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Luke Cage – Blowin’ Up the Spot (Review)

Blowin’ Up the Spot renews the emphasis on Luke Cage as a blaxploitation superhero, to an extent not seen since Step in the Arena.

Cornell Stokes was shuffled off the stage at the end of Manifest to make room for Willis Stryker. Stryker has lurked at the edge of Luke Cage‘s narrative since Moment of Truth, nominally represented by the mysterious gangster known as “Shades.” Stryker has been a mysterious and ominous presence, a business associate of Cornell’s with designs upon Harlem. His name is whispered in conversations, the characters sharing some unspoken understanding of who he is and what he does in a way that evokes the way criminals spoke of Wilson Fisk in the early episodes of Daredevil.


However, Blowin’ Up the Spot wastes no time in establishing Stryker as a new antagonist for Luke Cage. The character was teased in the closing minutes of Manifest, offering Luke “one Judas for another.” He is very much front and centre in Blowin’ Up the Spot. The episode’s teaser closes on the image of Stryker dressed in a bulletproof vest, standing beside a humvee and carrying a grenade launcher. There is no ambiguity there, no subtlety. Stryker has arrived in force, and is ready to take centre stage.

After all, Luke Cage is a superhero story. And every superhero story needs a super villain.


The first seven episodes of Luke Cage were released to critics for review. This is how Netflix tends to submit its shows to critics; despite the fact that all thirteen episodes are completely finished well ahead of the release date, it breaks off chunks for critics to review. Given how heavily serialised Netflix shows tend to be, and how difficult it can be to clearly delineate an individual episode for the purposes of review, the point at which the distributor chooses to “break” a given season can be revealing.

The screeners for the first season of Jessica Jones broke off at AKA Top Shelf Perverts, right before the series’ strongest three episode run from AKA WWJD? through AKA Sin Bin and into AKA 1,000 Cuts. After all, including that would have meant screening ten episodes and what is essentially the series’ big action climax. The second season of Daredevil broke off at Semper Fidelis, right before the introduction of the Hand and the return of Wilson Fisk in Guilty as Sin. These are, generally speaking, pivot points for the shows in question.


The screener for Luke Cage cuts off at Manifest, right after the death of Cornell and right before the introduction of Stryker. This marks a fairly big transition for the series. As actor Erik LaRay Harvey conceded that the focus on his character in the second half of the season was somewhat frustrating in the build-up to the release of the series:

That’s why they couldn’t tell me too much. They wanted to keep it under wraps, so I think one of my first instructions upon accepting the role was, “Keep your mouth shut.” [Laughs] And truly, it has been a sort of lesson in patience, because I think we wrapped in March, so while filming and even after filming, when I wasn’t working, I wanted to say something and I couldn’t. It was really interesting. I had to maintain my anonymity, in a sense.

It is interesting, given how firmly publicity around the show centred upon Mahershala Ali as Cornell Stokes. Given that there were early reports that Diamondback would be the season’s “big bad”, this created an interesting tension. Willis Striker and Erik LaRay Harvey were very much an unknown quantity, with nobody except those working on the show having any idea what Luke Cage would do with the classic comic book baddie.


As such, it is a bit of a surprise that Stryker emerges so quickly and so dramatically. There is no hesitation, no compromise. Luke Cage commits wholeheartedly to Stryker as its primary antagonist over the course of Blowin’ Up the Spot. He gets to critically wound Luke, proving that he is a far more credible threat than Cornell ever was. He is repeatedly shown clearly and in frame. His back story with Luke is suggested in broad outlines that establish the dynamic. More than that, Luke Cage drops the biggest twist concerning the character at the end of the episode.

This is quite the contrast. Luke Cage took seven episodes to build up the character of Cornell Stokes, finally peeling back the layers of that particular onion by laying out his origin story in Manifest. It could reasonably be argued that Mariah Dillard builds her character across the thirteen-episode run of the season. In contrast, Blowin’ Up the Spot lays out absolutely everything that the audience could possibly want to know about Stryker over the course of fifty minutes. It is a very strange approach, with the second half of the season coming roaring out of the gate.


