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Monday, October 3, 2016

Marvel's Luke Cage Packs A Punch!

As most know and are probably streaming this bad boy right now, Luke Cage has finally dropped on Netflix. With the success of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, we've all been in anticipation of whether Marvel Netflix's comic based shows will continue to deliver or fumble the ball.

Well, maybe, I was. So far the reviews are mostly positive with a small minority claiming that the show is Luke warm. Ouch! 

If you've yet to watch it, don't read this. There may be some spoilers, but I'll try to keep them to a minimum.

What did I like about it? I thought the show definitely packed a punch...literally and figuratively. First, the positives and there are many.

I liked that the show did not shy away from giving it the blaxploitation tone of the 70s, though the story is set in the present. The move is a nod to the actual era that the comic and character debuted in 1972.

Actually, big Michael Colter even revealed that he was reluctant to do it because of the blaxploitation goofiness of the comics. Producer of the show, Cheo Coker reassured Colter that it was going to be a modern telling.

While giving love to this era, I can see the concern of giving Luke Cage a blaxploitation feel. While others saw blaxploitation as a way to explore black empowerment, the films of the time were often criticized and accused of perpetuating white stereotypes of blacks in the U.S. The Netflix show is definitely not afraid of the comic character's roots and creator of the show, Cheo Coker, has even expressed this in interviews.

Created by comic legends Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, and John Romita Sr., the Luke Cage Hero for Hire comics was dropped on the newsstands when blaxploitation and Kung-Fu flicks were popular and entering mainstream America. Any comic fan knows that the 70s did bring in more diversity to the world of superhero comics.

I don't need to explain that again, but Luke Cage is historically the first time an African American superhero was given a headlining, self-titled on-going comic book series. It would've been great to have had Luke Cage be the first African American comic superhero to get a show or movie as the headliner, but Wesley Snipes as Blade did beat Luke Cage to the punch.

Regardless, Luke Cage is the first African-American comic book superhero to get a show that actually tackled African American contemporary history and issues. Not to say the show was all about that, but it was definitely present.

The show is sleek, sexy, and quite powerful with it's themes. The rich history and culture of Harlem is the backdrop of the show, and Cheo Coker is meticulous with the details and letting you know about it.

Many iconic scenes and streets of the Harlem neighborhood were shown as well as references to Harlem legends like Duke Ellington. Even East Harlem native Al Pacino was name-dropped in the show.

It wasn't specifically just about Harlem. Brooklyn native and legendary rapper Biggie Small's picture sat on the wall in several scenes, and it was great to see another legendary New York hip-hop artist by the name of Method Man totally geek out about meeting Luke Cage.

If you didn't know, Meth's been a comic book fan since age 7, and in the show, he rocks out a rhyme dedicated to our hero. RZA, where you at in this?

It would've been funny to see you and Luke Cage in that scene where they debate about Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury (Chinese Connection in the U.S.) or Jet Li's remake Fist of Legend. After all, most everyone knows RZA is a huge Kung-Fu flick fan, and they did bump Wu-Tang's "Bring the Ruckus" when Cage tears through some baddies.

Just like in Daredevil, the cast really hits a home run here. I thought Luke Cage was a bit wooden in the Jessica Jones series, but now I see why. Michael Colter does a fine job in the series and the character definitely evolved throughout season one.

Luke Cage is still a person on the lamb, just wanting to be left alone and not attract attention as he is still a fugitive that was obviously framed. It's not the most original of anti-hero stories, and that does divert from the actual comics in which Luke Cage immediately becomes a Hero for Hire after escaping Seagate Prison. Regardless, Luke Cage owns the story plot and makes it his own.

I did enjoy all the references to the Hero for Hire bit, but him going that route would've taken away from the message the show was trying to convey. That's one thing I'm actually glad they didn't stick to the comics on.

I think the only problem are the villains concerning this show. Luke Cage's beef with Cornell Stokes, better known as "Cottonmouth" in the actual comics, didn't seem that daunting for our hero in early episodes.

