A Beginner’s Guide to Netflix’s Luke Cage

Photo: Marvel, Netflix

There's a new protagonist in the dramatis personae of Marvel's ever-expanding film and television empire: Luke Cage. He’s the lead in the appropriately named Netflix/Marvel team-up Marvel’s Luke Cage, which hits computers September 30. The show is very deliberately aimed at audiences who don’t generally care about the spandex-clad antics of superhero filmmaking, but it has a bit of a handicap in that the main character is pretty obscure compared to other Marvel figures like, say, Iron Man or Daredevil. If you’re curious about the show but waffling on whether it’s worth your time, don’t worry: We’ve answered some of your burning questions below.

What’s this show’s basic deal?
It centers around Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a man with a tortured past, incredible strength, and unbreakable skin, who lives in Harlem and reluctantly becomes a hero when he takes on the forces of organized crime. In his orbit, he finds a noble cop (Simone Missick), a corrupt politician (Alfre Woodard), and a mob boss (Mahershala Ali), among others. All the while, there are interrogations of blackness and gentrification.

So Luke’s a superhero? Is this a superhero show?
Well, yes and no. Luke doesn’t wear a costume (unless you count a hoodie) and isn’t a member of any Avengers- or Guardians of the Galaxy–esque super-teams. He certainly doesn’t think of himself as a superhero — he’s a pretty unassuming guy who just wants to live a quiet life, but when things go cockeyed for him and his friends, he steps up to the plate to take on those who would harm Harlem. Although the show follows a version of the hero’s journey, there are no bright primary colors or laser-filled firefights. Even the superpowers feel more like magical realism than sci-fi: They’re visually reserved extensions of Luke’s character traits. The show’s street-level action resembles Marvel’s past offerings on Netflix, Marvel’s Daredevil and Marvel’s Jessica Jones.

Why does Luke’s name sound familiar?
If you watched Jessica Jones, you’ll remember Luke as the title character’s stoically sexy love interest. He ran a bar in Hell’s Kitchen that she frequented, they got romantically involved, his bar got blown up, he learned that Jessica was partially responsible for the death of his wife, Reva, he got mind-controlled, and though Jessica saved him, the two of them didn’t reconcile. In this show, we see him after his storyline on Jessica Jones: He’s moved to Harlem and started doing odd jobs while keeping a low profile. At least in the seven episodes released to critics, Jessica doesn’t show up.

Do I need to bone up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe to understand what’s going on in the show?
Not really, no. We’ve already told you all you might want to know about Luke’s past, but even that stuff isn’t necessary for enjoying Luke Cage. There are a few passing mentions of “The Incident,” which refers to the climactic battle of 2012’s The Avengers, during which a section of midtown Manhattan was wrecked. But similarly, that stuff isn’t central to the plot. You can very easily walk into the show cold.

Is Luke going to be a part of Marvel properties in the future?
Yes! Next year, Netflix will debut a show called Marvel’s The Defenders, which will feature a team-up between characters from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, the upcoming Iron Fist, and Luke Cage. Plus, if the Marvel Netflix universe follows the lead of stories from Marvel Comics, Luke and Jessica will end up getting married and having a baby. Awwww.

What other works of fiction does the series feel like?
It’s like if Jackie Brown, Scarface, and A Fistful of Dollars were thrown in a blender, sprinkled with gold dust for coloring, and molded into a scale model of Harlem. Its strong, reluctantly heroic protagonist feels very Eastwood-y; its charismatic and compelling but wholly corrupted antagonists are pure gangster-movie material; and the overall visual and musical tones feel like a gentle and un-bombastic homage to black cinema of the 1970s. Show creator Cheo Hodari Coker has called his baby a “hip-hop Western,” which seems about right.

What are Luke’s comic-book origins?
He was created in 1972 by venerable comics writer Archie Goodwin and artists John Romita Sr. and George Tuska. At the time, he was imagined as a pretty transparent cash-in on contemporary film’s blaxploitation craze: He was a streetwise, jive-talking ex-con who patrolled the avenues of Harlem. He went by the code name Power Man and his gimmick was that he was a “hero for hire” — for the right price, he’d take down a bad guy or two for you. He wore a ridiculous costume consisting of a yellow shirt that exposed his chest, skin-tight black pants, big pirate boots, a silver tiara wrapping around his Afro (no, seriously), and a belt made out of massive metal chains. He soon was placed into a duo series with a fellow street-fighter named Iron Fist (who’s getting his own Netflix series next year) and, as the decades wore on, became a bit of a joke. Then, at the turn of the millennium, he was reinvented as a smooth, well-dressed (read: costumeless) gent and, eventually, a leader in the Avengers.

Is he a big deal in comics?
He’s a much-respected B-lister. He hasn’t been a top-line name like Spider-Man or Captain America, but he’s been a constant in one series or another since 2001. He currently co-stars in a series called Power Man and Iron Fist and is about to be the lead in a blaxploitation throwback title simply called Cage! (exclamation point included). People love him and he’s always around.

Is there a recent issue of Spider-Man that features an adorable and kinda moving scene with Luke and Jessica Jones?
I’m so glad you asked, because the answer is yes! There are currently two Spider-Men swinging around the Marvel Comics universe, and one of them is Afro-Latino teenager Miles Morales. In this month’s issue of Spider-Man, Luke and Jessica track him down to tell him he needs to do a better job of protecting his secret identity — and that, as a person of color, he has a special responsibility to do a good job out there. There’s plenty of good-natured bickering between the husband and wife, and it’s just a general delight to read.