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Luke Cage – Code of the Streets (Review)

What does it mean for Luke Cage to be the first entry in the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe to focus on an African American character?

Of course, there have been superhero films built around black characters. Shaq starred in Steel and Halle Berry starred in Catwoman. The most successful example of black superhero cinema is probably the Blade trilogy, which launched slightly before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men reinvented the comic book movie for the new millennium. However, Wesley Snipe’s half-vampire vampire hunter is frequently forgotten in these discussions, perhaps because the films are generally pitched as action horror movies rather than superhero films.

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It is astonishing that it has taken so long for the superhero boom to encompass stories focusing on protagonists that are not white men. So Luke Cage arrives with a lot of expectations. The series is keenly aware of this fact, never shying away from the Luke’s cultural perspective. Then again, this makes a certain amount of sense. Luke Cage is a black superhero whose superpower is his own skin. The opening credits make this quite clear, projecting evocative images of Harlem on to that skin so as to reaffirm that connection.

Luke Cage is a black superhero. Luke Cage is a black superhero television show. The result is a fascinating piece of television that finds something new to say about a long-established genre by looking beyond the stock perspective.

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Race can be difficult to talk about, and tough to write about. Even in terms of the production of Luke Cage, it is interesting to note the different ways that producers Jeph Loeb and Cheo Hodari Coker talk about race:

“He could have been blue—I wouldn’t have cared one lick,” Marvel TV chief Jeph Loeb says of hiring Cheo Hodari Coker, the African-American show-runner of Netflix’s latest superhero show, Luke Cage. But Coker, and a number of Marvel fans, see things differently. “I’m not one of these people that says, ‘Oh, Luke Cage happens to be black,’” Coker told Vanity Fair. “No, he’s black all day because I’m black all day. There’s just no way around that.”

Loeb is in charge of the entire Marvel Netflix slate, and he argues for something approaching colourblindness, which is an old approach to the subject of race. Coker is the Luke Cage showrunner, and advocates something different.

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For Coker, Luke Cage is a black superhero and cannot be divorced from that particular context. It is a defining attribute of who Luke Cage is. This is not particularly radical. After all, Matthew Murdock is very much defined by his Irish Catholic guilt, for example. Steve Rogers cannot be divorced from American self-identity. Luke Cage just happens to carry a lot more symbolic because minorities have long been underrepresented in popular culture in general and superhero stories in particular.

The attributes that define Steve Rogers as a character can be found in any number of iconic comic book characters, from Superman to Captain Marvel and beyond. In contrast, non-white audiences have often scrambled to make themselves heard. This is why there is so much anger and frustration over The Immortal Iron Fist. There are so many (blonde) Caucasian heroes that many audience members long for another perspective; this becomes an even bigger deal when whites are engaged in cultural appropriation like Danny Rand.

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More than that, representation is important. It is important for kids to be exposed to a wide variety of iconic figures in popular culture, to see characters who shared some aspects of their identity. This is what inspired Jack Kirby to create the Black Panther, one of Marvel’s earliest black characters:

I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strip. I’d never drawn a black. I needed a black. I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else. It suddenly dawned on me — believe me, it was for human reasons — I suddenly discovered nobody was doing blacks. And here I am a leading cartoonist and I wasn’t doing a black. I was the first one to do an Asian. Then I began to realize that there was a whole range of human differences.

Luke Cage explicitly acknowledges the importance of having heroic figures in popular culture, and heroic figures that speak to a wide range of experiences. Code of the Streets very clearly lays out the stakes of the season in those terms, suggesting that Luke Cage has a responsibility to speak to young black men.

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It is worth noting that the majority of crossover between Luke Cage and the other Marvel television shows happens in terms of characters of colour. Turk Barrett appears in Code of the Streets and Soliloquy of Chaos, after being a recurring character on two seasons of Daredevil. Claire Temple joins the cast of Luke Cage in Just to Get a Rep and actually has a much stronger (and more clearly defined) character arc across the second half of the season than she did in either of the other shows. Blake Tower from the District Attorney’s office drops by in Now You’re Mine.

The result is to turn Luke Cage into something of nexus of characters of colour within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a celebration of diversity within the shared universe. Despite the fact that Mike Colter appeared as a recurring character in Jessica Jones, that private detective does not return the favour. Although both Matt Murdock and Daredevil are discussed repeatedly in dialogue, they never crash the party. There is a recurring sense that Luke Cage exists as a celebration of blackness within the framework of Marvel comics.

