After eight years, fourteen feature-length films, and four separate television series, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally managed to place a Black man front and center in his own narrative. Luke Cage, a character previously seen as a supporting character in the first season of the Netflix-exclusive series Marvel's Jessica Jones, is the first Black character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to star in their own series rather than remain a poorly-fleshed out sidekick to a white character.
Marvel's Luke Cage is one of the few series out on television today that provides a close and realistic look at what it means to be a Black person in a world of superheroes. The series' significant focus on agency, trauma, power, and personhood as they relate to Black bodies—as well as its portrayal of powerful, multi-faceted Black women like Mariah Stokes, Misty Knight, and Claire Temple—puts it above and beyond the very white superhero television and film franchises that dominate the media.
However, the character's portrayal in Jessica Jones left me worried for him even after his solo series was announced.
When Luke Cage was first introduced in Jessica Jones's solo series, he was positioned as a supporting character pulled into Jessica's world after she's forced to kill his wife, Reva Connors, by the master manipulator, Kilgrave. In Marvel's Jessica Jones, not a lot of time is spent developing the character outside of his relationship with Jessica and his mourning a character whose death is repeatedly shown throughout the series and who serves as the catalyst for Jessica Jones to escape from Kilgrave.
Thankfully, Marvel's Luke Cage goes further, not only in developing Luke Cage as a character, but in fleshing out characters like Reva and bringing other diverse characters into the limelight. Unlike the rather white-washed portrayals of Hell's Kitchen put forward by both Jessica Jones and Netflix's other Marvel series, Daredevil, Luke Cage's series gives audiences a look at a fictional Harlem that is as diverse and as steeped in Black history and Blackness as it is in reality.
Blackness is a very important aspect of Luke Cage. It kind of has to be considering the history behind the titular character and his position as the first Black superhero to star in their own solo comic series. A Luke Cage television series that didn't focus on Blackness in all its many forms would be pointless and beyond problematic.
Maybe that's why for me, the Jessica Jones series and its grasp of both Blackness and Luke Cage left a lot to be desired.
In that series, Luke Cage didn't always come across as a main character—despite being billed as one. With Jessica dealing with her trauma and her abuser stalking her, there's little time in that narrative for viewers to get more than a tantalizing taste of who Cage is as a character. Additionally, the way that Jessica Jones (mis)treats, uses, and fixates on Black characters, like her neighbor Malcolm or Luke Cage himself, is one of many things that caught Black viewers' eyes last year when the series was released.
In her essay, "Netflix, Uncovering Cycles of Abuse and Chill: Jessica Jones and Domestic Violence," Shaadi Devereaux writes that:
[…] the series nonetheless deals with race in surprising ways: in several scenes, Jessica is made to have conscious understandings of Black hypermasculinity, criminality and pathology. When her neighbor shares how Black people are more vulnerable to others’ perceptions, it invokes not sympathy but an idea of how she can use it for her own ends. The result is several scenes where she pushes Black men into people to create a scene of chaos, using the opportunity to go unseen as she breaks the law. Instead of challenging oppressive systems directly, she uses them to get what she wants and to center her own survival.
In addition to the way that Jessica Jones repeatedly uses Black bodies as cover for her illegal actions, she also manages to ignore that she consistently infringes on or outright ignores the agency and autonomy of other characters—especially Luke Cage, whom she stalks and sleeps with without revealing her identity as his wife's killer. Her determination to handle Kilgrave, and her response to trauma, lead her to use her privilege as a white woman against Black men and women in order to gain a metaphorical leg up.
While Jessica Jones did an amazing job of portraying the coping mechanisms of sexual assault survivors as they navigate a traumatic world, it dropped the ball on intersectionality and ignores the way that people of color, especially Black people, are affected by the same trauma that Jessica is dealing with. The survivor narrative in Jessica Jones centered whiteness and white feelings about trauma above everything—up to and including Black bodies and personhood. Considering the ways that white women have historically been complicit in antiblack racism and the objectification of Black men, Jessica Jones's actions in her series left a bad taste in my mouth.
That's a huge problem.
