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Luke Cage – Suckas Need Bodyguards (Review)

This all looks very familiar.

There is a gangster, who does not like to be called a gangster. He is involved in real estate in Manhattan. He dressed in fancy suits, but deep down is an emotionally stunted manchild. Over the course of putting together a big real estate deal, this gangster crosses paths with a superhero. The superhero becomes an obsession. Things escalate. The mobster’s friends on the police force turn against him. It all comes down to one dirty cop with enough details to blow the whole case wide open and finally put this mobster behind bars where he deserves to go.

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This is the basic plot outline of Suckas Need Bodyguards, in which Detective Raphael Scarfe has enough evidence in a little black note book to put Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in prison for a very long time, with Luke Cage tasked with delivering Scarfe and the note book to authorities. It is also the basic plot outline of Daredevil, the first season finale of Daredevil, in which Detective Carl Hoffman has enough evidence to put Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk in prison for a very long time, with Matt Murdock tasked with delivering Scarfe and the note book to authorities.

Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but it seems a strange choice to imitate the weakest of that otherwise very strong first season.

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To be entirely fair, Luke Cage has spent a lot of time comparing Cornell Stokes to Wilson Fisk. Mariah Dillard made the comparison in Moment of Truth, ensuring that the audience could follow that thread across the rest of the season. “You saw what happened to Fisk,” Mariah warns Cornell. Perhaps, but it seems that Cornell learned nothing from it. In Suckas Need Bodyguards, Captain Betty Audrey closes out the episode with a similar observation. “First Fisk, then Cottonmouth. This is huge.” All this is before Manifest plays as extended homage to Shadows in the Glass.

There is certainly precedent for this. Luke Cage is a television show that is phenomenally proud of playing with established superhero imagery and iconography, from casting Pop as Uncle Ben to having Luke discover his super strength in a scene referencing X-Men: Origins – Wolverine. In fact, Luke Cage already had one gigantic homage to Daredevil, with Luke’s attack upon the Crispus Attucks Building in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? consciously structured so as to evoke the iconic long-take hallway brawl from Cut Man.

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However, there is something unsatisfying in this gigantic homage that Suckas Need Bodyguards makes to Daredevil. Part of this is down to the simple fact that the plot was disappointing the first time around. The first season finale of Daredevil was easily the most disappointing episode of the year, cramming far too much story into too little space in the most contrived manner possible. It felt like an exercise in tidying away loose ends, rather than a story that needed to be told on its own terms.

In many ways, that is the same problem that haunts Suckas Need Bodyguards. All things considered, Luke Cage effectively wrapped up his character arc in Just to Get a Rep. He decided to embrace the mantle of hero that had been thrust upon him following the passing of Pop, confronted Cornell’s goons in “Harlem’s Paradise”, and even made a big speech about being a hero to an entire congregation. It even ended with Luke warning Misty that he was in Harlem for the long haul. “I’m sorry things couldn’t be different between us. But I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

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That means that there really isn’t much more left for Luke to accomplish. In fact, that might be why the final scene of Suckas Need Bodyguards seems to explicitly backtrack on that promise with Luke confiding to Claire that he might want to leave Harlem. “You’re moving on?” she asks. “I think so,” he reflects. “It’s time.” it seems like a rather sudden change of heart, and a clear attempt to add more ambiguity and nuance to a character who essential just completed his big arc in the fifth episode of a thirteen-episode series.

Even beyond that, there is a sense that Luke is very much a passenger in all of this. Despite the fact that Luke is the hero of this story, he is very much a reactive protagonist. He has very little agency in what unfolds. Luke’s biggest contribution to the plot comes in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, in which the character raids Cornell’s secret stash at the heart of the Crispus Attucks Building. Even that is primarily in response to Tone’s attack on the barbershop in Code of the Streets. Luke does very little except smack around the same couple of goons over and over again.

