“You know, there’s something powerful about seeing a black man as bulletproof and unafraid.”
Method Man of the Wu Tang himself lays down the appeal of “Luke Cage,” Netflix’s latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in the closing leg of the first season (coming after the show used a censored version of “Bring Da Ruckus” a few episodes prior — blasphemy!). The 13-episode series follows its small-screen predecessors “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” into episodic views of less prominent Marvel heroes and heroines, with Mike Colter as the titular Cage, the man with unbreakable skin.
Race is front and center in “Luke Cage.” Set in Harlem, the show has an intense focus on its location and the historic black community it’s home to. Crime bosses (Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth, a gangster with deep roots in the neighborhood) and corrupt politicians (Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, a scheming member of the city council) rule the streets with a pomposity common in so many other comic book-influenced adaptations, contending with Cage for the area’s soul.
But unlike the Hell’s Kitchen shown in “Daredevil” or “Jessica Jones,” which mostly serves as a stand-in for a rough patch of the inner city in which the characters to do good and fight evil, “Luke Cage’s” Harlem is punctuated by references to the neighborhood’s — and the black community’s as a whole — real-world history and culture. Crispus Attucks’ name is dropped alongside Langston Hughes, and more modern figures like Beyonce and Denzel Washington also turn up in conversation at Pop’s, the barbershop where Cage works when not knocking heads.
All these references and locales add up to a show that can lean more heavily on the social commentary than the biff, pows and zams of comic book action at times, which may not be to everyone’s taste. The stakes aren’t as comically enlarged as in any of the now-countless Marvel movie adaptations or even its sister series “Daredevil” — no army of immortal ninjas roam the rooftops of Cage’s Harlem (at least not this season).
No spandex super suits make it into the mix either. Cage’s uniform of choice when fighting crime is a black hoodie, an obvious sendup to Trayvon Martin and the sprawling number of real-life shootings of unarmed black men across the country in recent years and movements like Black Lives Matter that have sprung up in response. Instances of police brutality and racial profiling find their place in Cage’s story as well, in more isolated and personal ways that humanize and present these problems upfront to an audience that may too often view them as stirrings far away.
The blend isn’t always seamless. When the big bad of the season is revealed midway through, he’s not a manifestation of the central racial themes of the rest of the show as much as a token crime lord lunatic with a grudge and access to fancy tech. But “Luke Cage” does manage to harness most of its comic book source material into a product more timely and relevant than most others, and it’s a steady and welcome progression for Marvel’s small-screen band of heroes.
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