This creative choice makes a certain amount of sense. After all, executing Cornell Stokes created a storytelling vacuum that needs to be filled. Having spent seven hours building towards a superhero action story, Luke Cage understands that the audience might not have the patience for another slow build. Devoting so much time and energy to Stryker helps maintain a sense of momentum, ensuring that the story does not miss a beat and that the tension built across the first half of the season does not evaporate.

However, this approach also has its problems. Most obviously, Stryker crowds Mariah Dillard out of what should be her story. After Mariah killed Cornell, the logical assumption was that she would fill the narrative vacuum created in his absence. It would reconfigure the system so that the first season was not about the fall of Cornell Stokes so much as the rise of Mariah Dillard. She is certainly a strong enough character (played by a strong enough actor) that her descent could carry the series across another six episodes.


Instead, the arrive of Stryker pushes Mariah into the background. As a result, her supervillain origin story ends at the beginning. She takes six episodes to assume Cornell’s place at the top of the pecking order, and the show deprives her of a meaningful confrontation with Cage. Instead, the bulk of her arc across the remainder of the season is spent as a secondary antagonist to Stryker, serving as a legitimate front for him in a more aggressive manner than she did for Cornell. It is too much to call it a waste, given Alfre Woodard is amazing. But it is disappointing.

More than that, frontloading Stryker’s development like this causes problems down the line. Blowin’ Up the Spot so effectively and succinctly introduces Stryker that it also summarises him. The character really has nothing new to offer and nowhere to go after his closing line of the episode. Everything involving Stryker from DWYCK to the end of Soliliquy of Chaos is marking time. Of course, Stryker’s arc could alternatively been resolved in Now You’re Mine. But as the season is structured, it feels like wheel spinning.


To be fair, Stryker is designed to be a much more straightforward antagonist than Cornell or Mariah. In fact, as Evan Narcisse and Cheryl Lynn Eaton point out, Stryker feels very much like a stylistic affectation:

It was the histrionic machismo that channeled blaxploitation for me. Villains and heroes always puff out their chests in superhero adaptations but there’s a very specific kind of bluster that happened in Superfly, Truck Turner and the like that I saw invoked here. Episode four felt like an homage to the Penitentiary movies. And the Stokes family’s underworld dynasty pinged off that sensibility for me, too.

Stryker was basically the ‘70s walking.

Whereas Cornell or Mariah (or even Shades) might be able to sneak their way on to a more prestigious crime television show, Stryker feels like he would be more at home in a larger-than-life seventies blaxploitation action film.


Indeed, Blowin’ Up the Spot plays very much as an extended homage to blaxploitation, probably more than any other episode with the possible exception of Step in the Arena. This is particularly apparent in the soundtrack, which stands out as one of the best and most distinctive of the season. Indeed, Stryker’s theme is much more forceful than Cornell’s, a bit more theatrical; Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad used opera singer Brooke deRosa for Stryker and pianist Fender Rhodes for Cornell.

Stryker is bolder and brasher than Cornell. He also represents a clear shift for Luke Cage away from the more grounded storytelling of the first half towards something more consciously heightened and stylised in the second. Even the way that Stryker speaks (with affectations like “murderise”, biblical quotations, and long winding monologues about sin a redemption) serve to distinguish him as a different sort of antagonist. He feels much more like a blaxploitation character than Cornell, which is exactly the point.


Of course, there is more to it than that. Stryker isn’t just a blaxploitation antagonist. He is a straight-up super villain. Indeed, Stryker is perhaps the most archetypal super villain to appear in any of the Netflix shows to date. After all, Wilson Fisk was a gang boss and Kilgrave was simply toxic male entitlement with super powers. The Punisher was a vigilante and the Hand were a ninja death cult. Stryker, on the other hand, feels like a character who could easily have stepped out of the pages of a classic comic or even a blockbuster movie.

Blowin’ Up the Spot makes this quite clear. After all, Stryker reintroduces himself to Luke by standing in the middle of Harlem street holding a gigantic gun and shouting “CAN. YOU. DIG. IT?” at the top of his voice. It is an allusion to a shared history, with Luke recognising the quote from The Warriors, which played “every Friday night at the drive-in.” However, it also makes it clear that Stryker only has one setting. And that setting is “loud and menacing.” Stryker starts as he means to go on.


