Luke Cage doesn’t say much. As played by Mike Colter in the new Marvel series for Netflix, Luke is the strong, silent type. He’ll smile a bit if you play Method Man’s “P.L.O. Style” or ask him about Kobe Bryant — hip-hop and basketball are points of frequent, overeager fan service in Luke Cage — but otherwise he carries himself with the cold, bland demeanor of an on-duty bodyguard.
At his most talkative and forthright, Cage will disarm a young, gunshy hoodlum with an angry lecture about the patriotism of Crispus Attucks and the catastrophic legacy of Robert Moses. He will insist that Harlem, despite being under the thumb of international arms dealers and a deeply corrupt police force, is actually rotting from within. Cage’s biggest pet peeve, underscored in every other episode of the series, is hearing people say “nigga,” especially if the term is specifically addressed to him. (More on this later.) For a character that series creator Cheo Coker has explicitly linked to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Cage spouts some surprisingly conservative undertones and mantras. He speaks like a man who has rather bitterly entered middle age.
Luke Cage is Netflix’s third foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following two seasons of Daredevil and one season of Jessica Jones, the series that introduced Cage as Jones’s romantic interest. In his own series, Cage has left Jones and the escalating mayhem of Hell’s Kitchen behind, making his way back uptown to his native Harlem. Here, Cage is a gargoyle: a passive, watchful presence whose greatest conviction is that he should maintain his anonymity. He’s gorgeous, but he’s not charismatic, nor is he a particularly uplifting superhero. And he damn sure isn’t the contemporary civil rights avatar that we seem to have been promised.
As Cage lays low following the spectacular violence of Jessica Jones Season 1, he works as a nightclub’s dishwasher and sweeps hair in a popular Harlem barbershop owned by his lifelong mentor, Pop. Cage crosses paths with Cornell Stokes, a classic-man gangster who smuggles guns, among other goods, into Harlem. Cage is a distant bystander to one of Stokes’s back-alley weapons deals gone wrong (in an opening scene that’s possibly an homage to the bodega robbery in Juice), and he sets out to correct and protect the young knuckleheads who have, against their better judgment, made off with Stokes’s bags of cash.
The criminal conspiracy runs deep. The ambitious councilwoman Mariah Dillard, played admirably by Alfre Woodard, is cast as a corrupt steward of shady real estate assets. Her political program isn’t especially despicable, though; she’s out to “keep Harlem black” and she embraces Black Lives Matter. It just so happens that her career is bankrolled by family drug money. Dillard’s cousin Stokes, a.k.a. Cottonmouth, played by Mahershala Ali, is the shadier, more cynical player who views the drug and gun trades as indispensable components of Harlem’s economy. While Dillard stresses that she’s pro-black, Stokes is quick to note that he’s pro-green. That said, there are only one or two scenes in which Cottonmouth is doing truly grisly stuff. Despite Stokes’s fearsome persona, the series goes out of its way to outsource responsibility for a pivotal act of villainy to a nameless henchman who defies Stokes’s orders; Stokes himself is hardly to blame and, in any case, he’s remorseful.
There is no stark philosophical contrast between villain and hero. Stokes loses $2 million, and he’s mad. That’s the extent of Stokes’s entanglement with Cage; there is no greater meaning or purpose to their conflict. Otherwise, Cage, Stokes, Dillard, and Pop are all nostalgic for an older, respectable Harlem, where, in Stokes’s recollection, “people walked old ladies across the street.” This sentimentalism is so pervasive, and so bipartisan, that the beef between Cage and Stokes gets rather ambiguous. Theoretically, Cage does battle with Stokes and Dillard to determine the future of Harlem, but Cage doesn’t seem to believe in anything that’s more or less honorable than Stokes’s simple plan to keep his money clean and his nightclub humming. Between Pop’s swear jar and Cage’s pat distaste for “that word,” these characters are largely defined by bits of trivial repression that Coker drives home with more gusto than he does any plotline.
In a recent interview with Vulture, Colter takes credit for his character’s belabored distaste for “nigga.” “I remember talking to [Coker] about it, and I was adamant that Luke was not a person that used that language,” Colter said. “He needs to be someone we can aspire to be. And I felt like, if he was the kind of guy that used that language all the time, like someone on the street corner who didn’t respect himself or the people around him, then he, in a sense, had lost already, had given up.” Colter and I will agree to disagree regarding whether the Wu-Tang Clan or Larry Wilmore are admirable men. It just sucks, given the popular hope that he’d be a hero sworn to fight against black death and white power, that Luke Cage’s superpower is the ability to fashion his abs as a washboard for dirty speech.
Three generations of black American comic book fans have demanded greater representation on the page, and now, little by little, we’re getting it on film and TV, too. Popular essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing Marvel’s current Black Panther series about the African superhero T’Challa, who will be played by Chadwick Boseman in a film adaptation due out in 2018. With Luke Cage, Coker has seized a bleak moment in civil rights history, so defined by mortality at the hands of armed police, to celebrate “a bulletproof black man.”
But it’d be a mistake to deduce that Luke Cage necessarily represents this generation’s advancements in the way of activism and the language of identity politics. Cage dates himself with stale concerns: if black people should say “nigga,” whether or not tailored clothing is the measure of a man’s self-respect, and so on. Which explains, perhaps, why Luke Cage feels less like Jessica Jones or Daredevil and more like Shaft — but with none of the humor or charm that Richard Roundtree brought to that role in the 1970s. On his own, Cage is a reclusive killjoy who is astoundingly slow to solve or discover anything. He’s a big, buff, invincible disappointment. Any other uptown native might’ve been quicker to discover that Harlem’s greater, untouchable menace is the NYPD. But what, Luke Cage wonders, about black-on-black crime?