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Luke Cage – Can’t Front On Me (Review)

On of the most remarkable things about Luke Cage is just how much it enjoys being a superhero series, particularly compared to the other Marvel Netflix series.

The Punisher felt distinctly uncomfortable with its source material, and so instead tried to position itself as a low-rent 24 knock-off. Jessica Jones largely embraces the superhero genre as a vehicle for metaphors about trauma rather than as something to be enjoyed or appreciated of itself. Iron Fist made a strange choice to tone down both the most outlandish aspects of its character’s back story and the genre elements inherent in a kung-fu exploitation adventure. Daredevil is the only show to give its protagonist a costume, but it skews towards a much more sombre and serious school of superheroics.

All of these series contrast with Luke Cage, which eagerly embraces the trappings of the superhero genre, even as the second season remains deeply ambivalent about the very idea of a superhero. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has described himself “a hip-hop showrunner”, and that sensibility infused the series. Hip-hop is a genre that heavily draws on sampling and remixing, so it makes sense that Luke Cage should draw on that tradition with its own stylistic influences, embracing the opportunity to create a deeply affectionate (and surprisingly traditional) superhero story around its hero.

For a story that inevitably goes to some very grim places, Luke Cage takes a great deal of joy in being a superhero television series.

These influences impact and shape Luke Cage in a number of interesting ways. The most obvious in how the series consciously frames its central character. While the narrative itself suggests that Luke is a complicated and multifaceted character wrestling with his own pride and anger, the series also makes a point to emphasise that Luke Cage is a superhero. The character is repeatedly identified as some variation of “Harlem’s Hero” or “the Hero of Harlem”, in marked contrast to how Matt Murdock is the more ominous “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.”

This is obvious even in the character’s costume, which is consciously designed to be iconic and distinctive, even if it’s not as conventionally superheroic as the body armour worn by Matt Murdock. It is less overtly militaristic than Frank Castle’s body armour ensemble, much more distinct than whatever Danny Rand wears in a given scene, and more consciously stylised than Jessica Jones’ “can’t find the energy to wear anything else” denim-jeans-black-shirt-leather-jacket combo.

Luke’s wardrobe is instantly recognisable. Receiving a call to a potential crime scene in Soul Brother #1, Luke tells Claire, “You’re in my cape.” He is, of course, referring to his hoodie. When “Piranha” Jones ropes Luke into attending a party as a special guest in All Souled Out, he is presented with a costume to wear. That costume is, of course, a bullet-riddled hoodie. When Luke is considering branding and sponsorship in Soul Brother #1, he even tries wearing a hoodie with the logo of the African American College Alliance.

This costume is obviously different than the outfit worn by the comic book character, who tended to dress in a flamboyant yellow shirt, with a metal tiara and a chain as a belt. That costume would look ridiculous on television, and the comic book character had largely dropped that look by the start of the twenty-first century, particularly when reinvented by writer Brian Michael Bendis for his runs on Alias and New Avengers. However, the series did find a way to include that original costume as an easter egg in Step in the Arena. His suited appearance in They Reminisce Over You looks quite like his costume in David F. Walker’s series.

Indeed, the hoodie has become a hit on the convention circuit, with many fans dressing up as Luke Cage. The series creates such a distinct iconography for the character that it is easy to recognise those fans who do “cosplay” as the character, despite the fact that he tends to wear street clothes:

“Once he became Cheo’s, we wanted to humble him, make him that working class hero,” says Marvel TV costume designer Stephanie Maslansky. “We didn’t realize how far we’d go with it, but it became a very iconic part of his look.”

Cage’s hoodie, just like in Season 2, has now taken new context in the real world. Hit up Comic-Con and you’ll find cosplayers of Luke Cage wearing hoodies with holes poked through by box cutters.

“Wearing the hoodie made me feel SO AWESOME!” says Ricky, a YouTube personality who goes by the name Stewdippin over Twitter direct message. On Halloween 2016, Ricky posted a Luke Cage tutorial as part of a “$5 Cosplay Challenge” series. “Wearing it makes me feel confident, powerful, but more importantly unabashedly comfortable in my own skin.”

“The homage to Trayvon Martin was a beautiful choice,” he added. “They took something that was used as reason to be suspicious of black people into a symbol of hope or almost like a badge of honor. I love it.”

