Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’ Ties Superheroics To Thorny, Real-World Issues

Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has openly courted two points of comparison for the latest Netflix series set in the Marvel Universe. The first is The Wire, David Simon’s celebrated HBO series about the inner workings of drugs, policing and politics in Baltimore. Outside the Los Angeles premiere of Captain America: Civil War in April, Coker told reporters, “I would like this to be, I mean, I know this is heavy but, The Wire of Marvel television, because we really deal with a lot of different issues.” The second point of comparison comes from the headlines, for as Coker put it at the show’s 2016 San Diego Comic-Con panel, “There’s never been a time in history where having a bulletproof black man” has been so important. “It’s like Luke’s entrance into this world changes the ecology of the entire neighborhood.”

The third Marvel Defender to get a solo series ahead of Netflix’s Avengers-esque miniseries team-up doesn’t travel the same paths as his predecessors. Cage — well played by Mike Colter (The Good Wife) — is an African-American man living in a fantasy world populated by super-powered beings. But the show is very much grounded in the recognizable reality of a world that hasn’t been too kind to people of color. In a sharp piece for The Washington Post, David Betancourt notes the show’s overt references to tragic stories like Trayvon Martin‘s. Cage’s outfit of choice, a hoodie, is almost certainly not an accident.

No wonder Variety‘s Maureen Ryan has predicted viewers won’t be able to stop watching Cage’s casual stroll into, through and out of a heavily-fortified community center serving as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes’ (beautifully played by Mahershala Ali) personal bank. All of this, of course, while donning a bullet hole-worn hoodie and wearing headphones blaring “Bring da Ruckus” by the Wu-Tang Clan. When necessary, Colter knows precisely how to play his hero as the strong-but-silent type, and this scene is definitely one of those times.

In some ways a prototypical reluctant hero, Cage’s preference for avoiding conflict when and wherever possible isn’t a decision he comes to easily. Mainly because, as viewers will find out, not everything about his new life happens per his actions. While chatting with Pop (Frankie Faison), a barber shop owner and one of Cage’s employers, the glorified janitor speaks his peace after his boss affectionately calls him “power man” and asks why he isn’t helping others. “What if my ambition is to sweep hair, wash dishes and be left the hell alone?” he says, adding: “You think I asked for any of this? I was framed, beaten and put in some tank like an exotic fish. Came out with… abilities.”

Cage’s origins play a major role in Coker’s approach to the show. Unless you watched Colter’s debut in Jessica Jones last year, or are familiar enough with Luke Cage/Power Man’s history in the comics, then some backstory is necessary. His “bulletproof” skin serves as a defense against every offense imaginable — punches, kicks, cars, blunt objects, knives, and most bullets. His powerfully packed fists can break through prison walls and collapsed buildings with ease. As Cage reminds Pop, however, he didn’t opt for these “abilities” willingly.

In Cage’s 1972 debut, Hero for Hire #1, the tiara-wearing, chain-wielding Luke Cage is actually Carl Lucas, a wanted man framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Sent to Georgia’s Seagate Prison to rot, he eventually escapes after a science experiment gone wrong, inadvertently uses his new powers for good in Harlem, and becomes Power Man. Aside from the headdress, proto-Hot Topic belt, and Heroes for Hire setup, this matches up with Coker’s adaptation. What doesn’t, however, are the circumstances by which Lucas gains his powers. In the comics, Dr. Noah Burstein recruits him for a voluntary series of medical experiments. Coker tweaks the power dynamic of this exchange so that when Burstein submerges Lucas in the tank, the latter has no say in it. He’s bloodied, beaten and unconscious to the point that — already a prisoner in Seagate — his body’s newfound powers become another kind of prison.

So when Cage tells Pop he was “put in some tank like an exotic fish” and came out with his “abilities,” he has no choice in the matter. Yes, this fits the pattern of the reluctant hero tale, a frame the first seven episodes of Luke Cage don’t try too hard to break. But it’s also appropriate for the character’s history and context — both in Luke Cage and in the real world Luke Cage‘s audience inhabits. It’s a vital addition to the increasingly complex and diverse array of characters and stories Marvel’s partnership with Netflix began with Daredevil‘s first season.

Luke Cage expands a rich mosaic that’s all about bodies — the bodies punished by Matt Murdock’s masked vigilante and Frank Castle’s Punisher, the body Jessica Jones attempts to heal following Kilgrave’s violations, and the body imprisoned three times over by racism, incarceration and unimaginable powers dumped upon a man who didn’t ask for them. Or as Cage says while recalling one of his preacher father’s favorite sayings, “no one can cage a man if he truly wants to be free.” If Coker and Colter’s new version of Luke Cage is any indication, even a man thrice-caged by the real and imagined worlds’ worst can rise above — all while protected by nothing more than a hoodie.

Luke Cage streams Friday, September 30 on Netflix. Until then, here’s a preview.