“Marvel’s Luke Cage” Lives Up to the Hype — A TV Series Review

I just finished watching the entirety of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, and I must say it was an amazing experience that this life-long comic book fan will not soon forget! It was not without its faults (I’ll get to them), and I never expected it to be perfect. I was, however, hoping it would be awesome, and it truly was despite the imperfections. Marvel Studios, ABC, Disney, and Netflix have thus far consistently worked together to keep our expectations high, so my confidence in a good show and respectful depiction of one of my all-time fav super-heroes was well-founded.
Like all of Marvel’s Netflix series, the 13-episode script is highly intellectual, with a lot of meaningful expository dialogue, so if all you’re looking for is 45-60 minutes of nearly non-stop action and fight scenes, then these are not the shows for you. They are designed to entertain and provide a good amount of spectacle, and they certainly deliver on that; but they are also designed to appeal to the thinking part of the brain, and hence may not appeal to viewers who dislike thinking and only want the spectacle. Admittedly, these types of scripts do result in pacing problems for Marvel’s Netflix shows, with the expository scenes sometimes taking up too much time even for people like me, who appreciates meaningful dialogue. If you can overlook them long enough to get to the true gold of these shows, then you’ll always be rewarded. If you can’t then, well, as I said… you may want to look elsewhere for your entertainment, especially if you consider anything that makes you think to be too “preachy” for your tastes. In that case, I recommend a marathon of football and boxing matches for such individuals.
I. Ah, the ’70s…
What is special about Luke Cage is how well it preserves the core essence of a series that was born and nurtured in the early 1970s, when the effects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still in its relatively early stages, and black culture had just recently begun to make major inroads into mainstream American society. This was after decades of black culture and entertainment being all but ignored outside of its own racial niche audience. The ’70s decade was thus a glorious era when black super-heroes began appearing within comic books in respectable numbers for the first time, with many headlining their own series. Arguably the greatest of these heroes was Luke Cage, and I’ll get to the why of that in a few moments (or perhaps several, give or take a few).
Most pulp culture buffs who are not comic book fans but nevertheless had the privilege of living their childhood during the decade of the ’70s will remember the many ground-breaking TV series which each had an all or predominantly black cast, even if they were mostly sitcoms: shows like Sanford and Son; Good Times; The Jeffersons; and What’s Happening? were extremely popular and garnered a large chunk of the Nielson ratings, when just a decade prior the tiny number of quality black-led shows like Julia struggled to remain on the air (and usually didn’t). Most of the popular shows of the 1960s had few black characters make even so much as a cameo appearance, let alone featuring a major black character as part of the regular cast (a rare exception being Bill Cosby in I Spy ). In fact, popular sitcoms of the era like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best appeared to take place in realities where everyone lived in idyllic suburbs and no black people seemed to exist at all.
Just one decade later, that all changed, and it was an incredible era to live through. It must have been particularly amazing for black citizens of America, since for the first time in the history of the nation they saw fellow people of color duly represented in all aspects of popular entertainment, including the burgeoning medium of TV and its long-time parent medium of cinema, even if some of these depictions still left much to be desired. Nevertheless, they were considerably more respectful of black culture and individuals than the scant number of black-led shows which actually made it to the airwaves in the past, like the entirely-a-product-of-its-time but now utterly forgettable Amos and Andy. Even the Saturday morning cartoon craze of the ’70s gave culturally significant representation to black people with the long-running Fat Albert, which was charmingly respectful and entirely acknowledging of inner city life rather than some fanciful suburban existence that few blacks knew or enjoyed at the time. Interestingly, Fat Albert — which was second only to Scooby Doo as the longest running and most popular cartoon series of classic American Saturday morning fare — also gave us a super-hero in its later seasons in the persona of the star-faring, comical Brown Hornet.
He may not have eclipsed Luke Cage in popularity, but you can’t fault a brother for trying.
Most importantly of all in the ’70s decade was the full emergence of the “blaxploitation” film genre, featuring low budget films that had predominantly (if not entirely) black casts led by black stars, even if they were usually minor stars, and often helmed by black producers, screenwriters, and directors. These films could be a mixed bag in terms of quality, but many memorable characters emerged and really did speak to black culture and delivered to black audiences heroes and other iconic characters they could relate to. This includes the likes of the Shaft franchise; Dolemite; Super Fly; and the variety of strong female characters portrayed by uber-gorgeous blaxploitation queen Pam Grier (e.g., Coffy, Foxy Brown); as well as the black female cop protagonist of the film Get Christie Love and its short-lived but memorable TV spin-off series.

Of interesting note, Pam Grier made a major comeback during the 2000s specifically in the super-hero genre on the TV medium in the role of DC Comics’ cagey and formidable Task Force X director Amanda Waller for Smallville, the longest-running super-hero TV series to date. In fact, Grier originated the newer, sexy slim version of the previously uber-corpulent Waller, played most recently by Viola Davis on the big screen version of Suicide Squad.

In popular sports during the ’70s, black professional athletes garnered more respect and earning power than ever before. This was particularly the case for the sports of football and boxing (respectfully mentioned above, ha!). And of course, black music went fully mainstream during that era, with Motown having a major influence on American culture in a broad and general sense, rather than simply black culture or niche markets. My interest in sports was limited to boxing, but Muhammad Ali was one of my major heroes, and I couldn’t help but notice my family’s love of O.J. Simpson during the heyday of his career, long before his later tragic fall from grace. And in terms of black music, I grew up totally loving the likes of Marvin Gaye; the Stylistics; Earth, Wind and Fire; Sister Sledge; Donna Summers; the Commodores; and Diana Ross, all of which I have to thank my mother for introducing me to. I passed many days in a very difficult childhood listening to the work of these artists, and they did wonders to ameliorate the doldrums of life for the kid I once was (and in many ways, still am).
For those of us pop culture buffs who happened to be comic book fans (during an era when being a fan of that medium was considered ultra-fringe and far from cool), things were even more glorious. That’s because, as noted above, black super-heroes finally became a major force to be reckoned with in the fantastical universes depicted within the four-color pages. That included those who debuted in their own titles, and one of those who led the way was a Harlem-born gentleman of color named Luke Cage.