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Indeed, Zip seems to make a convincing argument when Luke breaks up a gun sale at the start of Manifest. Luke points out how futile it is for Zip to keep trying him, only for Zip to respond with a laser-guided criticism. “You ain’t heard?” he teases. “Cottonmouth is gettin’ out, so you ain’t done sh!t.” That certainly feels about right. In fact, as Cottonmouth insists to Shades after the opening credits of Manifest, things seem to have worked out pretty well, given everything that has happened in between.

To be fair, there is a sense that Luke makes a smaller and more meaningful difference. In Just to Get a Rep, it is made clear that the big conflict between Luke and Cornell is for the spirit of Harlem. Luke’s willingness to help the residents of Harlem stand up to criminals like Zip, to help people like Aisha recover her father’s beloved forty-niners ring, speak to an idealised form of heroism. Heroism is about protecting people and empowering a community. Punishing the guilty is a secondary concern. (After all, Luke appears in The Defenders, not The Avengers.)

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However given that this thematic point was reached and explored in Just to Get a Rep, everything afterwards feels like an extended epilogue. Luke’s big hero’s journey is effectively complete, so having him hang around to lurk on the periphery of a plot driven by other characters makes him feel like a secondary character in his own show. Indeed, this whole situation stems from Cornell and Scarfe; Scarfe gets greedy, Cornell shoots Scarfe, Scarfe threatens to expose Cornell, Cornell decides to murder Scarfe. Luke just gets caught in the middle of the crossfire.

There is something frustrating in how inessential Luke Cage is to all of this. Again, this makes a certain amount of thematic sense. Luke is a character unbreakable skin, more immovable object than unstoppable force. However, it is rather disappointing to watch a television show where the nominal protagonist has so minimal an impact on how things develop and play out. This tendency only gets worse in the second half of the season, with Luke and Claire spending the bulk of three episodes on an adventure in Georgia separated from the actual drive of the plot.

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Again, this sort of pacing is both a blessing and a curse. As frustrating as it is to see the plot limp on for two whole episodes after Luke Cage has wrapped up his character arc, it does afford a lot of room to elements that would otherwise be brushed aside or overlooked in a shorter run or a more condensed story. Indeed, the best sequence in Suckas Need Bodyguards is the extended introductory sequence that finds Luke Cage jogging around Harlem listening to Trish Talk from Jessica Jones.

In many ways, Luke Cage rejects a lot of the elements that Frank Miller popularised in mainstream comics during the eighties. In marked contrast to Daredevil, this series has little interest in pitting its character against an urban crime lord. Whereas Wilson Fisk carried an entire season of Daredevil, Cornell Stokes only appears in the first half of Luke Cage before ceding the stage to a more cartoonish supervillain. Luke Cage is very interested in being a superhero show, and less interested in being a gritty urban crime drama that happens to feature superheroes.

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However, there are certain points at which Luke Cage seems to borrow from Frank Miller in terms of style, if not in content. The extended jogging intro to Luke Cage is set against Trish Walker holding a vox pop about Luke Cage in the community. There are similar sequences in later episodes, notably Soliloquy of Chaos, in which the media debates Harlem’s unbreakable man. These sequences feel very much like a lower key take on the talking heads sequences from The Dark Knight Returns, which Zack Snyder incorporated into Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

This entire sequence is a great example of how Luke Cage makes excellent use of its extended runtime. It helps to underscore the idea that Luke is building his own mythology beyond what the audience actually sees depicted on the show. Indeed, there are references to events beyond those which have unfolded on screen, cementing the idea that Luke has embraced his role as a hero to the community beyond the occasional mid-episode montage. It really does add texture to the show.

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These conversations play over an extended sequence of Luke jogging through Harlem, passing any number of landmarks. The V.I.M. store with its street art and broken sign on Third Avenue by one-hundred-twenty-second street. The Apollo Theatre on west one-hundred-twenty-fifth street. This extended sequence underscores the importance of location shooting on Luke Cage, which was a priority for the production team:

“Harlem, particularly Lenox, that’s the only place in the city where you see those wide boulevards,” Coker continued. “We really wanted to capture the color, the rhythm of the streets, it’s so beautiful and unique up there. That’s why it’s gentrifying, people are beginning to see the value of it. You see that kind of changeover from old to new.” That plays into the show’s political themes, Coker said, with Alfre Woodard’s character Mariah Dillard “wanting to protect the Harlem of old and being resistant, but at the same time trying to put a political foot forward.”

