Review: Luke Cage

Mike Colter as Luke Cage

Sweet Christmas but Luke Cage is good. This Marvel comic book come to life is dramatic theater and thrilling action. It’s populated with thoughtful goodness and evil greed. It’s a love song to Harlem, black history, and black lives matter. There are some spoilers ahead, so beware.

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) was once Carl Lucas. In this first season of his story, we learn the origin story for Luke – how he came to be bulletproof (mostly) and why he is in Harlem laying low at Pop’s (Frankie Faison) Barber Shop. When first we met Luke, last season in Jessica Jones, he was grieving over a woman. He still is in Luke Cage.

In Jessica Jones, Luke met the nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). She’s in this series, too.

Rosario Dawson in Luke Cage
Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple

Claire, so far, is the only connective tissue between Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil. In Luke Cage, Claire has a prominent part. She is both nurse and ally for Luke. Claire cheers Luke on and urges him to do the right thing. She knows all his secrets. Luke and Claire are all set to become lovers when they are separated by yet another arrest for Luke. This superhero is beleaguered by the cops at every turn.

Simone Missick in Luke Cage
Simone Missick as Det. Misty Knight

Another important ally for Luke is Det. Misty Knight (Simone Missick). Misty and Luke have a thang in the first episode, before either knows who the other is. That comes to a stop when Misty is charged with arresting him, but she knows he is wrongfully charged with just about every crime in Harlem.

These two strong women, Misty and Claire, are as crucial to the story as Luke himself. I love that Marvel and the writers for this series (mostly men) have made two women so important in Luke’s progress from an under-the-radar nobody to a superhero.

The Bad Guys

Mahershala Ali plays Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. He runs a nightclub called Harlem Paradise, which gives the show an opportunity to present a number of musical acts on the stage there as part of the story. Soundtrack info is available. It’s a great soundtrack.

Here’s a promo from Netflix about the music.

Cottonmouth is responsible for all sorts of illegal activities, including selling guns.

Cottonmouth’s cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard) is a Harlem councilwoman. At the beginning, she seems fairly honest, for a politician. But she’s capable of more evil than even she thought she was. She becomes one of Luke’s most dangerous enemies.

I’ve been a fan of Alfre Woodard for a long time. The moment when she “snapped” and went off on her cousin Cottonmouth was brilliantly shot. Woodard’s portrait of trauma in that moment was powerfully done.

Alfre Woodard in Luke Cage
Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard

Hernan ‘Shades’ Alvarez (Theo Rossi) at first hangs around Cottonmouth, apparently as a representative from Diamondback. Later he attaches himself to Mariah in an effort to frame Luke Cage. He offers tactical advice to whoever he’s around, with a kind of evil charm that made me almost like him.

The baddest of the bad guys is Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey), Luke’s half brother. Willis hates Luke with a blind obsession. He has special bullets that can penetrate Luke’s skin. He has a special set of clothes he can don to be equally as strong and bulletproof as Luke. One of the many great action scenes with brilliant special effects in the series is an epic battle between Luke and Willis.

What I Loved About Luke Cage

The cast of Luke Cage are mainly black actors. The talent and the performances are outstanding. I’m leaving out a lot of characters, but I want to particularly point to Ron Cephas Jones as Bobby Fish and Karen Pittman as Inspector Ridley.

On the Latino side, Sonia Braga played Soledad Temple and Jacob Vargas was the gangster Domingo. The only two important Anglo characters were Frank Whaley as Detective Scarfe and Michael Kostroff as the mad scientist Dr. Burstein.

I appreciated the majority blackness of the cast. It provided natural opportunities to mention important people from Harlem like Billy Strayhorn or heroes from history like Crispus Attucks. It is full of literary mentions of writers from Zora Neale Hurston to Walter Mosley.

The makeup of the cast gave many characters a chance to mention the importance of a bulletproof black man in a hoodie. The image of a bulletproof black man in a hoodie is the most powerful symbol of the series. I haven’t seen the phrase “unarmed black man in a hoodie” used by anyone about the show, but Luke is never armed.

As the series progressed and the residents of Harlem began to figure out what a hero Luke was, people started wearing hoodies full of holes in support and solidarity with Luke. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see that fashion option move into the real world and out of the Marvel universe.

So much of what happens in this series is a celebration of the brilliant, creative, talented, wisdom of black Americans. It’s affirming and heartwarming. That was the best part of Luke Cage.

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