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Luke Cage

Entry updated 10 November 2023. Tagged: TV.

US online tv series (2016-current). ABC Studios and Marvel Studios in association with the Walt Disney Company (see Disney on Television) for Netflix. Created by Cheo Hodari Coker from the Marvel Comics character that first appeared in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (June 1972) created by Archie Goodwin, John Romita Senior and George Tuska. Directed by Phil Abraham, Andy Goddard, Marc Jobst, Clark Johnson, Magnus Martens, Paul McGuigan, Sam Miller, Vincenzo Natali, Guillermo Navarro, Tom Shankland, Stephen Surjik and George Tillman Jr. Written by Cheo Hodari Coker, Akela Cooper, Aïda Mashaka Croal, Archie Goodwin, Jason Horwitch, Nathan Louis Jackson, Charles Murray, Matt Owens, John Romita Junior, Christian Taylor, Roy Thomas and George Tuska. Cast includes Mahershala Ali, Deborah Ayorinde, Mike Colter, Rosario Dawson, Frankie Faison, Erik LaRay Harvey, Chance Kelly, Simone Missick, Karen Pittman, Theo Rossi, Frank Whaley and Alfre Woodard. 13 episodes of 44-65 minutes in its first season. Colour.

A former convict given cellular Superpowers of strength, resistance and healing during a sabotaged Prison experiment must come to terms with personal betrayal, a corrupt system of Crime and Punishment and the Politics of being a bulletproof Black man in modern-day Harlem, New York.

"Luke, I am your brother" may not have quite the same cultural resonance as "Luke, I am your father" but the former phrase, spoken to eponymous protagonist Luke Cage (Colter) in episode eight of this seminal Superhero series, performs a similar function to that of the famous line spoken by Darth Vader at the denouement of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980): it exchanges the Inner Space and emotional turmoil of its protagonist for the society-wide threat posed by a dominant ideology too pernicious to be left unchecked. Both Lukes, Cage and Skywalker, must decipher the buried truths of their family set-ups in order to repair the deep-seated divisions in the culture to which they belong.

Episode eight is also the point at which Luke Cage the tv series suffers an abrupt shift in tone, with the arrival of Cage's bombastic half-brother and Villain Willis "Diamondback" Stryker (Harvey) proving no match for the dramatically calibrated stand-off between Cage and the partnership of local Antihero Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Ali) and Stokes's scheming politician cousin Mariah Dillard (Woodard). That the Psychology of the broken family is so often used in sf Cinema and Television to dramatize a break-down in the social order can be traced back to the influence of the New Wave of science fiction on cinematic franchises such as Star Wars (1977-current) and the X-Men Films (2000-current): new-wave themes of Memory and Identity also share an affinity with the overwhelmingly visual medium of the Comic book. Luke Cage's powers and responsibilities – painfully foisted on him by those who do not have his best interests at heart – may prove to be the public solution for Harlem's social issues, just as repairing the social fabric of his local community may provide the emotional solace his family did not, but first our Hero must take on the society-sized problem the rest of us cannot quite seem to encompass: the way in which Race in SF and other forms of popular culture foreshadows a much deeper reluctance to face the continuing violence of race relations.

Luke Cage's introductory episodes are thick with the symbolism of Black American life. Cage is working undercover for reformed criminal "Pop" (Faison) at the barber shop locals refer to as "Switzerland" in the ongoing gang disputes of contemporary Harlem, a locale similar to that depicted in the Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America (1988): scenes set there allude to the social history surveyed in Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America (2013) by Quincy T Mills. Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1958) appears on Cage's bedside table in the first episode, characters discuss the detective fiction of Walter Mosley and the Pulp novels of Donald Goines (1936-1974) and Chester Himes (1909-1984) and, perhaps most importantly to the origin story of Luke Cage himself, refer to the way Black prisoners were used as subjects for medical experimentation (see Medicine), a history explored in such works as Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison (1998) by Allen M Hornblum and Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (2007) by Harriet A Washington. It is not until episode four that we learn how Cage – real name "Carl Lucas" – came by his superpowers: a flashback, in effect, to his very first comic book appearance in the story "Out of Hell – a Hero!" in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (June 1972) wearing a billowing yellow shirt with an iron tiara and bracelets, talking jive to those he subjected to two-fisted retribution. The intention of Marvel Comics director Stan Lee was to capitalize on the box-office popularity of films such as Shaft (1971), a genre derisively termed "Blaxploitation" by leader of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Junius Griffin in August 1972. Lead actor Mike Colter was reluctant to sign on as Luke Cage when he first saw the depiction of the character in the comics but was assured the events in the tv series would be based on later versions of the character, largely that from the Alias series of comic books (28 issues, 2001-2004) featuring adult themes of Sex, Drugs and street violence in which Luke Cage first made the acquaintance of the alcoholic superhero that became the subject of Netflix tv series Jessica Jones (2015-2019).

