‘Luke Cage’: Rock-Solid Superheroism

Ken Tucker

The latest superhero series features a somewhat familiar figure: Luke Cage, the battler with seemingly unbreakable flesh, whom non-comic-book fans may have already met in Netflix’s Jessica Jones series. Now Netflix has opened up Cage’s story in Luke Cage, starring Mike Colter and which begins streaming today.

What strikes you immediately upon watching the first episode is how producer Cheo Hodari Coker has taken the Marvel Comics character created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita and grounded him in a rich black cultural setting, both physically — the show takes place primarily in Harlem — and artistically, taking cues not only from the best blaxploitation films from the late 1960s and early 1970s but also from the crime fiction of authors ranging from Donald Goines to Chester Himes to Walter Mosley. (Luke and his pal, a barber named Pop — Frankie Faison from The Wire and Banshee — have an extended discussion about these authors in the second episode; get out your library cards, kids.)

The series takes its time getting to Luke’s origin story — it arrives in the fourth episode of the 13-episode season — but what it boils down to is that because of an illegal scientific experiment gone awry, Cage is possessed of superstrength and impervious skin. Seeing bullets strike the body of a black man, seeing those bullets rip at his clothes but fail to stop him — that’s a mighty powerful image for the culture right now, at a time when we’ve seen smartphone and police body-camera footage of black men being shot, their flesh pierced, and killed. Coker takes Luke Cage into the Black Lives Matter era explicitly but without overplaying his hand — it’s a thrill to see Luke survive multiple attacks, but in the back of your head, you’re thinking of black deaths in the news.

Cage’s primary opponent is a Harlem nightclub owner and crime boss named Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali), whose nickname is Cottonmouth, although you’d better not call the sleekly tailored villain that name to his face. He’s often paired with Mariah Dillard, a Harlem councilwoman played by the great Alfre Woodard — she’s Cornell’s cousin, and her political life benefits from Stokes’s ill-gotten gains. But both Cornell and Mariah, as cynical as they can be, aren’t pure villains. When they talk about the glory of Harlem’s past and the possibilities for its future, they’re knowledgeable and sincere.

“I’m not the hero type,” Luke says at one point, his voice quiet, his gaze penetrating. Colter made an impression on The Good Wife playing drug lord Lemond Bishop. It was a role that got a lot of its effect from Colter’s physical presence: Placed in the context of the chatty, mostly white lawyers on that Julianna Margulies series, Colter was required to be a variation on an old leading-man cliché: the strong, silent type. That he transcended cliché was mostly due to his expressive eyes and sharp glances.

Now Colter is liberated to express a much wider range of emotions, and he does it with deceptive ease. Comics fans, upon seeing bullets bounce off Luke’s chest, may be reminded of Superman, and that’s good — the most all-American white superhero needed a nonwhite all-American superhero as a complement and a corrective to decades of pop myth-making.

There are times when Luke Cage strains at the confinement of the genres it uses, when its superhero, gangster, and crime fiction subplots seem too familiar, too flimsy, to contain all the drama Coker and his writers want to pour into this show. That will be its challenge going forward, and if there’s any justice in the world of Luke Cage, it will continue, and go forward, after many people have binged this first season.

Luke Cage is streaming now on Netflix.