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Some of this seems quite pointed; deservedly so. The most prominent white member of the cast is Raphael Scarfe, the partner of Misty Knight. While Scarfe serves a number of purposes within the show, he serves as a reminder of the tendency on Daredevil and Jessica Jones to relegate black actors to firmly supporting roles in predominantly white casts. Like Brett Mahoney in Daredevil and Oscar Clemons in Jessica Jones, Scarfe is a detective. Like Ben Ulrich in Daredevil and Oscar Clemons in Jessica Jones, Scarfe does not make it to the end of the season.

In fact, it could legitimately be argued that Scarfe received more character development than supporting players like Mahoney or Clemons. However, the clever inversion of what has become a staple of casting on these shows draws attention to how Daredevil and Jessica Jones have underserved their black audiences. It is a reminder of just how important it is to have a show like Luke Cage that is willing to tell these sorts of stories in a way that filters them through something other than a white perspective.

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Luke Cage is a show very much engaged with African American cultural identity. Mariah spent a significant stretch of Moment of Truth talking at length about the rich cultural heritage of Harlem and how part of valuing black lives was valuing black culture. “For black lives to matter, black history and black ownership must also matter,” she states simply. As with a lot of the conversation about black culture within Luke Cage, there is a sense of self-commentary to that. Luke Cage himself is an example of black history, but not necessarily of black ownership.

After all, the character has historically been written by writers who are not African American. He was created during the seventies by writer Archie Goodwin along with John Romita and George Tuska. Respecting black culture was hardly a top priority for these writers. The popular modern iteration of Cage was resurrected by writer Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos in the pages of Alias, before Bendis ported the character over to his relaunched New Avengers series. That series is largely responsible for the current popularity of the character.

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Indeed, Bendis is largely responsible for the mapping out of the shared Marvel Netflix universe with his work on these characters in the early years of the twenty-first century. Bendis created Jessica Jones in Alias, had an extended (and beloved) run on Daredevil between Kevin Smith and Ed Brubaker, and helped propel Luke Cage into the mainstream with his work on New Avengers. Although Bendis wrote Iron Fist as part of New Avengers, Danny Rand is the only Netflix protagonist not defined in some way by Bendis.

Recent years have seen Marvel embracing black characters and stores. Steve Rogers has been replaced as Captain America by Sam Wilson. Luke Cage has led the New Avengers, the Thunderbolts and the Mighty Avengers. Tony Stark will be replaced as Iron Man by Riri Williams. Miles Morales has become a popular black version of Spider-Man, even hopping into mainstream continuity alongside Peter Parker in Secret Wars. However, most of these books are handled by white writers. Rick Remender, Nick Spencer, Al Ewing, Brian Bendis.

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This became an issue recently when Brian Michael Bendis was announced as the writer of the new fifteen-year-old black female Iron Man. Commentators like Jaime Broadnax argued that in order for comics to truly embrace diversity, comic book publishers themselves had to embrace diversity:

“What is most important is that we give opportunities to more writers to have a seat at the table. Marvel’s history with hiring black women writers is very poor, and with so many black women writers as well as artists currently making their own comics it’s pretty bad when you elect to overlook so many of them,” she told EBONY.com. “Riri is also a 15-year-old girl, so there’s a lot of context with being and seeing the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old black girl that a middle aged white man just wouldn’t understand. Fans have also criticized Bendis for ignoring them when they have legitimate concerns on how he writes characters of color, notably [Spider-Man] Miles Morales.”

Marvel would subsequently hire Roxane Gay, its first female black writer, to work on another book. Still, it is very important that Luke Cage has a diverse writing staff overseen by a black writer. Luke Cage is very much written from and towards an African American perspective, which helps to distinguish it from other comic book properties.

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While the extended thirteen-episode format poses challenges for Luke Cage, it also provides opportunities. With that much storytelling real estate, there is space for tangents and developments. Indeed, Code of the Streets features an extended introductory conversation between Luke Cage and Pop in which the pair discuss their favourite crime writers. This is very much an opportunity for Luke Cage to acknowledge its own hardboiled sensibilities. (“I just got home,” Shades states. “College?” Luke quips.) However, it is also something more.

Luke and Pop argue over the writer Donald Goines. “Goines invented Kenyatta, the best black hero this side of Shaft,” Pop insists. As with Mariah’s “black ownership” line, it is a piece of dialogue that plays almost cheekily self-aware. Pop is having this conversation with another great black hero, and in some ways Pop is laying out the stakes for the show. There really haven’t been that many iconic black heroes to break out into wider popular culture, fewer still with the marketing afforded Luke Cage. Could Luke hope to be “the best black hero this side of Shaft”?

