Before I begin, I'd like to first start with a couple-three caveats: #1 I'm a white dude. #2 While I've read comics since I was a kid, Luke Cage/Power Man was not one I ever read...in fact, I mainly know the guy through his partnership with Iron Fist, whose comics I have spent a bit of money on. And #3 I am not now and have never been a New Yorker. Have never even visited the city save for a couple stopovers at its airports.
[by the way, if you'd like to read a couple of excellent reviews of Luke Cage from folks who aren't some white dude, I'd suggest this one and this other from the The Nerds of Color. Both come at the show from different angles and are well worth the read]
That last caveat (#3) is important. My knowledge of New York comes mainly through films and television shows I've seen over the years. New York is, without a doubt, the most famous city in my country, but I don't know it intimately in the same way that a New Yorker does. All I know is its reputation(s), its glamorizations, its demonizations, its glorification. I've made the acquaintance of New Yorkers over the years, both native and transient. But I have no first hand knowledge of the city. Hell, when I was a kid I thought Brooklyn and The Bronx were the same thing. Until recently, I thought Hell's Kitchen was a fictional neighborhood created by Stan Lee and Marvel comics.
The reason that it's important is that Luke Cage is set almost entirely in the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem. As much as the show is about its titular superhero, it is at least as much about Harlem. Harlem features the same way to the series as NYC as a whole featured to the HBO series Sex and the City. Not only is the neighborhood showcased...it's location, culture, and history is damn near essential to the story being told.
Now, as a non-New Yorker, I can't say how much of the Harlem on display is factual, how much of it is fictional, and how much of it is semi-historical (borrowed from the comic book fiction which may or may not have been based in factual reality). What I can say is that the way Harlem is displayed works for me in a way that the Hell's Kitchen setting of Daredevil simply doesn't. Hell's Kitchen is like Gotham City to me...oh, look, here's these poor folks and gangs and corruption and their vigilante hero is trying to clean up the streets. It's a setting that seems to exist solely to give the protagonist something to punch out. Harlem is much more than that. It is (or was) the Black Mecca of America before Atlanta...and its name carries cultural significance and resonance to this day. It's not a place to go and punch people. It's a place of cultural pride for many black Americans.
Of course, I'm not a black American, and I never took African-American studies classes in college, nor courses in black American art or music or literature. Those things simply weren't in my sphere of interest. And even so, I still know of Harlem and its cultural importance...that should say something about the place.
SO...as a white dude from the west coast who has historically been only semi-interested in Luke Cage, allow me to say that I believe the Luke Cage series is both culturally significant and important...perhaps the most important entry yet into the Marvel film/TV universe. The fact of its Harlem setting makes it only more so (and appropriately, in my opinion).
Like all the MCU series on Netflix it's well worth binge-watching. I personally love the 13 episode format, not only because of the comic book feel (episodic, right?) but because it allows character and plot development over a 10+ hour span that you just can't get in a 150 minute movie. Following the trend of these series, Luke Cage has only upped the weirdness factor, making references to Thor's hammer, alien technology, and the displaying the comic book mad scientist origin of super powered Cage (unlike, say, Jessica Jones). The series may have street level villains and stakes...saving the 'hood rather than the world, for example...but this is a real superhero show with powers and F/X a lot less subtle than the stuff on display in Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Which, for the comic book fan, is pretty cool, especially considering that the street level view gives the viewer the chance to see these effects in an almost "real world" way. What do you do with bullet-proof skin and super-strength when the issues you face aren't world conquering aliens or genocidal robots or super Nazis or whatever? Here's one vision of that.
However, even with his world shaking abilities...and make no mistake, the guy is badass...we have a decidedly human character in Cage. He's a person many of us can identify with...a dude who doesn't want to be terribly involved in the drama (despite his abilities to make a difference); one more concerned with getting a lady and staying out of jail than with being some sort of "superhero." A guy who wants to do the right thing, but who doesn't want to shoulder the responsibility of being an Avenger-type. And I can dig it. This Luke Cage is a far cry from the comic book caricature of the angry black dude willing to confront Dr. Doom in his castle because the villain welched on a debt. That guy was all about "getting paid" (why else would he form a group called Heroes For Hire?). To their credit, the show creators kept the idea of a reluctant hero, but didn't resort to a two-dimensional stereotype, instead making the character's psychology richly layered, allowing Cage to mature and develop, while still being a hero from the get-go. Cage has his angry moments, but it's not caricature...it's part of an evolving character being drawn into a higher purpose. As with all of Marvel's best characters, there is a dichotomy in Cage...a tension between two conflicting sides of his personality.
