Netflix’s Luke Cage takes a ’70s-era Marvel comic inspired by blaxploitation movies and tells a modern day story about a bulletproof black superhero protecting the people of Harlem.
The scenes of a black man walking into a spray of gunfire armed only with his own fists and a hoodie are powerful, explicit nods to the Black Lives Matter movement, meant to connect Luke Cage’s fantasy to the very real, contemporary problems facing Black America. As Marvel’s first project featuring a predominantly black cast telling an unabashedly black story, Luke Cage does a solid job of updating Luke Cage—a character whose personality and aesthetic easily could have been rendered as dated, problematic stereotypes.
But as much as time as Luke Cage spends bringing its titular hero to life, the series’ real strength is in its portrayal of black women.
Before Alfre Woodard’s character Miriam Sharpe condemned Tony Stark for inadvertently killing her son in Captain America: Civil War, black women were virtually nonexistent in Marvel’s cinematic universe. Woodard returns to Marvel in Luke Cage as a different character: Mariah Dillard, a calculating, villainous politician who dreams of “keeping Harlem black” and prosperous while also installing herself as a local power player in the process.
Like Miriam Sharpe, Mariah wants to enact change in the world, but she’s much more willing to kill those around her to get what she wants. As one of the many adversaries that Luke Cage faces in the series, Mariah plays the classic supervillain long game. She plots and plans to do away with the hooded vigilante all while maintaining the picture-perfect veneer of civic duty in front of her constituents whose support she desperately needs.
In one particular scene, at an event organized to feed local children, Mariah strolls down a line of neighborhood children she knows by name and strokes their hair so that the gathered press can see just how much she cares. Moments after she steps away to meet with her crime lord cousin, she immediately has her assistant squirt antibacterial disinfectant on her hands and her gleaming smile turns into a stony grimace. She doesn’t really care about the children, she just wants power.
On the other, official side of justice, Luke Cage introduces longtime fan-favorite Misty Knight (Simone Missick), an NYPD officer investigating the string of murders and robberies that Mariah and her cohort are connected to and that Luke has been trying to clean up.
Unlike the majority of detectives in comic book media who can’t seem to figure the obvious fact that their love interests are superheroes, Misty puts two and two together pretty quickly and Luke Cage gets on with letting her be a compelling character with strong motives and a narrative arc that are uniquely hers.
Much in the same way that Luke Cage was originally introduced in Jessica Jones, Misty’s appearance in Luke Cage foreshadows her later adventures with Iron Fist and New York’s other street-level costumed heroes. Luke Cage sets up Misty Knight not as a helpful backup character meant to assist Luke when things get hairy, but rather as a detective with deep connections to her community who becomes enmeshed in the story because it’s her job.
The elements of Missick’s performance as Misty add up to a character who’s grounded in reality, but also fits right into the world of superheroes perfectly—which can only be a good thing, considering the bionic arm that Misty should be getting in a later series.
With Mariah and Misty, Luke Cage addresses one of the inadvertently problematic aspects of diversity pushes from studios like Marvel. Often, making a television show or a movie diverse means including one or two characters who check off a box. The moment you have one black Avenger, people can no longer critique the movie for lacking in representation of black people. The second Avengers movie inducted two black men onto the team (hey Falcon, hey War Machine!), but where did that leave black women?
Luke Cage expands the scope of Marvel’s universe to include a world where different types of complex black women exist. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but they finally have a seat at the table.