Marvel's Luke Cage is the most vital, important TV show of 2016. Or at the very least, the most timely. The show, which hits Netflix on September 30, puts front and center in its 13 episodes a bulletproof black man dressed in a hoodie, battling police and governmental corruption, at a time when Black Lives Matter protests regularly dominate the news cycle and policemen shooting unarmed African-Americans seems like a near-daily occurrence.
But the timeliness isn't the only reason why Luke Cage (based on the first seven episodes that were screened for press) is so important. No, it's because this is a superhero show.
TV certainly hasn't been shying away from discussing race this year. From FX's The People v O.J. on the dramatic front, to ABC's comedy black-ish, race, shootings and prejudice have been explored and discussed in provocative and thoughtful ways. People v O.J., though, wears its provocations on its sleeve. If you're sitting down to watch a show called American Crime Story, you know what you're getting into. Same with black-ish: despite creator Kenya Barris' stance that he wants the show to be treated as a sitcom, and not some standard bearer for an entire race, this year it has been that standard bearer, for better or worse.
Luckily for Barris, shows like FX's Atlanta and HBO's Insecure are expanding the palette of African-American-led comedies on TV in superbly hilarious and subtle ways. But until those comedies break through to the mainstream (if they do at all), right now, both black-ish and O.J. are preaching to the choir.
Luke Cage, on the other hand, is a Marvel show. It's hard to argue that from movies, to TV, to comic books, Marvel is the dominant force in entertainment right now. Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Thor and the rest cross all racial and economic boundaries. They appeal to everyone.
That's going to be the draw of Luke Cage to the casual viewer. Not the heavy music influence on the show (every episode is named after a Gang Starr song, and the central club the show revolves around has gorgeously filmed musical sequences nearly once per hour). Not the incredibly layered and iconic performances, from Mike Colter as the steadfast Luke to Mahershala Ali as the remarkably sympathetic unhinged villain Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes. Not even name actors like Alfre Woodard, who gives a shockingly vulnerable performance as corrupt politician Mariah Dillard. No, none of those will be the main reasons the majority of viewers will tune in.
It's the Marvel brand. It's the chance to see classic superhero Luke Cage grow from the page, to his supporting turn on Marvel and Netflix's Jessica Jones, to taking the lead role here. What's important about this is that the show is steadfastly, 100% about race — and this will be the first time most of those Marvel viewers have seen or heard anything like the arguments and discussions presented here.
The issue with preaching to the choir is that, by definition, the choir agrees with you. Far more powerful is a Trojan Horse like Luke Cage, which sneaks its racial politics in under the guise of an enormously entertaining superhero origin story. Yes, Marvel has had superheroes of color on screen, including Iron Man's best bud War Machine, played most frequently by Don Cheadle, and Captain America's best bud Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie.
But there's never been a superhero lead like Luke Cage. The show even has fun with the idea over the first few episodes, riffing on classic origin stories like Spider-Man's, Captain America's and more, while always making sure to give them a Harlem-infused twist. That way, Marvel fans who can recite Spider-Man's "With great power, comes great responsibility" speech without thinking (immediately followed by a caveat that, "That wasn't the original line, what Stan Lee actually wrote was...") will see something they recognize on screen, something they identify with.
That's the hook. That's how when, for example, in the second episode, Cage venomously spits a heartbreaking speech about his relationship to the word "N----r," you understand it. You feel it. You've seen him be a superhero, you've seen them struggle with incredible odds before. But the crushing weight of history? The toll one word can take on not just a man, but everyone of a particular skin color? That's Luke Cage. That's why this show is so important.
Look, I'm not trying to discount what People v. O.J. or black-ish have accomplished, nor pit them against each other. You probably couldn't find three more dissimilar shows (including Luke Cage). But just as Jessica Jones sucked fans in by being a superhero detective story set in the Marvel Universe, while actually being one of the most powerful and thorough explorations of sexual assault ever committed to film, so it is with Luke Cage and race.
There's other ways Luke Cage completely shifts the way we'll see superheroes and race forever, from Luke being allowed to James Bond around as a romantic lead to the near lack of Caucasian characters. This show is far too smart to make all the cops white and the heroes black, by the way. Things are never that simple, and the world of Luke Cage is as complex as the history of Harlem itself.
The show is also ridiculously entertaining and extremely well-crafted. Where some Netflix shows seem to drag at nearly an hour, Luke Cage flies by faster than an episode of Game of Thrones. And where some Netflix shows also forget their episodic structure in favor of making a 13-hour long movie, Luke Cage does not. There's serial storytelling and an overarching narrative, to be sure. But each episode has its own focus, its own story, its own way of exploring the experience of what makes Harlem what it is, through the lens of Colter's Cage.
If the purpose of entertainment is to 1) Entertain, and 2) Inform, Luke Cage wins on both counts. It's a fun, twist-filled superhero show that will ultimately change more minds by the end of the year than a dozen protests. As the show's hero likes to say, that should hopefully lead to a "Sweet Christmas" indeed.
All 13 episodes of Marvel's Luke Cage will premiere on Netflix on Friday, September 30.