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Luke Cage – I Get Physical (Review)

Luke Cage is engaged with the idea of celebrity.

To be fair, it is perhaps the only Marvel Netflix series that could explore this particular theme. After all, Daredevil is about a vigilante who trades in fear and operates primarily at night. Jessica Jones is about a self-hating alcoholic who is constantly on the verge of imploding. Iron Fist is so mired in cultural appropriation that it is impossible to imagine the series pulling off the theme in a manner that wouldn’t make the show worse. The Punisher is afraid to acknowledge what its hero actually is.

In contrast, Luke Cage is anchored in a central character who is essentially a neighbourhood celebrity. Soul Brother #1 demonstrates how Luke has imposed himself on Harlem, his actions tracked through an application, his merchandise sold in the barbershop, his image graffitied on walls. In Straighten It Out, he hands out his contact details, with instructions to call him if there is an emergency. In Can’t Front On Me, it is made clear that the local community know that they can reach out to him in person at the barbershop in case of emergency.

However, what is most striking about the handling of celebrity within Luke Cage is not just that it deals with the idea of Luke as a celebrity, but that it then uses Luke in order to interrogate how society treats its celebrities and how popular culture hungers for the fall just as excitedly as they cheered for the rise.

To be fair, the idea of superheroes as a stand-in for celebrities is not new. In fact, this has arguably been a genre staple since at least the turn of the millennium. It is very hard to imagine a modern popular and accessible superhero story that doesn’t acknowledge the emergence of a cult of celebrity around these superheroes. Even low-key and traditional superhero stories have to include aspects like selfies and social media in order to create a sense of verisimilitude within these narratives of superpowered characters doing impossible things.

In The Ultimates, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch suggested that these superheroes would inevitably integrate themselves into the celebrity class, hanging around with figures like Shannon Elizabeth or Freddie Prinze Junior. In New X-Men, writer Grant Morrison suggested that the wider public would embrace and appropriate mutant culture as it had done with African American culture. In their run on X-Force and X-Statix, writer Peter Milligan and artist Mike Allred suggested the emergence of superheroes based entirely on celebrity.

It could reasonably be argued that these narratives were merely literalising a longstanding and unspoken subtext that simmered through superhero narratives since their inception. As Ben Grisanti notes in Melodrama, Romance, and the Celebrity of Superheroes:

Concerning superheroes, Scott Bukatman writes, “Here are performative bodies that posture and pretend in public, before the public eye, bodies that literalise and externalise the American mythology of remaking the self.” This connection to identity is a likely reason for the superhero genre enduring throughout the years. Richard Dyer defines celebrities as “embodiments of social categories in which people are placed and through which they make sense of their lives and indeed in which we make our lives – categories of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and so on.” This definition applies to superheroes, as do Dyer’s other postulations; star images are “extensive, miltimedia, intertextual” and the celebrity discourse “constantly jogs these questions of the individual and society.” Although they are fictional constructs, the identity associated with the superhero is real in the collective mind of the fan community. It can be said that superheroes constitute a metatextual celebrity with a perceived authenticity.

With that in mind, it makes sense for Luke Cage to treat its protagonist as a celebrity. This celebrity is somewhat heightened by the importance that the series accrued as a result of its status as the first Marvel Studios property to be produced with a black lead. The show garnered a lot more attention and focus than it would otherwise.

Luke Cage makes a point to emphasise how its lead character is effectively a Harlem fixture, a fictional equivalent to local community figures like Dapper Dan. In Soul Brother #1, it is suggested that spotting Luke Cage has become a hobby for Harlemites; even while eating dinner, Luke and Claire have to contend with fans who just want a selfie with the icon. Even after his breakup with Claire in I Get Physical, Luke is still treated as a figure in the public eye, passers-by snapping photos of him on their phones, when he very clearly longs to be left alone.

