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Luke Cage – Soliloquy of Chaos (Review)

However complicated (and contradictory) its politics might be, Luke Cage has its heart in the right place.

What is most striking about the series, watching it from beginning to end, is the enthusiasm with which the series embraces its superhero roots. In many ways, Luke Cage is a much more traditional and conventional superhero story than Daredevil or Jessica Jones. In fact, it is a much more conventional superhero story than Captain America: Civil War or Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice or Deadpool. It is almost certainly the most old-fashioned live action superhero story since Thor.

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Luke Cage is a television series that understands the iconic power of superhero narratives, the appeal and resonance that such stories hold. It is a show that recognises the way that such stories elevate essential aspects of the American experience to mythic status. This is true of the genre in general, with its emphasis on rugged individualism outside conventional power structures. However, it is also true of specific heroes. What is Superman by a mythic tale of the immigrant experience? What is Spider-Man but the oft-referenced “little guy” filtered through teen life?

More than any other superhero adaptation in recent memory, Luke Cage fundamentally understands that and pitches its story squarely at mythologising certain aspects of the African American experience.

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Nowhere is this clearer than with Soliloquy of Chaos, which features some of the most memorable (and striking) sequences in the thirteen-episode run of the show. Soliloquy of Chaos is very much an odd episode of television, one that emphasises the peculiarities of the Netflix model. It is very much the “breather” episode that exists between the climax of the season and the finale, a moment of relative tranquility between fairly dramatic action beats. It is sandwiched between the club hostage situation in Now You’re Mine and the big throw down in You Know My Steez.

To be fair, this is very much a feature of these Netflix superhero shows. It was most notable on Jessica Jones, with the positioning of AKA I’ve Got the Blues taking a bit of space after the heightened three-episode climax of AKA WWJD?, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts before heading into the finale hijinks of AKA Take a Bloody Number and AKA Smile. However, it also occurred on the first season of Daredevil, with Matt taking the time to destroy a heroin smuggling operation in The Ones We Leave Behind before his final showdown with Fisk in Daredevil.

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Soliloquy of Chaos does something similar. Of course, this is a superhero show. So the concept of a “breather episode” still features elements like Luke going on the run from the police officers who are now armed with explosive bullets and Stryker watching his organisation fall apart before his very eyes. However, neither of these developments are particularly new. Luke was already a fugitive in Take It Personal, and it is strange that Stryker survived the botched club hostage situation in Now You’re Mine. Plot wise, Soliloquy of Chaos seems to tread water.

That said, Soliloquy of Chaos does allow Luke Cage the space necessary to expand upon its core themes and ideas before plowing into the plot-heavy season finale. This is very much an excuse for Luke Cage to revisit some of the core themes that it explored back at the start of the season, particularly in episodes like Step in the Arena or Just to Get a Rep. A large part of the appeal of Luke Cage is watching showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker reimagine many of the stock superhero beats in such a way that he crafts a superhero story from a distinctly black perspective.

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There are legitimate criticisms to be made of how Luke Cage deals with certain issues, particular how it seems to dance around the issue of police brutality by excusing it and painting it as an aberration rather than an institutional or systemic issue. The show’s outlook is perhaps more conservative in nature than many critics would prefer, touching upon (rather than engaging with) issues around the subtle and insidious ways that racism creeps into various facets of American culture.

To be fair, there are legitimate debates to be had about the efficiency of using superhero narratives to explore these themes. After all, superhero stories are not known for their subtlety or nuance. In fact, many of the big “socially important” superhero stories of the past fifty years are largely uncomfortable. Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams’ work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow represented an incredibly socially conscious comic book, but it was also deeply clumsy. When Captain America confronted Richard Nixon after Watergate, it was similarly heavy-handed.

