Luke Cage and the Problem of Compelling Villains
Marvel’s Luke Cage is a modern superhero drama in the truest sense. Resetting the “Hero of Harlem” from the “blaxploitation” era of the ‘70s into our time as a brooding and stalwart black man in a hoodie sends viewers a pointed message about imbalances of power, stereotypes, and racism. In its first season, the series asked if a black man in a hoodie could even be a hero in this country. And if so, what sort of hero could, and should, he be?
In any given traditional superhero story, you naturally sympathize with whoever the hero is protecting, so this becomes problematic when your hero spends all his time protecting villains from each other—no matter his end goal.Mike Colter plays Luke Cage with a quiet fortitude—a fortitude that matches his character’s reluctance to be viewed as a hero. His power simmers behind his broom-sweeping in Pop’s Barbershop, and he steps in to help people out of a sense of right and wrong. His mentor is the owner and proprietor of the barbershop, Pop (Frankie Faison). An ex-con and former street thug, Pop doesn’t allow cursing in his shop, which is a safe haven for Harlem’s troubled youth. Pop’s slogan of his reformed life is, “Forward, always,” and Luke takes Pop’s words—and his philosophy—strictly to heart. Under Pop’s mentorship, and eventually his ghost, in season 1 Luke Cage fights to protect the citizens of Harlem—a city and a people he loves. And he does it with an awareness of his own fallibility, bearing the weight of his sin. Discussing the false conviction that sent him to Seagate Prison in one episode early in the season, he says to Pop, “I may not be guilty, but I’m not innocent.”
Luke is inspiring and an all-around good guy, but his bursts of reluctant heroism cannot match the charisma or sheer weight of cinematic brilliance Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali) and Mariah Stokes Dillard (Alfre Woodard) bring to the screen.
There is something compelling and creepy about snakes, and the villains in Season 1 of Luke Cage are intentionally serpentine. Not only is Cornell nicknamed “Cottonmouth”; the henchman “Shades” (Theo Rossi) lurks in the shadows and whispers in Mariah’s ear like Satan himself. The “Big Bad” of the season is called “Diamondback” (Erik LaRay Harvey), too, even though he never quite delivers the performance Mahershala Ali does as Cottonmouth Stokes. Like snakes, these villains posture and twist and slither in the shadows, sliding over and around each other, slipping ever out of Luke’s and Detective Misty Knight’s (Simone Missick) grips in political and legal maneuvers that are equal parts maddening and fascinating.
And that’s the real problem. I found myself coming back to the show not so much to see what sort of hero Luke would be—Luke is predictable—but compelled by the magnetic personalities and unpredictability of the villains. Luke Cage may be the title character, but when you care more about the villains’ journeys than the hero’s, he ceases to really be the star.
What’s latent in season 1 is more pronounced in season 2, when the writers make the lamentable decision to strip everything good out of Luke’s life. While in season 1, we got the sense that Luke’s outer strength was a manifestation of his inner resiliency and the mentorship of Pop, in season 2, his outer strength feels more like desperation—repeated explosions of his anger as everything he loves is ripped away from him. Season 2 gives us an angry Luke Cage, plodding (quite literally) back and forth between protecting one criminal side or the other—and sometimes protecting one master villain from the other—in a perpetual, generational gang war after John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir) returns to Harlem from Jamaica to reclaim what he believes to be his family inheritance from Mariah Stokes Dillard.
This, in addition to a number of personal hard-knocks, causes the Hero of Harlem to hit rock bottom. Tracked by an app designed to keep tabs on his movements and pursued by people looking to capitalize on his celebrity, Luke finds himself isolated, angry, and alone. In going back and forth between fighting Bushmaster and Mariah, it’s not that Luke isn’t protecting Harlem, but in season 2, we get to see so little of how his actions positively impact the citizenry that it’s difficult to connect the dots between his repeated throwdowns and any actual goodness.
