Honestly, I’m sick to the back teeth of escapist wish-fulfilment superhero movies based on Marvel, DC and other comic strips. They’re like fast food joints: superficially slick and shiny but ultimately lack substance. They are unfulfilling, leading the audience to demand more and more to give them a fix.
Superheroes have become ubiquitous, such that even when each hero has had a succession of movies and TV series, plus prequels, sequels and remakes. They are periodically rebooted and reimagined with ever more fantastic CGI effects as the technology advances, to meet an insatiable demand.
Only recently I watched Gotham series 2 with a vision of Dr Strange in charge of Arkham asylum and using that as a power base for his nefarious reanimation activities. Now I hear friends raving about a new movie called Dr Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (who looks the original comic strip but nothing remotely like the Batman/Gotham version of the character. However, he is hugely popular with female audiences), wic seems to have an entirely new plot. Doubtless they will be baying for a sequel as soon as the next craving hits.
Where will it all end, you may justifiably wonder. Back with the traditional and inherently human virtues of good script, fine acting, dramatic and emotional engagement with audiences, and complex narratives that involve shades of grey rather than simple good vs evil.
I mention this because while Luke Cage originated as a Marvel comic strip and does indeed possess superhuman characteristics, but is essentially a member of his local Harlem community reluctantly trying to do good rather than saving the world once again (it typically seems in dire risk about twice a week, if you believe most superhero flicks.) He flits into other series and forms the odd partnership, as superheroes and their acolytes are wont to do every now and again (notably Jessica Jones, featuring self same actor Mike Colter), but otherwise Luke keeps himself to himself.
Luke, like Colter, is tall and muscular (“Colter put on 30 pounds (14 kg) of muscle for the role” says Wikipedia) but a quietly-spoken black guy with friends but also enemies, both in the police department and among smart villains who play him like a violin. In short, Luke Cage (aka Carl Lucas before his transformation) is an underdog. Not a nerdy but privileged white underdog like Clark Kent aka Superman, but a man who has suffered every injustice of an oppressed minority, especially being imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. This is how the character is described on Wikipedia:
The character uses his signature catch phrase ‘Sweet Christmas’ from the comics in the series, but sparingly, with the character often “opting instead for pensive silence”; composer Adrian Younge said, “He’s a black superhero, but he’s a different type of black alpha male. He’s not bombastic. You rarely see a modern black male character who is soulful and intelligent.”
In short, Cage is virtuous to the point of incredulity (even MLK was human), and has completed the path to super-heroic status through having experiments conducted on him in prison (basically being boiled in acid, since you ask), which leave him with superhuman strength (of course) and with a virtually unbreakable skin that renders him bulletproof – unless it’s miniature anti-tank rockets you’re launching at him, since every superhero must have an Achilles heel.
Luckily for him, Rosario Dawson‘s Claire Temple (who also appears in Daredevil) is there to repair his wounds, albeit with some help – every superhero needs some assistance in the sticky moments, so Ms Dawson is Cage’s Lois Lane in a virtual nurse’s uniform.
It takes a lot to anger Mr Cage, and here it starts when Pop’s barbershop, where Luke works, is destroyed and the estimable Pop (Frankie Faison), an urban philosopher given to homespun wisdom and an aversion to bad language, hence the ever-present swearbox, killed in the process. Luke is seriously riled, to the point of taking action and making a name for himself as the bulletproof vigilante.
Living in NYC, being bulletproof is a pretty handy though it doesn’t take the real villains long to suss him out, smear him and find weapons to hurt Cage. Firstly we have “Cottonmouth” aka Cornell Stokes (Mahershala Ali), though he meets his demise, somewhat unexpectedly, at the hands of his cousin, politician, co-owner of his Harlem’s Paradise club and principle collaborator “Black” Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard.)
This just paves the way for the real arch villain, a man so evil is oozes from his every pore. Willis Stryker, aka “Diamondback” (portrayed by Erik LaRay Harvey) laughs as he kills his enemies, and for that matter his underlings too (must have got pretty tough to recruit new guys to do his dirty work, since they always end up dying a brutal death 1-2 episodes later.) Diamondback is an arms dealer by trade and, wouldn’t you just know it, Cage’s brother too – though that doesn’t stop him doing enough Cage framing to open an art gallery.
That’s another rule of superherodom – there must be a close personal connection between the good guy and the evil one, demonstrating that there is but a hair’s breadth between black and white, and even the most noble can be turned to the dark side. But no matter how close the hero comes to turning away, he must always resist.
You can’t break the moral code of a true superhero, no matter how you try. Just as Batman never kills the Joker, Cage can never kill any of the men he beats up on a mission to stop the baddies – which makes it all the more certain he can never be guilty of the crimes of which he is accused, thanks to Diamondback’s evil plan.
The police, on the other hand, seem genuinely confused. All, that is, except Mercedes “Misty” Knight (Simone Missick), who has weak moments but always believes in Cage at heart – especially when he saves her life under somewhat extreme gunfire at the Paradise Club. Her boss doesn’t believe her, and may be in cahoots with baddies herself. Where have I heard that line before?
Talking of the Paradise Club, one innovation that works really well takes on board the spirit of Cabaret by using the sweaty club environment to feature some great live performances by soul/R&B/hiphop artists. I was hugely impressed by the use of Faith Evans, Charles Bradley and the Delfonics, all of which seemed a close fit for the mood of Luke Cage.
So pretty good stuff but formulaic, extended with the usual range of dramatic twists to fit the series, and strongly adherent to the rules of the superhero game, but despite all the hubbub and nastiness, you know good will triumph, don’t you? Has to be. I’m now looking for a series that goes totally off-piste and follows no rules at all.