His title started as LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR FIRE, and would change to the more super-heroey LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN with issue #17. The book, and the character, scored very high with readers during the first decade that Marvel overtook DC as Number One amongst the Big Two of comic book companies. By the end of the decade — specifically with issue #50 of his mag — Luke Cage teamed up with white martial arts hero Danny Rand, a.k.a., Iron Fist, whose own comic merged with his to create the fan favorite duo POWER MAN AND IRON FIST. It continued into the mid-’80s under that title, and has re-emerged in different volumes since then with a present day incarnation ongoing at this writing. Nowadays, Luke Cage detests the name of Power Man, and is only referred to as that in an ironic manner; he has also passed the code name on to a teen hero of color he mentored, who is proud to carry it.

Cover to LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE #1, where it all began, circa 1972. Both beauty pageant contestants and Wonder Woman now had to deal with the fact that they weren’t the only ones famous for looking good in a tiara. 
Of course, Luke Cage proliferated on his own both before and after he hooked up with Iron Fist. During the ’70s he went on to be perhaps Marvel’s most popular black super-hero, if not the most popular black super-hero in general. He had a lengthy stint as a member of Marvel’s super-team the Defenders in their eponymous comic, and even had a brief stint as a replacement for Ben Grimm (a.k.a., the Thing) in the Fantastic Four. He got around, and he worked hard to cement his status as one of the greatest super-heroes Marvel ever produced, superseding the “color barrier” in short order.


This is the cover to LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN #17, when Marvel first gave the character an outlandish code name to make him seem more like a super-hero and less like a blaxploitation character.

Luke Cage was heavily influenced by blaxploitation cinema of the time, and has been rightly described as a super-powered version of Super Fly. His back story had much to say to the black experience of the era, and remains timely even now, which is why I was less than happy to see his past somewhat modified for the TV series in a way that wasn’t really necessary or desirable IMO (more on that below). The earliest incarnation of the character was hokey in many ways, something respectfully acknowledged by the much less hokey version seen in the TV series. These hokey elements included his choice of what passed for a costume: a yellow open-chested top with blue spandex pants and matching yellow boots, formerly belonging to an escape artist; metal cuffs around his wrists, a chain around his waist in place of a proper belt, and a metal tiara around his forehead and temples — and unique slang exclamatory catchphrases like “Sweet Christmas!” and variations thereof. It was corny, but it was also charming and in no way detracted from the inherent coolness of the character and the awesomeness of what he represented. These elements also in no way detracted from the gritty drama and hard core action and situations that the character often encountered in the mean streets of Harlem.
You said it long before I did, Luke. I just agreed with you here 🙂

Luke Cage was a game-changer in the world of heroic fiction, and I’m glad the costume and previous rather silly code names — Hero for Hire and Power Man — though wisely dispensed with since the 1990s, were nevertheless given respectful mention and token representation in the TV series. They were an integral part of his history that deserve to be gone but not forgotten, if such makes sense. And best of all, not only was his exclamatory catchphrases fully retained in the TV series, but a logical explanation for their retention was provided: his minister father and later barber role model and surrogate father figure Pops Hunter were both averse to profanity, so Luke came up with alternative exclamations to those which utilized expletives or obscenities. And they just so happened to stick!


II. Who is Luke Cage, and From Whence Does He Hail?
So who, exactly, is Luke Cage? That moniker is not his real name, which is Carl Lucas (though only his last name was revealed during his initial appearance, and his first remained unknown to readers for a long time). In the comic book version, Lucas grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Harlem. The reason was simple and applicable to real life:  the lack of viable opportunities on the right side of the law available for black people and pretty much everyone who grew up in an impoverished ghetto environment. This made the temptation of “easy” money made via illicit means an all too tempting aspect of life for too many young black men who grew up in the economically depressed inner city regions of our lovely capitalist system (I’m sure Ayn Rand would have been proud!). Lucas was such an example, and he and his close childhood friend Willis Stryker quickly began climbing the criminal ladder by pooling their exceptional talents: Lucas was unmatched as an unarmed street fighter and boxer (despite not having superhuman strength at the time), while Stryker was a master of the throwing blade (don’t ask me where he picked up that particular skill on the streets of Harlem, even the Harlem of the Marvel Universe! Most thugs I’m aware of prefer stabbing or slashing with knives, not throwing them!).
As time passed, however, it became clear that Lucas had too strong a conscience and sense of inner scruples to continue on that path. Further, the love of a good woman named Reva Connors cemented his determination to leave a life of crime and turn straight, even if it meant dispensing with the ill-gotten wealth his BFF Stryker was still rapidly accumulating. Unfortunately, Stryker’s conscience and loyalty to his good friend had been eaten away by a combination of the brutal power he acquired and his bitter jealousy over Lucas’s success with Reva, whom he also coveted. Thus, Stryker arranged to have Lucas framed for drug-dealing, and the young man was consigned to the infamous Seagate Prison, whose inmates and staff alike went out of its way to earn that place the not exactly creative but nevertheless apt nickname “Hell”.
This freed Stryker to woo Reva at his leisure, who ended up getting killed in a drive-by shooting that was intended for Stryker. The combination of this horrid betrayal and his culpability in Reva’s murder left Lucas filled with determination to exact just retribution on Stryker… if only the inconvenience of being incarcerated in New York State’s most stringent hardcore prison wasn’t preventing that from happening.
One can only hope future seasons of Luke Cage  bring us TV adaptations of some of the totally weird ass villains he faced during the ’70s run of his mag. These cats were often equal parts comical and horrific! Examples include the Piscean felon Mr. Fish from issue #29 (and if you think he’s creepy weird, you should see that sycophantic midget who hangs around him)…
… the other Piscean felon Piranha Jones, from issues 30-31, a guy you definitely don’t want nibbling on your ear if you want to keep it…

… and this muscle-bound hairy guy called Mangler. Imagine these two getting into a slug-fest on the next bus you ride. 


