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Luke Cage – Manifest (Review)

By and large, the first season of Luke Cage is not a radically subversive superhero tale.

Indeed, a lot of the show’s strengths come from how steadily and reliably it hits on the expected superhero plot beats while reconfiguring them for this particular hero at this particular time: Pop as Uncle Ben in Code of the Streets; the superhero origin story in Step in the Arena; the hero hunted by the authorities in Soliloquy of Chaos; the secret family tree drama in Take it Personal; the throwdown with the super villain ascendant in the streets in You Know my Steez.

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These are all familiar elements of the archetypal superhero story, but pivoted around the idea that Luke Cage is fundamentally a black superhero story and rooted in those experiences as well. As such, Manifest represents the sharpest and most subversive twist on the format of the first season. After spending six episodes establishing the character of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and elevating him to the status of primary antagonist in Luke’s battle for the heart and soul of Harlem, Cornell is unceremoniously and brutally murdered. And not even by Luke Cage.

It is a wry and a clever twist, perhaps the most daring storytelling decision of the entire season. It is visceral, and enough to jolt the series back to life after Luke reached the climax of his own emotional arc in Just to Get a Rep. Of course, this bold decision to kill off the presumptive primary antagonist half way through the season causes its fair share of problems in the season’s troubled second half, but it is still a striking and bold choice for a series that largely played by the rules to this point.

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Audiences coming to Luke Cage were very clearly expecting Cornell to be the season’s primary antagonist. Jeph Loeb described the character as “the other hero of the story.” Mahershala Ali receives high billing in the opening credits, and is a recognisable screen and television actor. On top of a memorable role in House of Cards, Ali also had a prominent role in Free State of Jones and plays a major role in Moonlight. Indeed, Ali is “hotly topped” for an Oscar nomination this year. Ali is very much a casting coup, much like Alfre Woodard.

Audiences had been conditioned to expect Cornell to stay the course. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones favoured season-long antagonists, with Vincent D’Onofrio and David Tennant appearing across the length and breadth of their premier seasons. Even Frank Castle hung around the thirteen-episode length of Daredevil‘s second season, a production decision that forced all sorts of ill-judged storytelling choices including the decision to put the murder of the Castle family at the heart of a massive conspiracy and cover-up with a bigger mastermind always around the corner.

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Indeed, Luke Cage even stacks the debt somewhat by inviting comparisons between Cornell Stokes and Wilson Fisk, imagining that the Harlem crime lord is being positioned as this show’s equivalent of the Kingpin. This decision is reinforced by a number of storytelling choices cleverly designed to reinforce this impression, right down to structuring Suckas Need Bodyguards as a riff upon the basic structure of Daredevil. It is quite an elaborate shell game on the part of the production team.

This is true right up until the last possible moment. Even the first three-quarters of Manifest serve as an elaborate misdirection on the part of the production team. The episode is very clearly set up as another Luke Cage twist on a classic superhero trope. If Step in the Arena was Luke Cage’s superhero origin story, then Manifest looks to be the obligatory tragic back story of his primary antagonist. It is a tale of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stoke, of who he was and how he came to be. At least, that is what it claims to be.

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Again, this mirrors the structure of the first season of Daredevil. In particular, it feels a lot like an homage to Shadows in the Glass, the episode that mapped out the tragic history of Wilson Fisk. As with Fisk’s flashbacks, Cornell’s flashbacks build towards his first murder and that tragic loss of innocence. Both episodes are even positioned similarly within their season arcs; Manifest is the seventh episode of the season, while Shadows in the Glass was the eighth. The two are clearly intended to echo one another, with their nostalgic New York flashbacks.

Manifest very clearly sets itself up as a redemption story for Cornell, a moment of ascendance. Cornell escapes prosecution following the surrender of Scarfe’s little black book. Cornell manages to recover Domingo’s guns and avert a gang war. Cornell hits upon a plan to blackmail Luke Cage with reference to his criminal history. Everything seems pretty rosy, particularly considering Cornell’s “let it be broke” attitude in Just to Get a Rep. Of course, this moment of peace and tranquility turns out to be a massive red herring.