After all, the climax of Blowin’ Up the Spot finds Luke and Stryker throwing down inside the United Palace Theatre in Washington Heights, which isn’t in Harlem but fits the mood of the confrontation. In case the audience doesn’t get the symbolism, Stryker makes it clear that this is going to be a theatrical tussle. “All the world’s a stage for the preacher’s son,” Stryker taunts from the balcony. The setting of their first confrontation sets the tone for what will follow, as does the choreography.

Stryker is the first antagonist who is able to match Luke physically. After all, episodes from Moment of Truth to Just to Get a Rep made it clear that Cornell’s foot soldiers were no threat to Luke and were at worst an annoyance which Luke could dismiss with his “smack fu.” In contrast, and by virtue of actually hitting Luke with a bullet that can actually hurt him, Stryker can hold his own in a way that Cornell never could. The stunt work is impressive, featuring flying kicks and running jump kicks.


Even Stryker’s personal dynamic with Luke feels like a nod to classic comic book antagonists. Stryker closes the episode with the biggest revelation about the nature of his character, warning Luke, “N*****, I am your brother.” He then shoots Luke, throwing him into the back of a garbage truck. It is a moment that very clearly aspires towards a mythic confrontation. Indeed, it is quite consciously a riff on the climax of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, the iconic “Luke, I am your father” sequence.

More than that, the classic “evil brother” trope is a staple of comic book storytelling. Luke Cage embraces that dynamic more readily than any major superhero film since Thor, which is perhaps the most archetypal superhero project that Marvel have ever produced. (Although, it should be noted that Gamora and Nebula are sisters in Guardians of the Galaxy.) In pitting Luke against a primary antagonist who is also a direct blood relation, the series is consciously steering into superhero territory.


(Indeed, the trope is far more popular in comic books than in comic book adaptations, probably owing to the fact that is decidedly contrived and corny. Other comic book examples include Lincoln March to Bruce Wayne in Greg Capullo and Scott Snyder’s Batman, Eric and Simon Williams in The Avengers, Scott and Vulcan Summers in Ed Brubaker’s X-Men: Deadly Genesis, T’Challa and Jakarra in Black Panther, Aquaman and Ocean Master in Aquaman, Orion and Kalibak in New Gods, Charles Xavier and Cain Marko in Uncanny X-Men. The list goes on.)

However, Stryker is as much a comic book super villain in attitude as in character. He actively indulges in all manner of crazy behaviour that seems completely unsustainable for a weapons dealer. Stryker’s main concern is never efficiency or effectiveness, it is always about narrative or style. At one point in Blowin’ Up the Spot, he gives far too much consideration to how best to “fridge” Misty Knight, that most old-school (and outdated) of superhero tropes. While he has Misty at gunpoint, he taunts, “I’ll hurt you later. He’ll suffer more that way.”


“I’m enjoyin’ this sh!t, Luke,” Diamondback taunts at one point. It certainly feels that way. This is the only way to explain various ill-judged decisions that Stryker makes over the course of the episode, many of which only serve to make his life more painful in the long run and contribute to his inevitable downfall. There is none more obvious than the very climax of the episode, when Stryker chases a wounded Luke down the street, only to shoot him the shoulder and have him fall into a garbage truck, allowing Luke to escape.

Indeed, a significant portion of DWYCK is dedicated to rolling back on the character’s illogical choices. It seems like Stryker recognises his tactical error, insisting that Shades somehow track down the garbage truck that carried Luke Cage away. “Y’all can’t find Luke Cage?” he demands. “What? He just dissipated? Like smoke?” Nobody points out that Stryker had ample opportunity to finish this battle of wills then and there. Still, at least Stryker understands the rule of the genre better than Cornell. “Luke Cage ain’t dead until you find his goddamn body.”