To that end, says Coker, they filmed wherever possible in the real parts of the city a given scene took place. “We shoot in New York, we use New York for New York. We had stuff in Harlem, stuff in Brooklyn, all over,” he said.

Indeed, it helps to give the show a clear texture. The decision to shoot the Netflix shows on location helps to give the action a sense of place, one only further emphasised by Luke Cage‘s clear love affair with Harlem. This is contrasted with Marvel’s feature films, that tend to shoot outside of New York for budgetary reasons and cannot quite capture the same sense of place.

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The jogging sequence is a great example of the kind of sequence that might have been trimmed were Luke Cage under tighter constraints. As Alan Sepinwall noted in his review of the show, the pacing on Luke Cage would be a major issue were the series broadcasting weekly on a major network. One of the luxuries of premiering on Netflix is a more relaxed attitude to these concerns, affording the production greater freedom in terms of pacing and editing. After all, Luke Cage cannot be cancelled midway through the season, and its individual episodes can run longer than forty-five minutes.

It is hard to understand just how radical this freedom is in an industry that has traditionally imposed incredible pressure and constraints on showrunners. After all, television series can be cancelled after a single episode. Indeed, it is entirely possible to cancel a show before it even airs. Those shows that do air on a week-to-week basis are subject to the whims of the network; pre-emptions, rescheduling, retooling, cancellation. As such, a thirteen episode commitment before a single episode airs is a pretty big deal, as is the decision to release them all at once.

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Similarly, the Netflix model allows a greater degree of freedom in terms of the individual episode. On broadcast television, runtime is largely fixed. On network television, factors like advertising play into this, with the network only allotting forty-odd minutes of the hour to content and devoting the remainder to advertising. Even on cable networks, the need to be able to schedule other television series typically sets some sort of limit on runtime. On Netflix, these constraints do not exist. Each episode can be as long as it needs to be, without having to cut material out.

As far as the Marvel Netflix shows are concerned, this is both a blessing and curse. It is a blessing in that it means more room for character development and exploration. Even Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is a better developed villain than any of Marvel’s big screen antagonists. (Even Shades also feels more developed than most of them.) It is a curse in that the producers still seem wedded to a thirteen-episode format that means most of the individual series run about three episodes longer than necessary.

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Luke Cage certainly could do with a tighter edit and a shorter run, but the indulgent pacing is part of the show’s appeal. The characters feel fleshed out and developed, even the supposedly minor background characters. Indeed, Suckas Need Bodyguards makes a good case for this. Given that Luke is largely passive in what unfolds, the events of Suckas Need Bodyguards are driven by the rest of the ensemble. In particular, by Cornell’s decision to shoot Scarfe during their confrontation on the docks.

In some ways, it is a forced development, in that it feels like something that is happening merely to bring things to a head. However, it also feels like the logical outcome of what we know about these two characters. Cornell is making mistakes and getting restless. Scarfe is feeling internal affairs breathing down his neck and can sense opportunity in Cornell’s desperation. It makes perfect sense for Scarfe to push Cornell,and it makes sense for Cornell to respond to that pressure by shooting Scarfe. This is true, even though the characters (and the audience) know these to be bad decisions.

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Raphael Scarfe is a great example of Luke Cage using its extended runtime to flesh out a relatively minor character. After all, Scarfe is not a primary character in any real sense. He is really just one point of intersection in the Harlem of Luke Cage; he is Misty Knight’s partner, Cornell’s dirty cop, and Chico’s murderer. Scarfe is not necessarily a character with a lot of agency, but is instead a building block in any well-played game of “Six Degrees of Luke Cage.” It would be easy to push the character into the background, to make him a generic dirty cop.