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Of course, the character’s death was always coming. In fact, the character’s death at the series midpoint was part of what convinced Ali to sign on to the show in the first place:

For Ali, knowing his character would die was one of the reasons he took on the role in the first place, as he’d never been into reading comic books as a child — “I was a sports kid,” he says — and hadn’t seen the other Marvel-on-Netflix series at the time. “When [Netflix] approached me about Luke Cage, they gave me the arc, and for the first time, I found myself excited by a character’s departure, because I felt like this was something I could give my all to for a period of time before saying ‘peace’ to him, you know?” he says. “I could let go and move on to the next thing. It was like shooting a film, as opposed to stepping into another marriage that you never know how long is going to work out. It gave me a certain freedom to try to do my best work and make peace with it once he…” Ali chuckles before finishing his sentence. “Experiences his demise.”

Still, Ali’s performance is one of the high-points of the season, a standout among a very strong ensemble. Indeed, the fact that Ali manages to hold pace during his scenes with Woodard are a testament to his screen presence.

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It is to the credit of Manifest that it takes its subject entirely seriously, knowing that he will close the hour bludgeoned to death with a mike stand after being thrown out the window of his office. To be fair, Cornell’s background is hardly innovative or radical in its own right. Cornell was a sensitive young soul with a love of music, who was abandoned by his parents and who was forced into a life of crime against his wishes. It is a classic story of innocence lost, of a character who had a chance of a better life only to see it slip away.

However, there is a lot of skill in how that story is put together. Cornell history as a music prodigy accounts for the importance of the piano in the corner of his office and perhaps even for the framed poster of Biggie Smalls, the little nods that Cornell allows himself to the man he could have been. Indeed, it also explains the repeated shots of Cornell watching the music rehearsals at Harlem’s Paradise, even when he should have more pressing matters to attend to. Artists like Raphael Saadiq and Faith Evans provide a glimpse of the life he might have had.

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Indeed, Ali’s performance seems very much rooted in the idea that Cornell’s emotional development was stunted during his teenage years. Although Cornell tries to project an image of a cold detached professional, the vast majority of his emotional responses are heightened and uncontrolled; swinging the baseball bat wildly in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, shooting a henchman for suggesting “benign neglect” in Just to Get a Rep, his monomaniacal fixation on Luke Cage to the point of using a rocket launcher to demolish a building.

Cornell has the swagger of a immature teenager, with his laughter at Luke in the funeral home or his audible excitement on seeing “the Judas” at work in Just to Get a Rep. Even in his final moments, Cornell behaves like an immature teenager towards Mariah. He is completely oblivious to the emotional boundaries that he is crossing, teasing his cousin like they are both schoolchildren instead of professionals engaged in a high-stakes criminal organisation.

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Again, this is very much a stock character beat for villains in comic book narratives. After all, it takes a certain child-like mentality to escalate the sort of operatic “good versus evil” showdowns that fuel the genre. Willis Stryker is defined by his own childhood traumas, and behaves like another form of spoiled child. In fact, a large part of what makes Vincent D’Onofrio so effective as Wilson Fisk is the recurring sense that he is offering a child’s impersonation of what an adult should look or sound like. Still, Ali is good enough to make it work, and is a pleasure to watch.

Which makes it all the more effective that Cornell is rather brutally (and suddenly) killed off at the end of the episode. As with the season’s extended thirteen-episode season order, the decision to kill off Cornell is a mixed blessing. Quite simply, Stryker is a much less effective antagonist in terms of performance and in terms of writing. Six more episodes with Mahershala Ali as Cornell Stokes might have made for a stronger second half to the season. Then again, condensing the second half and tightening the plotting might also have helped.

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However, it is still a bold decision that adds a jolt of energy to a show that had lost some momentum. After all, Luke had accepted his place as “Harlem’s Captain America” in Just to Get a Rep and Cornell had been arrested at the end of Suckas Need Bodyguards. The show felt like it was winding down, even though it had not passed the halfway mark. Killing off Cornell provides the writing staff with the opportunity to redraw the board, and to offer something quite different from anything seen in Daredevil or Jessica Jones.