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The conversation is very much framed in these meta self-aware terms. “My biggest beef with Donald Goines is that he wrote about criminals… and he died like one,” Luke reflects. Pop dismisses this criticism as being too “Fox News”, but it seems like Code of the Streets (and the series as a whole) empathises with Luke in this argument. There are relatively few black characters with the ubiquity of Captain America or Superman, very few examples of heroic black characters who have truly permeated the cultural consciousness.

There is a very strong sense of moral responsibility that runs through Luke Cage, arguably much stronger than the strands that run through either Daredevil or Jessica Jones. In a very real and tangible way, Luke Cage honestly believes that its character has to be a hero. Not an anti-hero, not a morally ambiguous protagonist, not a survivor, not an anti-villain. Luke Cage has to be a hero. He has to shoulder the burden of representing an ideal that is underrepresented in popular culture as a whole.

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Of course, this is nothing special. Luke Cage is simply playing its own twist on a classic superhero trope. Pop is very much a variation on Uncle Ben, urging Luke that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Repeatedly over Moment of Truth and Code of the Streets, Pop urges Luke to use his gifts to make the world a better place. “You should be out there helpin’ people, like them other fellas down town,” Pop urges Luke, stopping just short of telling him to put on spandex.

Luke tries to shrug it off, to focus on his own problems. “Can’t save everybody,” he assures Pop at one point. Pop refuses to accept this. “You’re wrong about that,” Pop assures Luke. “What would have happened in my life if people gave up on people?” There is an endearing humanism at the heart of Luke Cage, one that hints at the purest most optimistic interpretation of the superhero genre, with a minimum amount of deconstruction and cynicism. Luke is never presented as broken in the same way that Matt or Jessica are. He is, after all, unbreakable.

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(Luke Cage plays its superhero tropes so straight that it is no surprise that Pop dies at the end of Code of the Street. It is more of a surprise that the character survives until the end of the second episode. Luke Cage is savvy enough to understand this, respecting its audience enough to assume that they will get what is being set up. As a result, Luke gets ironic lines like, “Pork will kill you quicker than any bullet.” It is “corny” in the way that Claire repeatedly dismisses Luke as Corny, but it is an appealing sort of corn.)

Luke is presented as an idealistic archetype for young men to emulate. This carries across the season; in DWYCK, Misty confesses that the moment that she was attracted to Luke was the moment that he looked at her eyes instead of her breasts. Luke is a proper gentleman and a class act, even if he has trouble finding a suit that fits. Code of the Streets repeatedly stresses how important this is, by demonstrating how the show’s moral universe works. Young men need positive influences on their lives, and bad things happen without them.

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Luke’s half-hearted intervention is not enough to stop Chico in Moment of Truth, and things go horribly wrong. Chico repeatedly references his absent father. When Luke mentions him in Code of the Streets, Chico is dismissive. “Why does everybody bring him up?” Chico demands. “He was never there for me. I’m sick and tired of hearing about him.” There is some suggestion that the absence of a strong paternal influence in Chico’s life was responsible for the choices that he made.

Without these choices, young men make mistakes. They make bad decisions. Without a strong moral influence, nihilism kicks in. Tone provides another example within the story of Code of the Streets, with Luke Cage taking full advantage of its relaxed pace to carefully and meticulously establish Cornell’s right-hand man as just a terrible human being. Tone has no sense of judgement, no sense of respect. He does not consider the consequences of his actions, in much the same way that Chico failed to consider what would happen after the robbery.

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Both Shades and Cornell draw attention to how reckless and unnecessary Tone’s behaviour is. “You’re going to at least wait for Chico to come outside, right?” Shades asks on the ride over. Tone declines answer. When Tone boasts about killing Chico, Cornell assumes that he demonstrated enough judgment to catch Chico leaving the barbershop. Instead, Tone revels in the carnage. “It was some Django Candyland sh!t for real! Lights, camera, action, baby! Somebody call Quentin!” Tarantino serves as popular culture shorthand for nihilistic violence.

Indeed, it is interesting to wonder whether the repeated discussion of the “n” word in Moment of Truth and Code of the Streets is itself a cheeky slight at Quentin Tarantino, a white writer and director who has generated no shortage of controversy for his fondness for that particular racial epithet. In her first scene with Cornell at “Harlem’s Paradise”, Mariah firmly rejects the use of the term. In the teaser to Code of the Streets, Luke warns one of Cornell’s goons, “I’m tired, but I’m not tired enough to ever let anybody call me that word.”

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According to Coker, the decision to include the “n” word in Luke Cage did cause some minor controversy for Marvel:

“They had some trepidation, I’m not gonna front,” says show creator Cheo Hodari Coker of his initial conversations with higher-ups about the use of the N-word in a cinematic universe still mostly known for family-friendly superhero fare. “But my whole thing was that, in using this word, I didn’t want it to be comfortable. I wanted [it to be] that, every single time that it’s heard, you think about it.”