Not only that, but Lucas was subjected to repeated nasty treatment, including periodic beatings, from the cruel racist security guard named Quirt (very appropriate name for some reason!), and enabled by an equally nasty captain of the guards and acting warden named Rackham. This unfortunate situation lasted until a degree of comic book justice came along when a more scrupulous warden named Stuart took over; this guy not only stripped Rackham of his captaincy and demoted him to a regular security guard when he stumbled upon what was going on, but he also graciously locked Quirt alone and unarmed in a cell block with a very angry Lucas. I need not mention the next hour was a very bad one for Mr. Quirt, as his former victims’ fists reduced him to something resembling what his last name sounds like. Lucky for Quirt Lucas was a man of conscience, or he could have more formally made Quirt his “bitch,” if you know what I mean. But if you prefer to imagine that he did anyway, and the creative crew simply didn’t want to show it in order to meet the Comics Code requirements of the day, don’t let me stop you from fantasizing.

However, Warden Stuart was still not about to release Lucas from his sentence, or be convinced he was framed without ample evidence provided, so the matter of the man’s continued incarceration remained a plot obstacle to be overcome.

Up to this point, we have the perfect plot for a classic blaxploitation crime/revenge thriller. But this being the Marvel Universe, things were now about to take a turn for the fantastic, as a truly super hero was about to be born out of this mess.

III. Exit Carl Lucas… enter Luke Cage, Power Man

As is the case often enough for the denizens of a reality like the Marvel Universe, some rather fantastic opportunity was about to come Mr. Lucas’s way. This was in the person of medical researcher and only slightly-less-than-mad scientist Dr. Noah Berstein, who was looking for physically able candidates to participate in an experimental cell regenerative procedure for the benefit of all humankind that his brilliant but wacky mind had concocted. Lucas wouldn’t be the feature character of this comic if he wasn’t the one who proved the most qualified, and though he initially refused to be Berstein’s guinea pig, the death of Reva convinced him that the significant time off his sentence he would earn for stepping into that loony contraption was worth it.

As luck would have it (for the readers, if arguably not Lucas), Rackham was determined to exact vengeance on the man for… his getting caught while beating Lucas up, I guess? So when Lucas was skinny dipping in the water-filled tank of Berstein’s elaborate contraption, the ex-warden snuck into the makeshift medical lab and began operating the controls in haphazard fashion, hoping Lucas would be scalded, or turned blue, or something equally nasty. This being the Marvel Universe, however, that’s not the way it worked, and instead Rackham accidentally elevated the contraption’s energy levels to a point far beyond anything intended. The result: Lucas was enhanced beyond his wildest dreams, including gaining enough superhuman strength to slug it out with Spider-Man, but in his case with steel-hard skin that was bullet and knife proof. Lucas then proceeded to bitch slap Rackham into oblivion and, fearing he accidentally killed the man and would thus be denied the parole promised for his participation in Berstein’s nutty experiment, he decided to use his newly acquired super-strength to pummel  his way clear through the prison walls. He then headed for the sandy shore where miles of ocean separated Seagate Prison from New York City (the prison had to get its name from something!) as security guards pursued the escapee and fired on him mercilessly.

Only Lucas’s bullet-riddled prison shirt was found on the rocky shores near the water, so it was presumed he was mortally wounded and his body washed out to sea. No one knew he had gained superhuman strength save for Berstein (who stayed mum on the matter to avoid explaining his complicity in things), so no one realized he successfully made the swim back to New York. The escapee was therefore believed to have died in an attempted prison escape (don’t ask me how that hole in the wall of Berstein’s makeshift prison lab was interpreted; maybe they figured it was the result of Berstein’s contraption exploding when Rackham made it go haywire). It was quickly revealed to the readers that Lucas succeeded in surviving the repeated shots he received and successfully used his superhuman strength and endurance to swim those many miles to shore. He then spent about a year performing odd jobs wherever he could find them, until he was gradually able to afford enough to return to Harlem to exact just-tribution (I just made that up!) on his ex-BFF Stryker.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a good story if things would have been quite that easy. After all, need I remind you again this was the Marvel Universe? Stryker had gone on to take the identity of Diamondback, where he became a very powerful crime lord and absolute plutocratic dictator of Harlem (I guess Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, wasn’t overly concerned who claimed to be top dog over there, as long as he had Manhattan). As for Lucas, upon arriving back in the Big Apple, he decided to maintain the fiction he had died to keep the law off his back, so he took on the alias of Luke Cage. He also came upon a new idea on how to make a living when he happened upon a robbery at a diner, and acting on his own inner good will, put paid to the criminals. The owner of the diner was so filled with gratitude that he put paid to the newly christened Luke Cage in an entirely different manner by… paying him a reward.

It was then that Cage realized his superhuman powers could be used to find honest work by his becoming a mercenary! Or, as he called it, a “hero for hire” (I guess “soldier of fortune” didn’t cut it on the streets). Using the reward money to purchase wares from a costume shop, the man on a mission acquired those funky yellow and blue tights, along with the tiara and chain around his waist, printed up some business cards, rented an office — above the Gem Theater on the horrid pre-Disneyfied Times Square, no less — and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire was officially in business.

Not only that, but the story was on! This story, it should be mentioned was written by the late, great Archie Goodwin, one of the comic mediums greatest scripters and editors, and a highly competent artist named George Tuska, whose work gave some perfect gritty detail to the world Luke Cage stomped about and kicked arse within.
IV. What Made Luke Cage a Winner Among the Masses of Characters Introduced in the ’70s?
Okay, the TV series brought to us by Cheo Hodari Coker for Netflix did give have some deviations from the comic book saga of Luke Cage, which I certainly expected. Yes, I fully understand that the TV medium is much different than the four-color pages of the illustrated story medium (or “comic books,” if you prefer), and some things play better on the latter than the former. I’m also well aware that this is the late 2010s, not the early 1970s, so some updating of the cast and situations needed to be made. My main concern is thus always this: was the core essence of what made the character work, and basic details of his origin story and what it represented, retained? Despite some changes I disagreed with (be patient, I’ll get to that), the answer is a resounding yes!

