What is most striking about Marvel’s newest installment to its parallel universe, Luke Cage, is not the title character’s mega strength or invincible skin, but rather the show’s ability to address sensitive political and social issues. But the mega strength and invincible skin are also pretty damn striking. And finally, in episode four, “Step in the Arena,” we learn how Luke gained his abilities and the significance of them.
Watching this Netflix series does not feel like a typical superhero narrative. There is no alien or robotic antagonist bent on the main hero’s destruction. Instead, Luke is tasked with stopping a corrupt clubowner, Cottonmouth, who is obsessed with gaining absolute power over the show’s setting, the streets of Harlem. Unlike the mainstream guys like Superman or Captain America, Luke, played with a simultaneously grand and grounded demeanor by Mike Colter, is far from an infallible character. This is made even clearer in this episode as we are taken back to Luke’s stint in Seagate prison, where he was set to do 90 years before he broke out. But where the show departs most drastically from any other superhero show or movie that I have seen is its all black cast that serves as a stark and refreshing contrast to Marvel’s otherwise whitewashed universe.
Nearly all of episode four takes the form of a flashback to Luke’s prison days. In it, we see Luke reluctantly make a friend with a fellow convict, Squabbles (Craig Mums Grant). After Luke initially refuses their request that he fight in an underground fight club, the corrupt prison guards, led by the sadistic Rackham, threaten to hurt or even kill Squabbles if he does not participate. Meanwhile, Luke and the kind-hearted prison therapist, Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), are falling for each other in predictable comic book fashion. After Luke grows increasingly knowledgeable of Seagate’s widespread corruption, the guards take precautionary measures and beat Luke almost to death. It is this nearly fatal moment that gives way to Luke’s extraordinary abilities.
The origin of Luke’s powers—a science experiment gone wrong—is not a new one. In fact, it seems every superhero is either the product of a similar Frankenstein procedure or was inexplicably born with special abilities. But showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker knows this. So instead of focusing on how Luke became the superhero he is in the show’s present, he concentrates on telling the story of how Luke became the man he is. This is done by painting Luke’s realization of powers as the beginning of his “liberation” from slavery and the all-white prison guard brigade that served effectively as his slaveowners. Finally at this moment, Luke learns he can break from the shackles that society has placed on him throughout his life. Finally he learns, “No one can cage a man that truly wants to be free.”
The show is unafraid of delving into deep issues typically left untouched by superhero stories. The division between black and white is apparent and reflects our real-life superhero-less society. But the line between good and evil is not so clear. Both Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, portrayed with perturbing composure by Mahershala Ali, and Luke want the same thing—a prosperous Harlem community. Cottonmouth wishes to achieve this by working in cahoots with local government officials, funding community projects with dirty money, and any other means necessary. Luke’s intention, while somewhat ambiguous at this point, is to simply bring about peace in the crime-laden neighborhood. But both men share an undying desire for self-determination, something they were both denied for most of their lives. As black men bound to the relentless confines of Harlem, both Luke and Cottonmouth lost nearly every person they loved at the hands of violence. And with each death, another glimmer of hope met its demise.
What sets Luke Cage apart from other superhero narratives is its courage to provide commentary on racial inequality through the lens of an indestructible hero whose abilities do not even grant him an escape from prejudices. With explicit violence and unfiltered language, the show exhibits a side of Harlem with which a largely white Marvel audience may not feel comfortable. But it is exactly this audience, of which I, admittedly, am a part, who ought to be exposed to the reality of injustice in our country the most. For this reason, I consider Luke Cage’s greatest feat not to be his miraculous strength or impenetrable skin, but rather his ability to address true societal problems in a manner accessible to even the Marvel fan farthest removed from his situation.