Spoilers for: Jessica Jones, Civil War (comics)
It’s tough writing about someone’s origin story when they were created as a blaxpoitation character and you don’t want to offend anyone. So you tell the story and you try your best not to offend anyone.
Luke Cage: “Why’s it always Harlem? Can’t they destroy the Upper East Side for once? Sweet Christmas…” –Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
A crime boss looks over his operation and smiles. He sees his cooks making batch after batch of smack, his crew opening crates of smuggled guns, and his enforcers returning from convincing people that protection is worth their hard-earned cash. He also sees some fool coming into the warehouse, probably about to start something. His enforcers go over to persuade him to leave, but get beaten down. The boss grabs one of the new guns and opens fire. To his shock, the bullets just bounce off the fool’s skin! ‘Who is this guy?’ he thinks, ‘a friggin Terminator?’ As the man draws closer, the boss finally recognizes him. ‘Aw crap, he’s an Avenger! That’s Luke frigging Cage!’
First debuting in 1972, Luke Cage is one of the most famous African-American superheroes ever created. But while he may enjoy fame today, his road has been arduous. Fire up the TARDIS* folks, ‘cause it’s time for a history lesson.
Soldier of Fortune: Luke’s History
Luke Cage: “I hold to a simple philosophy: just assume everyone’s a piece of crap and then be pleasantly surprised if you find anyone who ain’t.” –New Avengers
In the early 70’s, Luke Cage was created in order to cash in on the popular ‘blaxploitation’ films of the time. This was readily apparent by his afro, ‘inner city’ dialect, and usage of slang. This included his famous catchphrase: Sweet Christmas.** Once the blaxploitation fad passed, the writers quickly got rid of most of the more stereotypical elements.
Born Carl Lucas, Luke was a gang member who tried to escape the lifestyle and was framed for drug possession. While in prison, he was a frequent victim of police brutality from a sadistic guard. The guard was demoted for this and blamed Luke. Luke was recruited for an experiment on cell regeneration and offered a chance at parole if he participated. The guard sabotaged the experiment, hoping it would kill Luke. But because these are superheroes, a sabotaged experiment is a great way to get superpowers, not die painfully. Luke attacked the guard and escaped. Worried that he’d lose parole for assaulting the guard, Luke fled to New York where he now survives as a Hero for Hire. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Luke Cage!
Luke realized that he could use his newfound powers to earn a living and set up shop as a Hero for Hire. While he’s basically a mercenary, he takes time to help out the little guy between jobs. On various cases, he worked with other superheroes from the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter in the Netflix series) and the X-Men.
During one case, he learned that a supervillain named Bushmaster had kidnapped several friends of his, including his girlfriend, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson in Marvel’s Netflix shows). Bushmaster blackmailed Luke into an assassination attempt on a detective named Misty Knight (Simone Missick), even offering to give Luke proof that he had been framed. Luke wound up fighting Misty’s boyfriend, Iron Fist, who offered his help once he learned why Luke was targeting her. Iron Fist helped Luke defeat Bushmaster, free the hostages, and even retrieve the proof.
Realizing that they made a good team, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, (played by Finn Jones in the upcoming, eponymous show) decide to officially become Heroes For Hire. They go from being just a pair of street-level heroes to international fame and even Avengers.
Jewel and the Power Man: The Modern Stories
Luke: “You slept with me.”
Jessica: “I didn’t plan that. It just happened.”
Luke’s life took a strange turn when he ran into his old friend, Jewel, more commonly known as Jessica Jones. She was an emotional wreck after escaping Zebediah Killgrave’s (David Tennant) mind control. The two of them started a relationship and stopped Killgrave, who had returned to try and take control of Jessica again. Jessica revealed that she was pregnant and they married, although we haven’t seen that on the screen yet.
When the Superhero Registration Act passed, Luke refused to comply. He thought the Act was too similar to the Jim Crow Laws***. Luke sends Jessica and their daughter to Canada so they will be safe and joins the Anti-Registration team, even becoming the leader after Captain America is assassinated. He eventually resigns from the Avengers to ensure his family’s safety.
Harlem’s Hero: Luke’s Powers and Characterization
Doctor Doom: “When my men reported a crazy black man in the Fantastic Four’s craft, I knew it had to be you!”
Luke Cage: “Where’s my money, honey?”
Doctor Doom: “Money? What money are you talking–? You mean the money I owed you for tracking down my robots? You came all the way here for that?! A paltry $200!!!! You are crazy!” –Luke Cage: Hero for Hire #9
When Luke debuted in the 70’s, he was a standard blaxploitation hero. He quickly lost most of those trappings once the fad ran its course. He’s still aware of the many stereotypes surrounding “angry black men” and sometimes uses that to his advantage. Luke can be very boisterous, but is usually the one keeping other heroes focused even amidst the many crises the Avengers tackle.
The experiment he took part in was a super-soldier project similar to the one that gave Captain America his powers. Luke gained super strength and virtually unbreakable skin. Depending on who is writing the story, Luke might be able to punch Hulk hard enough for the big green guy to feel it or might be capped at Spider-Man’s level of strength. His skin shrugs off bullets, acid, extreme temperatures, and a plethora of other things, making Luke nearly invulnerable. He is a skilled street fighter and has studied martial arts under Iron Fist.
Luke is not invincible. He can be beaten by people with comparable strength and usually can’t do more than slow Hulk down. His skin can be pierced by weapons made of adamantium and, depending on the writer, his internal organs might not be as invulnerable as his skin. Towards the finale of the first season of Jessica Jones, Jessica was able to beat Luke by shooting him point-blank with a shotgun. The concussive force of the blast damaged his internal organs and nearly killed him.
Luke Cage has accomplished some amazing feats. He’s helped Jessica defeat Killgrave, was one of the first picks for the New Avengers, and led the Anti-Registration forces after Captain America’s assassination. But his most impressive feat was early in his career. Doctor Doom had hired him to find and destroy several robots that had fled from Doom’s country, Latveria. Luke completed the mission and returned to the Latverian embassy, only to find that Doom had welched on the deal and returned to his country.
An enraged Luke borrowed a jet from the Fantastic Four, flew to Latveria, and fought his way through the Latverian army to confront Doom. Doctor Doom was flabbergasted that Luke had done all this for a paltry $200, but then realized the point was making sure no one else would try to get out of paying him. Luke Cage left with the money and something far more valuable, Doctor Doom’s respect.
The Actors Who Played Luke Cage
Luke Cage was played by Mike Colter in Jessica Jones, but that wasn’t the first time the character had been adapted. He was played by rapper and stand up comedian Lil’ JJ in Super Hero Squad Show and Christopher B. Duncan in The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. He is a main character in Ultimate Spider-Man voiced by Ogie Banks. And finally, he appears in the anime Marvel Disk Wars: The Avengers where he is voiced by Ryokan Koyanagi.
Didya Get All That?
A wannabe crook who wound up being one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
* Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, the time machine used by The Doctor in Doctor Who. Fun Fact: At one point, the Heroes for Hire dealt with a pastiche of The Doctor and the Daleks. (Power Man & Iron Fist 79 if you want to check it out.)
** He used that phrase because he’d promised his grandma he wouldn’t swear.
*** For those of you who aren’t aware, the Jim Crow Laws were laws that dealt with racial segregation. It’s where the phrase “Separate, but equal” comes from. Spoilers, it often wasn’t.
Jared Bounacos has written for Movie Rewind since 2017.