This is because many of the issues facing black america and the working/labor class in general during the early ’70s have found revived popular interest in a strong progressive spirit over the past few years thanks to the Great Recession beginning in 2008. A group like Black Lives Matter would have been just as much at home in 1972 Harlem, or anywhere else in America, as they are across the cyber-roadways of Twitter and Facebook in 2016 America. The issues of how the system denies opportunities to make a decent living off of honest work, and the temptations of crime as a result, are just as relevant during the Great Recession of this decade as they were during the recessions of the early ’70s, when nations in Asia and Europe (particularly Japan and Germany) began recovering from the industrial devastation wreaked upon them in World War II, and thus started giving America major competition in the global market again. How this disproportionately impacted upon people who had gotten a slower start on the capitalist system of wage labor in America was of major importance to the readers who became fans of LUKE CAGE in the early ’70s, and not all of them were black. That type of hard core progressive thinking has been further accelerated in America since the latest failed Democratic presidency, with the promise of another such failed Democratic presidency beginning in 2017 as yet another neoliberal hardliner takes office.


Cue one of my uncomfortable but relevant interlude segues: My preemptive response to my centrist friends and followers who read this and are tempted to say, “There you go again, Chris! Can you please leave the Democrats and politics in general alone and stay on topic here? Just for once, dude? Geez!”: In all seriousness, your request that I give respect to your stubborn loyalty to capitalism and the mainstream Democratic politicians who support its continued global hegemony would carry far more weight if so many of you weren’t struggling to pay your bills or even with keeping a roof over your head; or at least contemplating bankruptcy; or dealing with mounting hospital bills and/or inability to pay for needed medication; or drowning in college debt and/or credit card debt; or recovering from a housing foreclosure due to subprime mortgages being inflicted upon you by the “too big to fail” predatory bankers who literally gambled with your livelihood (which heaps of our taxpayer money went to bail out while you were left licking your losses); or keeping a job despite being very hard workers and most certainly not the lazy bums so many conservatives insist you all must be if you’re in such a predicament (even though so many of them are, as well!). Until you’re all thriving in this system and being justly compensated for your hard work more often than not, then I’ll consider your contention that the worst thing I can say about the system is that “it’s not perfect.” Until then, please do not expect me to respect your misguided loyalty more than what is really going on right in front of all of our eyes.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, these issues have much to do with the fictional world Luke Cage inhabits, and the factors that not only made him into the man he became, and which also made the various adversaries and supporting characters he interacted with the people they ultimately became. Hence, these issues are not off-topic; hence, I will not ignore them or pretend they’re irrelevant; hence, I will not foolishly try to pretend the saga of Luke Cage — both in the comics or on the small screen — is somehow non-political or that I’m “reading too much into what was always supposed to be just popcorn entertainment.” To the contrary, it’s the saga’s relevance to problems in the world outside our window mirrored in the fictional locale of the Marvel Universe (or whatever iteration thereof) that heavily contributed to Mr. Cage’s popularity and continued relevance in the modern world. Luke Cage has always been an angry mo’ fo’ against the injustices of the system, and while he may not explicitly point out capitalism and its chief policies as the problem for obvious reasons, I think anyone with half an intellect and the honesty to match it know precisely what the main source of most of Mr. Cage’s challenges happen to be.

End another of my uncomfortable but important interlude segues and back to our regularly scheduled review.

V. Let’s Get to the TV Series, Already!

Let’s start my analysis with the one major change to the saga that I wish Marvel Studios, ABC, and Netflix had not made. In the comic book storyline, the man who became Luke Cage started out as the fairly hard core but small time criminal I mentioned above, but with clear scruples that prevented him from taking things too far. These redeeming character traits allowed the love of a decent woman to pull him out of the escalating chaos that his BFF Willis Stryker — the future Diamondback — was descending into. The younger Carl Lucas could readily be identified with by many struggling members of the working class, including the disproportionate number of young black men who were not bad people at heart but nevertheless got pulled into the temptation to try and find their fortune on the wrong side of the law. Nothing about this history as written in any way condoned those early disreputable actions of his, and he paid dearly for them. However, rather than becoming a slave to bitterness, upon escaping prison he ultimately ended up becoming a hero by working his way up to that status.

The fact that Cage was taking money to help others as a way to make his living added an important element of controversy to the book. He literally started a one-man company called Hero For Hire, Inc. (until years later when Iron Fist joined him, and it was pluralized to Heroes For Hire, Inc.). He then coincidentally ran across Dr.  Noah Berstein (you can always count on coincidences of this sort in the Marvel Universe), who by this point a year after the prison incident was running a clinic for the poor in Harlem alongside a young and (also not coincidentally) attractive female doctor named Claire Temple. Claire would become Luke’s newest love interest, and would further pull him towards the side of the angels, much as Reva Connors did prior to his framing and unjust imprisonment.
This element of controversy, with the question of whether or not Cage could be considered a mercenary who did not have the interests of others as his first priority was a major philosophical issue driving the series, at least in its earlier years. It became clear from this early point, however, that Cage’s heart was always in the right place, and the well-being of the clients and others in his life always came before the money that the system required him to accumulate in order to both make a living and to keep his business operating. The message that sent meant a lot to readers, and went a long way towards making Cage a full-fledged hero and nothing like the truly ruthless mercenary characters of the comic book world like DC’s Deathstroke, arch-enemy of the Teen Titans and later star of his own series, despite any nuances his character may have (depending on who is writing him, which book he appears in, and what any given story plot requires, that is).
This element was not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) version of Luke Cage, however. In this variant of the story, Carl Lucas used to be a cop who was framed by his former BFF. The MCU version of Willis Stryker, however, is also Cage’s half-brother by Minister Lucas’s secretary, which is why their father refused to acknowledge Stryker. This, not a competing love for a woman, is what ultimately fueled Stryker’s resentment and ended their previous close relationship. Still, because Stryker was a tough natural street fighter who excelled at boxing, he taught his younger brother everything he knew about both of these skills when they were still close. Carl Lucas was an avid learner who put these abilities to good use at surviving in the harsh streets of Harlem, gaining a lot of experience along the way, and they later served him well both as a cop and after he was railroaded into prison by the very trusted individual who taught him these skills.
After this, the onscreen story proceeded similarly to how it was depicted in the comics. I cry foul to that particular change because in this version, despite a difficult childhood and a neglectful father who didn’t like him very much due to his high and mighty, holy-rolling, and hypocritical ways, Carl Lucas was never a young man who fell onto the wrong side of the tracks and had to work his way out of it after paying for these mistakes and ultimately having to summon the hero within to move himself out of it, with a little help and support from his friends. Here, he was a hero from the get-go, and was simply mistaken for a villain after being wrongly incarcerated. He paid for mistakes that weren’t his own (unless you consider trusting a half-brother you loved and respected to be a mistake one should ever rightly have to pay for).
Hence, I think it was a mistake to eliminate this element from the onscreen Luke Cage saga, even if perhaps it was done so in an attempt to make him more immediately “likable” to audiences. Nevertheless, IMO it was far from a deal-breaker for the overall quality and faithfulness to the core of the character, as I’ll now explain.
The next big change in the series came with its depiction of Reva Connors. She was indeed part of the Netflix series, but this time she was a doctor who assisted Dr. Noah Berstein within the prison, and the future Luke Cage didn’t meet her until he was an inmate. He still developed strong feelings for her, and she seemed to feel the same for him despite grooming him as the ideal candidate for Berstein’s experiment. Cage was similarly devastated by her death in a manner similar to what went down in the comics, only it was not yet made clear exactly what ultimate fate befell this version of Reva as of Season 1. All we know is that it was bad, and Cage never seems up to talking about it with anyone.

