Main Cast: Mike Colter, Rosario Dawson, Mahershala Ali
Creator: Cheo Hodari Coker
Luke: “I ain’t guilty. But I ain’t innocent either.” – Luke Cage, “Code of the Streets” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Luke Cage is like a modern remake of Shaft. Mike Colter stars as one of Marvel’s most popular black superheroes fighting crime, bigotry, and corruption on Harlem’s mean streets. Is it worth your time, or should we fire this Hero for Hire? Let’s find out!
Luke: “I couldn’t just lay in the gutter anymore. Pop knew about my abilities, so I put them to good use. I shut down Crispus Attucks personally.”
Misty: “That wasn’t your job.”
Luke: “People needed someone who didn’t require a warrant or shield to get things done. Call it a vigilante or a superhero, call it what you will. But like it or not, I finally accepted that that someone had to be me.” – Luke Cage “You Know My Steez” (Season 1, Episode 13)
The cast of Luke Cage is eclectic.
Luke is an escaped con with unbreakable skin and super strength. Colter jumped on the role when it was revealed the show runners were cutting out most of the blaxploitation elements. MCU audiences were introduced to Luke when he appeared in Jessica Jones.
Luke hides from the police and begins working crappy jobs, but becomes a hero when he avenges a friend of his who is murdered.
Rosario Dawson reprises her role as Claire Temple, serving as Luke’s love interest and medic. Simone Missick plays Misty Knight, a cop who opposes Luke’s vigilantism before becoming his ally. Ron Cephas Jones of This is Us fame plays Bobby Fish, Luke’s mentor.
Method Man: “You know, there’s somethin’ powerful about seeing a black man who’s bulletproof and unafraid.” – Luke Cage, “Soliloquy of Chaos” (Season 1, Episode 12)
While some shows might pussyfoot around the third-rail issues of race and bigotry, Luke Cage faces them head on. Luke is often shown wearing dark hoodies and casually walking through gunfire, evoking Trayvon Martin and other black men who have been killed by gunfire. He also gives a speech about Harlem’s history or black culture in each episode.
The social issues extend to Misty Knight, who addresses police brutality when Luke is framed for killing a cop. Her fellow officers beat a black child under the pretense of learning where Luke is hiding.
The N-word is unavoidable in a gritty show like this, but Luke Cage uses it in an interesting way. The villain Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) throws it around constantly to make people underestimate him. Every major character uses the word once, but only the villains repeatedly say it.
“Who to call when no one obeys the law
And there ain’t no Iron Man that can come and save us all?
Power to the people and Luke Cage the cause
And the cops got it wrong we don’t think Cage involved.” – “Bulletproof Love” lyrics
There’s a reason we included Luke Cage in our top superhero soundtracks list. Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad put together a score that wouldn’t be out of place in a 70’s blaxploitation movie thanks to plenty of funk, jazz, soul, and hip-hop.
One of the main set pieces is a nightclub called Harlem’s Paradise, which is owned by Cottonmouth. Prominent musicians from Raphael Saadiq to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are shown performing there.
Wu Tang Clan’s Method Man guest stars in the penultimate episode. After Luke Cage saves him, Method Man performs an original song, “Bulletproof Love”, on the radio.
Rock, Paper, Villains
Mariah Dillard: “You’re wasting your gifts, my brother. This gangster life is not what our ancestors fought for. Not what our people died for.”
Cottonmouth: “This is exactly what they died for. Self-determination, control, power.” – Luke Cage, “Code of the Streets” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Luke Cage has three main villains. Each of them has strengths that make them stand out, but they also have issues that keep them from being great.
Cottonmouth Stokes is a club owner and crime boss. Mahershala Ali is great and nails the role, working as Lex Luthor to Luke’s Superman. Cottonmouth’s only problem is that he can’t hurt Luke. His goons are useless, and no weapon can get past Luke’s unbreakable skin. He’d be much better if he was a threat, but he really isn’t.
Four-time Emmy winner Alfre Woodard plays “Black Mariah” Dillard, a corrupt councilwoman and Cottonmouth’s cousin. She is a cunning manipulator who slowly descends into a crime lord’s lifestyle. Mariah is not a complete villain like her cousin and rarely interacts with Luke, making her seem tame compared to the more exuberant villains.
Rounding out the terrible trio is Diamondback, played by Erik LaRay Harvey. Diamondback is an arms dealer specializing in alien weapons reverse engineered after the big fight scene from The Avengers. He constantly quotes the Bible and references pop culture. Diamondback is Luke’s deadliest threat and his most annoying enemy.
A henchman nicknamed Shades (Theo Rossi) interacts with all three villains. Shades is Diamondback’s snarky second in command who serves as a liaison to Cottonmouth. He also mentors Mariah when she gets involved in her cousin’s business. Fans and creators have compared Shades to Littlefinger from Game of Thrones.
Twice as Long, Half as Bright
Bobby: “What the hell did you even come back for, man?”
Luke: “I had to. For Harlem. Take care of Diamondback before he made it bad for everyone.”
Bobby: “Well, forget Harlem. Forget your brother. You’re on the road in a brand new car and a woman [Claire] that fine? And you’re bullet-proof! You’d have never seen my black ass again. I’d rob the occasional bank and never look back.” – Luke Cage, “Soliloquy of Chaos” (Season 1, Episode 12)
Much like Netflix’s other Marvel shows, Luke Cage has more episodes than necessary. The first half of the season is a tightly paced superhero show about Luke Cage fighting Cottonmouth’s gang and Mariah’s descent into villainy.
The second half drops that ball hard, and is cluttered with Diamondback’s antics, several concurrent plotlines, and three episodes in row ending with a “Luke Cage is dead or dying!” cliffhanger. The show never reaches the lows of Iron Fist, but definitely tarnishes the season.
Luke Cage has a lot of talent, a great soundtrack, and too many episodes. Season one starts out great, but drops the ball in the second act. Ultimately, Luke Cage is a worthy addition to Netflix’s arsenal and worth your time.
Still want to learn more about this modern superhero? We also wrote Luke Cage’s backstory. Check it out here.
Jared Bounacos has written for Movie Rewind since 2017.