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In contrast, superhero narratives tend to work best when they deal in broad strokes. Chris Claremont’s exploration of race relations in Uncanny X-Men was generally intriguing and provocative, although it got a little cringy when he tried to tackle the issue head on. In contrast, Frank Miller’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns provide a very effective and evocative glimpse of Reagan’s America, even if Miller’s politics have become deeply problematic. Superhero stories are typically big and bold and brash. It makes sense that they may not be well-suited to nuance.

This is not to devalue any of the provocative observations that Luke Cage does make about race relations in the twenty-first century. Step in the Arena makes a pretty conscious and overt connection between mass incarceration of black men and other historical injustices, particularly slavery and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for example. Although it is something of a generalisation, Take It Personal still draws a strong connection between the abolition of slavery and contemporary gun culture. These are not small accomplishments for a Marvel television show.

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Nevertheless, Luke Cage works best when it paints in the broadest of terms. The very idea of building a black superhero show is a tremendous accomplishment of itself, given how white the genre has been to this point. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has four film franchises build around three blonde-haired and blue-eyed white actors named Chris, amounting to eight films. It is quite stunning that it has taken Marvel Studios this long to produce a project with a black lead actor.

As much as that represents a failing on the part of the studio, it also demonstrates how important Luke Cage is in a broader cultural sense. It largely carries a burden of representation and diversity within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is no surprise that the opening credits focus on images of Harlem projected onto Luke Cage’s skin. It is not subtle, but is entirely apt. It is a good thing that Luke Cage has super strength, because he has to carry a lot of cultural weight.

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It is very hard to overstate just how important diversity is in terms of popular culture. It is vitally important for kids to be able to look at popular media, and see themselves reflected back. Indeed, this is something of a recurring theme in how Luke Cage actors talk about the show. It is why Mahershala Ali took the role of Cornell Stokes:

I grew up not seeing myself on screen. I grew up always watching us be the friend, always supporting the narrative, always supporting the other person’s journey, which is problematic because you don’t get to see yourself being at the forefront, being supported by other people. It’s really frustrating because, in many ways, it feels like you don’t exist. You don’t exist in the fullest way like this other person seems to always exist. Therefore, for other people in the world, for the layperson, because we take our cues from entertainment, they don’t look at you as human or having the same capacity to express the same range of emotion. That’s why the diversity issue is a very important problem. It’s not just about having the opportunity. It really goes into how we psychologically view other people.

Indeed, a lot of the power of Luke Cage comes from the thrill of seeing a superhero story told from that perspective, in a way that acknowledges that the white experience of American life has long been treated as the default within storytelling.

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That assumption has been left unchallenged for decades, and contemporary popular culture seems to finally be wrestling with it. Indeed, this why it is so deeply disheartening to hear those accounts about white viewers feeling excluded from Luke Cage because it primarily features black characters and because it focuses primarily upon black culture. There is no hint of self-awareness to these complaints, no acknowledgement of the fact that this is how many minorities must feel pretty much all the time.

(Indeed, Luke Cage even teases out this idea by casting its white actors in roles similar to those played by black performers on Daredevil and Jessica Jones. The most prominent white characters are Scarfe and Bailey, Misty’s two partners. Scarfe is ultimately given a much stronger arc than characters like Blake Tower or Brett Mahoney in Daredevil or Oscar Clemmons in Jessica Jones. However, Bailey is treated very much as a generic law enforcement person in what feels like a sly commentary on the way Daredevil and Jessica Jones treat their black characters.)

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Of course, this unfortunate reaction is not exclusive to Luke Cage, although it is a particularly high-profile case. As Nico Lang argues:

White people are used to seeing people like themselves reflected in the entertainment they consume — whether as the leads, the supportive best friend, the busboy, the inspiring teacher or even the extra on his iPhone lingering in the background while the Avengers save New York for the 20th time. From 2007 to 2014, nearly three-quarters of characters with speaking parts in major Hollywood films were white, as researchers at USC Annenberg found. A separate study by McGill University and the University of North Carolina showed that of the 732 movies eligible for an Academy Award from 2011 to 2015, just 58 had two black leads. That rate comes out to an abysmal 7.9 percent.