There is something to be said for the manner in which the production team managed to produce a superhero style that was at once instantly iconic and also extremely cost effective. Fans can dress as Luke Cage using just an old hoodie and a box cutters, which makes it easier than trying to emulate Matt Murdock.

Within the world of Luke Cage, the character is treated as something akin to a public service. There are several conversations about his response to police sirens, and how he moves to help those in distress. In The Main Ingredient, Danny tells him, without a hint of irony or detachment, “You don’t run from sirens. You run towards them. And that? That, my friend, is what makes a hero.” There is rather more ambivalence in Claire’s reflection in Soul Brother #1, “Not every siren is for you.” Even if Luke Cage allows the character to get caught up in his own hype, there is a sense that he is trying to do the right thing.

When Luke wanders the street of Harlem, he is treated like a celebrity, but also like a one-man neighbourhood watch. The street art of Luke shown in Soul Brother #1 is a celebration of the man, but is also designed to reassure the residents of Harlem that there is a hero in their midst. People come to Luke with their problems, most notably during an impromptu vox pop at the start of The Main Ingredient and when Aisha visits the shop to warn Luke about the new designer drug in Can’t Front on Me.

Even outside of the costume, Luke Cage appreciates the conventions of superhero storytelling. Pop’s serves as something of an unofficial headquarters for Luke, right down to the gift shop in the corner operated by D.W. It is a place where people know that they can find Luke, whether his father visiting in Straighten It Out, Danny Rand wandering in during The Main Ingredient, or even Aisha stopping by to air her grievances to Luke at the start of Can’t Front on Me. When Danny shows up, Luke only half-jokingly remarks, “I’m glad you approve of my lair.”

Indeed, even the villains of Luke Cage embrace supervillain status more readily than those in other shows like Daredevil or Iron Fist or Punisher. They tend to have cool supervillain codenames like “Cottonmouth”, “Diamondback”, “Bushmaster” or “Black Mariah.” More than that, the series loves to embrace the campier aspects of these sorts of characters, while trying to keep them relatively grounded. Willis Stryker shows up in a (frankly absurd) “super-suit” to call Luke out in You Know My Steez. Jon McIver takes a “super-steroid” during is roaring rampage of revenge in Can’t Front on Me.

After Mariah goes over the deep end with her murder of Anansi and the orchestration of the “Rum Punch Massacre” at the end of The Main Ingredient, the character embraces and even flaunts her villainy. In Can’t Front on Me, she refers to the bunker installed under the club as her “lair”, prompting Misty to remark on the absurd melodrama of the term. “The lair?” Misty repeats. “Where the hell is that?” Indeed, Can’t Front on Me even gives Mariah an honest-to-goodness superhero-supervillain face-off. “Of course, you’re going to save me,” she taunts. “You are my Dark Chocolate Boy Scout. It’s what I love about our relationship.”

There is undoubtedly an aspect of heightened melodrama to the plotting of Luke Cage, leaning as the series does into familial dysfunction as a narrative trope. The first season boiled down to a battle between two anger and resentful half-brothers. The second focuses on a generational feud in which blood debts are settled. There are shocking reveals and twists along the way, with the lives of the characters and their family intertwining in a variety of complicated and convoluted manners. There is an element of grand soap opera to Luke Cage, with its densely-woven relationships and long-buried family secrets.

The term “soap opera” is often used pejoratively. However, there are shades of heightened soap opera to all manner of respected and venerated prestige television – think of the domestic woes in The Sopranos or the absurdly convoluted back story of Don Draper on Mad Men. It is perhaps revealing that “soap opera” tends to used in pejorative terms when aimed at entertainment targeted at women and minorities. Power and Empire are typically discussed as prime-time soap operas, whereas a project like Yellowstone is discussed as a prestige piece.

Luke Cage is dripping in soap opera sensibilities. Willis Stryker is secretly Luke Cage’s half-brother and the biggest arms dealer on the East Coast. Jon McIver is a Jamaican crime-lord with bulletproof skin as a result of a combination of Obeah rituals and secret experiments and also the long-forgotten son of the founding father of Harlem’s Paradise who was squeezed out of business by the Stokes. Tilda Dillard is one of New York’s leading experts in homeopathy, daughter of Harlem’s most prominent politician and the product of incest between her mother and her cousin. This is all absurd, but Luke Cage embraces it.