Tracking Luke’s participation in the conflict leaves the viewer feeling as exhausted as Luke looks through much of the season, and the overall effect is a general sense of detachment. Part of the point of Luke Cage being reimagined as a bulletproof black man in a hoodie was to make him a modern hero of the people—someone fully relatable, most especially to black people in America today. But season 2 seems to rip Luke away from his roots, making him more a protector of powerful factions in Harlem than of the people those factions are exploiting. Although Luke is conflicted about his role in the goings on in Harlem, the season left me with an overall bad taste—a sense of “Meaningless, meaningless,” or, as Luke himself says, “It’s always rinse and repeat.”
If nothing else, Luke Cage season 2 is the natural progression of the problem set up in the writing, and perhaps even the casting, of Luke Cage season 1. When the villains are the most compelling part of your story, then the story ultimately becomes all about villainy. In any given traditional superhero story, you naturally sympathize with whoever the hero is protecting, so this becomes problematic when your hero spends all his time protecting villains from each other—no matter his end goal. “My sworn enemy is the only one I can trust to protect everything I’ve got left in this world,” Mariah says to Luke in season 2. Even she seems perplexed by the turn of events.
This sort of heavy focus on villainy taints all the relationships in the show. Where season 1 remained elevated by Pop, Pop’s legacy, Luke’s humility and fortitude, and his relationship with Claire (Rosario Dawson)—despite the compelling nature of the villains—season 2 is almost devoid of anything truly heroic or redemptive to keep it elevated. It’s a season that turns brother against brother, daughter against mother, lover against lover, healer into murderer, and leaves Luke floundering and alone. It even taints the one relationship that is reconciled in the season: his broken relationship with his father.
Luke Cage’s father (Reg E. Cathey) is a reverend who doesn’t make a meaningful appearance in season 1. This is largely because Luke finds out in season 1 that Diamondback is his half-brother—the product of an affair between his father and his father’s secretary. It’s no wonder that Luke carries a lot of anger around from this revelation, and in season 2, when he finds that his father has moved back to Harlem, he has to learn to forgive his father and reconcile with him. Although this reconciliation does occur, and forgiveness is powerful and good—as is Luke’s ability to set aside his anger in this particular situation—his father steps in to the role Pop vacated as mentor. But sadly, his father has a different sort of mantra for Luke, and it’s a self-destructive one for someone in Luke’s position.
Luke’s father encourages him to find the power within himself to be a hero, at one point equating magic, science, and God. But this is a concept that is entirely at odds with how Luke viewed himself in season 1—the Hero of Harlem who acknowledged that although he wasn’t guilty of the crime he’d been framed and sent to prison for, he was far from innocent. In season 2, it’s a slow slide, but Luke exchanges humility for pride, reluctant heroism for savior-complex. And the moment his own father cops to the idea that his son is a self-contained savior, it not only taints the reconciliation between father and son; it sets Luke Cage up to believe his own celebrity—to believe he is a law unto himself.
In the final episode of season 2, Shades visits Luke and propositions him to take over control of Harlem. When Luke threatens Shades’ life, Shades just smiles and says, “See, you’re not the light anymore. That’s how it starts.” This Luke Cage is a far cry removed from the Hero of Harlem we met in season 1. It’s the sort of hero who would, and could, be tempted into villainy himself.
And this is where we find him in the very end of the last episode of season 2: perched in Harlem’s Paradise, himself transformed into a virtual mob boss. Triumphant over his enemies, but in all the wrong ways. In trying to save Harlem at all costs, we have to wonder if Luke has lost his soul.
I still have hope for our Hero of Harlem, and I think the writers of Luke Cage clearly leave Luke in a place where we long for his redemption at the end of the season. I don’t think we’re meant to view him up in the perch always reserved for the villains of the show and feel good about it. But it’s a risky move to leave off the season where it is. Our bulletproof black man replaced his hoodie for a suit and the streets of Harlem for a swanky office high above the movers and shakers. Somehow I don’t think that’s what Pop had in mind when he admonished Luke, “Forward, always,” but I think, and hope, Luke will remember his roots in season 3 and don the hoodie once again