Introduced as a supporting character and love interest in last year's Jessica Jones, Luke Cage sees its title character (Mike Colter), whose skin is super-strong and impervious to harm, moving uptown to Harlem, hiding out in a neighborhood barbershop and working odd jobs under the table. When some young employees at the barbershop end up embroiled in a plot to rob a local crimelord, Luke steps in to try and defuse the situation, only to watch his benefactor and friend, Pop (Frankie Faison), get caught in the crossfire. The first half of the season revolves around the war that erupts between Luke, until that point a reluctant superhero, and the crime boss Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali). In the second half of the season, Cottonmouth is sidelined by his cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who had been using his money to fund her legitimate projects to revitalize Harlem, keeping it in black hands and staving off gentrification. With Cottonmouth's illegal business ventures crippled by Luke's activities, Mariah turns to slippery operator Shades (Theo Rossi), and his mercurial boss Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) to solidify her position, not realizing that Diamondback has his own personal history with Luke, which leads him to set Harlem on fire in pursuit of our hero.
There's more to be said about the season's plot (and I have, in fact, elided certain points for the sake of brevity), but quite frankly, it's not worth spending much time on. It is, perhaps, time to admit that Jessica Jones was unique in being able to dredge through its character's comics history to find a genuinely interesting story that was perfectly suited to the multi-episode format. Both seasons of Daredevil, and now Luke Cage, have failed to achieve that same alchemy, and instead end up bogged down in predictable origin story beats--Luke protests that he is no hero; various characters, such as Pop and recurring Netflix MCU player Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), insist that he is; some tragedy occurs to make him understand that they are right. These inevitably lead to a boss fight with a forgettable and over the top villain, in which there is much property damage. The end.
There is, to be fair, a little more to it than that. The first half of Luke Cage feels more like a crime story--albeit one whose beats are fairly obviously derivative, most plainly of The Wire--than a superhero story. It's elevated by the presence of Cottonmouth, whom Ali imbues with a touching ambivalence. There's nothing terribly original about the story of a mob boss who dreams of going legit, but whose soul is too tarnished by the life he's lived to ever truly leave it behind (and some of the beats of Cottonmouth's story, such as the revelation that as a boy he dreamed of being a musician but was pushed into a life of crime by his family, are downright hackneyed). But the show gives the character, and the performance, enough space to breathe, in particular when it charts the thorny, deeply dysfunctional relationship between Cottonmouth and Mariah, which is powered by competing currents of love and resentment.
It's in these episodes, too, that Luke Cage introduces its secret weapon, and what I hope will be its breakout character, Misty Knight (Simone Missick), a police detective who ends up as the third point of the triangle between Luke and Cottonmouth, trying to unravel the former's secrets while stopping the latter from starting a gang war. Stalwart, bold, and curious, deeply rooted in her neighborhood but also committed to a system that has failed it repeatedly, Misty commands the eye and the attention almost from her first appearance. She's a force in her own right, moving diagonally to both men, and sparring, as well, with Mariah and with her own superiors in the NYPD in her pursuit of the truth. If Netflix's executives truly believe that Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle--a bloodthirsty serial killer driven by entitlement and self-justification--can carry his own series, then there is simply no justification for not doing the same for a character as magnetic, as interesting, and as blatantly heroic as Misty Knight.
Even with Misty, Cottonmouth, and Mariah to enliven things, however, the first half of Luke Cage's season feels a little perfunctory, and especially when you remember that this is, after all, meant to be a superhero story. It is, therefore, not much of a surprise when a major twist halfway through the season reveals that its true conflict will be between Luke and Diamondback. But it is a profound disappointment, because Diamondback is a terrible villain, with antics that were clearly intended to come off as menacing and deranged mainly registering as annoying and over the top. It's in these episodes, too, that Misty is frustratingly sidelined, from a main actor in her own story to a supporting character in Luke's, who must scramble to prove his innocence when Mariah and Shades scheme to frame him for Diamondback's (and their own) crimes. (The one bright point in these episodes is that they give Claire Temple a great deal to do, though here, too, there are some odd choices, chiefly the one to make Claire Luke's love interest. Considering that Claire was previously involved with Matt Murdock, and broke up with him because he refused to give up his vigilantism, the fact that she has no such issues with Luke feels strange--as if his main attraction for her is the fact that he has superpowers.)
