‘Luke Cage’ paints a modern Harlem with gritty moral complexity

Sunday, October 2, 2016 - 4:37pm

“Marvel’s Luke Cage”

“Marvel’s Luke Cage” Buy this photo
Netflix

 

Superheroes are good, and supervillains are bad. It’s black and white. Simple. Children and adults alike have read, collected and adored Marvel’s classic comic books, living through heroes that conquer villains in a universe that builds an almost naive conception that, above all else, justice will come out on top. But “Marvel’s Luke Cage” does something different in its adaptation of the beloved 1972 comic. Set in a dynamic and dangerous Harlem, “Luke Cage” steps into reality, where things aren’t quite as simple as good and evil. In real life, even the good guys have a little streak of bad in them, and the bad guys are just fighting from a different perspective.

The third Marvel series on Netflix, “Luke Cage” fits into the Marvel universe timeline by picking up a few months after the explosive “Jessica Jones” finale. This time, the story turns over to Jessica Jones’s love interest, Luke Cage (Mike Colter, “Agent X”), a bulletproof man who acquired his superhuman powers after a botched prison experiment. Hiding out in Harlem and living on cash only jobs, Luke is keeping a low profile, desperately trying to run from his past and the impending onset of his “gifted” present. “Luke Cage” is a story of embracing one’s identity – superhuman and otherwise – and living in a reality where that identity might be questioned, torn down and taken advantage of.

Writer, producer and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker (“Southland”) told the Washington Post, “I will never get tired of seeing a bulletproof Black man. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, like Malcolm X, like Medgar Evers or even from hip-hop in terms of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., so many of our heroes aren’t bulletproof, so when you have a bulletproof hero, even if you’re not telling a political story, seeing a bulletproof Black man in the world, has inherent politics.”

As the first Black superhero to lead a story in the Marvel cinematic universe, Colter’s performance as Luke Cage is undeniably inspiring. Just as the series addresses the issue of race, so does Colter, embodying Harlem – and everything that comes with it – as an integral part of his character. In episode two, “Code of the Streets,” Luke monologues about one of his Black heroes, Crispus Attucks, the first American to die in the Revolutionary War. The series allows Cage to express his connection with Black history and culture, as the script engages with Harlem’s saturated and complicated narrative. History, music (each episode is named after a Gang Starr song), sports and Black culture are deeply embedded in the narrative of Luke Cage, weaving in and out of the dialogue and constantly being portrayed in visual symbols and cinematic homages. Without pushing a political agenda, the series adds to the current political conversation on what it means to be Black in America. “Luke Cage” succeeds in bringing depth and adding perspective to a discussion that hits close to home for its audience.

But ultimately, it’s the villain Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali, “House of Cards”), who steals the show. In a dynamic and near-perfect performance, Ali’s portrayal of a power-hungry bad guy is both gloriously disturbing and enchanting. While he operates far outside the law and possesses the unethical components that characterize him as “evil,” Cottonmouth is a villain who is allowed a complex emotional narrative. At the end of episode two, we see him burst into tears after losing someone from his past, and just for a brief moment, the audience is able to forget his villainy. Despite his murders, his selfishness and his corrupt rise to power, he is not a “bad guy” from his own perspective. He’s just trying to succeed in a reality painted in shades of grey, making Cottonmouth one of the most exciting characters to watch on screen.

The narrative glides effortlessly and swiftly through its 13-episode arc, diversifying the storytelling through unusual and creative cinematic decisions. The series doesn’t shy away from extreme high and low angles, breaks up time with flashbacks and memories, and is able to create high energy action scenes by altering the speed of their shots. Cinematographically, “Luke Cage” has a great deal of texture, pulling in the audience by breaking the fourth wall and allowing them to breathe as shots of a buzzing Harlem gloss over the screen.

“Luke Cage” skillfully plays on a wide range of human emotions, eliciting laughs, sympathy and surprise. It pulls inspiration from history while rooting itself in today’s pop culture, making it the perfect series for an all-consuming binge watch.