While white audience members are accustomed to their stories and histories represented on screen, they become less comfortable when others are handed the mic. This concept is often known as the “racial empathy gap,” and it’s why your Polish grandmother might be more inclined to buy a ticket to see Sully than Barbershop: The Next Cut. You’ve probably heard this concept described as the theory that when presented images of black suffering, white people believe that people of color feel less than pain they do. But it’s also the reverse: They perceive that others like them feel more pain — because they are able to relate to the sufferer.

As disheartening and depressing as this reality might be, it is always worthwhile to explore it and call it out. Acknowledging, and engaging with, these subtle forms of prejudice is a vital part of moving forward.

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However disappointing those responses from white viewers might be, they serve to demonstrate the importance of having a television show like Luke Cage. Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of the television show is how completely and unapologetically black the series is, in terms of its references and its dialogue and its setting. No matter how controversial the show’s politics might be, and they are largely par for the course with superhero stories, the world and its characters are uncompromisingly black.

After all, Luke Cage is a big deal. The past few years have seen commendable growth in television shows exploring the African American experience from a wealth of perspectives, from comedy of Black-ish to the trashy soap of Empire. However, Luke Cage represents something a little bit different. It exists as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which means it comes with a built-in audience and a very high profile. Luke Cage serves quite a different demographic that Black-ish, which also serves a different demographic than Empire.

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In other words, Luke Cage is a platform. It is the first story centring on a black character to be told in a shared franchised universe that has (to this point) been predominantly white. That means that Luke Cage will reach different viewers. In interviews around the launch of the show, Cheo Hodari Coker took that responsibility seriously:

Television has power. I remember watching A Man Called Hawk. Avery Brooks played Robert Urich’s sidekick Hawk, who was always interesting, because he was a thug but he had an intellectual bent. And he got his own show. He was reading The Souls of Black Folk on the opening credits of the show. I’d never even heard of W. E. B. Du Bois. Sad. And I grew up in an educated black family. That title, from the second it appeared on the show, stuck in my head. So in college, of course you read it. But that’s the thing, it’s like, who knows who the show creators had to go past to get the ABC censors back then to even get that plot point in there? I know that there’s going to be people now that all of a sudden are going to read Donald Goines, they’re going to read Walter Mosley, because of the fact that Luke Cage was talking about it. I think that’s some of the power that you have in television. I think that’s really cool.

In many ways, that sense of responsibility informs a lot of the creative decisions made during the production of Luke Cage. Indeed, it might even explain why Luke Cage is so dedicated to the familiar beats of the classic superhero story, and why it takes such pride in being able to hit those beats in what is a very black story.

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After all, Luke Cage is very much a classic superhero story. Modern superhero stories tend to be a bit dark and gritty, focusing on antiheroes or shifting towards deconstruction. After all, Civil War and Batman vs. Superman are fundamentally stories about heroes who would rather fight each other than injustice. Deadpool is about a contract killer. Daredevil is about an Irish Catholic who channels his sense of guilt and shame into brutal beatdowns on common criminals. Jessica Jones aggressively skewers the stock beats of a superhero tale.

In contrast, Luke Cage is easily the most straightforward superhero adaptation in recent memory. It is a show that rejects gritty urban storytelling in Manifest by literally throwing its crime boss out the window. It is a show that puts Luke Cage in his original superhero costume in Step in the Arena. It is a show that casts Stryker as a stock super villain from the moment he lands in Blowin’ Up the Spot. It is a show that takes great pleasure in having Luke Cage utter cheesy exclamations like “Sweet Sister!” or “Sweet Christmas!”