This isn't anything new to the MCU series on Netflix, of course...they've managed from the beginning to craft excellent, watchable, richly nuanced shows starring comic book characters. That's not the reason why I call Luke Cage "important" and "significant." No, what makes the show culturally important is that this quality superhero series features black protagonists...normal, living, human Black Americans. Not ancient gods with amnesia (Hancock). Not half-vampires (Blade). Not zombie dudes raised from the dead (Spawn). And in similar fashion to the recent Daredevil and its treatment of Matt Murdoch's blindness, the writers do not shy away from, nor gloss over, the race of the show's characters, nor the racial tensions that exist in our country today. Luke Cage is not some sort of allegory for recent events and issues in the way shows like, oh, say, Boston Legal would use itself as a platform for examining various hot-button-of-the-week topics. But the simple fact of the matter is, race and ethnicity and the color of one's skin still continues to matter in this country, and Luke Cage is a remarkable television show for using the superhero genre (and all its tired tropes) as a lens to examine, review, and reflect upon this section of our culture.
Because love of and enjoyment of superheroes isn't just a white person thing (duh), no matter how flooded the market may be with white (male) superheroes. Superhero stories are wish fulfillment in a near pure form. Wouldn't it be great if we could teleport to work? Or turn invisible when the ex- came around. Or punch out evil with our super strength? Or have the healing power to fight our cancer? Or the suped-up metabolism to have six-pack abs without doing sit-ups or giving up our beer? Everybody can dig on day dreaming and wish fulfillment, escapist fantasies. Most every person who's ever been bullied or persecuted (or worse) has, at one time or another, wished they had bulletproof skin, or laser eyes, or metal claws...some way to fight back, some way to feel powerful after feeling powerless. And it's no secret that people of color in this country have a long and on-going history of mistreatment, in ways great and small, simply due to the fact of their non-whiteness.
Luke Cage may just be the ultimate anti-bully fantasy.
But while superheroes are enjoyable fantasies, they also act as modern myths and inspirations, something to which we can aspire. Not their superpowers, of course...we can't bombard ourselves with radiation and expect to grow wings and fly. But their actions, their heroism, their altruism, their courage, their compassion, their self-sacrifice...these things can be a beacon for us. Though they are fantasies, superheroes can act as role-models, fictional though they are. We may be drawn to them for the escapist wish fulfillment they provide (in a way we may not be drawn to public servants of a less spectacular nature) and can learn from their examples...both good and bad. Spider-Man's mantra of "with great power comes great responsibility" is based on a cautionary lesson (he paid the price when failing to follow his own motto). Luke Cage is about learning a similar lesson, though with the specific emphasis on standing-up for others.
[it's funny how people throughout the series are always telling Luke to "take care of himself" - him, the guy with the bulletproof skin - and his constant refrain is "always." In the end, though, he realizes that his "taking care" often involves him keeping his head down, keeping on the run, trying to avoid getting mixed up in trouble and that doing THAT is not only an irresponsible non-use of his abilities, but a disservice to who he is as a person. Taking care of himself, nurturing his soul, eventually comes to mean "taking a stand"]
Having a normal, relatable human person of color to take the reins of a superhero series is nothing to scoff at...it's nothing to throw away, off the cuff. Our minds shape our reality, affecting our health and well-being. To have a show that features protagonists of color doing heroic stuff is powerful. Even if they're not dealing with POC issues (there is never, for example, a scene of Luke Cage being harassed while browsing in a store, nor Luke being pulled over in a case of racial profiling), the mere fact that THEY are on display in all their heroic (and heroically flawed) glory is powerful, validating stuff. If I was black, I'd be saying "it's about damn time." Not necessarily because I'm tired of seeing Spider-Man or Captain America or Batman but just because, hey, let's tell a story that features superheroes (and their arch-villains) who look a little bit more like me. Because the fact of the matter is there are heroes and villains belonging to all spectrums of human pigmentation.
And because, fuck you Hollywood. That's why.
I have a lot more to say about the Luke Cage series, including a discussion of the show's plotting (it feels like two seasons in one), its excellent cast (I am really digging Rosario Dawson as an anchor for these MCU series, just BTW), discussions of Cage with regard to his gaming profile (important when you're writing what purports to be a gaming blog), plus something that probably needs to be a very, looong post on Misty Knight. However, this post is already uber-long, so that'll all have to wait for a future date...perhaps tomorrow, if I have time.
Anyway, it's good to be back.