Luke no longer has any privacy. Luke no longer has any part of himself that he can keep exclusively for himself. Repeatedly over the course of the series, it is made clear that the entire world knows where Luke Cage is at a given moment due to the “Harlem’s Hero” app; Claire uses it to find him in Soul Brother #1, while it serves to turn his sporting trails in Straighten It Out and his personal defeat in I Get Physical into public spectacles. In All Souled Out, it is revealed that “Piranha” Jones has cornered the market on eBay trinkets associated with Cage.

Luke Cage repeatedly frames its protagonist as a particular kind of celebrity. Luke is not likened to a movie star or a social media presence. Instead, Luke is likened to a famous athlete. Luke tests his strength in Straighten It Out, in a sequence that evokes sporting trials. ESPN even shows up to cover it, with a cameos from Todd Bowles, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith. A recurring joke in Straighten It Out, Wig Out and I Get Physical has the Jamaican characters getting particularly offended by comparisons between Luke Cage and Usain Bolt.

This is true even within I Get Physical, in response to the beating that he received from Bushmaster. “Down goes Cage! Down goes Cage!” yells Bailey on watching the footage. When Misty presses him, he responds, “You weren’t shocked when Tyson finally lost?” Misty responds, “I was five.” Nande sticks to the metaphor, “Ronda Rousey then?” The beating is covered on ESPN’s First Take, with Stephen A. Smith playing himself. Smith likens it to knocking down an undefeated boxer. “Everyone hits the canvas eventually.”

This sporting metaphor is perhaps reflected in the manner in which Luke chooses to decorate Harlem’s Paradise in They Reminisce Over You. Cornell famously decorated his office with a picture of Biggie Smalls wearing a crown, perhaps symbolising his own thwarted musical ambitions and connecting him to life on the street. In contrast, Mariah hung a painting of the red skull by Jean Michael Basquiat, symbolising her own quest for high culture and legitimacy. When Luke takes control of the establishment, he hangs a picture of Mohammad Ali.

The sporting metaphor even carries over to the character of Jon McIvor, who is explicitly mirrored with Luke Cage over the course of the season. In Straighten It Out, Anansi remarks of the performance-enhancing concoction that Bushmaster has been taking, “Nightshade works like a steroid, you know?” In Wig Out, the audience is treated to a sequence of Bushmaster training to a recording of Luke, sizing up his opponent and trying to figure out a play-by-play way to defeat him.

This extended sporting metaphor might reflect Cheo Hodari Coker’s history as a journalist covering sports. In conversation with Jemele Hill, Coker even framed the season arc in sporting terms:

“Mike Tyson once said that everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face,” he said. “That’s kind of the metaphor for Luke because you finally have somebody that can knock him down without a suit in Bushmaster. When you suffer that big of a defeat, how does it affect you? How does it affect your psyche? How do you pick yourself up from it? Do you start looking at yourself through the prism of defeat? Because all it takes is one mental lapse and everything you’ve ever practiced for, and worked for, is gone.”

Indeed, the second season of Luke Cage is arguably about watching an undefeated champion get publicly humiliated and trying claw his way back from that.

In part, this is largely an example of how the second season of Luke Cage wrestles with the challenges of sophomoric superhero storytelling. It’s normally quite easy to tell a single superhero story. Superhero origin stories are so ubiquitous because they come prepackaged with an actual arc. It is much harder to tell the story that follows on from the origin story. There is a reason that Batman: Year Two and Batman: Year Three never caught the popular imagination as effectively as Batman: Year One.

The best superhero sequels come up with an arc that involves the character facing a genuinely transformative experience. Peter Parker gives up being Spider-Man in Spider-Man II, drawing from the classic story Spider-Man No More! Thor loses his hammer and his birthright in Thor: Ragnarok, and has to learn to do without the former in order to reclaim the latter. Because superhero stories can never really allow their characters to fundamentally and irrevocably change, the structure often involves presenting them with a hurdle, and having them come back from it.