Cage's superpowers of 1972 were inspired by those in Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator (1930; rev 1949): Stan Lee and new Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas brought in Black inker Billy Graham to make sure Cage had the right look but did not hire Black writers for the title, a decision that resulted in Cage doing and saying things incongruous to lived African-American experience, a problem the makers of Luke Cage the tv series have taken care to correct. Wylie's novel has its hero come by his superpowers in the womb via the agency of his Mad Scientist father: Cage gains his in similarly quasi-Biological fashion by being dunked into an experimental immersion tank designed to heal but cranked-up to a dangerous level by a malevolent prison guard (Kelly). That African Americans are the traduced children of the United States is addressed everywhere in Luke Cage, in storylines of unacknowledged parentage, commercial exploitation and systemic disregard. NYPD detective "Misty" Knight (Missick) – her own gift is for a Where's Wally? (1987-current; published in the US as Where's Waldo?) appreciation for the detail of a crime scene, rendered on-screen as a kind of Time Viewer into what happened before she got there – tries to work within the criminal justice system but is forestalled on all sides by her corrupt partner Rafael Scarfe (Whaley), the acting captain of her precinct Priscilla Ridley (Pittman) and a Media Landscape more focused on the stimulation of fear than the discovery of truth. The more Harlem requires the intervention of Luke Cage, the harder it becomes for him to have an effect.

Musical performances – sometimes on the stage of Cottonmouth's Harlem's Paradise nightclub, sometimes via a pounding hip-hop soundtrack over sudden irruptions of action – are peppered through the show's thirteen episodes. Creator Cheo Hodari Coker co-wrote Notorious (2009), a biopic of American hip-hop artist Christopher Wallace, and includes numerous references not only to the murdered rapper known as "The Notorious B.I.G." but to many other musicians including Gang Starr, Wu-Tang Clan and Method Man, a sensibility with its origin in the Marvel MAX miniseries Cage (5 issues, 2002), written by Brian Azzarello. This long-playing album aspect of Luke Cage – it is implied that viewers might imbibe the thirteen episodes of the series over a weekend, or at the very least watch several episodes in one sitting – divided critical opinion, with some decrying the narrative longueurs it creates, but there is little doubt the approach enables those watching to engage with the dramatic arcs of a range of characters and to feel the thematic intent of the show's writers: namely, that African-Americans are routinely excluded from the terms of the social contract enjoyed by other Americans. Luke Cage is obliged to accept that any Black Utopia must occur within the confines of New York, with all its uneasy alliances and attendant difficulties of history and understanding, rather than as part of a separatist fantasy, as in the first novel published in America by a Black person, Blake, Or the Huts of America (1859; rev 1861-1862, 1970) by Martin R Delany. Cage himself embodies the difficulty of making an informed choice about how to improve his own lot and that of the people of his neighbourhood, emerging from the womb-like interior of the prison immersion tank to find himself caught between the intent of antagonists Cottonmouth Stokes and Mariah Dillard to improve Harlem through the Economic proceeds of crime and racketeering and the violence of a brother who personifies the psychopathic intensity of disenfranchised manhood. Both father and state have disowned their children and neither wants to admit their mistake.

The show's creator Cheo Hodari Coker grew up between what he described as "two different realities": a childhood spent partly in Connecticut and partly in the Hamilton Street Projects in New Haven. He compared himself in interviews to the Black kid in tv series Stranger Things (2016-current), playing Dungeons and Dragons (1974; rev 1977) and competing with friends over their knowledge of The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955 3vols) and The Silmarillion (coll 1977) by J R R Tolkien before moving on to the X-Men comic book series and the various iterations of Luke Cage as Power Man and Power Man and Iron Fist and as part of the cross-over series The Defenders (1971-current). Comics, like Genre SF, were convoluted, intellectual and targeted at the younger reader. Luke Cage's synthesis of Fantastika, Graphic Novel and Sociological commentary through music works very well for the most part but does result in some tonal irregularities and expository hiccups, with the subtlety of its earlier chapters more often being reduced to clunky dialogue and declamatory punch-ups in later episodes.

The series' outstanding feature is that it uses the underdog-to-Superman arc of the superhero to reveal how the aftereffects of Slavery and Imperialism corrupt public discourse and dehumanize people of colour. Events in the latter of part of the first season of Luke Cage run concurrently with those in the second season of Daredevil (2015-2018) and relate directly to the superhero-stopping Weapons developed by Supervillain Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 (2010). Luke Cage follows Daredevil and Jessica Jones as the third in sequence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Netflix tie-ins and precedes the fourth series Iron Fist and the eight-part miniseries The Defenders, in which the four superheroes combine to fight crime in New York. [MD]


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