Speaking of Cottonmouth, I thought Mahershala Ali played a great ruthless villain, but if we're talking about a normal criminal going up against a hero with super strength that's bullet proof, I didn't really feel that Cage was in any foreboding danger through most of the series. Actually, as much as I despised Cottonmouth's character, I actually starting feeling slightly sorry for the dude and was wondering how the crime boss was going to take on Luke Cage.

Cage's past, fugitive status and internal conflicts got more in the way of Stokes, but as the season progressed, I did find myself rooting for our hero a lot more as he evolved and the stakes got higher. Luke Cage in season one is a man just finding himself. He does not trust others nor even himself all that much. With his new-found powers, he starts off without much sense of a place in this world.

The character of Cottonmouth is pretty true to his comic book roots and is a straight-up Harlem gangster. The character first debuted in Powerman #19 before the comic series became a team-up series with Iron Fist.

Cottonmouth is another comic villain that doesn't have many appearances in the world of Marvel, but the show did not make him a one-dimensional baddie. Like many of the characters, he too is conflicted and holds a grudge towards his familial ties.

Mariah Dillard, known in the comics as Black Mariah, is the 2nd villain in this show and played by Alfre Woodard who also does a spectacular job. She isn't an all-and-out villain, and she seems to actually have a genuine love for the community. Her character in the show has infiltrated the system in order to bring change to the community from the outside.

Liberties were taken with the character of Black Mariah from panel to screen. In the comics, Black Mariah was just a leader of a gang called the Rat Pack in New York's Harlem and did not recur all that much in comics since her debut in Luke Cage Hero for Hire #5.

In the show, she is a council woman and politician instead of an all-out gangster.

Her character in the show emphasized keeping Harlem black and preserving black ownership of the historic community. It's Dillard's main objective, but her goal isn't entirely selfless either.

"Keep Harlem black and keep us in the green," is a line the character says in the series, and she even states that she is fine with extortion of the community but not murder. Maybe not an all-out villain like Cottonmouth, but definitely not good either.

Her alliance with her gangster cousin Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes is one filled with tension. She is thrown into turmoil by Cage and Stokes' beef with one another but is conflicted about protecting family while seeking and keeping power for herself at the same time.

While it seemed that Luke Cage presented more of a challenge for the villains in the show, the baddies were written with depth and not one-dimensional beings. A lot is going on with the show with its themes, and it is presented by the characters and the villains, all going through some kind of internal conflict.

The show doesn't rush to flesh out most of these characters. It takes its time and does seem a bit sluggish here and there, but it's worth it.

We learn that our villains were deeply influenced by Mama Mabel, an iconic figure of Harlem in Luke Cage's Netflix show that was both feared and respected. I'm wondering if the character was somewhat based off of real-life Harlem mobster Stephanie St. Clair.

In the show, Mama Mabel was also intent on keeping and gaining power, and although her motto was "Family First", the two ideals greatly conflicted with one another. The result of this would be shown and even spill over onto Mariah and Cornell.

The negative influence of Mama Mabel is the opposite of the positive influence that the character of Pop embodies in the show.  This character does steal the show often and is representative of the central theme. We first see Luke Cage working for Pop, an ordinary man who runs a barber shop and does what he can to help keep the kids of Harlem off the streets and showing them another way.

Played wonderfully by Frank Faison, Pop is a pillar of the Harlem community in a different sense. He does not seek power or riches, but does seek a different sense of empowerment.

Pop represents the honest, hard-working people of Harlem and the hope they long and struggle for. His personal mantra of "The only direction in life is forward, never backward" is a prevalent concept throughout the show.

He is the positive influence of the community, and the show did reference that characters like Cottonmouth or Mariah Dillard may have had very different lives if they were exposed to more positive influences while growing up. Luke Cage even admits to Cornell that he has talent and could've been somebody.

When it comes to the problems that Harlem faces in the show, the finger seemed to point both ways. Villains like Mariah Dillard and Cornell were obviously intent on keeping a system in place that could be further exploited and profited off of by them.

However, the character of Pop did not excuse anyone from the old adage by Edmund Burke who said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." The show places responsibility on those in the community who refuse to "step up" as well. Luke Cage was not even exempt from that adage and admits to this in a scene.

But there are outside forces as well. As mentioned before, Mariah Dillard has become part of the system, and the show is not shy in revealing that the system is broken.

