Marvel's 'Luke Cage' has real world relevance
Posted October 10, 2016
There’s one point in the new Marvel/Netflix series “Luke Cage” where the titular hero looks exactly like the comic book version of Power Man that I remember from the early 1980s. He’s wearing this bizarre silver tiara, an unbuttoned yellow silk shirt with a wide, disco-era collar, and a pair of silver steel bracelets that cover the middle of his arms up to his wrists. He then catches a glimpse of his reflection, decides he looks ridiculous, and gets out of the absurd getup as quickly as he can.
This one was one of many delightful moments in “Luke Cage” (TV-MA), the latest Marvel 13-episode superhero TV series. I’ve always wondered why both heroes and villains in comics have the urge to pursue spandex-based themes when picking their wardrobes. Just because bullets bounce off you and you can punch through brick walls, why does that always spur a desire to go cape shopping? Thankfully, Luke Cage resists that urge and spends most of the show in a rapid succession of hoodies that need to be repeatedly replaced after passing through hailstorms of bullets, which is why Cage mutters to himself, “I’m about sick of always having to buy new clothes.”
It needs to be said that even though we’re dealing with superheroes, this is decidedly not a kid-friendly show. There’s oodles of profanity, although Luke Cage himself is notably averse to cursing and makes people put money in a “Swear Jar” every time they say a bad word. There’s a lengthy and gratuitous sex scene in the first episode that is easily skipped, as well as a great deal of violence, although it includes less blood than previous Marvel/Netflix outings, due largely to the fact that Luke Cage doesn’t bleed, even though his clothes are constantly full of bullet holes.
The lack of invulnerable textiles proves to be an amusing real-world drawback to the superhero game, but, more importantly, it helps to highlight the show's grounded sense of reality. After a summer of noisy, garish superhero movies set in cities that don’t actually exist, it’s refreshing to see a comic book character inhabit a fictional universe that feels so much like our own. It also confronts timely cultural challenges that Superman and Batman largely ignore.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, series star Mike Colter noted that his character’s use of a hoodie was no coincidence.
"It's a nod to Trayvon, no question — Trayvon Martin and people like him," he said.
Martin was a 17-year-old African-American high school student who was wearing a hoodie at the time he was shot and killed in Florida in 2012.
"When you're a black man in a hoodie, all of a sudden you're a criminal," Colter said. "We wanted to pay homage to that — it's not something we were shying away from."
The result is a show that has far more emotional impact than previous Marvel fare, including the equally gritty New York-based Netflix shows such as “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones.” The real-life tension between the police and the African-American community takes center stage in the plot, which adds dramatic weight and provides distraction from some of the more tried, true — and, frankly, tired — superhero tropes that form the backbone of the narrative.
Essentially, this same story could have been told in a different setting with a Caucasian protagonist, and it would have been dismissed as a retread of the kind of stuff we’ve seen a thousand times before. But the racial dynamic is important to consider and impossible to ignore, especially when, as one character observed, when it comes to dealing with the cops, “bulletproof always gonna to come second to being black.” Luke Cage is a hero for our day, which is why his story is well worth watching.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.