Luke Cage – Have Marvel and Netflix Stayed Street Smart?

luke-cage-marvel_0Druglords. Corrupt politicians. Media attention. People fighting for justice amid poor African-American communities. Luke Cage, the third TV collaboration between Marvel and Netflix, tries to match superhero action to the social issues addressed by shows like The Wire. It’s a tough trick to try. So does it work?

More Marvel on Screen

After two seasons of Daredevil and one of Jessica Jones, we know what to expect from a Marel and Netflix street superhero show. Daft superpowers presented as realistically as possible. References to the Avengers and how weird they make the world. A good cast. Brooding visuals. At least one stylish fight in a corridor.

Luke Cage has all of that.

The cast range from good but under-used to absolutely splendid. Rosario Dawson and Simone Missick own the show as Claire and Misty, and praise be to Netflix for making Claire the thread that connects these shows together. Alfre Woodard makes a nuanced and compelling villain. Mahershala Ali reminds us that he was the best thing in The 4400. Theo Rossi doesn’t get to show the emotional depths he did in Sons of Anarchy, but shines when he gets to show his crazy intense side. Mike Colter is powerful and charismatic, though I still thought he had an extra allure playing a drug kingpin in The Woodwife.

The question of how superpowered people affect the world, and how the world responds to that, is addressed in the plot – an important thing to do in grounding these shows. The social drama of Harlem shines through in the early episodes, and Luke’s place in that is interesting. It’s clear who’s a hero and who’s a villain, but that doesn’t mean that the villains are flat objects of evil.

Not Quite Connecting

The problem comes with the different tones this show is trying to balance.

On the one hand, there’s the attempt to show a more straight-up hero story than in the previous shows. Luke Cage is a good guy who wins by standing up for the little guy and wielding his fists. The baddies prey on ordinary people. Cage doesn’t swear and he says cheesy things, even getting called on it by the people around him. There’s a little bit of goofiness going on here. It sometimes goes too far. Yes, people should be cheering this guy in the street. But the show’s so insistent on showing that, it sometimes interrupts the tone of the drama or prevents people behaving realistically. It’s like that time they flew the American flag in a Spiderman movie and all the people cheered for him on Brooklyn bridge – nice idea, but gone too far.

This becomes more glaring when it’s matched with the gritty issues the story touches on. Are gangsters any worse than politicians? What price should a community be willing to pay to pull itself out of poverty? Can you act outside the law and still be in the right? If so, who judges what is right? How far are we responsible for our families? Like Jessica Jones, this show draws a lot of its drama from the way one part of humanity has been disadvantaged. Unlike Jessica Jones, it fumbles the issue, rolling off into more familiar and less interesting terrain. At times, it almost feels like it’s falling into the orientalist trap, nodding towards touchstone of African-American culture so hard that they become an othered curiosity, looked at from the outside.

A Worthy Addition, But Not a Great One

Luke Cage is well worth watching if you like superhero shows. It’s got interesting plot twists, some strong characters, and some fantastic acting. There are fun action scenes, including the inevitable corridor one. The stuff that doesn’t quite work is well-intentioned. It’s probably the weakest Netflix/Marvel show so far, but anything was going to look wobbly next to the focused burst of drama that was Jessica Jones.

I’m sure we’ll see more of this show after its lead has crossed over into The Defenders. I hope it’s found its feet a little better by the. And if not, the lesson to learn is that even the least impressive Marvel/Netflix show is still quality TV.

Do Marvel TV’s Corridors Describe Modern Life?

Marvel and Netflix released a trailer for their Luke Cage show at Comic Con. Unsurprisingly, it looks awesome. With its hip-hop soundtrack, feats of strength and intriguing snippets of dialogue, it fits the tone of these shows while bringing something different. And I don’t just mean the ever-charismatic Mike Colter, who could give Chris Evans a run for his money in the charming superhero stakes.

Premiere of 'Bloodline'

That’s right, I said it – I now have ridiculous man-crushes on two Marvel superhero actors.

Yet there was also something familiar about the trailer. Because, like Daredevil before him, Luke Cage is having a setpiece rumble in a corridor.

luke cage corridor
Why wouldn’t you want to see another picture of Mike Colter?

Do We All Live (and Fight) in Corridors Now?

This got me thinking about corridors as spaces – what they represent both in reality and in TV shows. Aside from being useful in cool fight scenes, that is.

Corridors are places yet also the space between places. They’re part of buildings, destinations in their own right. But they’re also transitional spaces, like the motorway-based cities Warren Ellis discussed in Desolation Jones. They don’t really have identities and functions, like a bedroom or kitchen. They’re spaces we pass through.

