Dawson, reprising her all-too-brief role as Claire Temple. Luke Cage has even more of The Wire in its DNA – most notably Faison, who was so great as Commissioner Burrell and plays Luke’s barber-shop Yoda. Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) is fantastic as the posh gangsta Cottonmouth Stokes who runs his criminal empire from a club he calls Harlem’s Paradise, with artists like Faith Evans and Charles Bradley performing on his stage, and a giant portrait of Biggie in his office. As he tells Luke, “You want Harlem? It’s expensive.” He’s in cahoots with crooked politician Alfre Woodward – but they find Luke is an enemy they can’t put down with a few bullets. Luke has no cape, no costume, no secret hideout, and people who want to kill him always know where to find him. It’s killing him that turns out to be tricky. His most exhilarating superpower isn’t even that he’s bulletproof. It’s that he’s a black man who never needs to hide.
Like Jessica Jones, where Krysten Ritter brought so much resonance to a grim tale of sexual abuse, Luke Cage has personal and cultural pain mingled together. There’s one payoff scene – so great it appears twice, though it works both times – where a young blood holds a gun to Cage’s head. What we see on Colter’s face is grief, more than anything – not just annoyance at yet another thug he has to slap down, but a profound sorrow at what a stupid waste all this gun culture is. Something in Colter’s face reminded me of the pain in Richard Pryor’s voice when he plays the preacher who prays, “How lonnnng will this bullshit go onnnn?”
The real star of the show might be Harlem itself; just like Luke, the camera is in love with this neighborhood, as representing the greenest hopes of African-American culture. Unlike Daredevil or Jessica Jones, which had a late-night mood in a totally fictional Hell’s Kitchen, Luke Cage thrives on daylight, with a vivid sense of place. Even the bad guys love the hood: Cottonmouth gives a speech saluting jazzman Billy Strayhorn and R&B producer Teddy Riley in the same sentence. There’s an elegiac sense that Harlem could bloom again. “Back in the day, people had respect,” an old-timer laments. “People carried groceries for old ladies. Your name meant something.” Cage scoffs, “Maybe that’s why they call it back in the day.” But that’s the resonance of Luke Cage – it shows you why these streets are worth fighting for, then gives you the street-fighting man for the job.