Indeed, Stryker goes even further than that. More than adhering to a set collection of supervillain tropes, the character also very consciously nods towards a number of very iconic and high-profile big screen super villains. While Stryker might claim to be a fan of The Warriors, he has obviously seen The Dark Knight more than a few times. Indeed, even the basic placement of Stryker within the season evokes the core themes of that Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker, the idea of escalation from organised crime in response to the arrival of a superhero.

(This theme of escalation plays through even as part of Stryker’s endgame. As suggested by Mariah in DWYCK, Stryker plans to execute Luke Cage using his “Judas” bullets and then make a fortune selling those weapons to various law enforcement agencies and armed forces. But, as Blake Tower argues in Now You’re Mine, there is the threat of escalation driven by such developments. “Look, any weapon that the police or military has eventually ends up on the street. You know it’s dangerous to even show that kind of power.” James Gordon would agree.)


Stryker even borrows a few cues from Heath Ledger’s Joker. He infiltrates a secret mob meeting at the climax of DWYCK, and executes an opponent by placing a sharp object through their eye socket. At the climax of Now You’re Mine, Stryker makes an escape from Luke by throwing a young woman from a height as a distraction. This is not how normal criminals conduct their business. Stryker very much feels like an antagonist from a much bigger (and more broadly drawn) superhero movie, even before he turns up in costume at the end of Soliloquy of Chaos.

Whereas Cornell rejected the nickname “Cottonmouth”, Stryker eagerly embraces his cool super villain codename. “Willis!” Luke cries. “I prefer Diamondback,” Stryker responds. Luke reflects, “Because you’re a snake, just like Cottonmouth.” Stryker embraces the type of transformation metaphor that fuels these stories. “I am a snake. I shed my skin for something better, stronger.” Indeed, the character wallows in the glorious superhero melodrama, at one point making the anguished observation, “I sent you to hell, and you came back with superpowers!” Tough break.


Stryker even takes his cue from other larger-than-life antagonists. At one point, Stryker clearly evokes Spectre, taunting his half-brother with all the ways he has manipulated events from the shadows. “Reva’s death? The crime you went to jail for? The torture you endured? All me. I’m afraid… well, not Reva’s death. I just like sayin’ her name and watching you squirm.” This plays very much as a riff on Blofeld’s infamous “I am the author of all your pain” monologue, right down to the villain claiming responsibility for events that clearly do not fit the narrative.

There is something quite frustrating in all this. One of the big advantages of a television series over a two-hour feature film is the space afforded for character development. That is part of the reason why Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave are much more menacing and nuanced antagonists than any of the villains to appear in the Marvel film franchises. Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard fit comfortably within that pattern. Stryker feels very much like a throwback in this regard, a character who could hold two hours of screentime stretched over six.


Indeed, Luke Cage seems to recognise this. The series acknowledges that there really is not much that it can do with Luke and Stryker over a long period of time. As such, the wounds inflicted upon Luke in Blowin’ Up the Spot wind up taking him out of the show for three episodes. Just as Luke Cage is approaching its climax, the lead character takes a road trip to Georgia. It is frustrating plotting, but it only happens because there are so many ways that the conflict between Luke and Stryker can play out, and that conflict needs to be extended over a very long time.

More than that, Stryker doesn’t feel particularly interesting as an antagonist. Stryker acknowledges his own insanity and lack of logic in DWYCK, when he opts to leave recurring character Domingo alive after slaughtering a host of one-shot guest characters. “Crazy would be leaving you alive to run a very profitable drug business,” he reflects. And he is entirely correct, given that Domingo choose to come after him in Soliloquy of Chaos. Stryker might be crazy, but he is not a particularly interesting brand of crazy. His craziness often feels like lazy plotting.


In fact, a lot of Stryker spends a lot of time telling rather than showing. He does brutally murder a bunch of gangsters in DWYCK, but none of that feels especially brutally by the standards of a show that featured Cornell beating a man to death with his own hands. Indeed, Stryker seems to spend more time posturing and making bad decisions than he does actually proving himself a credible threat. That said, Harvey really sells, “I’ll murderise everything in sight. Because I don’t care and I won’t quit. You can’t bargain with me. You buy, or you die.”