How does Claire Temple fit into the TV version? She was actually fit into the saga in a rather interesting and pre-meditated manner. The character, played onscreen by actress Rosario Dawson, had previously appeared in Season 1 and 2 of Daredevil, Season 1 of Jessica Jones, and is slated to have a big role in the upcoming first season of Iron Fist (due to be released March 17, 2017). She is, in other words, the proverbial glue that cements the initial quartet of series featuring Marvel’s street-level heroes on Netflix together into a shared universe. As such, she can reasonably be expected to play a big role, and major force, in the upcoming Defenders series that unites these four heroes into a team. Of course, other supporting characters have appeared in more than one of the Netflix series, and references have been made to events and characters between one and another, but Ms. Temple as the emergency room nurse who ends up getting her fate mixed up with several metahuman heroes which results in a unique career of discretely patching up their cuts, bruises, gunshot wounds, etc., is the true connection between them all.

It should be mentioned that Mike Colter originated the role of Luke Cage on Jessica Jones Season 1, and had a fairly big role on it, so that is further cement on the firmament uniting this shared universe. I should also mention that the sexual relationship he shared with the titular character of that previous series mirrors one they shared in Jones’s comic book series ALIAS (do not confuse with the unrelated TV series of the same name!), and the two eventually united at a later point in the comics to get married, run an Avengers team together, and have a baby girl named Danielle. It remains to be seen if anything like this occurs after Luke and Jessica re-unite in The Defenders Season 1, especially since Temple is in the picture and she and Cage expressed feelings for each other via a parting kiss at the end of Luke Cage Season 1. Could an interesting love triangle be in the future of these three characters? Gotta love drama!
It should also be noted that Claire Temple is an interesting character for an entirely different reason: her MCU version is actually an amalgamation of two entirely separate comic book characters published by Marvel, one of them with a truly unique point of origination.
It’s been well-established in the media that Claire Temple is based on Marvel’s Night Nurse character, who briefly had her own series around the same time LUKE CAGE was first published. NIGHT NURSE was a very experimental series that had nothing to do with super-heroes, but was about college-aged nurse Linda Carter (she was created before the similarly named actress came on the scene to gain popularity in the role of the Wonder Woman TV series of the ’70s) and her two friends, Georgia Jenkins and Christine Palmer, three young ladies from very different backgrounds who struggled to both become friends and make it in the medical profession at New York City’s Metro General Hospital.
The series was clearly a hybrid of romance comics and some of the popular soap operas at the time (including General Hospital on ABC’s line-up), which gave a big nod to the popular theme of hospital work (medical dramas had been popular on TV for a decade, including Dr. Kildare; The Nurses; and the then-ongoing Marcus Welby, M.D. ), relevant social issues, and added elements of dramatic danger — such as a sub-plot in the first issue of a criminal plot to blow up the hospital generator, a scheme Georgia’s brother ended up mixed up in — that was clearly designed to appeal to college-aged readers of a female persuasion. The book was a surprisingly entertaining experiment that didn’t succeed,  cancelled after four issues. Its main featured protagonist was not to be seen again (to my knowledge) until she turned up in Marvel Comics a decade ago in her role of secretly patching the wounds of street-level heroes in various comics, where for this reason she truly gained the epithet of “Night Nurse.”
The reasons NIGHT NURSE failed, and what a truly offbeat experiment from Marvel it was, warrants a separate blog entry for the future. For now, however, I can say that I think it was a brilliant move for Marvel Studios and Cheo Hadari Coker to combine Claire Temple with the purpose and identity of Night Nurse. The comic book version of Temple was black, and Rosario Dawson’s portrayal of a Hispanic version is much better suited as a contemporary role model of inner city people than the blonde and blue-eyed Linda Carter was, even if I must admit the likelihood of meeting a woman of Hispanic heritage with the surname of “Temple,” or even the first name of “Claire,” in the world outside our window is almost as unlikely as meeting a person with Luke Cage’s powers. But it’s a disparity one can easily live with, because Dawson is so great in the role, and you quickly fall in love with her in each of the series she appears in. She does an adept job of combining the comic book Claire Temple’s compassion, street toughness, and impressive medical skills with Linda Carter’s overall saga, even if most of that saga has just been implied on the TV series thus far. Is it possible Marvel Studios and Netflix will bring us a Night Nurse series starring Rosario Dawson in the future? Since anything seems possible these days, let’s keep our digitals crossed!
No discussion of the “glue factor” would be complete without mentioning Rob Morgan’s reliable role as Turk Barrett, the sleazy street thug who migrates from one crime boss’s employ to another, and is based on a comic book character who has appeared in the many volumes of DAREDEVIL since the 1970s, and has occasionally appeared elsewhere. He has appeared in all of the Netflix shows that occur within the MCU, and will doubtless find some other crime boss to do his small time business with in the upcoming Iron Fist. This is a small but recurrent character role that Morgan plays quite well, and does his small but rather significant part in holding the shared universe encompassing all of these shows together.
It was a shame that Luke Cage’s long-time supporting character, his likable and loyal friend and employee Dave “D.W.” Griffith, who was popular enough with the fans to carry over into the title when it morphed into POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, didn’t get a part in Season 1 of the series. Oh well, maybe in Season 2, which I’m confident we’ll end up seeing.