You may have noticed that I've said almost nothing so far about the show's title character, and this is unfortunately true to the space he ends up taking in the story. Colter has tremendous presence, both physically and emotionally. He's great at conveying both Luke's charm and his determination, even at moments when he's at his most withdrawn and uncommunicative. But unlike Daredevil or Jessica Jones, Luke Cage isn't interested in digging past its protagonist's facade and poking at their insecurities--on the contrary, even as it reveals his tragic and abusive backstory, it is mostly concerned with validating his belief that he has the right, and the authority, to act in order to protect his community without being questioned or hindered. You can see why the show makes this choice--by virtue of his skin color, Luke (and men like him) have it repeatedly drummed into them that they are inherently lesser (and perhaps also inherently villainous). So the fact that this character is possessed of an ironclad belief in his own value, and in his right to act, is quietly revolutionary. But it also leaves Luke feeling rather flat. When he learns, for example, that his dead wife had lied to him, and was complicit in the abuse he suffered in prison and the experiments he was subjected to against his will, his only response is to mouth a few platitudes and quietly move on. Compare that to the moment in Jessica Jones in which Luke learns that Jessica is the person who killed his wife, and that she lied to him about it while becoming romantically involved with him. There's more vulnerability and humanity in Luke's five-minute reaction to this betrayal than there is in the entire first season of Luke Cage, and the show is all the poorer for that.
Diamondback's introduction is clearly intended to address some of the flatness of Luke's characterization--he and Luke turn out to have a complicated history, and he challenges our hero's simplistic understanding of his past and his family when he reveals that they are half-brothers. But this history is introduced so awkwardly that it never really registers, especially since, even in these moments, Luke still isn't allowed to drop his facade of emotional invulnerability. The revelation that his admired father was flawed, and that Luke himself contributed to the victimization of his half-brother, has virtually no effect on Luke, so it can't be expected to register with the audience. When the final episode in the season opens with a flashback to the young Luke and Diamondback sparring, it feels like too little, too late--Luke is too flat, and Diamondback is too aggravating, for us to become invested in this friendship, much less its dissolution.
What makes Luke Cage work, despite the vagueness of its story and some of its characters, is the specificity of its setting. It's been a running joke that the Netflix MCU shows tend to treat New York neighborhoods as if they were their own cities, but Luke Cage is the only one of the three to actually earn that approach, first by leaning on Harlem's storied past as a center of black culture and community, and second by showing the neighborhood to us, lingering on distinctive bits of architecture or street art. Some of the best moments in the season are the ones that let the story pause and allow its setting to simply be. In that sense, the choice of Pop's barbershop--that prototypical setting for black male bonding and camaraderie--is both obvious and richly rewarding. It allows Luke and his friends to simply talk, about their favorite books, or boxers, or musicians, or just about the events of their lives. More than any entry in the MCU, Luke Cage feels specific to a particular setting, which it depicts lovingly and with careful attention to detail. It's amazing how often those are the qualities that distinguish a flawed but interesting work from one that has no value.
One of the most interesting ways in which Luke Cage creates a sense of place--and one that feels particularly relevant given the recent accusations of blandness leveled at the MCU's musical texture--is the show's soundtrack. Music is a vital component of the show, down to episode titles taken from the songs of the hip hop duo Gang Starr, or a guest appearance from Method Man, who freestyles an impromptu ode to the title character (a charmingly old school touch, reminiscent of the days when superhero stories didn't take themselves so seriously). It's also all over the show. Cottonmouth owns a nightclub, which gives the show an excuse to feature multiple live performances in various genres associated with black culture--everything from hip hop to funk to R&B. The soundtrack, as well, features multiple interesting cuts, as well as a distinctive and often playful score. Musically, Luke Cage is the most exciting thing to ever come out of the MCU, and it's that music that gives the show an identity that its storytelling often lacks.