Indeed, it is to the credit of all involved that the death of Cottonmouth feels at once like a surprise and also satisfying in its own right. As much as the structure of the story allows the death to catch the audience off-guard, it also feels like an organic and internally consistent development. After all, a large part of the arc across these seven episodes has been a sense that Luke Cage is moving past Cornell Stokes as an antagonist. This is a superhero narrative, and Cornell Stokes does not necessarily fit within that.

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A recurring theme of the first season has been the idea that Luke Cage far outclasses Cornell and his operation. The big question is not whether Luke can stop Cornell, but whether Luke will stop Cornell. Luke easily defeated the goons knocking up Genghis Connie’s in Moment of Truth. Luke effortlessly raided Cornell’s war chest in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? When Luke visited the club in Just to Get a Rep, he seemed almost as tired of dishing out beatings as Cornell’s goons were of receiving them.

A large part of the first half of the season is about Luke Cage realising that he is effectively in a superhero narrative. Cornell cannot possible compete on those terms. Luke can continue to destroy his merchandise and steal his money, beat his goons and crash his club. Indeed, Shades and Mariah spend a considerable amount of the season insisting that Cornell simply cannot play at that level, however much he might want to. Shades prophetically warned that Cornell would be finished if he kept trying to match Luke Cage.

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Indeed, there is a recurring threat that Cornell will be squeezed out of Harlem by Willis Stryker. When Cornell considers asking for a favour in Just to Get a Rep, Shades warns him, “If he does you this favour… he’s taking Harlem from you.” Similarly, Soliloquy of Chaos reveals that Shades was on his way to the club in Manifest to murder Cornell. Of course, DWYCK suggests that Stryker did not sign off on that plan. Still, there is a strong sense that this narrative does not want Cornell.

To be fair to Cornell, the character seems a pretty effective crime boss. At the start of Manifest, he walks free in spite of all Luke Cage’s work. He plays the system, the institutional corruption and the bureaucratic cowardice. Through graft and manipulation, he is still a mobster. “I just shot a cop and walked away free,” he boasts. “What’s there not to like? Zip and Amos picked up the truck from the docks right after I shot Scarfe. Domingo got his guns back last night. Everyone else will fall in line.” The problem is that Luke Cage is not a show about mobsters.

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Cornell might fancy himself a spiritual successor to Nucky Thompson or Avon Barksdale. Indeed, showrunner Cheo Coker took a lot of inspiration from historical gangster in fleshing out Cornell and Mariah:

“What I explained was I said, ‘Look, the same way Madame Queen was a contemporary of Bumpy Johnson’ — because that was one of the things that I really wanted to do with our villains – I wanted them to have historical counterparts. For example, Cottonmouth has a little bit of the legend of Nicky Barnes, as well as Frank Lucas and Bumpy Johnson, mixed into a fictional character. To have a strong woman who’s kind of like playing both sides — it wasn’t based on any politician — but Madame Queen is what I thought of,” Coker said.

The problem, of course, is that Luke Cage is not necessarily interested in the same sort of gritty urban crime that defined so much of Daredevil. This is a show about a superhero, and Cornell does not fit with that vision.

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After all, Cornell’s death in Manifest is all to make room for the arrival of Willis Stryker. Stryker has a small cameo at the end of Manifest, but he emerges fully formed in Blowin’ Up the Spot. Although earlier episodes teased the idea that Stryker was simply a “bigger fish” in the world of organised crime, the truth is something more basic than that. Stryker is more than just an arms dealer with greater connections and influences than Cornell. Whereas Cornell is a mobster, Stryker is a straight-up super villain.

There are any number of differences between Cornell and Stryker that underscore the distinction. Cornell rejects the nickname “Cottonmouth”, while Stryker embraces the nickname “Diamondback.” While Cornell is driven by the acquisition of money and power, Stryker seems to consider all of that secondary to the death and humiliation of Luke Cage. Even the way they present themselves differs greatly. Blowin’ Up the Spot features a hand-to-hand throwdown between Luke and Stryker in the United Palace Theatre, something impossible with Cornell.