After all, Scarfe is very much an archetype. He fits into the world of Luke Cage like a piece of jigsaw puzzle, serving several key functions but without any real need for nuance or development. Most obviously, Scarfe is a white police officer in a predominantly African American neighbourhood, and serves as a demonstration of why such communities tend to be wary of law enforcement. Scarfe is a police officer who has little interest in the community that he is policing, and little respect for his obligations or responsibilities that come with his badge.

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Of course, Scarfe is hugely corrupt. As such, he’s very much an exaggerated expression of that sense of nihilistic apathy that many such communities see when they look to law enforcement. However, Scarfe is just one expression of the institutionalised indifference demonstrated by the New York City Police Department in Luke Cage. The senior officials unwilling to press the Stokes investigation in Suckas Need Bodyguards are another. The trigger-happy Jake Smith provides yet another in Take it Personal.

Scarfe is also a pretty convincing argument for the existence of vigilantes in the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, if the New York City Police Department is populated by cops like Scarfe, then it makes sense that citizens would be more willing to tolerate extra-legal vigilantes. Daredevil tried to make a similar argument in its first season, turning the New York City Police Department into Wilson Fisk’s private hit squad. Luke Cage just delves into the idea with a little bit more depth.

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Of course, given that Daredevil ended with Matt Murdock blowing open Fisk’s widespread corruption of the city’s law enforcement and Suckas Need Bodyguards has Scarfe doing something similar, the New York City Police Department must now be the least corrupt police department in the world. Either that, or President Ellis (or President Obama) need to start looking into it. One of the joys of a cohesive shared universe lies in imagining how the public must respond to so many earth-shattering events in such rapid succession.

However, Scarfe also functions as more than just a corrupt cop. The character also serves as an inversion of (and perhaps commentary on) the tendency of Daredevil and Jessica Jones to cast minority actors in rather minor law enforcement roles; Brett Mahoney and Blake Tower on Daredevil, Oscar Clemmons on Jessica Jones. Although these are not the only minority actors on cast in those shows, they do demonstrate that the ensembles of Daredevil and Jessica Jones are very white for such an ethnically diverse city and neighbourhood.

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Scarfe is the most prominent white character to appear in Luke Cage, which is striking in a way that draws attention to the diversity of the ensemble and the show. He is basically a “token” white character, and serves to demonstrate how slowly the Marvel Cinematic Universe has embraced the concept of diversity. It is interesting that, when Scarfe dies off at the end of Suckas Got Bodyguards, he is not really replaced by another equally prominent white character. Misty is partnered with Bailey, but he makes next to no impression.

On top of that, Scarfe is also very clearly part of the series’ blaxploitation aesthetic. Luke Cage very strongly emulates classic blaxploitation cinema, right down to music cues and camera choices. This is most striking during the throwdown at “Harlem’s Paradise” in Just to Get a Rep, as Luke beats a bunch of goons to a retro soundtrack while the camera pans in on Shades watching in awe from the balcony, whipping off his sunglasses in awed recognition. It is a scene lifted straight from some cheesy seventies exploitation thriller.

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In this blaxploitation context, Scarfe is very much a stock white bad guy. While the major villain roles in Luke Cage go to black characters like Cornell, Mariah and Willis, Scarfe fits comfortably in the framework of a white member of the corrupt establishment. Jan-Christopher Horak notes in Tough Enough, Scarfe fulfills a very traditional role:

Crooked white cops are a veritable cliché of blaxploitation films, often functioning as the ultimate drug lords and crime bosses behind black gangsters, whether in Super Fly or Coffy. In such films, these white antagonists are anomalous rather than representative of white America’s power structure.

However, Luke Cage puts its own twist on this cliché by refusing to allow Scarfe to take centre stage. Scarfe is not the (or even a) primary antagonist. In terms of blaxploitation cinema, Scarfe encapsulates the sort of white villainy embodied by Christian Bale in John Singleton’s remake of Shaft. He is a villainous white character more odious than intimidating, a threat primarily by virtue of his social status.