At the same time, Luke Cage's emphasis on giving Harlem its own unique, self-contained identity can have a strange, not always positive effect on the show's politics. As promised, Luke Cage delivers black stories, and there is something genuinely revolutionary about a superhero story in which not only the hero and the supporting characters, but virtually every minor character, every bit player, every face in the background is black or brown (and in which the perspective of white characters is almost completely ignored). The fact that Luke is a superhero operating within a community that has suffered from difficult relations with the official authorities gives his actions a weight that most other superhero stories have struggled to achieve. In a year that has seen multiple attempts to grapple with the morality of superheroes, all of which fell flat, Luke Cage makes a convincing argument that what was missing from these stories was any acknowledgment of race (as in, to take a particularly blatant example, Civil War, in which two powerful, privileged white men grapple over the morality of committing global-scale violence, while the murdered and mutilated bodies that drop as a result of their dispute just happen to all be black). The fact that the police in Harlem are unwilling or unable to properly police the neighborhood, to protect its residents without criminalizing them, gives Luke a justification for existing that Matt Murdock, for example, doesn't really have. The fact that the same authorities that wink at Matt, let Jessica Jones off the hook for cold-blooded murder, and bring Frank Castle into court alive, also mount a manhunt for Luke, carrying weapons especially designed to kill him, is a pointed and deliberate choice by the show's writers.
It's also, however, a comparison that is left to the viewers to make. While the show is vocal in its discussions of the hostility between Harlem's community and the police--which culminates in ordinary citizens donning bullet-riddled hoodies, both as an homage to Luke and a way of shielding him from the police's attentions--it is surprisingly silent when it comes to the role that white institutions, white supremacy, and systemic racism played in bringing us to this situation. Harlem's insularity appears to extend to the complete absence of influence from any of the city's mostly-white institutions. Luke Cage seems to take the standard superhero approach, in which government begins and ends with policing. It thus doesn't address education, infrastructure, health care, housing, or jobs, the neglect of all of which has been the main cause of poverty, crime, and drug addiction in the inner city. The only character who brings up the role of government in deliberately neglecting black and brown inner city neighborhoods is treated as a joke (and immediately killed off). Speaking about Luke, Method Man opines that "there's something powerful about seeing a black man that's bulletproof and unafraid." But the show never really seems to want to talk about what it is that Luke--and other black men who are not bulletproof--have to be afraid of.
Nowhere is the strangeness of this lacuna more evident, or more troubling, than in the show's handling of police brutality. Given Luke Cage's emphasis on Harlem as its own self-contained world, whose problems are rooted in crime rather than systemic racism, it would perhaps have been understandable if the show had simply chosen not to depict instances of police brutality at all (after all, and as noted by several members of the show's cast and crew, the very choice of a hoodie as Luke's uniform is already a powerful and deliberate statement about this issue). Instead, the show chooses to feature multiple instances of policemen abusing black and brown citizens, but always slants its depiction of these incidents in such a way as to avoid an obvious association with Black Lives Matter and its message. In one case, Misty's partner, Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), murders a young black man--by strangulation, no less. But the significance of the moment is very easy to miss, because Scarfe isn't motivated by racism, but by corruption--he's in the pay of Cottonmouth, who wants the young man killed. Later in the season, Scarfe is mortally wounded, and an entire episode is expended on humanizing him and extending him sympathy--chiefly from the direction of Misty, who still cares about her partner despite his crimes.