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After all, there is simply no way that Soliloquy of Chaos could reasonably build to the reveal of Cornell in that goofy “snake nazi” super suit. That is just not the kind of character that Cornell is, whereas it is perfectly in character Stryker. For better or worse, the narrative of Luke Cage has moved past Cornell, leaving the character standing in the dust as an afterthought. To be fair, the climax of Soliloquy of Chaos suggests that the series’ crime elements reject Stryker as harshly as the superhero elements reject Cornell, with Domingo turning on Stryker.

However, there is more to it than that. The death of Cornell in Manifest not only clearly delineates the two halves of the season, dividing it between Cornell and Stryker. It also reconfigures the first half of the season by revealing that Mariah Dillard is to be the villainous bridge who ties together these thirteen episodes. Indeed, the story was never about Cornell ascendant, it was about watching Mariah’s transformation from council woman to crime lord. The audience thought that they were watching one story, and ended up watching another.

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Indeed, Cheo Hodari Coker argues that the entirety of the first season could be as much an origin story for Mariah as for Luke:

“What’s great is that, if for Luke Cage as a character the Season 1 arc is the birth of a hero, it’s also the birth of a villain — because when you see her and her evolution, it is something to behold. [Woodard] is absolutely amazing as Mariah Dillard,” he said. “The first seven is just the beginning of it. She goes much deeper in the next six.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the first season of Daredevil was as much an origin story for Wilson Fisk as for Matt Murdock.

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At the same time, there is something quite unsatisfying in Mariah’s arc across the year. Even after killing Cornell, Mariah never gets to hold the spotlight because the series pivots towards Stryker. Mariah is largely left scrambling in the background, caught on the back foot. It is only in the final moments of You Know My Steez that Mariah seems completely in control, taking down that framed portrait of Biggie Smalls to make the office at the top of the club her own. It never feels like Mariah’s origin story concludes, instead simply reaching a starting point.

At the same time, there is something clever in how Manifest twists its focus to Mariah. For most of its run time, it appears to be a sad story about Cornell Stokes, the promising young piano prodigy sucked into a world of violent crime. However, as it builds to the climax, something strange happens. Mama Mabel drags Uncle Pete outside and instructs Cornell to execute him. And then Mariah arrives, coming downstairs after watching the scene unfold from her bedroom window.

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Up to this point, Mariah has been a passive and secondary presence in the flashbacks, excused from the table when Mama Mable needs to conduct business. However, at the climax, she comes sharply into focus. “You deserve this, for what you did to our family,” Mariah states. “What you did to me.” It is a rather sudden development, as is Uncle Pete’s response, “What you talkin’ about, Mariah? You laughed with me. It was… it was a game.” It becomes very clear that Uncle Pete had been abusing Mariah, something that comes rather out of left-field with very little set up.

Luke Cage is not a show that has tended to explore sexual trauma, which had been a primary concern for Jessica Jones. Indeed, Luke Cage has been primarily concerned with issues of race and class, with local identity and community spirit. More than that, the production team do not “seed” the idea of sexual abuse in the same way that they set-up references to Stryker or “the Judas” or other plot reveals. As a result, this sudden revelation seven episodes into the season catches the audience off-guard.

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To be fair, that would seem to be the point of the sequence. And it makes sense. After all, sexual abuse is something that happens behind closed doors and tends to catch passive observers off-guard. There are undoubtedly warning signs and behaviours, but very few people are trained to pick up on them and most people tend to dismiss them. The reveal about Mariah and Uncle Pete seems to come out of left-field because that is how these revelations tend to arrive. Seeding the idea would undercut that impact.

With this revelation and focus on Mariah, Luke Cage takes something of a turn. Luke Cage is very much a show told from a black perspective, seeking to encapsulate the black experience with a conventional superhero narrative. However, to this point, it has largely been told from a male perspective. To be fair, the show has already introduced a number of intriguing female characters from Mariah to Misty to Claire, but the first six episodes of the season are largely built around male characters. Pop, Luke, Cornell, Scarfe.

