Marvel’s latest series on Netflix’s takes a victory lap as it closes out the thirteen part story and prepares to showcase a new hero next year. For now, there’s plenty to discuss about the events in Harlem and the impact they have on the Streets of the MCU…
It’s very strange watching a series like this and slowly realizing, “This is not the Marvel Cinematic Universe”. I mean, it’s supposed to be. However, those stories are about giant portals over Manhattan and Asgardian gods stomping around the planet. The Netflix shows are about the street-level, low-key action. The talk of the “The Incident” which presumably happened within the last year in Luke Cage (someone needs to outline the chronology of these shows as this all had to have happened before Age of Ultron) is spoken of causally but with an almost mythic reverence. The show treats a bulletproof man as something unthinkable, but that in itself is not the point. It’s the color of his skin that charges the narrative.
“Already took Malcolm and Martin, this is the last one. I beg your pardon, someone pulling a fast one. Now we got a Hero for Hire and he a Black one…”
Much of the subject matter of this series concerns blackness and power The reaction to Luke Cage’s existence is always an interesting one to watch, as both policeman and criminals share the same feeling when encountering him: dread, disbelief, denial. Guns used to be the great equalizer on the streets, but against Luke there’re pointless. Normal people for the most part are inspired and glad by his presence, as Luke shows to be a part of their community rather than a stranger in a mask or someone who flies around in the sky.
By the final five episodes of season one, Luke has accepted his role as Harlem’s protector and what he has to do to save it. Black Mariah needs to be stopped, Willis “Diamondback” Stryker is still hunting for Luke, and Misty still needs to find justice in all this.
In addition to blackness, there’s also the theme of nature vs nurture in these characters. Luke was raised as a preacher’s son and expected to always be a model for what was right. Cornell Stoakes was expected to be a man and do whatever dirty business he had to. Mariah was supposed to study hard and achieve great things. Willis wanted to be accepted and loved by his father, but instead was treated as a black sheep and so became one. Misty had many opportunities open to her in life and so chose one where she felt she could do the most good. How all of these characters responded to their stations in life had a profound impact on their identity and who they turned into. It’s one thing for us to sympathize with Wilson Fisk/Kingpin, but for us to feel the same way for Cottonmouth, Black Mariah and Diamondback? That’s impressive and good use of ABC villainy that I wrote about last week.
While Jessica Jones kind of fell apart when it tried to be a superhero show, Luke Cage feels stronger for it as all of its plot threads come together and coalesce. The overall story is nothing revolutionary, but its execution: a predominantly black cast, equal number of female to male characters, its excellent musical score and its cinematography is all impressive. The final two episodes are probably my favorite of the season, which is another thing Cage has over Marvel’s other shows, the ending actually lands. The season took a deliberate, slow pace to get to its end point and with that gives its viewers everything they could’ve asked for.
Episode 12 gives us a Method Man love ballad on Cage’s heroism, set against Harlem residents proudly wearing hoodies with makeshift bullet holes to show their support for their local hero. Episode 13 brings us to the final clash between Luke and Willis, as they fight each other to the brink.
It seem ridiculous, and it kind of is (the science of Stryker’s tech is never explained other than “alien metal” and electricity) but it’s the culmination of two brothers settling a feud that’s been happening all their lives. Luke is literally paying for the sins of his father and fighting the only person on this show whose even been capable to give him a challenge. While he can throw thugs around no problem, Diamondback forces him to actually block and hit with all his strength. While they fight, Harlem watches cheering on for Luke to come through once more as they show provides the only flashbacks to Luke and Willis’ childhoods.
By the end, only Black Mariah and Shades come out on top to plague our heroes further. I’m not quite sure what the point of Shades’ character was, other than Theo Rossi playing a “cooler” antagonist than Juice Ortiz from Sons of Anarchy. Mariah however, was a totally different monster. Her evolution from a dirty politician to the de facto head of crime in Harlem was a steady but eventful one. Almost all of the characters wound up opposite from where they started at episode one: Luke’s going back to jail, Willis is broken, Mariah is the criminal queen of Harlem, Misty watches on without the trust in her badge that got her through so many of her trials and Shades is almost the power behind the throne.
The treatment of Claire Temple/Night Nurse is one that I feel is mixed. On one hand, she’s given more spotlight in this show than Daredevil and Jessica Jones combined. On the other, she’s a romantic interest for Cage. In and of itself that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but its kind of weird with her having dated Matt Murdock, then Cage; while Cage went from Jessica, to Misty, to Claire. Once Danny Rand gets involved, if he’s dating Claire and Misty the dynamics of The Defenders will have a weird tension to it if most of its members will have all dated the same people in short succession. Hopefully Claire can settle with Luke or just avoid a romantic relationship with Danny, since I don’t care for the pattern that’s forming here.
By Luke Cage‘s conclusion, it comes out in many ways stronger than Marvel’s other Netflix shows but weaker in a few others. The overall plot is not dissimilar to Daredevil Season one, but its political subtext is more pronounced than Jessica Jones and even surpasses that in its personal approach to Luke and Harlem vs Mariah and Diamondback. It sets a new standard for Marvel, and one in which Iron Fist has a tough bar to surpass.