Spoilers for the full first season of Luke Cage and some of Daredevil
On the surface, Luke Cage has very little in common with Matt Murdock. He’s a physical specimen where Matt is average. Luke is a nigh invincible superman where Matt’s comparably a regular guy. Luke avoids being a hero where Matt seeks the responsibility out. Daredevil fights for the neighborhood he grew up in, while Luke is a transplant from elsewhere. Even their childhoods differ drastically. Luke grew up the privileged son of a famous pastor, while Matt grew up the son of a poor pro boxer. Yet despite the very different paths they took, Luke Cage now fights the same mission as his future Defenders ally.
The latest Marvel Netflix show has its ups and downs that fellow Fandom Following contributor Caisey will cover in her recaps of the show. At its core, though, Luke Cage is a show about a man the world must convince to be a hero. As anyone who watched Jessica Jones can tell you, Luke does not want to involve himself or his abilities in the responsibilities typical of superheroes. He wants to hide and live a normal life. His new show explains the plot reasoning behind that; Luke (or rather, Carl Lucas) is a fugitive after escaping the prison where he acquired his superpowers. There’s more to it than that, though, which strikes at the core difference between Luke and Matt’s mindsets towards fighting crime.
Luke’s belief in the justice system was shattered in a way that Matt Murdock’s was not.
Matt donned the Daredevil mask in order to assist the justice system he believes in. Luke reluctantly becomes a hero to help a community he has seen the justice system fail. Yet both became heroes to do the same thing; help communities that need them and provide a symbol of hope. Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem are similar in many ways and need the help their heroes provide for similar reasons. Despite their differences, Luke Cage and Matt Murdock spent most of the premiere seasons of their shows fighting the same battle.
You have the same corruption in the police forces, the homegrown villains using deplorable activities with the future goal of helping their home, and the same strong sense of identity and pride in the population. The same desperation exists opposing the violence consuming their communities. Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen may have very different demographics, but their people share a great deal in common. Both Fisk and Cottonmouth/Mariah provided stiff challenges separated from their physical ability to challenge Matt/Luke because they tapped into the pride and desire for change so strong within their neighborhoods. This thread runs deep throughout both shows. Both heroes must fight to be accepted just as much as they fight crime.
However, Luke does not willingly and proudly take the fight on the way Matt Murdock did. So much of the reason for that has to do with the different experiences based on their race. To put it bluntly, Matt is a white man who would never experience the same realities an African-American man does. He sees inequality, and starts his law firm to fight it rather than make it rich with a bigger firm, so it’s not like he is blind to it. Those legal battles play a role in both seasons of Daredevil. It’s just a fact that him being white means he will not personally face the obstacles that Luke Cage has, and those obstacles will make all the difference in a person’s belief in the justice system and belief in their ability to make a difference in the world.
Considering he used to be a cop, Luke likely had that same faith at some point. Look at everything that happens to him before the start of his show, though. He went to prison after being framed for a crime and experienced abuse at the hands of racist prison guards. Those prison guards forced him into a fight ring which served to secretly test candidates for fatal experiments within the prison. His father placed emphasis on his son being something other than “another black criminal,” which suggests the discussion of race was a familiar one for Luke. The woman he loved was murdered and her murderer never punished. His time working at Pop’s barbershop showed him a dangerous side of Harlem where the system fails to do right by people.
This view of the inequality and the fight for something better remains throughout the entirety of Luke Cage. Luke’s decisions even after he begins his hero career speak to the lack of faith he and Harlem feel for the justice system. Matt Murdock uses his crime-fighting persona to actively assist the police. He delivers criminals to them. He informs them of current crimes. He gives them credit for the criminals he takes down. Luke Cage does no such thing; he spends his time avoiding the police and even obstructing their investigations in some cases. Even Misty Knight, who he knows is a good cop, does not earn his trust for a long time. Luke’s distrust comes from a deep-seeded mindset cultivated throughout his life that Matt did not start out with.
In fact, where Matt gradually learned the depths of corruption throughout the system during his time as Daredevil, Luke gradually learns to trust the police.
Still, much like Matt’s inner goodness could not be crushed by his mentor Stick’s manipulations, Luke’s same heroic nature could not be suppressed forever. He could not sit by forever while injustice rotted the world around him. Harlem needed a hero and he answered the call.
The ways Luke Cage and Daredevil serve their communities differ quite a bit. The differences are necessary because of who they are and the differences between Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem. Matt Murdock wears a mask because Hell’s Kitchen does not need a hero with a face. He meant only to strike back at the criminal element in order to help his neighborhood. That’s not the case with Harlem. In fact, one of the main points driven home throughout Luke Cage was the importance of having a face representing Harlem for reasons beyond fighting crime.
Luke Cage is a good, heroic man who represented his community. It is important that he have a face rather than hide behind a mask. If he hides his identity, his actions don’t mean nearly as much to a community looking for a role model. Much like Captain America serves as a role model to represent the best of America and inspire strong American values, Luke Cage is black America’s Captain America. The kids of Harlem need to know his name and face.
There are also differences in their initial forays into crime-fighting. Matt prepares extensively beforehand. It is a goal he sets for himself. And he has to. Matt’s senses may be incredible because of the accident that blinded him, but he’s still as vulnerable as any normal human being. He needs to know who to hit and where and when to hit them. Luke Cage’s first steps occur much more reluctantly. He works almost entirely reactionary since he finds it too difficult to sit back and do nothing as people suffer. Then after his first time intervening, he continues to react to the consequences of his actions. Once he’s in, he can’t avoid the superhero business. You can’t really say he becomes a hero by accident, but it was not quite the mission that Daredevil adopts.
