This is how you do politics in a superhero story.
Luke Cage isn’t a perfect show. As some critics have pointed out, the show’s main villain, Diamondback, is weak compared to Cottonmouth, who is the primary antagonist in the first half of the season (and, along with Wilson Fisk from Daredevil, one of Marvel’s two best villains). It probably isn’t as good as the first season of Daredevil (though it’s close in my opinion), but it is worlds better than Jessica Jones in the ways that count.
***Minor spoilers for Luke Cage follow.***
While Jessica Jones boasts some excellent acting, it ultimately gives us one of the most unlikeable protagonists ever seen in a superhero story. And where that show engages with politics and Big Social Issues, it does so in a spectacularly one-sided way. I think, for example, of its handling of abortion in “AKA You’re A Winner.” I realize that the show got a lot of praise for the way it treated the question of abortion in that episode, but it didn’t get that praise for a nuanced depiction of the issue. It got that praise because it unflinchingly makes the case for abortion and deliberately tries to shame pro-lifers. There are more honest and fair ways of making a political point in a story.
Luke Cage, on the other hand, gives us sympathetic characters and solid performances (even if some of the minor characters are a bit wooden), and where Jessica Jones beats its audience over the head with a very particular understanding of certain social issues, Luke Cage makes a nuanced presentation of race relations.
For example, when Diamondback and Mariah Dillard frame Luke for the murder of a white police officer, the show doesn’t flinch from depicting the way in which the police resort to brutality in the pursuit of justice for a fellow officer. But this isn’t just a simple case of racist cops setting out to destroy an innocent black man. The police themselves are being manipulated by a corrupt local politician trying to exploit social tensions for her own advancement and a gangster out for revenge against Luke. Prejudice undoubtedly influences the judgment of many of the show’s white cops, but the worst brutality comes when a black investigator assaults a young black man who won’t tell him Luke’s location. The Harlem police don’t need racism to drive them to brutality. As Misty Knight learns, fear, desperation, a real desire for justice, and the political machinations of a corrupt councilwoman are enough to make even the best cops lose control.
And though the show doesn’t flinch from depicting the role of white racism in the ruining of black lives, it also doesn’t shy away from the way in which the breakdown of the family shapes black communities. The first several episodes are preoccupied with the absence of fathers and the effect that this has on young black men. And what makes Cottonmouth such a powerful antagonist (besides the transcendent performance Mahershala Ali) is that the show won’t let us see him simply as a villain. As Daredevil did with Wilson Fisk, Luke Cage gives Cottonmouth a backstory that makes us almost want to root for him. After we see just how brutal a man Cornell Stokes is, we learn his heartbreaking backstory: he could have been a very different man had it not been for a dysfunctional family that drove him to crime and nearly stamped out his most redeeming qualities.
Marvel and Netflix have given us a show that tackles head-on the conflicts that have animated the national political conversation with a frankness and a balance of views that is rarely seen on television.