That said, Coker acknowledges the fact that, as the show goes on, it feels less like a statement and more like a common noun. Your ears still perk up, but the shock of it lessens. Indeed, he hopes viewers will understand how natural the word can be. “I also really wanted the show to kind of live on its own terms of, This is what it’s like when you eavesdrop on black people talking to each other,” he says. “That word, at times, will come up in certain ways.”

Of course, Daredevil and Jessica Jones already pushed the boat out on what was acceptable within a Marvel product.

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The result is that the discussion of the word itself becomes part of Luke Cage‘s reflexive and self-aware commentary upon itself. Luke Cage is a television show that is quite consciously and clearly aware of the conversations happening around it, to the point that it almost wants to interject into those conversations itself. It is a show that encourages dialogue and discussion, as interested in sharing its own perspectives and interests as it is in navigating the expected plot beats from a big sprawling superhero story.

The theme of fatherhood runs through the first season of Luke Cage. Indeed, the entire conflict between Luke Cage and Willis Stryker boils down to an argument over legitimacy in the wake of the moral failings of their father. Luke’s primary motivation in the first half of the season is the death of a character known as “Pop”, even if the nickname did not originate in relationship to his parenting skills. As with the theme of responsibility, this is very much a stock superhero trope; the battle between Luke and Willis is not so far removed as that between Thor and Loki in Thor.

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Luke Cage frames that debate about fatherhood in the terms of the black cultural experience. Fatherhood is part of the cultural signifiers of African American masculinity, largely informed by crude stereotypes that have a minimal basis in reality. Nevertheless, the stereotype endures. As a result, it has become something that is explored and confronted in popular culture. Even in reality television, as Vanessa E. Jones notes:

“We think that these guys – because they’re rappers, because of their connection to hip-hop, and because of the way that we think of black men as fathers in this society – we think, ‘OK, they must not be good men. They can’t be good fathers,’ ” says Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University professor specializing in pop culture. “But when it comes to their children, what you see are men who are very much engaged, in touch, and responsible about their children.”

The parenting abilities displayed in these shows play against persistent stereotypes in pop culture that present black men as absent fathers. It’s not only celebrities who are fighting this perception. Plenty of black men have become effective parents despite lacking a father figure growing up. Until recently, these men’s struggles were barely recognized. Now a number of books, television shows, and films are celebrating this movement by showing black fathers responsibly parenting their children.

As a result, it makes sense that Luke Cage would frame its model of heroic responsibility in these terms. Pop is portrayed as a hero for setting up neutral territory where the neighbourhood’s children would hang out free of the influence of outside forces. Pop is portrayed as a father figure to a significant portion of the cast, from Luke to Reba to Misty. Perhaps Luke becomes something similar.

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(It is also worth noting that Pop builds his “Switzerland” within an old-style barbershop. The barbershop has special historical significance within African American communities. Barbershops were among the first places where African Americans could become entrepreneurs following emancipation, setting up their own businesses on their own terms. However, those spaces also became an essential part of various black communities, with Quincy Mills describing them as “private spaces in the public sphere.”)

Ultimately, Code of the Street reveals that Pop is seeking to atone in his own way for his own failures and his own sins. Pop was not a good father or a good role model in his youth; quite pointedly, the flashback sequence ends with Pop and Cornell posing for the camera in a manner that glorifies their violent conduct. That snapshot provides a stereotypical and violent depiction of African American masculinity, in contrast to the father that Pop would later become. Pop seems embarrassed by it.

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That violent past ultimately cost Pop his opportunity to be a father. He was arrested and “went on pause for thirteen years.” Unfortunately, not everybody else’s life goes on pause. Pop had a child. however, he never restored that broken family unit. “Haven’t seen her or my son since I was thirteen,” he confesses to Luke. This is why the barbershop (and Chico) mean so much to him. It is an opportunity for Pop to atone for his own past failures and to redeem himself. He talks about being afraid that he would not even recognise his son after all these years.

This motivation and back story is important enough that Luke Cage revisits it in Just to Get a Rep. Pop’s biological son speaks at his father’s funeral, as if talking about a stranger. “I never really knew my father,” he admits. “I always said, outside of my conception, he was never there for me.” It is a familiar story. However, like Pop, this young man hopes to redeem that mistake. His wife is expecting a son. “I just hope that, by being in his life, I’m able to do the things that Pops seemed to do for everybody else.” Maybe things will be better.

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Luke Cage has to hope that they will be.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Luke Cage:

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