Thankfully, Marvel's Luke Cage does a far better job of looking at trauma from an intersectional point of view—one which doesn't center whiteness or stereotypes of Black masculinity. Instead, the series focuses on multiple characters dealing with the aftermath of traumatic incidents that changed their lives—Luke Cage, Mariah Dillard, and Misty Knight—providing viewers with a multifaceted look at how people struggle to remain on track despite having their lives derailed.
In Marvel's Luke Cage, our titular character is allowed not only to grieve the loss of his wife alongside the loss of his former life, but to joke with friends and be passionate about his politics. Within the first seven minutes of the show, we (through Luke Cage) have more positive interactions with and representations of Black people within a community than the rest of the pieces that make up Marvel's Cinematic Universe combined.
Yet the show doesn't feel like an eleven hour-long "Very Special Episode," through which viewers are expected to learn a lesson that won't ever apply to the rest of the series. Characters don't hug away the pain. On top of that, I don't think that the series ever makes you feel as though the pain and trauma that Luke Cage and the other characters with whom he comes into contact serve to educate a faintly voyeuristic audience. Instead, depictions of trauma are used to build a better picture of what drives them as characters.
As the main character, Cage is fully fleshed from the start. He laughs, he mourns, he gets annoyed, he experiences (and acts on) desire. He gets to be a person rather than a plot point in someone else's story, something that's pretty great considering how few portrayals of heroic Black characters exist in mainstream speculative films. More amazing to me still is the way that the series works to dissect the relationship between Cage's pain and his power. The entire series is absolutely about power: who has it, who loses it, how they use/d it.
And yet, despite being nicknamed "Power Man" by his father-figure Pops, Cage spends much of the series with a lot of physical power but not much else in the way of personal or societal power. Sure, he can punch his way through a brick wall, but he can't even walk down a street in Harlem without cops coming after him because of his Blackness. Cage is a man dealing with multiple infringements on his personhood, with people ignoring his agency, and with the complete removal of his power. In addition to the loss of privacy and literally losing control of his own mind and body thanks to Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, we also have to look here at his being framed for murder by the villain Diamondback (his half-brother Willis Stryker), as well as his subsequent imprisonment in and escape from Seagate Prison.
As we see in Episode 4 "Step in the Arena"—an installment that uses flashbacks to tell part of Luke's origin story after he's framed for murder in Georgia—Luke's time in prison was a dehumanizing experience where everything that made him Carl Lucas is slowly worn down by the abuse of the guards and the constant tension and violence from other inmates. Within the US criminal justice system, Black people are among the hardest hit by unfair laws and sentencing, with upwards of two million Black men in prison at this very point in time. Historically, Black people have been portrayed as criminals who were incapable of moderating their behavior and who were prone to violence. These stereotypes of an inherent Black criminality were and still are used to justify mass incarceration rates just as they were used to justify enslavement.
Dehumanization is key to that justification—and it's something that's present in Luke Cage's life from the moment that he sets foot in Seagate. Thanks to his half-brother Willis Stryker—whose quest for revenge fuels a large amount of the terrible things that happen to him in the series—Luke is framed for a crime that he didn't commit and left to rot in a prison that has successfully held supervillains in lockdown. In Seagate, Luke is seen by various people in the prison in turns as a threat to authority, a biddable pawn, and a punching bag. Meanwhile, with Luke's life as Carl Lucas behind him, racist guard Rackham takes special pleasure in breaking Cage down and forcing him to participate in illegal inmate boxing matches.
On his first night in Seagate, Luke breaks down in tears, beating his fists against the nearby wall. It's a scene that's heartbreaking to watch when you realize that Luke never actually gets a break. He's always fighting for his life or to save the lives of the people around him. At another point in "Step in the Arena," Luke gets ambushed by Shades and Comanche, two fellow prisoners who work to reinforce Albert Rackham's power within Seagate. After taking the duo out, Luke stumbles out of his cell only to be surrounded by prison guards that see him as the aggressor, dropping to the floor as he cries out out that he's "just trying to survive."
These scenes are part of what makes the series amazing. Luke Cage is a superhero, a rather famous one at that, but in this adaptation, he's also shown as a man who has lost everything, who has nothing, and still manages to fight on and cling to every single scrap of power he can get in order to keep himself and the people that he loves in one piece.