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Watching those episodes, it seems quite likely that the trend will continue. As interesting as Mariah is in those opening six episodes, she is clearly secondary to Cornell. As intriguing as Misty might be, she is constantly playing catch-up to Luke and Scarfe. As charming as Claire might be, she is very much supporting Luke. This is quite similar to how Daredevil treats its own female characters, with Karen serving as an audience surrogate towards the Punisher and Claire playing the role of grounded counsel to Matt.

In the second half of the season, Luke Cage shifts its focus to afford these characters a greater sense of agency within the larger plot. In particular, DWYCK allows Misty to call out various double standards as they exist for male and female characters while Mariah solidifies her empire and Claire effectively protects Luke. If Luke Cage claims to offer a perspective on black culture, then black women need to be a part of that. The twist in Manifest is an important acknowledgement of this, conceding that the show is not rooted exclusively in the experience of black men.

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(Of course, Luke Cage is no Jessica Jones when it comes to handling its feminist undertones. Mike Tyson is repeatedly cited as a heroic figure, by Luke and Dapper Dan in Just to Get a Rep and by Misty in Take It Personal. There is a sense that Tyson’s place as a high-profile black athlete somehow glosses over his history as a sexual predator. Similarly, the revelation of Mariah’s childhood sexual trauma feels a little simplistic, coinciding with her descent into villainy in a way that lacks the sense of nuance that Jessica Jones brought to its handling of trauma.)

Still, Manifest is an important in signalling its interest in Mariah as a character going forward, and it marking the point at which the female characters on Luke Cage begin to have extended interactions with one another. Indeed, Blowin’ Up the Spot features Misty interacting directly with both Mariah and Claire, giving the female characters a lot of heavy dialogue-driven scenes while Luke and Stryker are largely relegated to conventional superhero melodrama. There is a very clear shift in focus from this point in the season.

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Manifest is also notable for its portrayal of Mama Mabel, a character who has haunted the since Moment of Truth. Mama Mabel is presented as a historical figure, a gangster matriarch in old Harlem who ruled her kingdom with an iron fist before dividing it between Cornell and Mariah. Although Mabel appeared as a photography in Suckas Need Bodyguards, with Mariah dismissing her as a “dusty old b!tch”, she appears in Manifest through Cornell’s flashbacks to his childhood in Harlem.

Mabel is presented as an archetypal old-school gangster figure, very much in the style of Don Vito Carleone. She seems to be a mother to the entire neighbourhood, looking out her her community. Shades waxes nostalgic about when Mabel ran the streets. “You needed a Thanksgiving Turkey?” he ponders. “Go see Momma Mable Stokes. School clothes? Momma Mable Stokes. Your old man put his hands on you? See Momma Mable Stokes, and it would never ever happen again.”

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Mabel seems tough but fair. She runs a brothel, but uses that brothel to blackmail white politicians into helping the community. In Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, Mariah points to a jungle gym in a local park as an example of how Mabel exploited her connections to make Harlem a better place to live. Even in Manifest, Mabel draws a clear line between what she will and what she will not do. “You know the one thing I never sell is drugs,” she warns Fredo. When she discovers that he is selling drugs, she takes his finger. When she discovers Uncle Pete is selling drugs, she kills him.

There is something strangely romantic and nostalgic in this depiction of the gangland patriarch. Indeed, the flashback sequences have a very historical feel to them. There are moments when these flashbacks very clearly take place in the seventies, with the references to crack and the brief appearance of Pop in his costume from Code of the Streets. However, the colouring and the set design all suggest something more old-fashioned. Much as it does with the emphasis on (and design of) Harlem’s Paradise, Luke Cage evokes Boardwalk Empire.

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However, there is more to it than that. In keeping with the season’s rich stew of pop culture references and crossover, Luke Cage is very strongly drawing from The Godfather. There are any number of cues; the family’s refusal to deal in drugs as a marker of integrity that eventually drives them apart, the presence of a young and weak-willed failure named Fredo, the sensitive young man who finds himself transformed into a hardened gangster. In Step in the Arena, Luke even singles out The Godfather, Part II as “the sequel that’s better than the original.”