Let’s now get to the show’s main antagonist, adapted from Luke Cage’s debut storyline in the comic books: Willis Stryker, a.k.a., Diamondback. The comic book version of this debut story arc played out in the first two issues of LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR FIRE, as written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by George Tuska. The comic book version of Diamondback was interesting enough, and the strong personal connection to Luke Cage described above lent more pathos to their antipathy, even though it wasn’t necessary to make a good story. The villain’s stock in trade outside of his sheer brutality was his skill with throwing blades, for which he had a weaselly little mechanical genius called Gadget design trick throwing knives that released various sprays from the hilt; or exploded; or emitted brain-crunching sonic waves whenever the tip of the weapon struck or embedded in a surface. Only the one that emitted sound waves proved problematic for Luke Cage when the inevitable battle went down, however, and the Diamondback of the comics was defeated in a fairly prompt fashion, not to mention in a rather ignominious manner, as Cage’s first story arc concluded.

If this character was to be adapted into the scripts for the 13 episodes of Coker’s Netflix series, he would have to be made far more menacing and formidable than his comic book counterpart. And I’m happy to say that the scripts fully delivered on that, as did the truly bone-chilling and empathic performance by Erik LaRay Harvey. This cat totally owned the role, and this utterly remorseless version completely saved the character from the obscurity that the Archie Goodwin-created version incurred and frankly deserved.
Harvey’s Diamondback was every bit as lethal and compellingly disturbing to behold as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin in the Daredevil series and David Tennant’s Kilgrave the Purple Man from the Jessica Jones series. Though he retained his skill with throwing blades, these took an understandable back seat to his preference for firearms, and the trick knives were replaced by the horribly deadly Judas Bullets, which could penetrate even Luke’s steel-hard skin and deliver horrifically life-threatening wounds to him. Later in the series, Diamondback wore another weapon of a much different sort culled from the inventory of Justin Hammer (an Iron Man villain from the comics who had a MCU version in Iron Man 2): a strength-enhancing exo-suit modeled after the snake-like costume his comic book version always wore since taking on the Diamondback mantle. This suit allowed him to throw down with his hated half-brother in a no-holds barred mono-a-mono battle where their fighting skills and sheer determination counted more than physical strength. The fate this version of Stryker met was serious but not final, and we were given a strong indication we may see him again in a new and improved form, possibly in The Defenders Season 1 if not Luke Cage Season 2.
Willis Stryker, a.k.a., Diamondback, as he appeared during his initial comic book appearance in LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE #1.
This is Diamondback in  the TV series, where his garish snake-like outfit was actually a functional exo-suit, and not just for looks.  I’m guessing the visor on the helmet must have been to keep the glare of the street lights out of his eyes, right? 
Another popular character from the comics who was given a fine adaptation in this series was Mercedes “Misty” Knight, a strong female African-American cop turned cyborg adventurer and martial arts hero who debuted in the IRON FIST comic (well, fully debuted, at least, since she first appeared with Spider-Man in an issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP Vol. 1, but we didn’t know it at the time; long story for another time). Knight has been a long-time supporting character of Iron Fist’s alter-ego Danny Rand, and was his lover for a long time, perhaps one of the first passionate interracial relationships in mainstream comic book land, as it goes all the way back to the 1970s. In short, her story in the comics was this: she was a cop who thwarted an attempted bombing by a terrorist at an airport, saving the lives of many innocents but tragically losing an arm from the ensuing explosion. Being a resident of the Marvel Universe, that arm was replaced by a super-strong, fully articulated bionic limb similar to the one given to Colonel Steve Austin on the then-popular TV series The Six Million Dollar Man (and possibly inspired by it).

Knight then left the force to become a freelance adventurer. She became BFFs with Danny Rand’s friend and ally, the female samurai Colleen Wing, and Knight proved one of those incredibly fast and adept learners of martial arts skills who are so popular in fiction. The dynamic duo of Knight and Wing then billed themselves as the Daughters of the Dragon when working together, and not only did they remain supporting characters and allies throughout the runs of IRON FIST and POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, but also appeared in a few stories of their own, mostly as a recurring series in Marvel’s black and white 1970s mag THE DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU (where Iron First also had a recurring series, as did the comic world’s first Puerto Rican super-hero, Hector Ayala, the original White Tiger, who debuted in the mag… which may also be a whole other future blog entry).

Though it can be argued that Knight should have waited until the upcoming Iron Fist series to debut, her role as a determined and honest police officer who is nevertheless not afraid to break the rules if the situation absolutely depends on it, and if she honestly feels it’s the right thing to do, was an integral factor in this series.

The character was well played by Simone Missick, even if to be totally honest here, I really wish the role had gone to the truly beautiful Nigerian but London-born actress Deborah Ayorinde, who was relegated to playing the minor if semi-significant character of the beleaguered, ill-fated nightclub worker Candace Miller, a relatively thankless role that in no way allowed this talented and awesome actress to shine. I wasn’t one of the show’s three casting directors, and I do not mean to sling aspersions on Missick, who gave the role of Misty Knight her all to good effect, but this is how I feel about this particular casting decision. I think Ayorinde not only has the acting chops, but also the right look for  Misty Knight, and as attractive as Missick certainly is, she just doesn’t hold a candle in that department to Ayorinde. I know looks shouldn’t mean everything in a casting decision, but this is one of those cases where it should have IMHO. Ayorinde’s beauty totally stole attention from Missick in the several scenes they had together, and since both actresses are graduates of Howard University — which Ayorinde walked out of with honors —  I stand by my decision who the roll of Misty Knight should have gone to.

Deborah Ayorinde — the amazing woman who should  have been Misty Knight.