Again, this is a common sporting movie motif. After all, most sporting movies end with the title characters accomplishing their sporting goals and completing their journeys, which makes it less imperative to follow their story after that point. Sporting sequels will often make a point to include an early loss so that the audience can root for those heroes clawing their way back on top; think of Clubber Lang defeating Rocky in Rocky III, the White Sox defeating the Indians in Major League II. Even the trailer to Creed II knowingly teases the trope.

On a purely narrative level, these sorts of hurdles are essential to good storytelling. Pulp characters like Spider-Man and Batman are arguably designed to reliably hit these beats; many of their classic stories involve the characters losing horribly before snatching something resembling victory from the jaws of defeat. Knightfall is about Bruce reclaiming his identity after a crippling defeat from Bane. No Man’s Land finds Bruce trying to rebuild Gotham after it literally collapses. Batman Begins even bakes this philosophy into the character’s origin. “Why do we fall?”

However, given the celebrity subtext that runs through Luke Cage, his defeat at the hands of Bushmaster plays on a slightly different trope. It is the fall from grace, which is arguably one of the oldest literary tropes. Fleur Morrison traces the idea of the celebrity fall from grace back to the work of Tolstoy and Flaubert, suggesting that the public actively hungers for these stories of humiliation and disgrace:

Alternatively, in classic stories of downfall, is it the sense of retribution that these stories present that readers and audiences so enjoy? Rather than misfortune being visited upon Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary randomly, the women are punished for their decisions, or perhaps their very natures, leading to their ultimate demise. While we might pity the women, both for their circumstances and their choices, from our perspective we have the comfort of believing that we would not make the same mistakes.

In real life, the public downfalls we see might not be as tragic as Tolstoy and Flaubert imagined, but are also undeniably captivating. The sporting world is a natural breeding ground for these stories, in which the mighty fall. James Hird, Wayne Carey and Tiger Woods leap to mind when we consider sporting deities who came crashing down to earth. When their misdemeanors were uncovered, many of us of lesser sporting prowess and attractiveness, with less photogenic wives and more humble homes, watched in unrestrained glee.

The second season of Luke Cage repeatedly ties Luke’s humiliation and defeat to ideas of pride. “You wanna test me?” he taunts the world in D.W.’s video in Soul Brother #1. “Step up. I’m right here. I ain’t going nowhere. You know where to find me.” Bushmaster’s attack in I Get Physical was a direct response to Luke’s assertion that he was Harlem in Soul Brother #1 and his posturing in Wig Out.

The series seems to suggest that Luke put himself out there in a way that deliberative and provocatively invited challenge. However, the series also suggests that Luke’s humiliation is a spectacle designed to appease a public that are quietly resentful or suspicious. In I Get Physical, the sequence of Luke receiving the beating is followed by various characters reacting to the footage, often enthusiastically. Bailey cheers and gasps at the precinct. Comanche storms into Mariah’s office to show off the footage.

Luke is horrified to discover that his fall from grace has been mass produced and distributed for public consumption. He finds D.W. selling copies of the fight on the street corner. “Everybody wants to see the king get knocked down,” D.W. argues. “You’re trending everywhere.” While Luke seemed to adapt reasonably well to the celebrity worship of selfies and “free coffee”, he is less comfortable seeing his humiliations trumpeted. “I don’t live my life for other people’s entertainment,” he insists. D.W. responds, “It’s public domain, man.”

For executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker, this was a major point of interest in the second season, particularly through the prism of the experience of professional athletes:

The thing about Luke Cage that makes him different is on the surface is he’s a hero for hire; Luke Cage wants to get paid. Luke Cage in the comic books is like ‘I’m doing this stuff. It’s all well and good, but I gotta make a dollar.’ We’re not that nakedly ambitious in terms of our Luke Cage applying capitalism to his heroism, but he is very much a public figure, and as a result, because he doesn’t have a mask we were really trying to show what it would be like to navigate being a superhero and celebrity at the same time — it’s kind of a comment on both.

