In a cinematic universe of thunder gods, sorcerers and kids with spider powers, the latest Marvel character to star in his own Netflix series feels like their most human hero yet, with a story that is just as grounded in the real world as it is in Marvel’s.
Although this series is not the first time we’ve been introduced to Mike Colter’s Luke Cage, his time on previous Netflix series Jessica Jones is only briefly mentioned, with the welcome effect of allowing Luke to develop as his own character separate from Jones. From the outset of the series, he is working multiple jobs, struggling to pay rent and doing everything he can to maintain a normal life despite his powers.
However, Cage’s inability to stand down in the face of injustice is ultimately what drives both his character and the series. Throughout the series, he balances an intense sense of morality and a need to do the right thing with overwhelming guilt and a desire to fade into the background. When the operations of Mahershala Ali’s devious Cottonmouth and his gang threaten the safety of Harlem and its citizens, the right thing wins out over obscurity and Cage leaps into action.
Also at the front of the series’ action is Simone Messick’s Detective Misty Knight, who almost seems to be a female counterpart for Cage, with a strong belief system and an inability to be a bystander. Although it is Cage’s series, Knight is far from a sidekick and seems to have her own storyline throughout the series that focuses on her own efforts to combat Harlem’s crime problem.
While Ali and Messick’s characters are definitely the two standouts of Luke Cage’s supporting cast, each character was given an opportunity to shine in their own unique ways, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, who returns to Marvel and continues a unique character arc that has been spread across all three of the Netflix shows so far. In a sense, even Harlem could be considered a character in its own right, with vibrant pop culture references and visuals interspersed throughout the season.
The only drawback to the otherwise riveting arc of the season was when it shifted away from Ali’s Cottonmouth as the main villain, to one with considerably less substance and back-story. Otherwise, almost every other character, from the more minor Pops to the crooked councilwoman Dillard, seamlessly ropes in the viewer as if the series actually revolves around them.
Conceptually, by focusing on a black man in America who cannot be shot dead, the series also carries a powerful and brave message in a time of corruption and injustice in the real world. Cage stands strong despite both physical and emotional hardships in the face of power players that appear content to maintain a status quo of corruption and institutional racism. In a sense, even Cage’s refusal to back down from what he believes in represents a more figurative type of bulletproof skin in the modern world he lives in.
Overall, Luke Cage proved to be another win for Marvel’s Netflix universe, by taking a character viewers thought they knew from their last series and giving him much more depth. By the end of the series, there is even the sense that we’ve still only seen the tip of the iceberg for Colter’s character. I’ll be looking forward to seeing where Marvel takes the character next when he and the rest of Netflix’s heroes return in The Defenders.