When Marvel and Netflix announced a street-level shared universe, modelled on the blueprint of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, subscriptions to the on-demand service must have soared. Sure, Agents of SHIELD was more of a sidekick to the MCU's stoic hero looking for ways to tie itself in to the going's on of Captain America and Thor, but if Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist would have their solo adventures culminating in The Defenders, a la Avengers, there was no way Marvel could miss. Particularly if we were going to be spending time in the back alleys and less-lit corners of New York. What we probably weren't prepared for was quite how dirty the cracks of the sidewalks could get.
Daredevil may have lost sight (sic) in the second season, but the first deftly handled guilt, faith and battling inner demons. Jessica Jones faced the metaphor of abusive relationships head-on and even found the time to introduce our next Defender: Luke Cage.
Although Marvel's Luke Cage may not go to the lengths to examine Harlem as, say, The Wire did Baltimore, it's certainly more an exploration of culture than anyone was expecting. The themes are undoubtedly black - and they should be - but, rather than placate an audience at the expense of alienating another, it's a refreshing insight. Neither patronising nor preachy, the show manages to present issues without getting right-on. It's no accident that the first episode opens in a Barbeshop, while the rehearsals/auditions of bands in Cotton Mouth's club, Harlem's Paradise, are cornerstones of black music from soul (Delphonics) to Hip-Hop (Jidenna). Even the score by Adrian Younge and Tribe Called Quest alumni, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, unashamedly plants it's feet in blacksploitation era flicks and permeates with a shoulder-shrugging cool. Although pernicious, even "Black" Mariah Dillard's political addresses perversely reflect struggles of those in Harlem. In this way, regardless of race, you can take something important away.
Let's be brutally honest; we also want to see super-people doing super-things and we are treated to a good helping. Although we see the manifestation of Luke's strength and invulnerability, it's not until 2/3's through the third installment we really see Cage in a Rage! We already know it's coming as the episode opens half-way through the devastation, but when Luke brings the noise to the steady boom-bap of Wu-Tang's "Bring Da Ruckus" it's a catharsis brimming with cool retribution. Seeing Cage fold car doors around people or punching through walls to make use of a water pipe to pummel bad guys is one of the most satisfying beat-downs since Matt Murdock took on goons in a hallway.
Don't sweat it, though! Buried amongst the subtextural subway tunnels and street corner clashes, there's a whole mess of comic book references. The splashes of yellow to his hoodies and coats are one thing, but when Cage scavenges clothes, while escaping Seagate Prison, to concoct the tiara and yellow shirt of his original comicbook counterpart is a moment worth a rewind. Misty being warned she may lose an arm after a gun injury and her final appearance in the series, may be one for the more diehard readers, but anyone merely aware of the other Netlix series and a passing view of the cinematic offering will get a kick out of the references to Hammer-tech, magic hammers and Hell's Kitchen.
Thankfully our very own hero for hire never gets lost in the melee. He's very much the heart and soul in much the same way Steve Rogers has been. It isn't as easy for Luke Cage and you genuinely feel his struggle to keep his own train on the moral tracks - especially when things keep going wrong and the powers that be conspire to keep him down. Even when he pushes through his own natural inclinations he feels in danger of diluting his self. At a pivotal moment, taking licks in misguided nobility as the street looks on, Claire says to Luke "Remember who you are." It's a sobering moment for both us and our hero. You have to know where you've been to understand where you're going. Luke Cage's heroism seems just as much about acceptance of self as it is super-strength and unbreakable skin. Maybe that's why the neighborhood is so willing take him in throughout his journey, because they have something real to get behind...much like Harlem itself.
4* - Captain African-American