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Note: This post is from October 2016 after the original Luke Cage series came out. I am reposting it because after watching Season 2 (Which is very good). I still think they messed up by not having Luke grow up in Harlem.
Harlem in Luke Cage is Important (Oct 2016)
Luke Cage is a very awesome TV series, that makes another strong addition to the Netflix based Marvel shows. One of the underlying themes and conflicts in Luke Cage is his battle for the soul of the Harlem neighborhood. In some sense this is similar to Daredevil's battle for his neighborhood, Hellskitchen.
Harlem is an important neighborhood from an American historical and cultural perspective. The area has had its share of problems that include crime, poverty and corruption but it also is considered a cultural jewel. The cultural, social, political, scientific greats that have come from Harlem could populate entire courses in college. None of this importance is lost on the show. One of the coolest aspects of Luke Cage for me was giving Harlem its day in the "mainstream" sun.
The show goes to great lengths to showcase Harlem.
Through Cottonmouth's club we are engaged with a variety of Harlem musicians like Raphael Saadiq, Charles Bradley and Jidenna.. Luke Cage walks the streets showing off local icons like the Apollo theater and a menagerie of Harlem locals are mentioned. The show name drops Harlem figures like Langston Hughes, Billy Strayhorn, Percy Sutton, Geoffrey Canada, and ASAP Rocky. Dapper Dan the famous hip hop tailor of Harlem appears as himself and even outfits Luke Cage.
The villains through the first half of the series are as invested in Harlem as the show is. Both Cornell Cottonmouth and council woman Mariah Dillard have their eyes on transforming the neighborhood. These characters are even shown to have the neighborhood at heart at certain times. Their loose moral code and ends justify the means actions tend to corrupt and pollute, whatever they touch. Leaving it up to a single super powered individual to come in and set the neighborhood free.
Here is what struck me as odd. The neighborhood's savior Luke Cage was suddenly not from Harlem anymore? He was now from Georgia. Not only that but when he escapes from Prison he first moves to Hellskitchen (Where we meet him in Jessica Jones) before finally landing in Harlem. This is a big difference from the Luke Cage of the comics who is from Harlem and joins a street gang in Harlem. His origins also have ties to Cottonmouth (It was Cottonmouth's drugs that were planted on him that led him to go to Seagate). There was a whole lot of Harlem built into the original Luke Cage mythos.
The characters Shades, Commanche, Willis "Diamondback" Stryker, were all in a Harlem based gang with.....Luke Cage called the Rivals.
While all of the characters around Luke Cage have maintained their deep relationship with Harlem, Luke Cage has that element stripped from him.
I can't but ask why? The show invests so heavily in Harlem. For those not in the know they may end up googling names to find out who was just mentioned. This investment can come across as a bit preachy as it not so subtly tries to give the viewer a cultural lesson. These investments come at a cost, they slow the pace in some episodes as the cultural lessons marinate in place of the plot. I am fine with marinating, so long as at the end of it I get a juicy steak. To me the emotional impact from Pops, Missy etc could all have exaggerated if Luke was from Harlem.
So why wasn't Luke from Harlem. Here is what I think the reason is. The Jessica Jones addition in the Defenders meant that the more mature, older, wiser Luke Cage would be needed. The Luke Cage of the 70s was a bombastic ex gangster, out to do good, but also to make money. He was a hero ......for hire and that is what made him fun and different. The mature Luke Cage is a husband, father, and leader of the New Avengers. He is reliable, steadfast, and honest. To make the Luke Cage and Jessica Jones work his maturity needed to evolve more quickly. Instead of being young and bombastic, he is middle aged, and instead of being a wise guy from the city, he is a southern gentleman. This also makes Luke Cage a better more nobler hero than his younger self but it also loses something. That young Powerman drove home points ruthlessly, while this Luke Cage feels polite and even at times gentle.
This new Luke Cage is not bad. I actually like him a lot.
That said, I can't help but miss the bombastic, no nonsense, young Luke Cage that came from.....Harlem. I wonder a bit now about a road not taken.