In some ways its not that dissimilar to professional athletes trying to wear both a public and private image and how people see them out and about they feel like they have a certain level of ownership. It’s true when you talk to legendary sports figures who live in towns where sports are everything. If you’re a professional athlete in Chicago or New York, you’re basically a deity. Basketball players talk all the time about playing in New York where you’re at the Garden and people are watching you on the court but then the next thing you know you’re out and about and you’re gonna get sh!t if you lose. So what is it like to put a superhero in that?

Luke touches on that towards the end of I Get Physical. “I thought I figured out how to handle this being two Luke Cages,” he confesses to Bobby. Bobby replies, “There’s only one problem with that. There’s only one of you.”

There is a sense in which Luke Cage is sympathetic to Luke’s anxieties and insecurities, perhaps most notably in the conversation between Bobby Fish and D.W. in Soul Brother #1. Bobby complains, “The selfies, the groupies, the dick pics, the twitty-twit-tweet. I mean, y’all even take pictures of your food. You gotta make sure that’s real, too?” To be fair, the conversation allows D.W. some response. “Dancin’ in the end zones, slam dunk, all of that was invented before I was born, and I don’t remember Malcolm or Martin turning down many interviews.”

While Luke Cage never feels quite as reactionary about social media as Bobby Fish himself, it does seem to share some of his skepticism about modern conceptions of celebrity. D.W. repeatedly asserts that this sort of celebrity is necessary for financial security. “Money is the message,” he tells Bobby in Soul Brother #1. “Or it should be. Get paid, black man. Get yours. Everyone else is.” In I Get Physical, he assures Luke, “The game is to be sold, not to be told.” However, Luke Cage repeatedly suggests that there is little to support D.W.’s view of celebrity.

Luke arguably discovers as much in All Souled Out, when he tries to parley his celebrity into actual financial gain, tries to leverage money from the public persona upon which pop culture has gorged himself. Luke quickly discovers that his material worth is abstract at best. On the phone, the Nike executive explains that they cannot bankroll him. “I have to be real with you,” the executive states, without a hint of self-awareness. “That viral footage of you getting knocked out, it’s not very inspiring. That’s what sells shoes. Inspiration.”

Indeed, the early episodes of the second season of Luke Cage repeatedly parallel Luke’s efforts to turn his celebrity into something resembling financial and material security with Mariah Dillard’s efforts to go legitimate. In the early episodes, it is made clear that Mariah is incredibly rich on paper. However, that wealth is abstract rather than concrete. It leaves her open to Bushmaster’s attack in The Basement. Shades has a point in I Get Physical when he warns her, “In my world, if you can’t touch it, it isn’t real.” It seems like Luke is learning a similar lesson.

In some ways, this focus on celebrity fall from grace arguably fits with the second season’s general ambivalence about individualist conceptions of superheroism. After all, the idea of celebrity can be traced back to antiquity:

Celebrities fill a gaping hole in our otherwise dull, blameless and uneventful lives. They do it all so we don’t have to try those things at home. They have affairs, multiple marriages, land themselves in compromising situations on Rodeo Drive – instead of us!

The minutiae of their misdemeanors are endlessly fascinating – witness the police records of the drugs bust on Keith Richards’ home in 1973.

This endless soap opera stretches back to ancient Greece when triumphant athletes from the Olympic Games were given free food, hailed as demi-gods and immortalised with statues and songs.

In many ways the cult of celebrity has taken the place of organised religion.

This ties back to the religious underpinnings of the second season, best articulated by Reverend James Lucas in Soul Brother #1. He does suggest that the “worship of Luke Cage has reached golden calf proportions.”

There is a clear sense that the hero worship of Luke Cage as an individual only invites this sort of fall from grace, that it was inevitable that at some point something would happen to shatter all the faith and goodwill that the public had invested in him – and perhaps even Luke’s own self-image. “There’s always another predator,” argues Stephen A. Smith in his assessment of the brawl. “Someone faster. Someone better. That’s the New York state of mind, baby.” Luke Cage is a man, after all – another theme reinforced by Reverend Lucas’ opening sermon. Men are fallible.