Again, this is very much in keeping with comic book and superhero narrative conventions. Writer and producer Greg Berlanti, who oversees the superhero shows on the CW, has argued that the genre is essentially soap opera storytelling with masculine coding:

“They’re soap operas for boys,” he says of the appeal of superheroes and comic books. And as a gay man, he identifies with the stories. “So many superheroes are of this world—but not. There’s a real hint of melancholy that no matter what you do, you can save this world and you’ll still never totally be a part of it,” he says. “You’ll always be one step removed.”

Of course, even that description is often used in a disparaging manner. Reportedly actors like Ryan Gosling look down on superhero work because they believe “comic books are soap operas for boys.”

Indeed, Luke Cage often seems to draw attention to these similarities. The emotional core of For Pete’s Sake is a compelling nine-minute sequence in which Mariah Dillard confesses everything to her daughter Tilda. The scene is effectively a showcase for Alfre Woodard, who is among the very best actors working on these Marvel Netflix shows, allowing her to anchor a scene that is almost a full ten minutes of emotional exposition about characters who – in many cases – have only appeared fleetingly on screen, if at all.

In that sequence, Mariah Dillard is essentially telling rather than showing, but she is also mapping a complex and contradictory portrait of family life full of little details and unlikely connections. In that sequence, the audience discovers that Howard Dillard was gay, and that Mariah was effectively his beard. That he came from a wealthier family, and that the marriage was hastily arranged to conceal his identity from the public. More than that, that Tilda was born before Mariah even met Howard, and that her father is actually “Pistol Pete” Stokes; Mariah’s uncle and Tilda’s cousin.

This is a harrowing and sombring exploration of the twisted Stokes family treat, full of dead ends and dark secrets. Setting aside the trauma and the brutality, which Luke Cage candidly acknowledges and explores, it also evokes the weird structure of comic book family trees, the manner in which comic book characters develop strange interlocking relationships over decades of continuity that can seem grotesque and surreal when laid bare. Scott Summers has a secret brother, married a clone of the love of his life, and has a son older than he is.

It is perhaps revealing that some of these comic book relationships can be framed in incestuous terms, literalising the subtext of a class and community of characters who have been operating in the same circles for decades and decades. Indeed, given that the Marvel Universe has existed for over fifty years, and is organised around core “families” with science-fiction wizardry like cloning and time travel, this sort of unsettling and convoluted interpersonal dynamics can lead to relationships that are implicitly (and occasionally even overtly) incestuous in nature.

Carol Danvers was effectively impregnated by her own son without her consent, while her superhero teammates cheered her on. Ultron’s weird relationship with his “incestuous mommy-wife” Jacosta. When Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch reimagined the character characters of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch for the Ultimate Universe, they added a sexual subtext to the siblings’ relationship. Jeph Loeb would commit to it. Indeed, even in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Vision is arguably a product of a union of his father (Ultron) and his grandfather (Tony Stark), in keeping with the film’s theme of reproductive horror.

Of course, Luke Cage plays this theme of incest and abuse with a great deal more tact and seriousness than these other examples. Alfre Woodard offers a phenomenal performance, and Luke Cage manages to craft a villain who is both tragic and reprehensible. However, this strong connection on familial ties reinforces the nexus at which Luke Cage exists, built upon one of the stronger overlaps between comic book superheroics and conventional soap opera plotting.

More than that, Luke Cage actively embraces the melodrama inherent in the superhero genre. Jason Bainbridge argues in Worlds Within Worlds, this is a feature particularly strong within Marvel’s heritage:

The Marvel superhero also deepens melodrama. In place of muteness we have something virtually unique to the comic medium, thought balloons, that invoke the soliloquies of Hamlet. In place of Manichean dichotomies, shades of grey like J. Jonah Jameson and the Punisher, who sit uncomfortably between hero and villain. In the Green Goblin, a confusion of melodramatic roles where the villain (the Green Goblin) is also the judge/father figure (Norman Osborn). And rather than waiting to be liberated, the protagonist (in the tradition of the male melodramatic protagonist) must achieve his independence through action – usually through the application of his superpowers to the problem at hand. Consistent with melodrama’s typical happy ending, the superhero, against all the odds, overcomes the danger and the villain receives his comeuppance. The story ends with the public recognition of the superhero’s virtue (public in the sense that the reader recognises it because the authority figures in the text only rarely do) and the eradication of evil to reward the virtuous.

