Adding Depth to Luke Cage With Carl Lucas’ Prison Narrative
(Episode 1.03, “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?" and Episode 1.04, "Step in the Arena”)TV Features Luke Cage
So answer this: What’s a guy with bulletproof skin doing using car doors as makeshift shields slash weapons?
This is the kind of thing that you’ll get hung up on if you give half a damn about irrelevant things like “logic” in your comic book fare, where “logic” translates as “things that make sense to me, the viewer, a person who exists in the real world and not the comic book world.” Why does Luke wrench the door off an SUV and walk into the Crispus Attucks complex and start smacking fools around with it? Because he can, most likely, and in the blink of an eye, you would too, assuming you ever end up in a science experiment gone wrong, but also right, that gives you super strength (as so many science experiments gone right, but also wrong, often do). Don’t act like you’ve been in Luke’s shoes before!
But as the man once known as Carl Lucas goes on his justice spree, smacking dudes around with his impulsively chosen armament, we understand that his choice isn’t impulsive in the slightest. It’s practical. It might even be moral, though of course we can all huddle around a campfire and debate the relative morality of snapping limbs instead of taking lives. (You’d rather be alive than dead, sure, but broken bones sort of, kind of mega suck, too.) This is the person that Luke is: He won’t kill, just bruise, maim, and if he’s feeling frisky, wrap a car part around one foe and turn them into obstacles for others. What a guy! Or maybe none of this is really “there”, and the joy of watching Luke Cage’s action is derived solely from pulpy entertainment value. It’s fun. That’s usually enough.
Of course, in its first two episodes, Luke Cage clearly proves that it isn’t satisfied with “enough,” so its next two, “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” and “Step in the Arena,” keep the non-pulpy elements moving forward. (Always forward.) A brief recap: Luke is out for Cornell Stokes’ lifeblood, which rather than red happens to be green, and as Luke hits Stokes’ reserves of cash, so too does he hit Mariah’s political aspirations right in the moneybags. (That’s whatcha get for relying on your Classic Dapper Gangster™ cousin to fund your whole career.) Running concurrently to Luke’s heroic rampage, we have the brilliant Detective Misty Knight hot on his trail with her partner, Rafael Scarfe, who surprises exactly nobody when he reveals that he’s on Stokes’ payroll.
So here we are now, with Mariah’s and Stokes’ conversation about the preservation and revitalization of Harlem expanded, Luke’s origin story made explicit in the frame, and conversations about the acceptability of vigilante activity in a post-“incident” world held in stasis. Is anything Luke does really okay in the eyes of the law or society itself? Remember that Luke Cage exists in the same New York City that, just four years ago, had Norse gods, furious green giants, assassins, super soldiers, and wise asses in powered armor zipping around to staunch the flow of mayhem (by way of preventative mayhem). But it also exists in a world that’s connected to our own on both conscious and unconscious levels. We’re at a flashpoint in contemporary discourse about race, which Luke Cage reflects in the inward concerns it expresses about black identity. One moment the series engages in real talk. The next, it immerses its hero in a bath solution and gives him powers.
Where do we find the balance between the show’s two sides? Mike Colter, quiet, buttoned down, unfailingly traditional and yet revolutionary at the same time, plays the “comic book” with the same mannered hand he brings to the “real talk,” so we can credit him for a good portion of the show’s equilibrium. But narratives like Luke Cage have long asked their audiences to accept a universe where the cartoonish coexists with ideas and themes that derive from reality, a’la Tony Stark’s PTSD or Steve Rogers’ (fascist) beef with governmental oversight. So Luke Cage remains a “Black Lives Matter” story where Luke, before he became Luke, was put behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit and manipulated by brutal white guards into being a plaything and a cash cow. Maybe prison fight clubs are a dramatic invention (though then again, maybe not), but Luke’s ugly relationship with Rackham (Chance Kelly) drives home an essential point about what happens to black bodies that are subject to the whims of American law.
Prison is important for turning the present day Luke into more than a brooding and righteous man whose exterior veils some pretty vicious internal wounds. It’s where he meets Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley), the woman who we know as his dead wife courtesy of Jessica Jones; it’s where he has his abilities forced upon him by a white and well-meaning mad scientist; it’s where he gets his pseudonym, which is Biblical and liberatory in nature. It’s also where we see that his sense of justice derives as much from his (erstwhile) profession as from his persona. Criticism of the series thus far have mostly revolved around the structure of Luke as a character, which to a swath of viewers is slim at best. Do “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” and “Step in the Arena” fix those integrity problems? Obviously that’s in the eye of the beholder, but the trip down memory lane is welcome and adds depth to a man who, on his impenetrable surface, is something of an enigma. (Grant for Luke Cage, memory lane doesn’t stretch all that far back, but still.)
But jail is just a temporary confine, which means that the time Luke spends in Rackham’s care is equally fleeting: Rather than pit him against American law enforcement, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has set his protagonist in conflict with Stokes. “Black man vs black man,” as synopses go, feels like a politically, socially, and culturally loaded plot summation for the first big Marvel property to fixate on a black superhero since Blade; you might wonder why we’re watching Stokes take out Genghis Connie’s with a bazooka instead of, say, Scarfe—though Scarfe, alongside Rackham, is part of an insurance policy that insulates the series against critiques of its chosen emphases and keeps Luke Cage from being scrubbed clean of contemporary fears about abuses and violations committed by white men cloaked in the authority of a uniform.
They’re part of the show’s thesis, but as in “Moment of Truth” and “Code of the Streets,” Coker’s interest lies in democratizing the superhero yarn; it’s refreshing, in a fashion, to see Mahershala Ali play the bad guy to Colter’s good guy, to see Simone Missick cast as the voice of reason in the series’ dialogues about the purpose and lawfulness of superheroes. (She’s also the voice of reason in all debates about basketball, but of course any measure of praise for the Celtics will win over Bostonian audiences.) If that deprives Luke Cage of a sense of modernity, then that, perhaps, makes sense, as all of our superhero movies and programs are drawn from source materials that are largely antiquated (with certain large exceptions, like, say, Jessica Jones). It doesn’t, however, rob the show of entertainment value.
Bonus Observations & Quotes From “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” & “Step in the Arena”:
If you read this recap closely enough, you’ll probably pick up on the pivot point where I, the author, stopped to read “Luke Cage, Black Conservative,” the piece Justin Charity wrote about the show for The Ringer. I won’t say this didn’t influence my thoughts on what I’ve seen of the series thus far, but I also won’t say that I totally agree with Charity’s basic conceit. Grant that I’m unsure if I should even be arguing with that conceit because my perspective on Luke Cage differs from Charity’s. Suffice to say, that I think it’s unfair to criticize Luke Cage’s conservatism when so much superhero fare is itself conservative, and I also kinda think he totally torpedoes his argument in his concluding paragraph. Still, the article is essential reading if you’re watching the show.
You Stranger Things nuts started “#JusticeForBarb,” so I’m going to start #JusticeForSquabbles, because Craig Mums Grant turns Luke’s prison yard chum into a totally awesome character in the shortest amount of screen time. You’ll be missed, Squabbles.
Just as Jessica Jones took a moment to throw a deprecating potshot at Jessica’s costume, so too has Luke Cage paused briefly to make fun of Luke’s. In a DC show or film, this would feel like a sneer toward the soul of the material. For whatever reason, Marvel is able to take these kinds of beats and turn them into reclamations of purpose that still work as jokes.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.