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Soliloquy of Chaos really has some fun with these conventional beats, taking great pleasure in giving Luke the kind of dramatic moments that audiences expect from a superhero story. For example, upon making contact with Misty to let her know where she can find Turk, he promptly pulls a Batman and disappears into thin air. (Of course, Misty is too smart to fall for that particular trick, and traces him to the barbershop.) When Luke finds a bomb ready to detonate, he carries Domingo out of the warehouse as his theme song swells in the background.

It is hard to properly articulate the sheer joy that Luke Cage takes in hitting these stock beats. In fact, Soliloquy of Chaos is consciously building towards the reveal of Willis Stryker in a version of the “Diamondback” costume that has been lovingly recreated from the classic comic book appearance. Bobby Fish might mockingly refer to the (frankly ridiculous) outfit as “some Jean-Paul Gaultier sh!t” that resembles a “pimp stormtrooper”, but it is quite clear that the show is thrilled to be able to do something that delightfully goofy.

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Indeed, the show repeatedly and consciously stresses that Luke is a hero. Not an anti-hero, not a vigilante. Luke is very much an archetypal and idealised hero. Cornell describes him as “Harlem’s Captain America” in Manifest. In Now You’re Mine, Luke tries to shrug it off. “I’m not the hero type,” he insists. Misty sees right through that, demonstrating her gift for perception. “Are you sure?” she asks. “Looks to me like that’s what you’ve always been.” In fact, she even wonders, “Who were you, a boy scout?”

The “boy scout” reference is quite telling, given the archetypal description of Superman as “a big blue boy scout.” It feels like Luke Cage imagines its hero in similar terms, as a black Superman on a television budget. Luke’s strong moral compass and integrity is repeatedly stressed over the course of the show, with even Claire acknowledging his restraint to Burstein. “Be thankful I’m not the one with the powers,” she states in Take It Personal. “Because I’d kill you if you did half the sh!t that you did to him to me. Not just ruin your barn.”

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Luke is repeatedly acknowledged as an exceptional human being, as something more than just a freak with superpowers. “Your DNA may be the X factor that made this whole thing work,” Burstein insists in DWYCK, making it clear that Carl Lucas himself is an integral ingredient in the cocktail that makes Luke Cage a hero. Even Bobby Fish, who seems quite a decent sort, acknowledges Luke’s fundamental decency in Soliloquy of Chaos. He states, “You’d have never seen my black ass again. I’d rob the occasional bank and never look back.”

In contrast, Luke is portrayed as somebody who genuinely cares. Even with the cops breathing down his neck in Soliloquy of Chaos, he still makes time to stop a robbery in a small Harlem shop. Method Man points out the importance of that seemingly small decision with everything else going on around Luke. “Seriously, though, what I’m just saying, like, if that was me, and I was on the run… why even get involved? But he did. And those dudes was nervous, so anything could’ve happened. As far as I’m concerned, Luke Cage saved my life, man.”

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That is the kind of heroism that tends to get downplayed in modern superhero stories, perhaps reflecting the gritty sensibilities of modern storytelling. Films like Civil War and Batman vs. Superman tend to portray superheroes as Nietzschean supermen quite divorced from the concerns of mortal men. In contrast, the superheroism displayed in Luke Cage plays as earnest and sincere. Luke might be operating at a much small level than characters like Iron Man or Captain America, but he seems to take his responsibilities more seriously.

(In some ways, this is an advantage of the extended television format. Harlem feels a lot more textured than generic superhero locales, and Luke Cage devotes considerable time to fleshing out characters and locations. As a result, the audience has a much stronger connection to places like Pop’s Barbershop or Harlem’s Paradise than they do to any of the sites of mass destruction depicted in films like The Avengers or The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The result is that the threat and the destruction feels more real and more tangible, which makes Luke’s defense of it more heroic.)

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It hits all of these beats more cleanly and more clearly than Daredevil or Jessica Jones, but it does so without ignoring or diminishing the character’s race and identity. As Cheo Hodari Coker argues:

That’s the thing. When you’re a black superhero you can’t erase the notion that you’re black. If you’re black living in the community and you want to change things, there are going to be things that happen. That’s true of anybody. I mean you could use celebrity as a similar metaphor.

