Marvel's Luke Cage
In “Now You’re Mine,” Harlem’s true hero claims her title. With mordant humor and a healthy dose of common sense, Claire Temple outsmarts armed thugs, saves Misty Knight’s life, and makes it out of the besieged Harlem’s Paradise without being nabbed by the cops. The street level poetry that Luke Cage so desperately strives for is utterly embodied in her character. Rosario Dawson keeps proving time and time again she is the secret weapon of these Marvel Netflix series. She moves through a city full of forces far greater than herself with wit, quiet strength, and more common sense than most of the leading heroes.
Despite Mike Colter’s notable charisma on Jessica Jones and The Good Wife, he’s been unable to make Luke fully work as the lead of this series. The core problem with his character and the show as a whole isn’t uncommon: Whenever a series with black characters premieres, the weight of being “important” is thrust upon it. A black show (even to use such terminology is a problem) can’t just be entertaining and well-crafted — it has to say something, mean something about Black Identity™. Shows like Insecure and Atlanta aren’t in the business of making new myths for the black community that Luke Cage is in. Instead, those shows find ripe narrative ground because of their specificity. They aren’t trying to speak to every facet of modern American blackness.
When series creator Cheo Hodari Coker told audiences at San Diego Comic-Con “the world is ready for a bulletproof black man” it perhaps created unreachable expectations for Luke Cage. Instead of a radical show that spoke truth to power and showed an unapologetically black hero protecting the community of Harlem from racist dynamics reworking its streets, the series chooses to focus on the problems within the black community. As a result, Luke feels like a hero from another time. He’s morally conservative in ways that current black activist movements have little time for, which ultimately hinders the series. It’s also why Luke isn’t a compelling character. He only works in fits and spurts, since the writers seem too busy striving for importance than digging into who he is as a human being.
This is why episodes like “Now You’re Mine” fail. When one of Diamondback’s goons calls Claire “Night Nurse” as she tries to figure out a way to escape the hostage situation, the story starts to feel interesting, vital even. Claire is allowed to be human and complex in ways Luke isn’t. She doesn’t have to be a stand-in for the real-life issues faced by people of color. She doesn’t have to represent a movement.
While “Now You’re Mine” proves once again the greatness of Claire and Misty, they of course aren’t the focus. Instead, the episode stays relatively contained by pivoting between Diamondback’s hostage situation inside Harlem’s Paradise and Inspector Priscilla Ridley’s attempt to gain some control outside. The animating force of this episode further constructs the battle between Diamondback and Luke, in light of the lackluster revelation that they’re half-brothers. Why does Diamondback hate Luke so much? Will Luke step up and be the hero Claire believes he can be? What is Diamondback’s grand plan? Most importantly, in the wake of Cottonmouth’s death and Mariah’s rise, why is Diamondback the main villain? We get answers to all these questions, but I wouldn’t call them satisfying.
Diamondback’s animosity toward Luke seems to strives for a modern take on Cain and Abel, an allegory that becomes text when Diamondback starts waxing poetic, comparing his own situation to the biblical story. It seems he doesn’t know a part of the Bible he isn’t willing to quote and twist for his own means. Diamondback uses the threat of violence to get one of the hostages, Councilman Damon Boone (Clark Jackson) whom he nicknames Diet Obama, to act as his contact with the police. Despite eyewitness reports that say Luke was helping people when the violence broke out, Diamondback is able to use confusion to his advantage and trick the police into believing that Luke is running this hostage situation. That Diamondback opens up to Boone means the councilman’s death is an inevitability. He’s killed toward the close of the episode with Diamondback’s super-powered gloves, adding yet another dead body he’ll blame Luke for.
But is this really the wisest way to give us more information about Diamondback? The writers double down on the lunacy of the character, most evidently when he hands Boone a Bible that’s annotated, highlighted, scribbled in. We learn through laborious monologues the ways his life diverged from Luke’s — a stint in juvie, killing someone there in self-defense (or so he says), no family, no hope. Meanwhile, Luke signed up for the Marines and law enforcement. Despite them both being responsible for the same childhood indiscretion — a joyride in a red Corvette — Luke is spared the horrors Diamondback had to face thanks to his father’s protection. Instead of rightfully hating the father who didn’t claim him and let his mother die alone, Diamondback has recreated himself in his image. He’s a slick dressed preacher of sorts whose obsession with the Bible masks his moral failings. As Diamondback went on and on, I couldn’t help but wonder what has happened to Luke’s family? As far as we know, his father is alive, so why is he so absent from the narrative? The more Diamondback preaches his fire and brimstone retelling of his life, the less interesting he becomes. His vendetta against Luke isn’t Shakespearean and grand, but juvenile and listless.
When they’re hiding in a secret basement storage room, Misty asks Luke an important question I was wondering myself: “What does this brother of yours want anyway?” Luke’s answer: “Revenge.”
Okay, but what does his revenge look like? Ruining Luke’s reputation and killing him? Even Shades is tired of Diamondback’s schtick, particularly his reckless decision making. If the heart of Luke Cage is about saving the soul of Harlem, how does Diamondback relate to that? He simply doesn’t. Diamondback stepping up as the main villain disconnects Luke’s narrative from Harlem. Yes, as ADA Blake Tower (taking a break from Daredevil apparently) tells Priscilla that giving guns with watered-down versions of the Judas bullets to cops is dangerous because they will eventually end up on the street. Imagine that kind of firepower in the hands of someone like Frank Castle or worse yet, a villain with little moral ground to stand on. But still, this is a tenuous narrative link. And its Mariah who is responsible for getting the mayor to approve these weapons anyway. Diamondback is all about Luke, which makes the narrative feel more claustrophobic than it already is.
Yes, there are still pleasures to be found in the episode. As has often been the case this season, my favorite moments concern the rapport between Claire and other women. We see her aid Candace (Deborah Ayorinde) the hostess who regrets helping Mariah frame Luke for Cottonmouth’s murder. Claire proves to be worthy of her own series, or at least a larger role in Marvel’s Universe. She outsmarts men who underestimate her at every turn. She faces her fears, even as Luke continually suggests that this hero thing just isn’t for him. She has no superpowers to speak of, but it seems she’s done more for Harlem than Luke has. When she’s able to get downstairs, we also see her bond with Misty while Luke goes to handle Diamondback. Which doesn’t go that well.
NYPD’s ESU team barges in just when he saves Candace from Diamondback and narrowly misses getting hit by another Judas bullet. Diamondback escapes, Luke finds himself in handcuffs. This was to be expected. In many ways, this episode puts the show at a standstill — an attempt to delay the meat of the narrative until later. With two episodes to go, we’re stuck with this filler episode of sorts that lacks the urgency it needs.
But the moments between Claire and Misty sing. These are two women who are great at their jobs and truly heroic. They talk about Luke as Claire uses dental floss to tie Misty’s vein and tend to her wounds. When Shades discovers them, they tag team to take him down. That Misty is able to stand after losing so much blood is a testament to her strength. “You got skills,” Misty tells Claire. “Likewise,” she responds.
Misty and Claire hold the promise of a truly radical show, one that might live up to the timely intensity of Coker’s quote at Comic-Con. But this isn’t their show. It’s Luke’s, which means the narrative ultimately comes down to him. With only two episodes left, the rote nature of his story is a problem I’m not sure the series knows how to fix.