Luke Cage is a hero who fights for the community he loves and lives in. It might not seem like anything new because New York City is overrun with superheroes, all of whom love to micromanage their few city blocks. However, Luke Cage is one of the few heroes we get to see be part of the community they’re so dedicated to protecting.

Other Netflix properties, like Daredevil, present heroes that love their cities. But on the screen, it’s difficult to get a sense of the community or Matt Murdock’s place in it beyond spoken exposition. LUKE CAGE, on the other hand, establishes Harlem as a place with a vibrant and growing population beyond its hero.

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The first scene in LUKE CAGE takes place in a barbershop. Pop, the owner, keeps a swear jar in the corner. Customers and employees alike engage in a heated conversation about what’s wrong with the Knicks — and it’s pretty funny to watch. The scene is short and similar versions of it could be considered throwaway filler in other shows. However, here it does a lot of work.

First, the conversation in the barber shop establishes Pop as a community patriarch. The younger boys in the shop feel comfortable enough to rib on him but still obviously respect his authority. Lonnie’s mother arrives to pick up her son, and Pop greets her with a kiss on the cheek and a warm comment about her law degree. In the same way that the viewer can understand that the patrons have a history with Pop, Luke’s engagement with other customers and the barber shop’s stalwart owner places him within that community.

Pop and Luke Cage
The Knicks really do suck, though.

In addition, the scene immediately informs the viewer that Harlem is a community where people know each other. Harlem is as much of a character in LUKE CAGE as the eponymous hero himself. Pop declares that the shop is supposed to be Switzerland because everyone respects a safe haven. Pop’s safe haven being a barbershop rings truer when considering the real-life importance of barber shops to the black community. This fleshes out the Harlem LUKE CAGE portrays as a community intrinsically related to one its viewers live in.

Cleaning up Crispus Attucks

Similar to Wilson Fisk in DAREDEVIL, the villains in LUKE CAGE are deeply connected to the community they live in. They have grown up in Harlem under the tutelage of their mobster grandmother, Mama Mabel. Mariah is a councilwoman whose platform pushes a new Harlem Renaissance. Through active economic and environmental measures, she seeks to foster creativity and new growth.

Nonetheless, all of Mariah’s preaching is just a front — she reveals in the very first episode during a conversation with her cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes that she believes politics is the true way to gain reputable power. Not the shady underground operations Cottonmouth seems to prefer.

Cottonmouth in LUKE CAGE.
You have to admit, this shot is amazing.

In her efforts to rebrand Harlem, Mariah opens up a new building and names it Crispus Attucks. Crispus Attucks was a freed black man who died during the Boston Massacre. Attucks’ death marked the first casualty of the American Revolution. Despite being named after such an iconic figure, the building is used as a hideout for Cottonmouth’s ill-gotten money. That is until Luke sweeps in and reveals its dirty underbelly.

Ditching the Alter-ego

It takes a conversation with Pop, the community figure of Harlem, to convince Luke to give up hiding in the shadows. Pop’s death and the subsequent explosion at Genghis Connie’s affirm Luke’s resolve to publically do good. Cleaning up Crispus Attucks made Luke famous in Harlem, but nothing rivals the power of a community knowing they have a superhero that looks like them.

This acceptance establishes Luke as a fully-fledged member of the community rather than a mysterious figure with good intentions. The authorities might not like him very much, but Harlem does. Superheroes usually appear distant and otherworldly because of the masks they wear, but Luke Cage does the exact opposite.

Within the Marvel Netflix continuity, Daredevil is an actual myth, and Jessica Jones actively avoids engaging with the people around her. A hero keeps a mask to protect their personal lives, but this often leads to the misconception that they’re a criminal. Luke Cage bypasses this embracing his identity and powers on live television.

