Luke Cage: Why It’s Important

Niall Flynn /
Oct 11, 2016 / Film & TV

For a while now, many have been arguing that the television series has overtaken the film. While the big screen will always reign supreme for the romantics, the pragmatists have long been going to HBO and Netflix to quench their cinematic urges.

It’s not difficult to see why, either. Game Of Thrones, for instance, has a budget that dwarfs the majority of its filmic competitors, while Westworld (new to HBO last week), features an all-star ensemble that summer blockbusters would spend their pre-production years yearning for. From a distance, it seems like the smart money is very much on the series. However, it’s probably more accurate to say that television hasn’t quite overtaken – it has simply levelled the playing field.

If you were to break each prominent television serial down into genres, you’d be hard pressed to argue that it does things better than its filmic counterpart. Breaking Bad was fantastic, but as a crime epic, does it exceed Scorcese? No, I wouldn’t say so. Game Of Thrones certainly brought fantasy into the mainstream consciousness, but so did Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation of a certain J. R. R. Tolkein trilogy. Again: TV’s good, but it’s not quite better. House Of Cards, Narcos, Stranger Things – all of the heavyweights of the television revolution are certainly indisputable in their respective brilliance, but it’s never too difficult to find an equivalent on film that garners a similar compliment. While the series has certainly made up ground, it’s still yet to pass the movie. Rather, they are of an equal weighting. Well, at least that was what I thought. Then I watched Luke Cage.

Now, if you’ve seen the latest offering from the Marvel-Netflix love-in, you’ll know exactly what you mean. You can probably stop reading now. Go for a walk, or something. Eat a banana. Watch some more TV. I dunno. If you haven’t, then you can rest assured that this piece will refrain from any kind of Luke Cage spoiler. All I will say on the show specifically, is that it’s fantastic. The best television of 2016. It’s really that good. Put the banana down. Watch it now.

As far as films are concerned, Marvel have long been top of the pile. Whether you like it or not, the superhero genre is the movie industry right now – and that doesn’t look like changing anytime soon. While DC and Fox have given it a fair go, neither have even come close to reaching the dizzy heights that Marvel has come to permanently occupy. A hell of a lot of people like Marvel films, and they make a hell of a lot of money; it makes for a winning formula. But, despite their supremacy, their criticism has been consistent: Marvel’s superhero films are a little predictable, a little empty. They’re good fun, there’s no doubting that – but there’s a basic template that they all tend to follow and very rarely stray from. It goes a little like this:

Establishing of protagonists / perceived serenity / Robert Downey Jr joke / enter villain / evil villain / ‘nasty evil villain stop doing that’ (!) / Robert Downey Jr joke / protagonists formulate plan / fight / more nasty evil villainy (Tom Hiddleston?) / Robert Downey Jr joke in the face of unfathomable danger / retreat / soul-searching and existentialism / encouragement from a third party / another fight / victory against the odds (Mark Ruffalo?) / the end /serenity / post-credits foreshadowing of impending episodes (may or may not contain a Robert Downey Jr joke).

Quips aside, people are quick to accuse the superhero genre of dumbing down modern film – and it’s not a grievance difficult to argue against. There’s a certain simple, artificiality to what Marvel do, regardless of how well they do it. You can’t help but feel Marvel are missing a track to tackle something a little weightier. They’re a hegemonic force, with the power (both financial and cultural) to explore important subject matter that’d be seen by millions – instead, you have a regurgitation of the synopsis above. It’s a wasted opportunity, right? Well, yeah, it was. But then something changed. Cue Luke Cage.

Once again, allow me to emphasise that you’ll find no spoilers in this part of town. Not even a smidgen of one. But, for those who are still yet catch the show, allow me to contextualise. Luke Cage is an African-American superhero living in Harlem, New York. He’s indestructible. In the trailer, you watch as he’s showered with gunfire and continues to walk towards his armed foes, unhurt and unbothered. He’s a bulletproof black man in 2016 America. You don’t need me to point out the significance metaphor, do you. What Marvel tried to do with Jessica Jones, it has achieved with Luke Cage. This is a superhero with a message.

So, to return to my original point, while you can take at Game Of Thrones and say ‘yeah, it’s great, but look at The Lord of the Rings’, Luke Cage is the first of the television big boys to outdo it’s filmic competitor. It’s adopting the cultural mantel that Marvel possesses, and using it to tell a story that’s relevant, significant and – most importantly – exciting to watch.

It’s not just what it’s saying, either – it’s how it’s saying it. The Marvel films are excellent at jam-packing all of their action and adventure into about 90 minutes of film. As grand as they are at this approach, it’s always going to have its limitations in terms of pacing. As part of team television, Luke Cage has no such problem; spread out over thirteen 50 minute episodes, the show is able to construct a slow-building narrative, leaving time for characterisation, scene-setting and sub-plots that Marvel would never even consider exploring. It makes for a narrative that feels more real – which is only emphasises by the show’s gritty, naturalised aesthetic. Harlem’s a location that’s been long overlooked within the genre, but in Luke Cage, it forms the beating heart of the story. It’s an ode to the neighbourhood as much as it is an ode to black culture – the location and its characters are entangled.

Luke Cage is important for a number of reasons, none of which are more or less significant than the other. However, in terms of the film vs. television debate, it represents a transitional moment. For the first time, TV has visibly outdone its cinematic opponent. Luke Cage is a change in the tide. The message has been sent. The ball’s in your court, film.

Words by Niall Flynn

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