The most interesting aspects of the character seem tucked away in his back story. How did a character this unreliable and this downright crazy end up in charge of a massively successful weapons operation? Why is he so crazy? It is not that Stryker has been driven crazy by his confrontation with Luke. In Just to Get a Rep, Shades alludes to a change in the character’s demeanour. “He ain’t the same Diamondback,” Shades warns Cornell. So what happened? More than that, what level of cosmic coincidence brought him back in contact with Luke through Cornell?


Of course, there is something to be said for the fun that Luke Cage has with Stryker. Part of the fun of Luke Cage, and something that is occasionally lost amid discussion of pacing and politics, is the joy of seeing a very traditional superhero narrative told from a fresh perspective. That is what drew Cheo Coker to the show in the first place:

Well, the main thing for me was, it was the opportunity. I’ll be frank. Black writers seldom get the opportunity to write superhero stories. I find that the new racism isn’t “You’re black. You can’t do it.” It’s benefit of the doubt. I remember early on in my career, I’m like, “Look, I’m an every-Wednesday superhero geek,” so why can’t I get the opportunity to write a comic-book movie? What they say to you is “Well, you don’t have the writing samples to do that.” “Your body of work doesn’t lend itself to this kind of movie.”

It goes without saying that filtering a very traditional and old-fashioned superhero narrative through a black perspective should not be a radical concept in 2016. It is to nobody’s credit that it took this long to get a show like Luke Cage. That is not to dismiss the larger debates about the show’s politics, but it is important to remember.


In many ways, Luke Cage is the most traditional and old-fashioned superhero story that Marvel Studios have produced since Thor. It hits just about every stock superhero beat, follows every cliché, engages with every trope. It does so, with an infectious enthusiasm and an endearing wit. The show takes a great deal of pride in labelling its central character as “corny”, suggesting that he is an old-school hero in the tradition of Christopher Reeve’s Superman or maybe even Adam West’s Batman. (It is a show that adores the catchphrase “Sweet Christmas!”)

Luke Cage is not a deconstruction or interrogation of superhero storytelling. It is not a gritty anti-hero story like Daredevil. Indeed, Luke Cage is quite interested in distancing itself from those clichés, perhaps anxious to demonstrate that it is possible for a black superhero story to be every bit a conventional superhero story without sacrificing its unique perspective and identity. Stryker is very much a part of that, a recognition that a superhero story needs a supervillain. Stryker fulfils that structural need, offering a blaxploitation supervillain.


The show struggles a little bit after Blowin’ Up the Spot, trying to spread two or three episodes of material over five more episodes. As ever, the pacing on Luke Cage is both a blessing and curse. It is a curse in that it emphasises all the issues with Stryker as a primary antagonist. However, the secondary characters benefit greatly from the more relaxed pacing. Indeed, Blowin’ Up the Spot serves to demonstrate this, placing a renewed emphasis upon the character of “Shades” Alvarez.

It is worth emphasising just how ridiculous the character of “Shades” Alvarez actually was in terms of concept and execution. The comic book iteration of Luke Cage never had a particularly compelling selection of rogues. Comic book and movie fans tend to fixate upon the comic book characters who got lucky in that regard; Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men. However, the truth is that most characters are lucky to have one or two truly memorable opponents. The comic book version of Luke Cage arguably doesn’t even have that.


“Shades” Alvarez dates back to the character’s earliest appearance, in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1. However, the version of the character in that story is markedly different from the version presented here. That classic version of “Shades” eventually ended up as little more than a knock-off version of Cyclops, a character with the ability to shoot rays out of his visor. (Hence the superhero codename.) Frequently paired with the character Commanche, “Shades” did not seem destined for great things. He was killed off in the Shadowland crossover in 2010.

In a shorter and tighter story, Shades would very much exist at the periphery of the narrative. He would likely show up early as a harbinger for Stryker and perhaps served as a measure of continuity between the two halves of the season. After all, the character feels very much like a standard gangster archetype. He wears sunglasses while in doors, hovers in the corner, speaks in hushed tones, has a bit more gravity than audiences expect from characters like Tone or Zip. Shades could easily have been a two-bit background character.