Respecting the Name

After Luke cleans up Crispus Attucks, Cottonmouth essentially organizes a smear campaign against him. Zip and his thugs rob people and attribute the crimes to Luke, earning the hero bad blood from the community. These crimes also happen to fall on the day of Pop’s memorial.

Luke sets out to right the wrongs (looking incredibly dapper in a suit) because there’s meaning in a name. Shades expresses this same sentiment to Cottonmouth, telling him that he’s only giving Luke’s name more power in the community where Cottonmouth is losing his own.

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Later, at Pop’s memorial, Luke gives a speech about how much he cares not just for Harlem, but the people who make Harlem what it is. Legacy is an important theme that continues to crop up throughout the show. Many different characters talk about times “back in the day,” or the celebrities that have grown out of Harlem to accomplish bigger things.

When Luke returns to Harlem after a stint in Seagate in the first episode of THE DEFENDERS, the community recognizes him for his heroism. Misty Knight approaches him to help her reach out to a boy who might be at risk of dying at the hands of the mob because Luke’s influence and reputation could be enough to save him.

LUKE CAGE’s Connection to the Real World

It’s no secret that LUKE CAGE goes for the jugular when discussing racism and police brutality. The show leads into the fact that their hero is a black man wearing the so often stigmatized hoodie. There are dozens of news stories featuring men of color, specifically black men, getting racially profiled by cops for their clothes and shot for no reason.

In an interview, actor Mike Colter and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker explained that it only makes sense for Luke to wear the hoodie; “It’s also symbolic because of Trayvon Martin. We talked about that specifically, what that would mean to people and the feelings it would evoke in viewers. Regardless of the entertainment value, what this show says politically resonates profoundly.”

Luke Cage

Luke Cage is remarkable because he is, literally, bulletproof. There’s truly nothing sweeter than seeing the look on Luke’s face when villains shoot, and the bullets bounce right off his skin. The moment is triumphant because usually, characters of color are not so lucky.

Harlem citizens are explicitly aware of this fact. In one of the last few episodes of the show, Luke is a fugitive on the run. However, the community believes in his innocence and rallies to support him, helping him evade police capture. People everywhere start wearing bullet hole ridden hoodies, indicating solidarity and provoking false sightings.

When Luke saves rapper Method Man during an attempted robbery that could have been fatal, Method Man hands over his hoodie to Luke and expresses admiration. Later, in his retelling of the altercation, Method Man says,

“You know, there’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and unafraid. The streets got mad love for Cage and I got mad love for Cage.”

Diamondback VS. Luke Cage

The final battle in LUKE CAGE is, admittedly, a little cheesy.

Diamondback outfitted himself in a suit that allowed him to have equal footing in a fight with Luke. The fight begins in Pop’s forever destroyed old barbershop, before moving out to the street. There’s a lot of issues between Luke and Diamondback tied up in the fight, but the Harlem community cheers for him and shouts encouragements.

Unlike Cottonmouth and Mariah Dillard, Diamondback doesn’t have a personal connection to Harlem. However, Diamondback’s arms dealings and personal vendetta against Luke makes him a threat to the community’s well-being nonetheless. By defeating Diamondback, Luke cements his position as a hero for Harlem.

Diamondback and Luke Cage.
Ok, you have to admit that this is a dumb costume.

The battle concludes, and Luke wins, effectively shutting down Diamondback for the time being.

In today’s social and political climate, there’s a lot of weight in portraying a black superhero on the big screen. Most superhero movies feature predominantly white, male casts with a token person of color. LUKE CAGE is the antithesis of that in the same way BLACK PANTHER (2018) will be. The show establishes a community that resonates with real life audiences, in addition to offering many different kinds of representation.

In the aftermath of the final fight, a news crew interviews a Harlem resident. The resident is Aisha, who Luke helped earlier in the season by taking back her father’s stolen championship ring. What she says really encapsulates what Luke Cage means for the Harlem community, and for the larger world:

“Who would have thought that a black man in a hoodie could be a hero?”

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