What Jeph Loeb always talks about is that Marvel characters, by and large, don’t ask for their powers. They feel burdened by their powers. Part of their whole makeup is accepting the fact that now they have these abilities, will they accept the responsibility that comes along with it? What does it mean to be a hero when you didn’t necessarily want to be a hero?

One of the most satisfying aspects of Luke Cage is the way that Coker ties these two threads together. Luke Cage is a black superhero story, but it never has to compromise one aspect for the other.

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This is particularly notable in Soliloquy of Chaos. The episode focuses on Luke Cage going on the run from the authorities. This is very much a stock superhero trope. Vigilante superheroes tend to have a complicated relationship with law enforcement, and often find themselves hunted by police. There are any number of great examples across the length and breadth of popular culture, from Spider-man’s strained relationship with the cops in The Amazing Spider-Man to Jim Gordon’s monologue over the closing scenes of The Dark Knight.

However, while the sequences in Luke Cage draw upon that stock superhero trope, they are framed differently. It is a familiar story element, but filtered through a different lens. They speak to another set of cultural iconography. There is no getting around that, and Luke Cage never tries. Early in Soliloquy of Chaos, Ridley wonders why Luke is running if he is innocent. Misty responds, simply, “He’s a black man. Being chased by the cops. With special bullets. Accused of killing a cop. And you’re asking why he’s running?”

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One of the smarter aspects of Soliloquy of Chaos is the way that it positions Method Man as something approaching a Greek Chorus, a character who can explicitly articulate these ideas to the audience. After all, Method Man is a real person. He appears in the show playing himself. More than that, his status as a celebrity (with his own larger-than-life persona) makes him the perfect candidate to ruminate upon the themes and imagery of this particular superhero story.

“If he’s innocent, why’s he running?” one of Method Man’s panelists asks. Method Man responds, quite simply and effectively, “Bulletproof always gonna come second to bein’ black.” The sequences of Luke Cage fleeing the law might exist as part of the stock superhero story template, but Luke Cage filters them through the countless tragic scandals of young black men killed by police officers in recent years. There is no ignoring the potency of that image. In fact, part of the power of the superhero narrative is elevating that sort of experience to mythic status.

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Whatever issues Luke Cage might have with the specifics of its plot beats around police brutality and institutional racism, there is no avoiding the raw power of the image. As Mike Colter and Cheo Coker argue, the idea of a bulletproof black man really resonates with this particular moment in time:

When I was a kid, I fantasized about picking cars up and maybe flying or something like that. Where if I was a little boy today, I’d fantasize about being able to be shot and not be killed. That’s scary, but that’s the world we’re in today.

Bulletproof invulnerability isn’t news. Superman, from the time he was introduced, not just in terms of the comic book, but also just in terms of the original TV series in the ’40s, had that power. The thing is, I think when you see it with a black character, it’s not that you’re adding a social context to it. It’s just that what’s happening in the world adds that to it.

Invulnerability is hardly notable as it applies to characters like Hulk or Thor. However, Luke Cage applies that classic superhero trope in a moden context. As Method Man summarises, once again acting as Greek Chorus, “You know, there’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof, and not afraid.”

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Soliloquy of Chaos marks a very important part of Luke’s journey towards superherodom. In a very real way, this is Luke’s first step forward since he embraced the role of superhero in Just to Get a Rep. As the police hunt for the fugitives, Luke finds himself transformed into something more than just a man. He becomes a folk hero to the community, a source of inspiration and hope. Luke becomes a legend. “Negroes writing Luke Cage ballads and sh!t,” Bobby Fish reflects. We even get to hear one, courtesy of Method Man.

