Research topic: Netflix’s Marvel’s Luke Cage explores timely social issues

The symbolism in Marvel’s Luke Cage, the newest of its Netflix superhero series, is not terribly subtle: “Having Luke Cage wandering around, wearing a hoodie as an act of defiance, reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man feels a bit on the nose,” noted Daniel Fienberg in a review for The Hollywood Reporter, “‘Marvel’s Luke Cage’: TV Review,” posted September 27, 2016. But the pointed commentary and the show’s willingness to engage with social issues may be one of its strengths. It’s the first television show to center on a black superhero, based on a character created during the Blaxploitation craze of the 1970s.

Learn more about Marvel's superhero series, Luke Cage. (Credit: Marvel, Netflix)

Learn more about Marvel’s superhero series, Luke Cage. (Credit: Marvel, Netflix)

That Luke Cage, sometimes known as Power Man, who is bulletproof, is increasingly relevant in an age of #BlackLivesMatter and increased media coverage of the shootings of unarmed black men. But that social consciousness is only one of the aspects of Marvel’s Luke Cage that would make an interesting research paper topic in your film and television studies or African American studies classes. It’s also a great source for an extracurricular reading list.

Luke Cage in the comics

According to Evan Narcisse in article, “The Black Superhero Who Helped Me Navigate a White World,” posted February 22, 2016, Luke Cage “was a character churned out to cash in on the 1970s blaxploitation craze and starred in a long-running series often populated with a wince-inducing parade of jive-talking stereotypes.” But somewhere in the run of the Power Man and Iron Fist comic series, in which Luke Cage teamed up with super-powered kung fu expert Danny Rand, that wince-inducing parade shifted, and the setting became more grounded in reality. After one particular scene in which Luke Cage is thinking to himself about one aspect of his blackness, a young Narcisse realized “If Luke Cage is saying stuff like that, then, then… there’s gotta be black people working on this book.”

And there were. While the wrongly convicted ex-con Cage, who had gotten his powers of super strength and bulletproof skin in a prison experiment, was created with plenty of stereotypes backing him, the character grew to be much deeper. For Narcisse and other readers, it was Cage’s strength of identity, and his unwillingness to surrender to a system that excluded him, that gave him lasting appeal.

Portrayal of Luke Cage in television

The Netflix version of Luke Cage retains that strength of character, playing a reluctant superhero in a world that’s perpetually unjust. Like the original Cage, the Netflix incarnation is an ex-con, but he’s also an ex-cop. The idea of his bulletproof nature isn’t just related to his skin: there’s an emphasis that his self-acceptance—that strength of identity—makes him “bulletproof” to the corruption around him.

Marvel’s Luke Cage features four principal characters: Luke Cage, who finds work at the neighborhood barbershop (mentored by its owner, Pop) and as a dishwasher at Harlem’s Paradise nightclub; the nightclub’s mobster owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes; Cottonmouth’s equally-shady politician cousin Mariah Dillard; and Misty Knight, a cop who is continually pressured not to serve justice and her community, but to follow leads that do more to make the department look good. Cottonmouth and Mariah serve as the principle antagonists for the first half of the series, but even as villains, they’re given complex motivations and background that explains why they believe the way they do. They’re doing what they think is best for Harlem—but not what fits in with Cage’s view of justice.

Most of what critics have considered the show’s best work is at its most grounded in a very real Harlem. “It’s a series infused by the conversations we’re having about race and gender and American urban space in 2016,” wrote Fienberg. Rob Lowman of Daily News pointed out in his article, “How Netflix’s Black Superhero Series ‘Marvel’s Luke Cage’ Came to Be,” published September 27, 2016, “In this era of the Trayvon Martin killing, [Cage’s hoodie] becomes a rebuke to the idea that a black man in a hoodie is to be feared.”

Literary references to Luke Cage

Critics have also noted that the show is smart, particularly in its use of music and literary references. “In one scene, there’s a discussion about the relative merits of Donald Goines’ Kenyatta book series … versus Walter Mosely’s books about ‘Easy’ Rawlins, the South Central Los Angeles private eye,” Lowman wrote. The first series is about a black militant urban fiction hero, Kenyatta, during the 1970s. Other literary references include Ellison’s Invisible Man and mention of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist who also began writing the current, incredibly popular and critically well-received Black Panther series for Marvel.

For related subjects including African Americans in Motion Pictures, the Harlem Renaissance and television, visit Questia.

Have you watched Marvel’s Luke Cage? How do you think it handles current events topics? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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