Luke Cage's lack of power might as well be its own character in Luke Cage. Despite the fact that he's one of the strongest superheroes in the MCU so far, Luke basically spends much of his time struggling to maintain a hold on the scraps of personal power that he gains.
Luke gains physical power—immense strength and skin so dense that he later survives a shotgun blast to the head—due to the experiment that saved his life at Seagate, but it comes at the cost of his identity. As a result of the experiment, he escapes from the prison and loses both his life as Carl Lucas and the chance to clear his name. Again: sure, he's mostly bulletproof and can throw a grown man across an alley without breaking a sweat; but that doesn't stop him from suffering catastrophic losses in his life or from dealing with systematic antiblackness or any of the other half a dozen terrible things that happen to him within the first season of his solo series—things that happen to no other MCU character.
Think about how Luke isn't just in danger from the various villains in his neighborhood, but from the police and whiteness in general. He's a big black man in New York. Even in Harlem in a post-"Stop and Frisk" world, he's still subject to unfair persecution based on his blackness and his size.
In the show's ninth episode, an injured Luke is stopped by two police officers as he walks down the streets of Harlem dressed in jeans and a hoodie with the hood pulled up. The image of Luke Cage in a hoodie—rather than his typical comic book costume—was a purposeful choice that actor Mike Colter suggested in order to evoke the image of murdered Black teenager Trayvon Martin. An article from MTV News has Colter explaining the costume change by saying that:
He's trying to hide his face, and be incognito, but it's also symbolic because of Trayvon Martin. We talked about that specifically, what that would mean to people and the feelings it would evoke in viewers. Irregardless of the entertainment value, what this show says politically resonates profoundly.
The systematic antiblack racism that ended in Trayvon losing his life four years ago is clearly alive and well in the world that Luke Cage and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's characters inhabit: the two cops driving down the street see Luke from behind, see him as a potential suspect because he "fits the description," and engage him in a way that they wouldn't have engaged a white suspect. After the white cop demands that Luke take down his hood, Luke asks why only to be told "Because I said so" in an aggressive tone of voice.
The very next episode sees Black men and boys across the city being shaken down on the off-chance that they know Luke Cage, since Diamondback has framed him for murdering a cop. One of the boys, Lonnie, is brutally beaten by a Black police officer just scenes after another cop refers to Black people on the street as "roaches." There are a lot of tough moments and imagery in this series, but I will never be over the way that Lonnie's face looked after that cop was done with him. (And yes, antiblack racism is responsible when a Black cop goes off on a kid that can't be older than fifteen just because he used to know a suspect.)
And then, in the penultimate episode, rapper Method Man performs "Bulletproof Love" on an episode of Sway's morning show after Luke Cage saves his life. The audio of his performance is juxtaposed against the image of Black men on New York City streets being accosted by police officers who see them in hoodies and rush to assume that these men are threats.The montage, which shows Black men feeling actively empowered by Luke Cage, in a world where "there ain’t no Iron Man that can come and save us all," is an active call-out to the antiblack racism that permeates the police force—and a reminder that the heroes that make up the rest of the MCU's heavy hitters might not be an accessible inspiration for people of color and other marginalized people. After all, how inspiring would young Black kids find a wealthy billionaire superhero that probably only went to Harlem to survey the damage that the Hulk did to the buildings?
So Luke Cage gets to deal with systematic antiblackness at the same time that he's struggling with the lingering effects of multiple traumatic events which include the deaths of people that he loves … and a betrayal from the very dead Reva that comes out of left field.
Luke has spent so much time memorializing Reva in his mind, building up his image of her because of how much he loved her, that the realization—in episode ten, "Take It Personal"—that, from the start, Reva's main interest in Luke was related to how suited he was for the prison's illegal human experimentation project is shocking. Remember, a huge underlying theme in Luke Cage is about agency and Black male personhood. For Luke to find out, near the end of the season at that, that the love of his life was in some ways just as complicit in the dehumanization and mistreatment that he faced while in Seagate, is something that puts that whole relationship into question. It also serves as a late-stage catalyst for Luke's healing as he begins to move on.