Method Man offers an impromptu rap that makes a compelling case for the importance of Luke Cage, both as an icon and as a story. “Lord, who to call when no one obeys the law and there ain’t no Iron Man that can come and save us all?” he wonders, pointing out that Luke fills something of a superhero niche. He underscores the importance of Luke’s iconography as he raps, “And bullet-hole hoodies is the fashion. We in Harlem’s Paradise tell the Captain that I’m about to trade the mic for a Magnum, give up my life for Trayvon to have one.”

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As the montage playing behind the rap makes clear, Luke is a legendary figure. His costume is a bullet-riddled hoodie rather than a red-and-yellow suit of armour or an American flag. Vendors sell these bullet-riddled hoodies as a sign of solidarity, repurposing Luke’s makeshift superhero costume for the age of mass protests and flashmobs. The police are unable to track Luke down as they come across so many black men wearing hoodies in solidarity, evoking the use of Guy Fawkes masks by protestors or all black costuming in support of Black Lives Matter.

Indeed, Soliloquy of Chaos juxtaposes this mounting legend of Luke Cage with the reality of Carl Lucas. Just as Harlem comes to fully embrace Luke Cage as the hero that it needs, Shades and Mariah offer to help Carl Lucas reclaim his old life. Luke has been reluctant and hesitant to embrace the mantle of hero, so it makes sense that Shades and Mariah would try to tempt him with a return to Carl Lucas. Meeting in the remains of the barbership, Shades offers Luke a folder. “Right here is everything you need to prove that Diamondback framed Carl Lucas.”

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This is a very important plot beat, particularly this late in the series. It represents one final choice for Luke, representing his commitment to his new larger-than-life persona. If Luke really wants to go back to being nobody, then it is entirely possible. He can finally walk away from all of this and go home. That folder represents the final big choice for the character, a moment of decision in which he must choose whether to return to the life of Carl Lucas or to embrace the legend of Luke Cage.

This all ties back to the theme of identity that runs through the season as a whole. Characters are largely defined by how they want others to see them. Cornell Stokes rejects the nickname “Cottonmouth.” Mariah Dillard winces at the nickname “Black Mariah.” Henry Hunter takes the nickname “Pop” and converts it from a mark of shame to a badge of honour. Willis Stryker reinvents himself as “Diamondback.” Even in Soliloquy of Chaos, one of the robbers holding up the corner store makes reference to his “government name.”

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Cheo Coker argues that identity is one of the core themes of African American art, the right to identity and self-determination:

It’s like people talk about Black Lives Matter. If you think about black art, all black art, whether it’s Invisible Man or whether it’s James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Hurston, or Richard Wright, they all deal with elements of identity and trying to humanise our experience and our struggle in the world where people have been indifferent to who we are and what we are. It’s basically just saying that our lives have meaning. Artistically that’s always been discussed. I mean I know now it’s a hashtag and people have various feelings about it, but really if you look at all black art, even in hip-hop, it’s all about that I exist and these are my feelings and this is what I feel about the world. It’s always been an undercurrent.

Finally, as the season builds towards its conclusion, the lead character is forced to choose between being “Carl Lucas” and “Luke Cage.”

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Ultimately, our seems to reconcile the two, rejecting the false dichotomy that defines the villains like Cornell or Mariah or Stryker. Towards the end of You Know My Steez, the protagonist comes to accept that he is Luke Cage in every way that matter, but he was also Carl Lucas and so must accept the responsibility that comes with that. In many ways, it mirrors Pop’s redemptive arc, building a new and heroic life in a way that acknowledges past mistakes and misdeeds.

Again, identity is one of those core themes of the superhero genre that Luke Cage incorporates into its own exploration of African American identity and culture. It is powerful stuff, rich and evocative. While Luke Cage might struggle with some of the finer contours of its political commentary, the broad-strokes iconography is stunning and commendable. Whatever (legitimate) issues might exist with the show, there is something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and not afraid.

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

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