Of course, that is an element of most comic book superhero stories, but the show makes it relevant to the issues of today. While not overtly abrasive or in your face like a Spike Lee joint, the show was not afraid of referencing more political elements or symbolism.

Luke Cage running around saving the day in bullet riddled hoodies and seen as a hero instead of a villain or thug is definitely making a loud statement without having to say any words at all about widely held prejudices. Method Man saying, "There is something powerful about seeing a black man who’s bulletproof and unafraid," doesn't need any deciphering when it comes to sentiments of the African-American community in today's America.

Police attitudes that can lead to excessive force were displayed in the show, and one scene in particular hit a chord with me and reminded of a personal incident I experienced. The show did not shy away from excessive force issues that are being discussed currently as well.

Detective Misty Knight is a complex character that is written smart. She actually represents this broken system, but doesn't quite realize it.

Simone Missick is amazing as the character. Oh, my, lawdie! She gives a great performance and often steals the show. I could not keep my eyes off her from the moment she's introduced.

While the complex character of a cop who teeters on the loyalty of a community she grew up in and a system she's sworn to uphold is nothing original, Misty Knight is a crucial character in the series. The tension and lack of trust between Luke Cage and Misty Knight is palpable and realistically warranted. It connects the underlying theme of trust or lack of that runs deeper than just the two characters themselves.

The Harlem community in the show is also split on whether Luke Cage is helping or doing more harm than good. The cops, of course, are distrustful of Cage as they would be of any vigilante like Daredevil and especially the Punisher, but Cage is just as distrustful of a broken system Misty is sworn to uphold.

Misty Knight was actually more closely associated with Iron Fist in the comics at first, and her first published debut was in Marvel Premiere #21 as a supporting character of Iron Fist. She would later become a supporting character for both Luke Cage and Iron Fist when they teamed up as Heroes for Hire.

It was later retconned that Misty Knight first appeared in Marvel Team-Up #1 as unnamed woman in a story involving Spider-Man. The meeting in Marvel Team-Up #1 is confirmed in Marvel Team-Up #64, a team-up story that involved Spidey and the Daughters of the Dragon, Colleen Wing and Misty Knight.

It's always great to see Frank Whaley in almost any role. He is an exceptionally under-rated actor, and plays Misty Knight's partner Rafael Scarfe perfectly. 

In the comics, Rafael Scarfe is Misty Knight's partner in the NYPD, and is even a close associate of both Luke Cage and Iron Fist.

Not so much the case in his live-action interpretation, and they did take quite a bit of liberties with the character. Don't want to give away too much, but his first appearance is in Marvel Premiere #23.

Another thing I appreciate is that the show definitely represents everyday working people. Luke Cage works jobs most everyone can relate to and has everyday troubles like paying the rent, getting paid on time, and just staying afloat.

Luke Cage's Netflix series offers a kind of superhero from a different American backdrop that I feel is needed, and although different, it does carry on the realness that the Daredevil series started. Like mentioned before, I can relate a hell of lot more to a struggling lawyer or working class superhero than trust fund babies like Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen, and Tony Stark.

My only beef is the villain of Diamond Back. Once he appears things seem to go from smart to what you talking about Willis? For a pretty ruthless underworld boss, some of the things he does in the show isn't too smart, and it's a wonder why this dude wasn't caught before.

Luke Cage is more hush-hush than this criminal mastermind. Not to say that Erik LaRay Harvey did not do a fantastic job playing the character that was written for him. He surely did, but some of the choices the character makes nearing the end of the season makes me scratch my head in confusion.

Diamondback's live-action interpretation is different from the actual comics. Both Luke Cage and Diamondback both first appeared together in Hero for Hire #1, and although different, the show tied together the two decently. 

While the show is gritty, dark and from the streets, it's does not lean to the extreme hopelessness like often found in other media dealing with the backdrop of such stories. At the core, this is an American tale, and like I said in the title, this show packs a punch on many different levels.

This series reminds us all that one who actually learns to care and "steps up" can turn anyone into a hero and have a positive impact on the world around them. The show doesn't end in a typically idealistic way for sure, but it does hint of hope and the continued struggle for it. For this comic fan, I will continue to root for this hero.

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