Marvel superhero narratives therefore retain melodrama’s historical purpose of providing instruction for people by demonstrating good models of behaviour and moral sentiments. They draw on morality plays like Everyman, for example, in Spider-Man’s famous quote “with great power comes great responsibility.” But, again, they go further than conventional melodrama by coupling these moral pronouncements with modern interrogations of more ambiguous notions of heroism represented by characters like Wolverine, the Punisher and Daredevil.

To be fair, Luke Cage offers a slightly more ambiguous ending than that suggested above; Can’t Front on Me offers a stereotypical “got the bad guy” ending to the season, with They Reminisce Over You offering a more nuanced conclusion. Still, a lot of those ideas carry over.

There are moments in which Luke Cage seems to be in explicit conversation with other superhero stories, often through these heightened and melodramatic images. Even in Can’t Front on Me, a number of scenes come to mind; the stand-off between Mariah and Luke, the argument between Luke and Bushmaster about killing during the raid on the drug lab, or Tilda’s extended monologue at the graveside of Cornell Stokes. As with that nine-minute scene from For Pete’s Sake, this sequence is perhaps seen as a soliloquy that reflects the use of thought balloon in superhero comics.

Tilda speaks to her deceased cousin as a way to focus her thoughts, and in doing so delivers an extended monologue for the audience’s benefit. It is not a particularly elegant or efficient choice; by most measures of storytelling, it is a blunt and clumsy way of articulating character development. However, it fits stylistically with the manner in which Luke Cage embraces superhero conventions. Tilda explains, “I know who I am now. Deep down who I’ve always been. Knowing changes everything.” It is ridiculously melodramatic, but melodrama has always been a staple of superhero storytelling.

The sequence of Tilda visiting Cornell’s grave is also rich and evocative on its own terms, calling to mind various iconic superhero moments. How many heroes have sworn to avenge injustice on the graves of their loved ones? Even just in the cinematic superhero canon, Tilda’s conversation evokes Bruce Wayne’s breakdown in Mask of the Phantasm, Peter and May Parker visiting Uncle Ben’s grave in Spider-Man III, and even another Peter Peter visiting Gwen’s grave in The Amazing Spider-Man II. Even Justice League features its own cemetery scene, as did Penny and Dime.

Indeed, the sequences of Tilda standing over the grave call to mind on memorable sequence from Tim Burton’s Batman, one of the movies that defined the modern blockbuster and which arguably kickstarted the nineties superhero blockbusters that would eventually lead to the genre’s iteration with X-Men and Spider-Man. The sequence of Tilda honouring a dead relative, alone, dressed in black, and presenting a rose, evokes the sequence in which Bruce Wayne lays a single rose at the spot where his parents died in Batman. It even seems to playfully hint at the Seal song on the soundtrack to Batman Forever, Kissed by a Rose (on the Grave).

Luke Cage also has some fun at the expense of its own companion series, playing with and nodding towards Iron Fist and Daredevil in ways that extend beyond simple continuity nods. Wig Out and The Main Ingredient both seem to gently tease out the issues of cultural appropriation with which Iron Fist was wrestling, albeit in a decidedly indirect manner. The jokes at the expense of Iron Fist are good-natured, turning the character’s appropriation of Far Eastern culture into a joke on him rather than a source of earnest angst.

Interestingly, the second season of Luke Cage also seems to nod towards the first season of Daredevil in terms of structure and plotting. Mariah Dillard is arguably more like Wilson Fisk than any other villain in the Marvel Netflix canon, right down to her efforts in Can’t Front on Me to effectively construct a “United Nations” of organised crime. The end of For Pete’s Sake is even more overt. It channels the middle of Daredevil, in which the villain has been arrested and is being escorted to prison, only to escape to cause chaos.