However, much like it did with characters like Pop and Scarfe, Luke Cage uses its extended runtime to develop Shades from that basic archetype into an intriguing and compelling character without ever losing sight of his pulpy roots. The stock comparison for this version of the character is Littlefinger from Game of Thrones, as actor Theo Rossi acknowledges:

That term has been used. Cheo [Hodari Coker] said that at Comic Con. It will make a lot more sense when everybody’s watched the whole thing.

There’s a reasoning behind everything and with someone like him, he’s the most methodical person I’ve ever played. He has never taken a step without knowing the exact reason that step is being taken. And that goes for everything. So, what I think is so cool is that when everybody gets to see the whole story told — that whole 13-hour story — you get to really see why.

It is very much a complete reinvention of the character from the ground up, but one which fits perfectly with the story being told. As with a lot of the comparisons between Marvel’s Netflix output and prestige television, the Littlefinger comparison feels a little overdone. But it is fascinating to see a side character like Shades given such agency within the season’s narrative.


In fact, there are points where Shades seems to endure (and even prosper) not due to any innate skill or insight, but because the writers love working with the character as much as the audience loves watching him. The ambush sequence in Soliloquy of Chaos is perhaps the most obvious example, with Shades surviving a fairly brutal beatdown through some contrived choreography more than through his quick wits. Still, even allowing for the clumsiness with which the narrative occasionally defers to Shades, he remains an intriguing watch.

It is no small irony that Shades seems far more like a snake than the characters named “Cottonmouth” and “Diamondback.” This much was clear from the moment of his arrival in Moment of Truth, when it was immediately clear that he did not have Cornell’s best interests at heart. Similarly, his passive involvement in Tone’s attack on the barbershop on in Code of the Streets (“I suggested we wait”) hinted at a character more interested in getting the lay of the land than actively assisting Cornell during his time of crisis.


One of the more interesting aspects of Shades’ character is the way that the narrative is constantly revising and reworking his motivation, but in a way that makes sense. While Shades’ initial characterisation seems clear, subsequent revelations constantly invite the audience to reconsider what he is doing. Most obviously, Shades initially appears to be destablising Cornell so that Stryker might move in to take control of Harlem. The obvious assumption in the early episodes is that Shades is reporting to (and acting on behalf of) Stryker.

However, this is very clearly not the case, as becomes increasingly clear. In DWYCK, it is revealed that Stryker actually liked Cornell. Stryker describes Cornell as a “friend”, which is not a word that he seems to use lightly. It is also very much at odds with the impression that Shades gave Cornell during those earlier episodes. Similarly, Shades massages the truth he gives Stryker. “Cornell was losing it,” he warns. “You trusted me to take care of him.” Stryke responds, “I trusted you to take care of it. Not him? What? Did you think I was just going to give it all to you?”


Similarly, Shades’ manipulation of Mariah in Manifest and Blowin’ Up the Spot initially appears to be improvisation and opportunism, which it is to an extent. However, Shades ultimately confesses in Soliloquy of Chaos that he was making his own way to the club that night to murder Cornell. It seems likely that Shades had been cooking up the idea of framing Luke for the murder for quite some time, which makes this manoeuvring all the more impressive. Shades is very clearly worming his way up the hierarchy.

It helps that Theo Rossi does great work in the role. Cheo Coker and the writers are very clearly positioning Shades as a Littlefinger character, somebody without the resources and base of the major players but who believes that he can manipulate his way to the top of the food chain. It is perhaps telling that is first command to Zip is to buy new clothes. Class and status matter most to those who do not have it. Shades even gets a great Littlefinger line, warning Mariah, “The secret to every great lie is that it has to run parallel to the truth.”


Luke Cage starts to wobble a little bit around this point in the season, muck like its protagonist. At the same time, the production team have created a world vibrant and interesting enough that it can survive that sort of inconsistency and imbalance. Stryker is not the credible replacement for Cornell that Luke Cage needs, but as long as there are characters like Shades lurking in the background the show is on reasonably solid ground.

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

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