And we spend a lot of time in them.

dj freeways

This is how a lot of urban space has become over the past century – something we hurry through on our way to a destination, not a place to linger in and enjoy. For those of us living in cities and towns, corridors are emblematic of the space we live in.

What better space to use in these gritty, urban superhero shows that Marvel and Netflix are creating? The conversations outside Jessica Jones’s office are often hugely important, and they take place in this limbo space, on a journey from one real place to another. When Patsy Walker keeps a visitor in the corridor, she’s keeping him in that city limbo.

He's behind you! Or your door, at least.
He’s behind you!
Or your door, at least.

When Daredevil or Luke Cage fight their way down a corridor, they’re not fighting over their real goal – they’re just trying to get there by the best means they have – violence.

Our Corridor Lives

Going deeper down the rabbit hole of this metaphor, we can see corridors as representing the way we live in the modern western world. Jobs for life, homes for life, even relationships for life, these were common in previous generations. Now they’re all the exception rather than the norm. We are in a constant state of transition.

Everything we do with our lives is now both a journey and a destination, place and transitional space, somewhere and nowhere. Our lives have become corridors.

Like superheroes learning to use their powers, we are in constant transition.

Back Around to Marvel

If ever there was a set of genre shows that explored modern life – especially modern urban life – it’s these Netflix Marvel shows. Jessica Jones is about gendered power and rape, some of the most fiercely argued subjects of the moment. Daredevil explores the corrupting influence of wealth upon the law, and whether justice really can be blind, issues constantly thrown into stark light by news from America. Luke Cage looks likely to take us into the world of criminal gangs and drug trading, a parallel society and economy living parasitically alongside the legitimate one.

And so corridors become the perfect symbol for these shows. A modern transitional space heading towards an uncertain future, both for society and for genre television.

Plus they make for some really, really good fight scenes.

dd corridor

Jessica Jones: Is Killgrave the Ultimate Male Villain?

JessJonesPoster-600x791David Tennant has become nightmare fodder. Still suited and smiling, just like when he played Doctor Who, as Killgrave in Jessica Jones he has turned his charm into a thing of menace, digging into the darkest corners of human horror. I think he may have presented us with the ultimate in male villainy, an expression not only of brutal selfishness but of the darkest imbalances in gender relations.

Jessica Jones is the latest addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. Like Daredevil, it’s a Netflix show that explores the murkier corners of Marvel’s superhero comics, full of adult themes and street level vigilantes. The protagonist is a private detective suffering from post traumatic stress, who copes with her life by drinking hard and pushing away her friends. The return of Killgrave, the mind controlling villain who almost destroyed her, forces her to face the worst in herself and in the people around her. It might be her shot at redemption, or it might destroy her utterly.

So why do I consider Killgrave the ultimate male villain? Wouldn’t that be some muscle bound thug running around smacking people with his big fists and bigger guns?

No. As this article eloquently and unsettlingly lays bare, the power of men over women in our society, and the threat we hold, is more subtle and insidious than that. It creates a situation where women constantly hold back from expressing themselves, and live in fear of every dark street, however safe it might seem. Where they retreat from low level intrusions rather than feeling they can make clear how they feel. Where they constantly feel that they have to de-escalate confrontations, even as men push their views and desires forward. It is an insidious, socialised sort of mental control that left me stunned when I read that article, talked to women I knew, and realised that this is very real.

Killgrave isn’t always subtle. He is a rapist, in the most literal and awful sense of that term. But his mind control also acts as a metaphor for rape and the threat of gendered violence. He forces people to participate in activities against their own will. This leaves them feeling violated, traumatised and in many cases unable to tell others about it. Strong willed characters are turned into festering pools of insecurity, while the memory of Killgrave lives within their minds every day of their lives. They can never escape how he used them, because they see constant reminders of him in themselves and in the people around them.

Part of the power of the presence of Killgrave lies in Jessica Jones’s response to him. We get to see her, and others around her, fighting back against this villainy. We also get to see women’s responses to men in other parts of their lives, in particular the moments when those men act in ways that make women uncomfortable, or when they try to take over. The sort of shitty behaviour I hate in Arrow‘s Oliver Queen gets called out here. Killgrave may be a terrifying embodiment of male villainy, but that doesn’t mean that the women opposing him are turned into mere victims. There trauma is there to be seen, but so is their fight back.

In confronting us with Killgrave, Jessica Jones has the opportunity not only to raise awareness among non-geeks of just how powerfully superheroes can explore real issues, but also to raise awareness of harmful inequalities. I hope that it added fuel to both conversations, but I know which is more important. It’s the one that will have David Tennant haunting your nightmares as well as mine.