In Daredevil, Wilson Fisk sits in the back of a police transport and delivers his own meditation on the story “the Good Samaritan”, building to Vincent D’Onofrio delivering the line “I am the ill intent” before freeing himself from his bonds and making his getaway. It is an admittedly absurd sequence, but one which works in large part due to D’Onofrio’s sheer unwavering commitment to the premise. It is arguably a defining moment for the character, despite the fact that it make sense except to build to that line and to set up one last fight with Matt Murdock.

In For Pete’s Sake, Jon McIver finds himself in a similar situation. He is in the back of a police wagon, and decides to share with his captors an important story before mounting an escape attempt for one last fight with Luke Cage – a fight that occurs in Can’t Front on Me. The story that McIver tells makes marginally more sense for the character, even if his escape makes a great deal less. After all, the sequence implies that there was no police escort for the van carrying a bulletproof supervillain. Either way, it seems like For Pete’s Sake is overtly riffing on Daredevil.

This sets up one key structural decision that the second season of Luke Cage carries over from the first season of Daredevil, arguably executing it with appreciably more finesse. Structurally, the primary plot of the second season of Luke Cage wraps up in Can’t Front on Me; Mariah is arrested, Bushmaster is beaten for what must logically be the last time, justice has triumphed. However, this is the penultimate episode of the season, leaving They Reminisce Over You to offer a postscript or epilogue to the events of these twelve episodes.

It is a smart structural choice, allowing They Reminisce Over You the freedom to be an ending rather than having to rush to accommodate a climax and a finale. This is roughly similar to what the first season of Daredevil attempted. Matt Murdock demolishing Wilson Fisk’s criminal empire by exposing his crimes, which was the climax of the season. Once Wilson Fisk was arrested and discredited, the series then decided to offer an end to the season, with Vanessa Marianna going into exile and Fisk escaping so he could have one last man-to-man fight with Matt Murdock.

Although this was a smart idea in principle, the first season of Daredevil bungled the execution, to the point that the finale is the weakest episode of the season and ends an otherwise strong year on a disappointing note. However, the second season of Luke Cage executes this idea with more confidence and more commitment. Mariah Dillard is locked away at the end of Can’t Front on Me. There is no nonsense about her breaking out in They Reminisce Over You. Jon McIver is defeated in Can’t Front on Me, and he limps out of the country in They Reminisce Over You.

Structurally speaking, They Reminisce Over You is free to spend most of its energy wrapping up the plot threads from everything that came before, rather than having to start and finish another story in the way that Daredevil attempted to do. Nevertheless, it seems like the second season of Luke Cage learned from the first season of Daredevil, poaching a good idea and improving upon the execution. This is a smart way to approach this sort of story.

In fact, it should be noted that the end of They Reminisce Over You arguably borrows as much from Daredevil comics as does from The Godfather. Writer Brian Michael Bendis is the most influential comic book writer when it comes to the Marvel Netflix series, having invented Jessica Jones and having reinvented Luke Cage while also writing a defining run on Daredevil. The idea of a superhero throwing themselves into an underworld vacuum, and declaring themselves “king” of the criminal fraternity, is a plotpoint lifted directly from Bendis’ Daredevil run.

There is something cheeky in the way that Luke Cage so gleefully samples from other superhero properties, as if the series has been granted the keys to the family sports car by mere virtue of being a superhero series. The opening of The Basement features Luke putting his own spin on the popular “fastball special” manoeuvre that Wolverine and Colossus frequently employ in the X-Men comics, and even received a fan-pleasing nod in X-Men III. Whatever the issues with You Know My Steez, there’s something endearing in trying to re-stage the climax of The Incredible Hulk on a Netflix budget.

Indeed, Can’t Front on Me features another sequence that seems to allude towards one of the most controversial moments in modern superhero cinema. The climax of Man of Steel features Superman fighting General Zod in downtown Metropolis, with the two hurling one another through buildings and causing untold death and destruction. The fight climaxes with Superman snapping Zod’s neck, killing him instantly. Given Superman’s reputation as “a big blue boy scout”, the scene was controversial among fans. To say the least.