That being said, I again mention that Missick certainly didn’t suck as Misty Knight, so I hope no one perusing this review misreads my words and accuses me of saying otherwise. It should be noted that in this season of the series, Misty Knight receives an injury that may or may not presage her receiving a bionic arm by the time The Defenders rolls around… it may have simply been an homage to this distinct feature of the comic book version rather than a true presaging of things to come, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

As for Colleen Wing, she didn’t appear in this series, but will appear in Iron Fist. We received a nice little Easter Egg in episode 13 of Season 1 presaging both her appearance, and explaining how Claire Temple will end up treating the injuries of Danny Rand in his own upcoming series. I’m really hoping Misty Knight will be brought into that show too, so that the Daughters of the Dragon can receive the MCU treatment on Netflix, and Iron Fist will receive the love interest he had for so long in the comics.
The character of Hernan “Shades” Alvarez, portrayed as an even better weasel henchman than Turk Barrett who knows how to work things to his advantage so as to move up in a crime lord’s employment hierarchy, was played to entertaining perfection by Theo Rossi. Shades happens to be another example of a character who was African-American in the comic book version that became Hispanic in the TV series. Not only that, but in the comic book Shades was a very minor character whom Carl Lucas knew in prison, and didn’t have much to do in the first story arc other than talking shit and to the future Mr. Cage and getting his ass whupped in a prison court yard throw down as a result. In the TV show, he starts out as a less than friendly acquaintance of Cage in prison, but goes on to become something far more than that his comic book counterpart afterwards.

Afterwards, he  pops up from time to time in the series working for various criminals, until he finally acquires some goggles (okay, “shades”) that allowed him to fire optic beams that was given to him by the criminal mastermind he most commonly came to serve, the genius Tilda Johnson, otherwise known as the scantily-clad African-American female super-villain called Deadly Nightshade. Retroactive continuity eventually decided Shades and his frequent partner, the bow-and-arrow-wielding Commanche, were part of a four-member street gang with Striker and Lucas in their younger years called The Rivals.




Only in the Marvel Universe could you expect to run into these guys while taking a stroll through Harlem. 

He also later turned out to be the father to Victor Alvarez, a teen super-hero who acquired the power to absorb the chi energy of his surroundings and channeling it into physical power, where he took on the moniker of the new Power Man and teamed up with Iron Fist in a memorable POWER MAN AND IRON FIST mini-series from the 2000s. It would be really cool to see a version of the younger Alvarez

Shades in the TV series (on left), and his comic book counterpart after he began wearing a costume and force beam-firing visor that made him into a Cyclops wannabe (on the right). Too bad the X-Men weren’t recruiting at the time. They may be a mutants-only club, but if they were liberal enough to accept Longshot at the time, I’m sure they would make an exception for Shades, especially since their leader would be flattered by his shtick. 

The role of Dr. Noah Berstein (not “Burstein,” as spelled on the IMDb) was played in realistically nervous manner by Michael Kostroff, who did a fine job of portraying the somewhat morally gray, conflicted nature of a scientist who wants to benefit humankind with his revolutionary though experimental technology, but is sometimes willing to go a bit too far to achieve that goal. He has a crucial role in Season 1 of the series, and will clearly have a similarly important role in Season 2, although the implication is that he’ll have a markedly different one than he played as a regular supporting character in the comic book series. In the latter, he was a doctor trying to make up for his past mistakes — a common theme for the book — and acted as Luke Cage’s sometimes unwanted conscience, keeping an eye on the mercenary to make sure he didn’t stray off the path of the angels.

In the TV show, Berstein also regrets his mistakes, but not so much that he isn’t willing to make them again if there’s the chance of advancing medical science, and not so much that he could ever be the conscience of anyone. The MCU version of Luke Cage needed no help in that department other than the support and faith of Claire Temple, the memory of his mentor Henry “Pop” Hunter, and the appraisal of the people of Harlem to keep him on the straight and narrow path.

Other roles of note in the series, not reflected in the comic book’s initial story arc, were the always talented Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard, the corrupt politician hoping to go legit, but emotionally incapable of doing so; and Maharshala Ali as her younger cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (but don’t call him that nickname to his face!), the criminal owner of the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, and initial crime lord of Harlem as the show begins.

In the comic book, the character of Mariah Dillard was quite a bit different from the small screen version, and she first appeared in issue #4 of the series. Woodard played an articulate, fairly shapely, and cunning Clintonesque politician with a veritable graveyard of skeletons in her proverbial family closet. This was in marked contrast to the comic book version of the character, a well-known criminal boss called “Black Mariah,” who spoke in awful ghetto slang, was literally 400 lbs. and over six and a half feet tall — her weight and mass making her more than strong enough to knock the average man across the room with a single swipe of her hand, and even to engage in physical combat with Luke Cage — with an M.O. consisting of the disrespectfully ghastly practice of picking up recently killed bodies in fake ambulances and robbing them of whatever valuables may have been on their carcasses before dumping them in the river. Not to mention blowing out the brains of those who crossed her in traditional fashion via use of firearms when necessary.