Indeed, the narrative is broadly sympathetic towards Mabel, despite the fact that she forces Cornell to abandon his dreams of becoming a musician for a life of crime. Her arc very clearly mirrors that of Mariah, particularly her relationship to Uncle Pete. In keeping with the feminist themes of the episode, Pete seems to see himself as “stepped over” in favour of Mabel. Pete speaks from a place of masculine entitlement. “You were my woman, before you were his,” he complains to Mabel. “This sh!t should have been mine, and you know it.”

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(This same resentment is filtered through Cornell’s final conversation with Mariah, in a nice bit of mirroring and foreshadowing. “She put you in school and forced me to run the streets,” Cornell insists, not so much oblivious as indifferent to Mariah’s abuse at the hands of Uncle Pete. When Cornell rants about protecting her, Mariah responds, “Protect me? All I did my entire life was protect you!” Indeed, Cornell even engages in some victim shaming for good measure. “You wanted it, Mariah. You wanted it and you knew it.”)

All of this seems to play into the notion that Mama Mabel was not entirely evil. Manifest seems almost sympathetic towards her, suggesting that she was (at absolute worst) a necessary evil who was protecting the community in the only manner possible. There is a sense that Mama Mabel was somehow a “good” crime boss, in the way that Michael Carleone and Vito Carleone are “good” crime bosses distinguished by their desire to help those around them and their refusal to peddle in drugs. (In contrast, Cornell is a “bad” crime boss.)

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This speaks to one of the more interesting aspects of Luke Cage. Although a lot of attention has been devoted to the show’s engagement with issues like police brutality and the violence perpetrated against young black men, Luke Cage is in some ways a very conservative show. As Justin Charity argues:

But it’d be a mistake to deduce that Luke Cage necessarily represents this generation’s advancements in the way of activism and the language of identity politics. Cage dates himself with stale concerns: if black people should say “n****,” whether or not tailored clothing is the measure of a man’s self-respect, and so on. Which explains, perhaps, why Luke Cage feels less like Jessica Jones or Daredevil and more like Shaft — but with none of the humor or charm that Richard Roundtree brought to that role in the 1970s. On his own, Cage is a reclusive killjoy who is astoundingly slow to solve or discover anything. He’s a big, buff, invincible disappointment. Any other uptown native might’ve been quicker to discover that Harlem’s greater, untouchable menace is the NYPD. But what, Luke Cage wonders, about black-on-black crime?

In some ways, this is an unfair argument. After all, the fact that the cast was predominantly black dictates Luke will grapple with “black-on-black” crime. Had the primary antagonists been white, the show would have likely been criticised for refusing to commit to a primarily African American cast.

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To be fair, the superhero genre as a whole is generally quite conservative. After all, these are characters who fight to preserve the status quo. Revolutionary superhero narratives tend to break their fictional universes, in that stories like Watchmen and Miracleman do not lend themselves to long-running series set in anything resembling the real world. So it is not surprising that Luke Cage would have a slightly conservative and nostalgic attitude, that its central character would be rather straight-laced.

More than that, Luke Cage readily acknowledges its character’s conservatism. Luke is repeatedly identified as “corny”, his values feeling somewhat old-fashioned and outdated, his perspective seeming overly earnest. Again, a lot of this is reflected in the show around him. Luke Cage is a fun show with a charming wit, but it is also very earnest. It is never as wry as Jessica Jones or as cynical as Daredevil, and it embraces the conventions of superhero storytelling more readily than either.

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However, there are points in the season when this conservatism does feel a little misplaced. The portrayal of Mama Mabel Stokes seems to be one of those moments, with Manifest expressing a strange sort of sympathy towards a crime boss who used to run a much cleaner shop. There is no exploration of the kinds of compromises that Mabel would have had to make, the deals she would have had to negotiate. Manifest paints Mama Mabel’s version of Harlem as a romantic and nostalgic paradise, as if harking back to some lost golden age of honest decent crime lords.

Still, these contradictions are part of what make Luke Cage such a fascinating watch and so interesting to navigate. Manifest is a bold and daring choice for the show, perhaps the riskiest gambit that the show makes in simple storytelling terms. That gambit doesn’t necessarily pay off, but it is striking to see the show make it in the first place.

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

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