Later instances of police brutality show more willingness to call a spade a spade--when Misty attacks Claire in an interrogation room, or when another detective brutally beats a young boy who refuses to tell him where Luke is. But here, again, it's significant how much the show works to downplay associations with Black Lives Matter. Both Misty and the detective who attacks the boy are black. More importantly, both are suffering from extreme emotional distress--Misty recently had an encounter with Diamondback that nearly ended with her death, and the detective is upset because his friend and fellow officer was murdered by, as he believes, Luke--and are trying to lay their hands on a suspect whom they believe to be extremely dangerous. As Noah Berlatsky wrote recently, one of the problems that emerges when mainstream TV tries to engage with police brutality, even from a standpoint that sees it as unacceptable, is the assumption that the murder or brutalization of innocent black people at the hands of the police tends to involve cops who are in distress, usually over a troubling and serious crime that they're investigating. In reality, most heavily-publicized cases in which the police kill black people involve victims whose crimes were either minor and non-violent--as in the case of Sandra Bland or Eric Garner--or who had committed no crime at all--as in the case of Tamir Rice or Philando Castile. So Luke Cage not only minimizes the prevalence and ubiquity of police brutality, it focuses its attention on just the wrong place--the emotional state of the officers who committed the violence, and the excuses that can be offered for it (after Misty's attack on Claire, for example, we spend a whole episode with her in a session with a psychologist)--rather than on the system that encourages these officers to see certain people as inherently dangerous, and thus killable.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Luke Cage's approach to police brutality is what happens after Misty's colleague beats up the boy who refuses to tell him about Luke. Swooping in with the boy's mother, Mariah Dillard uses the incident to castigate the police for their indifference to violence against black people--and really, to get them to further intensify their pursuit of Luke and draw attention away from her own crimes. She organizes a rally, ostensibly about police brutality, but with the real purpose of inflaming attitudes against superpowered people, and laying the groundwork for lobbying the city to equip the police with rounds that can penetrate Luke's skin, which are supplied by Diamondback. So we have a black politician cynically leveraging Black Lives Matter rhetoric in order to achieve her own personal, criminal ends. And we have that same black politician orchestrating the over-militarization of police, again in order to conceal her crimes and get rid of a personal enemy. When a city official expresses reservations about equipping cops with these new bullets, it's only because "any weapon that the police or military has eventually ends up on the street", not because the police will inevitably use this hyper-lethal ordinance on regular people, as they have every time in the past.
At the end of the season, when Misty is informed that she doesn't have the evidence to prosecute Mariah Dillard, she rants that "the system is broken!" That's a fairly standard expression of frustration for a police officer in a superhero story, the justification that such stories offer for the extra-legal violence of someone like Daredevil. But in the context of a police officer who has, by that point, attacked two different suspects, and whose complaint is that she isn't allowed to go even further outside the law in her pursuit of them, it feels like the show prioritizing the conventions of its genre--in which extra-legal force is necessary to stop bad guys--over their associations in the real world--in which the perception that some people are "bad guys" is used to justify their immediate execution.
In the season's final episode, having defeated Diamondback and while taking a well-deserved moment to rest and reflect, Luke Cage reminds us that his show is about black stories:
People are scared. But they can't be paralyzed by that fear. You have to fight for what's right every single day, bulletproof skin or not. You can't just not snitch, or turn away, or take money under the table because life has turned you sour. When did people stop caring? Harlem is supposed to represent our hopes and dreams. It's the pinnacle of black art, politics, innovation. It's supposed to be a shining light to the world. It's our responsibility to push forward, so that the next generation be further along than us.Just as in the first episode, it's a thesis statement for the show. And just as in that episode, it's a frustrating one. Luke is placing the burden of healing and repairing a community that has been neglected and abused for decades on the very people who have suffered the most from that neglect and abuse--perhaps even blaming them for it. On one level, it's a very superhero kind of approach. Superhero stories always come down to individual solutions. The idea of a systemic problem that can't be solved by a single person with powers is anathema to their very existence. But in the context of a story about a black superhero in a black inner city neighborhood, that statement takes on a very different tone. It becomes the conservative bugbear about "personal responsibility," the insistence that the only people responsible for black people's problems are black people themselves, and that all those problems could be solved if they would only pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Luke Cage is obviously trying to paint its hero as an aspirational figure, someone who inspires black people (though mostly black men) to believe in themselves and in their ability to change the world. That's an important message, but like so much else about the superhero genre, it's a double-edged sword.
As I've written in the past, superhero stories tend to have a complex, dysfunctional relationship with the concept of abuse. Because so many superheroes have a background of abuse, the stories we tell about them tend to fetishize it and treat it as a means to an end. Most of all, they tend to be harshly prescriptive about what the "right" reaction to abuse is, and to divide people into heroes and villains according to how they respond to their traumas. But what happens when that abuse isn't personal, but communal and generational? To reduce the complex problems faced by black communities to a need to "push forward", an imperative not to become "sour", is superficially true, but beneath that surface it raises a lot issues that Luke Cage isn't willing or able to address. Ultimately, Luke Cage's problem may not be its politics, so much as its unwillingness--or inability--to break free of the conventions of its genre.