Can’t Front on Me seems to consciously evoke that controversial moment. Early in the episode, Mariah describes Luke as her “dark chocolate boy scout”, suggesting the Superman comparison. At the climax, Luke manages to overpower Bushmaster and trap him in a headlock. The scene evokes the Superman and Zod fight in a number of ways; most obviously, Luke and Bushmaster are evenly matched and Bushmaster is a clear and present danger to civilians. “Do it!” Mariah urges. “Kill him! Break his goddamn neck, Luke!” However, in what feels like a firm rejection of Man of Steel, Luke cannot do it. He releases Bushmaster.

Still, most of this referencing is remarkably good-natured, with Luke Cage even winking at the limitations that it faces due to its position within the vast bureaucracy of Marvel Studios. The Netflix series are largely insulated from the more mainstream properties, with crossovers highly unlikely. As result, the Netflix series have to keep their references to the movies vague; “the Chitauri Invasion” becomes “the Incident”, “the Hulk” becomes “the big green guy.” In All Souled Out, one character points out the absurdity of these insistent sub-distinctions. “That’s not his name.” It’s a knowing, cheeky, winking line.

However, Luke Cage borrows more than mere continuity or plot points from other superhero stories. It also leans into the sort of loaded imagery that defines the genre. Can’t Front on Me features a sequence in which Mariah Dillard offers to open up Harlem to the drug trade, operated by her rival gangs, “plenty of customers for whatever you are offering.” The money is laundered through the sale of her copy of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The symbolism is not subtle. She even states, “The book is just a place holder. Legitimise this. I expect it back. Untouched.”

It is not just the story itself that seems influence by comic book storytelling. Luke Cage is the most overtly stylised of the Marvel Netflix series, which admittedly isn’t that difficult given the relatively flat look the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. As Noah Berlatsky argues:

None of the MCU films has a unique, or even engaging, visual style. The galaxy in Guardians of the Galaxy is remarkably bland: the capital on Xandar could just about be Houston. There’s nothing to compare with the original Star Wars’ dirty robots and desert planets, to say nothing of Blade Runner’s cluttered/empty future megalopolis.

The Dark World seems to be trying, and failing, to model itself on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but in place of fully imagined realms, languages and cultures, you just get glimpses of half-assed CGI landscapes which are supposed to signify other dimensions. Compare Ultron’s design and impact with the fleshy, skin-falling-off-metal robotic nightmare of Terminator, or the smooth liquid metal killer of T2. Compare the alien invasion of Avengers with the gloriously tactile, ugly, oozing creatures of Alien, or even with the lumbering monsters of Pacific Rim. Artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created distinct, dynamic, stylish fantasy images in their original Marvel comics. The MCU, in comparison, looks stock.

There is nothing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as visually distinct as Tim Burton’s Batman films or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. While this is perhaps part of a larger trend towards homogeneity in blockbuster cinema, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is undoubtedly leading the pack.

This makes Luke Cage feel relatively distinct, at least compared to the other Marvel offerings. It would be too much to argue that Luke Cage was as heightened as the surrealist wonder of the classic Batman! television show or even the short-lived nineties live-action Flash series, but it does have a texture that is very consciously heightened compared to the other offerings. Daredevil occasionally does interesting things with colour, Floria Sigismondi’s work on Kinbaku comes to mind, but it tends more towards blacks. Jessica Jones and Iron Fist are both mostly visually indistinct.

In contrast, Luke Cage is infused with colour and opulence. The series might have changed the title character’s costume, but it retains his colour scheme. Luke Cage is infused with yellows and golds; not only in the lining of his hoodie, but in the glow of streetlamps and the sparkling of city lights. It should be noted that the way in which Luke Cage uses light might be down to the fact that it has a predominantly black cast, and that black actors should be lit differently than white actors; compare Mike Colter under the lighting in Jessica Jones and then how he appears on Luke Cage.