While I have actual issues with how easily it seems that Luke is able to get over Reva's death in the wake of discovering her betrayal (the series literally has him telling Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple that he was in love with the idea of her and not the "real" Reva), it's nice that we actually got to see Luke begin to heal and look towards future, positive relationships.
Which is an excellent moment to talk about how Luke regains his agency and power in the context of his show.
For the majority of his solo series, Luke is basically in "struggle mode." Nothing that he does ends well and he constantly finds himself at the end of his rope and desperate enough to at times consider the unthinkable (such as running away from it all). Not only is the character constantly "on," but he has little or no downtime to even begin to deal with what's been happening to him. Hit with one blow after another, Luke goes from mourning Reva to mourning Pops, only to wind up hunted by Cottonmouth, Diamondback, and the entire NYPD for crimes that he didn't commit.
Aside from a brief soul-searching interlude in episode ten, where Luke and Claire travel back to Luke's roots and he realizes the truth about his relationship to Stryker, Luke doesn't actually get much downtime. The whole series actually feels a lot like the last half of Daredevil's most recent season where there was wall-to-wall tension and hardly any chance for the characters to simply be without worrying that someone was out there gunning for them.
But thankfully, the end of the series serves to give Luke some much-needed closure and return some of the power that has been taken from him both prior to and during the series. In the final episode, not only does Luke seem to come to terms with what has been taken from him, as well as with how his upbringing influenced the path his life wound up taking, but he tries to extend the same understanding to Diamondback.
His big moment, and the one that I think exemplifies the growth that Luke undergoes, comes at the end of the series, when he basically preaches to a room full of the same cops who, a few hours before, would've gladly pumped a few rounds into him. Now, Luke Cage has a thing where it makes the titular character get incredibly preachy (see the moment in episode two where he chastises a young man who just held him at gunpoint over Black history and the importance of Crispus Attucks), but, every so often, it actually works for the character.
The scene is only about two minutes long, but it's possibly one of the most powerful moments in the entire series, with Luke telling Misty Knight that:
This burden is bigger than you. Or me. People are scared but they can't be paralyzed by that fear. You have to fight for what's right every single day, bulletproof skin or not. You can't just not snitch, or turn away or take money under the table because life has turned you sour.
When did people stop caring?
Harlem is supposed to represent our hopes and dreams. It's the pinnacle of black art,politics, innovation. It's supposed to be a shining light to the world. It's our responsibility to push forward, so that the next generation will be further along than us.
He ends this speech—an empowering callback to Black power—by referencing Pops's philosophy: "Never backwards. Always forward." Coming from Luke, who has spent much of the series looking backwards at his past, this is a moment that shows incredible growth: Luke has hit a point in his life where he realizes that he can look forward.
The season ends with Luke in the back of a US Marshall's car on the way back to Georgia, more determined than ever to clear his name so that he can return to New York and the life he's built there. The last words he says in the season, as they head out of the city, are: "Sometimes backwards to move forwards. Always." The words are hopeful, showing that even though he's returning to a place which nearly succeeded in destroying him and permanently removing his power and agency, Luke is going with more control than he had before. The fact that Luke Cage ends the series with the titular character preparing to return to the place that robbed him of his power, his agency, and his identity in order to regain his control is incredibly powerful.
In many ways, Luke Cage absolutely is the most relevant and timely property that Marvel could have put out in 2016. We live in a world where Black people are subject to incredible and awful civil rights abuses, where Black criminality is assumed to be a fact. We live in a world where a Black man (in a hoodie, in his car, or just standing on the side of the road) reads as a target for a frightened police officer's gun, not as a civilian who deserves peace. Luke Cage as a character has always been important to Black comic book fans because of what he represents as a street-level hero that is actually aware of what's happening to Black Americans. Where the Avengers as a team tends to be focused on cataclysms and alien invasions, Luke Cage has always been one of the few heroes that we see consistently tackle race and racism.
Thanks to the occasional whiff of respectability politics and a rather male-dominated view of Black history, the series stops just shy of being perfect. But the cast and crew of Marvel's Luke Cage came to this work thinking about how dangerous the world is for Black people in the US, even in a version of the country that's lousy with superheroes, and they brought that self-awareness and the desire to show positive perceptions of Black power to the character and his series.