Marvel's Luke Cage is a man of few words, but he means what he says. He can be funny when he wants to be. He's indomitable, yet has a soft spot for those in need. He's impenetrable like Superman. Somehow, he's even more righteous and compassionate than Captain America (who's endearingly described as the “old white dude with the shield” in Netflix's Luke Cage). He's a bulletproof Black man who hates guns — and he's Marvel's first TV-movie Black protagonist.
Yes, Luke Cage, which hits Netflix today, is an origin story for one of Marvel's coolest superheroes, but showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker accomplished something more than that. Luke Cage is a story about what it means to be a Black man in America today. Just the image of a bulletproof Black man in a hoodie is especially evocative against the current political climate — and that was Coker's intent. In fact, that particular image came up in early discussions between Coker and series star Mike Colter.
“It made sense to me that Luke Cage would wear a hoodie,” Colter told MTV News. “He's trying to hide his face, and be incognito, but it's also symbolic because of Trayvon Martin. We talked about that specifically, what that would mean to people and the feelings it would evoke in viewers. Irregardless of the entertainment value, what this show says politically resonates profoundly.”
Created in 1972, Luke Cage has always been culturally significant. On the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, Marvel Comics created a Black male superhero whose primary superhuman ability is that he's bulletproof. He couldn't fly. He didn't have a Vibranium steel shield or a mystical hammer. He didn't have super speed or heat vision. But a bullet could do no harm to him. The timeliness of that isn't lost on Colter. Here's a bulletproof Black man, singlehandedly battling crooked cops and government corruption, at a time when new footage of policemen shooting unarmed Black men and women goes viral daily.
“We definitely felt like we were in the middle of something important, especially after they moved Luke Cage from the fourth Marvel installment to the third,” Colter said. “We wanted to be part of that conversation. A lot of things were happening that people were up in arms about, and rightly so, so it was time to have this kind of character step forward.”
On paper, Luke Cage seems like the perfect superhero. He's strong — really, really strong. His skin is impenetrable. He's kind, though not always nice. He's a man of strong convictions. He hates guns and strong language. In fact, when a kid calls him the n-word in Pop's barber shop, he shuts it down: “I'm not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word.” (Luke's deep-seated aversion to that word was another thing Colter fought for; “It was important for him not to be someone who used that word casually,” the actor said, “I felt like he was better than that.”) He's a hero in every sense of the word — if only Luke actually wanted to be one.
“It's an inconvenience for Luke,” Colter said. “He's trying to live his life. He doesn't understand the advantages of being a hero; for him, it's just in the way. He's not sure what to make of it. If it were up to him, he'd just get rid of these powers, and live a normal life.
The expectation of what people want from him is what gets to him. He doesn't know what to do. The expectation is what's overwhelming for him. People want things from him, and he's a loner. He stays to himself, and so him being the one who's tasked with helping the community, it's a bit much for him.”
Though Luke Cage puts the Black male experience front and center, it treats its Black women as equals. Alfre Woodard's Mariah Dillard is every bit as dangerous as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali); and Simone Missick's Misty Knight is every bit the hero Luke is — perhaps even more so because she doesn't possess the same extraordinary abilities. She relies on her instincts and a strong sense of justice.
“Cheo did a really amazing job in how he cast the women on the show,” Missick told MTV News. “When you look at the police precinct, the people who are in power are Black women. That's something we've never seen on television. To be part of a project where I play the first black superheroine in the history of Marvel and to be surrounded by all of these other strong, Black female characters, you feel like you're part of something that's innovative and you're on the brink of something important.”
“When you see these representations, it's not being touted as diverse,” she added. “This is just the world that Cheo's created — and this is the real world that we live in. You hope that other shows will take that note.”
To call Luke Cage diverse would be missing the point. It simply exists. Coker has created a rich, complex world that mirrors the Harlem streets upon which it's set — a vibrant place full of beauty, life, violence, community, and pain. A place where men can be reborn, heroes rise, and roses stem from the concrete.