The second season seems to argue that men are incapable of being heroes, of supporting the weight of hero worship placed upon them. “Every man struggles with that,” remarks Bobby of Luke’s temper in I Get Physical. “But I’m not every man,” Luke responds. “Precisely my point,” Bobby continues. “You’re a grown-ass man, yes. But you’re also a grown-ass man who can throw a Volkswagen. So you have to be more careful than your average man, ’cause if you lose your sh!t, people’s lives could be at stake.” Luke is a man, and so perhaps cannot be a superman.

These dangers of hero worship are perhaps heightened in the modern media age. In the most obvious sense, Luke lives in a world where everybody is carrying a camera and video recorded. Every move that he makes is publicised and scrutinised, which is true of any celebrity. Who could possibly live up to that level of multimedia attention every hour of every day? Everybody messes up, but modern technology ensures that those screw-ups are recorded and propagated more thoroughly than at any other point in history. Can someone be perfect under those conditions?

There are also broader cultural forces at play, particularly long-overdue reckonings with issues like sexual harassment and culture. Celebrities are held to much higher standards by modern media than they ever had been before; consider the articles exposing the private conduct of figures like Aziz Ansari. A lot of this has been a very long time coming, such as the articulation of long-standing accusations against figures like Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. However, it does create a tension with the very idea of celebrity.

It should be noted that the issue becomes particularly loaded when it is tied up in notions of black celebrity. The media often takes great pleasure in documenting the implosion of minority icons, as Ellis Cashmore noted in his assessment of the scandals around Tiger Woods:

Is it me, or is Tiger Woods getting blacker? Eight years ago, the record-breaking golfer, who described himself as a “Cablinasian” (Caucasian/Black American/Native American /Asian) and defied ethnic categorization, was the personification of America’s color-blind society — the one that Barack Obama was supposed to herald.

Now, Woods doesn’t look out of place alongside O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Michael Vick or the countless other blacks who have distinguished themselves in sport but have somehow fallen from grace and, in the process, convinced white America that black people are prone to regression. Despite their millions and the adulation they garner, they appeared to confirm what one of Vick’s neighbors suspected after the arrest of the football player for his involvement in dogfighting: “They [black sports stars] moved out of the ghetto, but the ghetto is still in them.”

This is particularly pointed when one considers the additional pressures that exist on black celebrities as compared to their white counterparts; to serve as role-models for an entire culture, to act as standard bearers. As such, there is an additional weight attached the public fall of prominent black celebrities like Bill Cosby.

All of these are very heavy themes, and the second season of Luke Cage tackles them fairly directly. It is revealing that the second season makes a point to increase both Luke Cage’s profile and durability, while simultaneously increasing his vulnerability. One of the great things about writing for a character who is largely physically impervious is that it encourages the writers to come up with novel ways of attacking him; not just in attempts to suffocate or drown him like in On and On or They Reminisce Over You, but in more abstract ways.

The second season hurts Luke Cage in ways that are not merely physical. Some of these wounds are emotional, like his breakup with Claire or his wounded sense of pride. some of these wounds are more abstract or metaphorical, such as his defeat in the public eye and the collapse of his celebrity self-image. There is something very creative in who the writing staff approach the idea of writing for a character who is nominally untouchable, revealing that it is possible to reach through the character’s bullet-proof skin.

Indeed, I Get Physical touches upon the idea of the wound that Bushmaster has inflicted on Luke Cage as the character visits with Tilda to help him heal. She provides him with a balm to help with his physical pain, but she also dispenses some advice that might have a much greater use. “Everyone gets knocked down,” Tilda assures Luke. this is particularly true in this day and age, where humiliations are all broadcast around the world in an instant. “The only thing that matters is getting back up.”

That is what heroes do, after all.

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

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