Cinematographer Manuel Milleter worked on both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, and adopted a more heightened approach to lighting and framing Harlem:

In discussing the particulars of how Luke Cage was shot, Billeter was filled with details about the ways in which he developed the show’s unique look. With Jessica Jones, the very first sentence of the very first script called for a “noir” aesthetic, and Billeter was happy to comply, but with Luke Cage, there needed to be a different tone. The use of Harlem as a setting in Luke Cage as opposed to Hell’s Kitchen in Jessica Jones allowed for a look that feels much more alive. With Harlem, Billeter wanted the setting to feel vibrant, so he added modified gels in front of his lights, and in conjunction with the set designers, Harlem was made to include much stronger colors. During the color correction process, Billeter also went the opposite direction than he took with Jessica Jones and decided to saturate the colors slightly as well as warm them up, allowing Luke Cage to have a brighter look. He described many of the changes as subtle, but he hopes that they’re perceived nonetheless. Harlem as a setting is massively important to Luke Cage, and without the work that was done to present Harlem as a bright, living place, the show would lose much of the emotional impact that we feel when Cage acts to defend his home.

The colour scheme of Luke Cage has a warmth and a glow that is largely missing from the other corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This heightened and stylised approach to the character and his world extends beyond lighting. The direction on Luke Cage also tends to be slightly more confident and assertive than the direction on other Marvel Cinematic Universe productions, especially for television. Luke Cage embraces dutch angles and distortion effects to throw the audience off-balance, as with Bushmaster’s introduction in Soul Brother #1 and during the opening scenes of Can’t Front on Me. Even the final conversation between Luke and Mariah in They Reminisce Over You is shot in extreme dutch angles. Beyond that, directors tend to block and frame shot in a way that evokes westerns, such as the confrontation between Luke and James in Soul Brother #1.

Ironically, perhaps the most obviously heightened aspect of Luke Cage is something that would be impossible in a comic book, with the series having a very distinctive soundscape. Sound cannot be reproduced in a comic book, after all; certain creators draw attention to it, others build entire stories around it, and certain modern creators even go so far as to create playlists for readers to help the experience. However, it would be impossible, given the nature of the medium, for a comic book to wed sound as perfectly to images as Luke Cage does.

Composer Adrian Younge argues that part of the reason that Luke Cage sounds so good is because the material was produced on analog, helping to provide a unique texture:

It’s analog, as well. That’s the reason why it sounds like that. When you hear Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, or you hear some Stevie Wonder sh!t, you don’t like it just because it’s composed well. You don’t like it just because they have great voices. You like it because of the way it makes you feel, sonically. Now, listen to Christina Aguilera from years ago. Completely different sound, sonically. Listen to a Britney Spears record, it’s a different sonic sound. It doesn’t have the deep, organic, soulful sound waves in it. It doesn’t have any of that stuff. Analog has it.

Most Marvel Cinematic Universe productions have a fairly bland soundtrack, what might cynically be described as “sonic wallpaper.” There is nothing as distinct as John Williams’ iconic overture for the Superman films, or Danny Elfman’s atmospheric score for Batman.

In contrast, the score to Luke Cage has a lot more texture to it and a lot more swagger. Obviously, it is drawing more on the tradition of seventies soul music than old-fashioned superhero scores, but it merges the aesthetic very well. Indeed, that seventies soul music plays remarkably well during action sequences or big heroic beats. It has an orchestral quality to it, often involving choral arrangements during particularly emotive moments. There is also something playful in the use of the music. Bushmaster has his goons playing his own theme song when they arrive in For Pete’s Sake.

Indeed, the music in Luke Cage is very much a vehicle for the show’s own self-awareness. This is perhaps most obvious at the climax of They Reminisce Over You. Towards the end of the episode, Tilda Johnson sings an entire song about her emotional response to the season, with references to dialogue and characters, which is laid over a “where the characters are now montage.” The effect is heightened in the closing moment of the season, when Luke Cage listens to Rakim perform a song about Luke Cage on Luke Cage. (The first season did this with Method Man’s rap in Soliloquy of Chaos.)

Obviously, there are limits. Luke Cage doesn’t embrace a stylistic approach to the same extent as Legion, which has the luxury of being produced at FX by a television auteur renowned for his own narrative stylings. Luke Cage still has to integrate with the other Marvel Netflix series, it still has to intersect. It is impossible to image any of the characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe crossing over to Legion without experiencing some sort of psychiatric break due to sensory overload. In contrast, Luke Cage is just distinct enough that Luke can still sit down to enjoy a nice dinner with his colleagues in Royal Dragon.

Luke Cage is a comic book superhero television show. It is also incredibly and undeniably proud of that fact.

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

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