Despite all these differences, though, Matt and Luke share a lot in common that has led them to where they are now, months from teaming up on Netflix in The Defenders.
While both deal with the burden of being a hero in different ways, they were both quick to accept that burden once they began fighting. Both belonged to an important business within Hell’s Kitchen/Harlem in order to influence the neighborhoods outside of their hero identities; Matt with his law firm, and Luke at Pop’s barbershop, a place described as “Switzerland” because of its neutral status regarding gang conflicts in the area. Both feel a strong sense of pride in their communities that they hope to project onto others. Both have a deep respect for the law despite Luke’s lack of faith in it.
As I mentioned before, their villains are also quite similar.
Wilson Fisk was more than some gang boss. As one of our associate editors, Julia, talks about in her thoughts on Daredevil, he was a brilliant foil to Matt Murdock. He felt the same loyalty to Hell’s Kitchen and the same desire to change it for the better. He held influence and power within Hell’s Kitchen allowing him greater capability to enact that change. So much of the difficulty Matt faced in season 1 of Daredevil was convincing Hell’s Kitchen that an influential community leader was a criminal. Daredevil and Fisk fought not just for power, but for the soul of Hell’s Kitchen.
Luke Cage put an even greater focus on this type of conflict. Luke spends most of the first season a fugitive. Cornell Stokes and Mariah Dillard are Harlem residents enacting change in the area. They run an aggressive campaign to discredit and vilify him. It works for a while. There is almost nothing that can actually hurt Luke, let alone kill him, so the best way to get rid of him is to turn the public against him. They don’t do so simply for the power, either (at least Mariah doesn’t). They are lifelong Harlem residents with dreams of promoting Harlem’s genius and influence. They don’t oppose Luke just because he can bring down their criminal empires. Like Daredevil vs. Fisk, it is a battle for the soul of their shared community.
And like Daredevil, this scale is perfect for Luke. They are not Iron Man or Thor or The Incredible Hulk. They are not Superman. Daredevil and Luke Cage cannot fight off world-threatening conflicts such as aliens invading Earth. Daredevil would stand no chance against such superheroes. Luke might give them a fight, but has very little chance either. Neither is meant to save the world. Neither wants to.
Their roads may differ, but those roads led Matt Murdock and Luke Cage to the destination where they belonged, to serve as symbols of hope for their slices of New York City.
Which is awesome to have such symbols not only for the fictional residents of the MCU, but the audience as well.
One of the great things about comics that goes overlooked since they’re considered a hobby for kids is the representation they provide. Through superpowers all kinds of important social issues can be explored and all kinds of people can be represented. The X-Men, for example, are a very intentional metaphor for the civil rights movement and gay rights. With the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the ability of superhero stories to reach large audiences with messages on important issues increased massively. These movies and shows are watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. With this larger audience base comes a greater responsibility to promote positive messages and representation.
(And let’s face it, these are always the best comic book stories anyway. The Avengers may be fun, but there is a reason Captain America: Winter Soldier is considered by many to be the best of the Marvel movies, and there’s a reason Jessica Jones is so awesome.)
Matt Murdock is more than a superhero beating up bad guys or a symbol for Marvel’s version of Hell’s Kitchen. He is positive representation of people with disabilities. No, the blind probably can’t heighten their other senses to fight crime after freak pseudo-science accidents, but he represents so much more than that. He is also a smart, successful lawyer living a normal life. That’s just as important as his superpowers. Even if you can’t be Daredevil, anyone with a disability has the potential to be Matt Murdock. Does Daredevil tackle the issue perfectly? Probably not, but the positive image matters. With Marvel’s popularity, the positive image means a lot.
Luke Cage has its problems, but the title character has been widely praised as a positive role model for the African-American community. So much of the show focuses on Luke’s attempts to be that role model. It is proud to be set in a community of color. The people, the police, the community leaders, the show consistently casted persons of color. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker set out to make something that appealed to and represented black culture. The hoodies Luke wears are meant to bring Trayvon Martin to mind. Everyone around the show mentions Coker’s desire to make this show faithful to Harlem.
Luke is a great main character. His strength extends far beyond his physical abilities. He is determined, sympathetic, and loyal to his friends. He strives to do the right thing at all times. He brings out the best in those close to him (see: Jessica Jones). That doesn’t mean he comes across as some unrealistic superhuman. Luke has his flaws that he owns up to and tries to improve on. When he begins his efforts to improve Harlem he inspires everyone to be better. He inspires people to stand up for themselves and the injustices they face, whether from the criminals on the streets or the cops chasing them. He’s exactly the role model his Harlem needs to become a better place.
And with so many incidents these days involving police shooting black men, having a show about a bulletproof black man in Harlem could not be more relevant. Something Coker does not shy from in those links I provided when talking this show. He tries (and by majority opinion succeeds) with a main character and a story speaking directly to the tension created by these unfortunate incidents. Now obviously a Marvel show will fall back on comic book material too much to provide a look at racial tensions the way The Wire does, but a lot more people will watch Luke Cage and walk away thinking about it.
The similar destination Matt Murdock and Luke Cage have arrived at is more than their shared crime-fighting, the villains they fight, or their future team-up in The Defenders. It’s more than what the fictional characters mean to their fictional versions of Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem. Both characters (and Jessica Jones) exemplify the best of superhero stories; the ability to create positive, appreciated representation for groups that deserve more of it and tackle the issues prevalent throughout society.
I’m glad audiences are rewarding Netflix and Marvel for giving us these shows with these main characters, because they’re awesome. Those who finished Luke Cage know the very likely way that Matt Murdock and Luke Cage will finally cross paths, and I can’t wait to see them on screen together.
Images courtesy of Marvel and Netflix