It appears the MCU version of Mariah Dillard was fused with the character of hefty female crime lord Mama Mabel, who was played with gusto by  LaTanya Richardson Jackson. Mama Mabel was the viciously awesome female crime lord of Harlem’s past who was the aunt and mother, respectively, of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard. Unsurprisingly, her criminal ways provided the evil influence behind both their moves down the path of the dark side, as shown in the series’ obligatory flash back sequences (you can’t have a Marvel series without those).
Mariah Dillard on the TV show (right) and her considerably more, erm, “big-boned” variation from the comic books (left).
As for the role of Cottonmouth, Ali played that role with deadly efficiency, and he provided the main villainy of the first half of the series before Diamondback stepped in and took over. I’ll say this much, as well, in deference to those who haven’t yet seen the series: Cottonmouth did not step aside as owner of Harlem’s Paradise and de facto owner of that part of the Big Apple  because of anything Diamondback did; the reason was much more terrifyingly close to home than that. Binge the series and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Needless to say, the comic book version of Cottonmouth — he was simply called “Cornell Cottonmouth” with no aversion to his nickname — was markedly different and less formidable than the comic book version. It was a shame that a version closer to the one we got in the comic book, co-created by writer Steve Engelheart, didn’t make it to the TV series. In the comic, Cottonmouth was an older villain with a bald head who had his natural teeth replaced by razor sharp molars composed of a tool steel alloy, and he didn’t appear in the saga until the story arc featured in issue #’s 19-20. At first, he possessed superhuman strength equal to that of Cage (source unknown, but possibly related to the glowing red jewel on his lapel), and was able to fight him head-to-toe (it was never revealed where he acquired that power. The comic and TV story, however, shared the fact that Cottonmouth had possession of the paper files that could exonerate Carl Lucas, since they had proof Willis Striker  was the one who stole the heroin from Cottonmouth, and framed the crime on his former BFF.
After being defeated in unarmed combat he wasn’t seen again until three decades later, where he seemed to have lost all of his superhuman strength, had his steel shark-like teeth plated in gold, and took on the role of a repulsive and brutal pimp to cash in on the sex trafficking hysteria in the media. In this guise, he worked for Deadly Nightshade and plagued the son of Hernan “Shades” Alvarez, a student of Iron Fist who became the teen super-hero that took the moniker of Power Man after Cage had long since abandoned it.
LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN #19, where the comic book version of Cottonmouth first bore his teeth. This was well after Luke Cage’s initial story arc, and we were treated to a monstrous version of the criminal who had more differences than similarities to the TV variant. 
Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, the dangerous enough human criminal seen in the TV version (right), and the far more scary and dangerous version seen in the comic book (left). 
Even after losing his superhuman strength, the comic book iteration of Cottonmouth was one dangerous mo’ fo’ who enjoyed sinking his teeth where they didn’t belong. He’s shown here in the pimp persona he took on during the POWER MAN AND IRON FIST mini-series published during the 2000s. 
Rounding that out we had the small but extremely important role of Frankie Faison as Henry “Pop” Hunter, a former boxer and now barber whose persona and shop served as the heart and soul of Harlem, who also happened to be the mentor and conscience-nurturer of Luke Cage and many others in the MCU’s version of Harlem. The man didn’t last long, but his influence certainly did, and it’s a role no one will ever forget. His final fate will impact viewers as strongly as it did Cage and the rest of Harlem, including as vile a man as Cottonmouth himself.
Some final nods should go to the great performances of Jaiden Kaine as the wily henchman punk Zip; Karen Pittman as the upright but sometimes overly hard-as-nails Inspector Priscilla Ridley; Ron Cephas Jones as Bobby Fish, the manager of Pops’ Barber Shop who provides continual friendship and moral support for Luke Cage, along with a good dose of always welcome good-natured humor and pity philosphy; and Jacob Vargas as the Mexican crime lord Domingo Colon, who decides to take on Diamondback.
VI. What About the Main Man? (And I’m Not Talking About Lobo!)
Now we get to the main star of the show: Michael Colter as the titular hero himself. In my humble opinion, no actor could have done the role better. Colter not only proved his merits for the role previously in Jessica Jones Season 1, but he totally cemented them here on his own. His now patented use of bullet-ridden hoodies in place of a formal costume became an important plot thread in the show, and is evocative of the more conventional attire the character has used in the comics since the 1990s, when he dispensed with the yellow escape artist suit and the metal tiara.
No sooner did ripped jeans go out of style than Luke Cage went and popularized this  look. 
Cage dispenses his classic attire for a new, updated look in the ’90s.
His old yellow shirt had so many bullet holes in it by that time he figured he might as well tear what was left of it apart and break the chain belt just to show how bad ass he was.
Despite the changes in the TV version that removed the character’s full struggle against the temptations of the dark side of inner city ghetto life, Colter nevertheless instilled the character with a massive amount of “everyman” appeal and working class power and pride, becoming the type of icon the common person can relate to considerably more than Captain America — still the greatest hero of them all as far as I’m concerned, but not nearly as relatable as the likes of Luke Cage. Not only that, but Luke Cage as portrayed by Michael Colter was as inspirational as he was relatable, with numerous nods to the black culture  he grew up in.
Harlem was depicted as a character in its own right, and its centrality and importance to the development of black culture in post-Civil War America was evident in every single scene, almost every line of dialogue, and the entire atmosphere exuded by the script and cast performances.
VII. So, in Conclusion…

If Luke Cage had been made by the mavens of blaxploitation production in the early ’70s when the character first debuted, the resulting film and/or TV series would no doubt have been considerably different than what Coker and his cast brought us here in 2016. Would it have been good? There is absolutely no way to tell, as it never came to pass. I’ll let individual readers decide for themselves if that’s a fortunate or unfortunate fact of celluloid history as we know it. What I can give an opinion on, however, is that what Coker and his cast gave us in 2016 was a great interpretation of the character, keeping intact every theme he represents, and respecting the culture he exemplifies. Thus, I conclude that the show we finally got after waiting so many years for it does Goodwin’s and Tuska’s character proud, with its positive points far outweighing the mistakes. As another comic book legend, writer and editor supreme Roy Thomas, served as the editor of that comic book, it would be interesting to see what he thinks of the TV series and how well it held up the standards of a character and saga he was once in charge of.

If nothing else, this show makes it completely clear why Luke Cage has endured for four and a half decades at this writing, and why he is one of the greatest heroes ever created in the comic book medium. What he represents and the world he came from are as relevant today as they were in the glorious era of the 1970s that spawned him, and the great success of this TV series since the weekend it was released on Netflix offers proof of that. As I said in the beginning, this show — like all produced by Marvel Studios for Netflix — is not for every sensibility, but it should be appreciated by everyone with a flare for a character who represents something pivotal to the society we live in, a script that makes you think, exploration of the history of a major aspect of American culture, an inspirational hero the common person can relate to, and strong character development sharing equal space with super-hero action and fight scenes.
I eagerly await both The Defenders Season 1 and Luke Cage Season 2, where the interrupted saga of this character will continue on the small screen. I hate having to wait an entire year for it, but here’s betting it will be well worth that wait!

Author: godofthunder85

I'm a published author and freelance editor who has a strong opinion on just about anything I have an opinion on... which is just about everything! I'm very non-PC, heavily into progressive politics, and stand up for what I believe in no matter what the cost or level of popularity. My published work is in the genres of horror, sci-fi, and pulp adventure. I'm a life-long comic book fan and a researcher of the paranormal.

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