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Indeed, Luke Cage goes out of its way to emasculate Scarfe. In Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, Cornell dismissively refers to Scarfe as “Virginia Slims”, or “a skinny white b!tch.” This represents its own blaxploitation cliché, the notion of the emasculated and ineffective white police officer. Novotny Lawrence discusses the archetype in Blackness and Genre, singling out Cotton as a prime example:

Much like Pekinpah’s new West overcomes the old cowboys, Harlem represents a space that whites lack the understanding to control without meeting resistance. In the Harlem depicted in Cotton, the white male detectives have been emasculated because they are perceived as outsiders and garner little or no respect from the residents. This is apparent many times throughout the film as Jones and Johnson’s white superiors are continually forced to let the detectives operate “their way.” This “way” is one that whites lack the agency to attain or fully understand, thus rendering them somewhat powerless in the Harlem setting.

Indeed, Scarfe clearly lacks any understanding of Harlem, failing to understand the importance of Pop because he is “just a barber.” Scarfe is never really a physical threat to anybody. He cannot even look Chico in the eye while choking him to death. Scarfe does not exude anything approaching the masculinity of Cornell or Willis. In order to murder a young unarmed black man, Scarfe quite literally has to put his back into it, strangling Chico over his shoulder.

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Given all of this, it would be easy to reduce Scarfe to a plot function rather than a character, a collection of necessary thematic elements and plot beats rather than a character in his own right. One of the advantages of the thirteen-episode season is the space that it affords characters like Scarfe. To be fair, Scarfe is never as well-developed as Luke or Cornell or Mariah or Misty, but he does seem to have his own internal life that shines through in the same way that Pop feels like more than just a convenient Uncle Ben surrogate.

(It is worth noting that Scarfe is largely developed in the same way as Pop. In Moment of Truth, Pop is introduced talking about sports and popular culture before he delivers the requisite exposition and life lessons. Although Scarfe is introduced as Misty’s partner in Moment of Truth, the show uses that dynamic to flesh out both characters. The pair enjoy a number of extended conversations at their desk, particularly in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, when they ponder everything from superheroes to basketball preferences.)

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Luke Cage never loses sight of what the character is supposed to represent. Even the little details that flesh out Scarfe’s character are all very much on point. His nihilistic lament about the uselessness of law enforcement in the era of superheroes underscores his general apathy to his work. Even the death of his son, which illuminates a lot of his character, is cast in terms of his role as a white cop in a black community. “Scarfe forgot to lock up his gun one night,” Misty explains. “Earl found it and accidentally shot himself.”

If Scarfe is intended to embody a lot of the anxiety around law enforcement and authority, it seems only appropriate that his lack of respect for his sidearm should have tragic consequences. After all, there are any number of stories about law enforcement officials demonstrating a lack of awareness of (or adherence to) basic gun safety practices. The DEA agent who shot himself in the leg while giving a lecture at school; the discharge of a live round during a middle school safety drill; the death of a seventy-three-year-old woman during a training exercise.

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There is a sense that Scarfe is a law enforcement official who embodies the worst fears and anxieties about law enforcement; he is apathetic, corrupt and inept. He is disconnected from the community and untrustworthy with his sidearm. “I am an asshole,” Scarfe acknowledges in Suckas Need Bodyguards. “There’s no disputing that. I am a despicable human being.” It would be very easy for Luke Cage to turn Scarfe into a two-dimensional monster, and he is most definitely a pathetic wreck of a man.

However, the show also affords Scarfe his humanity. Frank Whaley does great work in the role, yet another example of a fantastic ensemble and a deep bench. Scarfe feels very much like areal and fully-formed person. Too weak-willed and clumsy to truly be considered any sort of devil, Luke Cage finds sympathy for him nonetheless. The fact that a character as insignificant as Scarfe receives this much nuances and depth is a testament to the show’s relaxed approach to pacing. It doesn’t forgive all the show’s sins, but it goes a long way.

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

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