At this point, I’ve watched the first 11 episodes of Luke Cage. This is the first Marvel television series (based on the comics) I’ve felt interested enough about to actually sit down and watch, so I went to the trouble of getting a Netflix account. So far, I’m generally quite enjoying it, but I don’t always enjoy every aspect of it.
My first general observation is that the series is very well-written in terms of the overall narrative structure. I really like how the writer/director (Cheo Hodari Coker) is tying all of these various plotlines and characters back into a narrative tapestry that functions as a whole rather than a set of coincidentally parallel threads.
My second general observation is that the acting is excellent. The characters are believable as real people with the kind of real and complex motivations and thought processes and emotions that we experience in our own lives. It’s not just the heroes who are depicted as having sympathetic motivations; the villains and bystanders who get involved (intentionally or accidentally) in the contests between the heroes and villains also have sympathetic motivations. It’s easy for villains and bystanders to become only one-dimensional characters in a television series, but the Luke Cage series doesn’t fall into that trap often.
[SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points will be discussed below.]
My third general observation is that the show has a really tough job in front of it with regard to navigating the political, racial, and sexual issues. Those are extremely fraught topics right now, and there’s no way to make everyone in the audience happy with how the show handles them, primarily because many people prefer to watch shows that present those issues according to their point of view and doesn’t challenge their political beliefs.
For example, early in the series, Luke Cage makes it clear that he doesn’t appreciate it when other black folks address him as “nigger” or “nigga” in any context. The debate among anti-racists over whether that word is appropriate to use and, if so, in what contexts it’s appropriate, has been had many times. I remember people still having that debate when I was younger in the 90s and 00s. Unfortunately, that debate doesn’t happen in the show (at least not in the episodes I’ve seen so far).
I think it would be valuable for some of the characters to articulate the reasons for their positions on the use of those words and give voice to their respective concerns, both because I think black folks need to have their voices heard in such a way that they can’t all be lumped into simple stereotypes and because it would be good for white folks in particular to see the complexity of that debate. That said, I recognize that it might be very difficult to shoehorn such an extended dialogue into the show’s running time.
In other areas of racial/political concern, I was pleased to see that a variety of black voices are given space in the show’s dialogue. For example, when police officers start stopping and frisking young black and Latino men and questioning them about Luke Cage after he beats up two police officers (one white and one black), this results in hearing many of the kinds of reactions about biased policing that we are currently hearing in our own lives.
And when a black officer (whose white training officer was killed, ostensibly by Luke Cage) hits a young black kid in the interrogation room because he won’t talk about Luke Cage, his mother expresses the view that because the black officers are blue, they might as well be white in terms of how they perceive things and behave. Though I think that perspective gets some things wrong about black police officers, I think it’s valuable to show someone articulating that perspective under circumstances in which the whole audience might be able to understand the emotional weight of it.
I also thought it was valuable to show (in the context of Detective Misty Knight’s interrogation by a senior officer), how women can be extremely emotional but also strong in those moments of emotionality; it functions as a nice counterpoint to other cartoonish television depictions of women as either being weak and emotional or strong and callous. I also liked the fact that her one-night stand with Luke Cage early in the series wasn’t just gratuitous titillation for the audience, but was actually an important part of creating conflict in the plot.
Luke’s respect for women was also an important thing to see in the series. When Misty initially turned down Luke’s overtures, he acknowledged her choice and calmly walked away. And he didn’t try to impress her with his super-strength or brag about his super-stamina. His quiet confidence is something young men need modeled for them, especially young men who are inclined to brag about themselves.
Another powerful theme in the Luke Cage series is fatherhood. Luke and Pop very much had the adopted father and son dynamic in their relationship, and Pop is a critical father-figure for many young men in the neighborhood. The issue of so many fatherless young men is explicitly mentioned more than once in the series, though the debate over what to do about it wasn’t shown in any depth.
Fatherhood as a theme carries over into the relationship between Luke Cage and Diamondback (the major villain thus far). Diamondback is Luke’s half-brother by way of having the same biological father, but their father never treated Willis (Diamondback’s real name) as a father should. Their father was a charismatic preacher, and Diamondback still carries one of his father’s Bibles and quotes from it regularly.
In the Bible, there is an important passage about loving one’s enemies, and we see that lived out by Luke quite beautifully in his apologies to and compassion for Diamondback even while Diamondback is attacking him. Luke owns the fact that he is his brother’s keeper even as Diamondback sees the Cain and Abel story as one that should be re-enacted with himself as the killing brother.
This kind of masculine compassion isn’t something that comes out in Luke as a surprise. Earlier in the series, Luke tries very hard to avoid killing some people who are trying very hard to kill him on more than one occasion, whether they were police officers or members of an organized crime syndicate. Luke is not presented as a one-dimensional perfect man, but his virtuous restraint of his strength and his use of that strength in the service of those who are weak and vulnerable shows us what healthy masculinity looks like.
There are many things to like about the Luke Cage series, but perhaps the most important is that it shows us that it is both possible and good to love your enemies.