Luke Cage, Netflix’s third Marvel Comics series, has a lot of face-offs, as expected for a television show based on a comic. But tellingly, one of the show’s most memorable encounters between two opponents does not feature the title character.
In Episode 8, Misty Knight (Simone Missick), the intrepid detective put in charge of solving the murder of local gang leader Cottonmouth, goes head to head with Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), a savvy councilwoman and cousin to Cottonmouth, who also happens to be his murderer.
After a frustrating interrogation with Candace, a witness Misty is convinced is lying (spoiler alert: She is!), Misty walks out into the lobby of the police precinct where Mariah is sitting, waiting for an interview. They banter back and forth and then Misty goes for the kill.
“What do you have on Candace?”
“What do you have on me?” Mariah responds.
“Other than the fact that your edges are a little damp...”
Mariah slowly smiles, before arranging herself and rising to leave. “That’s what I thought. You ain’t got shit,” she shoots back.
It’s a striking scene, compelling in its subtext — Misty is suggesting that Mariah might have taken a shower to clean up after killing Cottonmouth while also acknowledging that most sensitive of topics, black women’s hairlines. It’s also the first real face-to-face between two of the show’s more intriguing characters. In another scene shortly after, Misty quips about Mariah to her boss Inspector Ridley (Karen Pittman), “I was just about to compel her to make a statement, before you let your little soror skee-wee on out of here.” It’s a funny, random reference to black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha’s greetings to its members and indicative of the way the series subtly captures how black women relate to one another.
In a genre where women have been historically relegated to damsels and side pieces, encountering nuanced and complex female characters in a Marvel series not centered around them is quite a shift. There are levels of complexity not just to Misty and Mariah, but to most of the other women on the show. They’re smart, tough, morally ambiguous. Misty grapples with the tension of being a black police officer when her department is prone to roughing up young Harlem natives; Mariah genuinely believes in the betterment of Harlem even if the money she’s using to save it fuels violence in the neighborhood; Candace is just trying to provide for her family at the expense of an innocent man’s life.
Following in the footsteps of Jessica Jones, which was all about complex white women, Luke Cage could have easily fallen into the tropes that mirror the way progress often works in real life: granting nuance first to white men, then black men, then white women, with women of color near the bottom. Instead showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker and his team of writers have worked to give the women in Luke Cage thoughtful character development and emotional complexity. The result is a series that, though it bears a man’s name in the title, is replete with women who aren’t just as compelling and as complicated as the men. They’re more so.
Much of the press leading up to the premiere of Luke Cage on September 30 focused on the show’s “unapologetic blackness” and the radical implications of showcasing a black, bulletproof superhero in the midst of highly publicized police shootings of black people.
Coker tried to push back against this narrative: “It wasn't like we were setting out to be the Black Lives Matter show! It's just that circumstances for what we were writing in 2015 — it's now at the forefront of everybody's minds,” Coker told Mother Jones in September. Yet the sense that Luke Cage was a uniquely progressive show was certainly promulgated by a lot of media coverage.
But as has been noted by The Ringer and on Twitter (arguably the 21st-century version of the barbershop), the actual character of Luke Cage, as envisioned by the show’s writers, lacks a certain something. He’s stodgy, kind of a bore, an empty hulk of muscle prone to lectures about the n-word, awkward banter, and corny catchphrases. He’s conservative, which is fine — a lot of black people are. But as portrayed by Mike Colter, he’s stiff and totally devoid of charisma. To be fair, this might be because of the inherent difficulty of writing for a character who is supposed to be fundamentally good in nature. And Coker has tweeted as much.
But such stock characterizations go beyond just Luke Cage. Each of the principal men on Luke Cage are either underdeveloped or fall into easily recognizable archetypes — to be expected in a TV show based on long-running comic book series, but frustrating nevertheless. Cottonmouth is a run-of-the-mill gangster, thrust into a life he may not have wanted but is undeniably well-suited for. Diamondback (Luke Cage’s half-brother, and the series’ supervillain) frames Cage and tries to kill him — but the motivation behind his hatred of Cage never quite seems justified. The only true cipher on the show is Shades, who has a backstory in the original comic book series, but nonetheless feels a bit undercooked here. What are his motivations for helping Mariah? Attraction? Lust? Power? Even Pop, the genial neighborhood father figure played by Frankie Faison, feels very familiar. His early death was inevitable.
By contrast, the women on the show crackle with vigor. (There’s more than one woman in the show, for starters.) The motivations for their actions vary and come with convincing backstories. Coker says he was determined to create compelling female characters and, to his credit, he does. “Shonda Rhimes in particular was one of the first in a mainstream context to have very strong, complex black female characters. That was a huge influence on me,” he told the New Yorker in September. It shows.
The character of Mariah Dillard is the finest example of such complexity. As written by Luke Cage’s noticeably diverse stable of writers (including two black women and four black men) she simmers with contradictions, a fascinating mixture of ambition, pride, and civic duty tightly coiled in Alfre Woodard’s compact frame. She loves historic Harlem and black people fiercely (“Black lives matter,” she tells an interviewer emphatically in an early episode) and her political campaign is centered around building affordable housing in her neighborhood.
But there’s a darkness in Mariah, an iron will to to protect herself, whatever the cost. We learn later in the series that part of the reason for this instinct toward self-preservation is because she was the victim of serial sexual molestation at the hands of her uncle. And while her actions don’t hinge around this abuse, the implication by Cottonmouth that she was somehow deserving of the assaults drives her to commit her first murder.
“I saw the way you flirted with Uncle Pete. Running around half-naked all the time. You wanted it!” snaps Cottonmouth in a pivotal scene.
“I did not like it! I did not want it!” Mariah screams as she strikes Cottonmouth over the head with a champagne bottle. Once she kills him, she’s a bundle of nerves, her anger at him mixed with grief for the cousin she grudgingly loved. But at the end of the day, she knows she has to protect herself, and it’s that determination — acted out so wonderfully by Woodard — that makes her character work. Her moral compass is set to protect herself, and that she doesn’t get her comeuppance at the end of the series makes her ascent all the more thrilling to watch.
Mariah’s putative foil, Misty Knight, is an antihero in a classic sense, a renegade cop who is very good at what she does but occasionally bristles at the bureaucracy of the police system. She sleeps with Luke in the first episode, and they have a connection, but that connection doesn’t drive her need to believe his innocence or later defend him. (She also rocks an amazing twist-out throughout the series and, yes, it is important). As portrayed by Simone Missick, she’s naturally skeptical, but fair, and loyal. She’s the kind of person who goes to bat for her police partner, even though he’s corrupt.
And it’s not just Misty and Mariah Knight who contain multitudes. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), a nurse with a knack for finding people with “abilities,” could have easily been a flat stock character, a lackluster helpmate. Instead, because of the writing and how Dawson plays her (firm and resolute), Claire becomes a crucial ally. She is the only character who calls Luke out for his corniness, and even if their eventual romantic connection lacks chemistry, it’s not because Claire’s character doesn’t have enough context or grounding, but because Colter, gorgeous as he may be, gives her nothing to work with. Just as importantly, when Misty suspects that Claire might have a thing for Luke (“Have you and Luke had coffee?” she asks wryly in one episode), there’s no cattiness, no biting remarks, just the overwhelming sense that these characters are two adults who won’t let their mutual attraction to Luke derail them from the work at hand.
Even minor characters like Candace, the lying witness, or Ayesha, a shop owner who shoots one of Cottonmouth’s lackeys in order to retrieve her father’s valuable baseball ring, get brief moments of exposition to make their motivations clear, creating empathy for the viewer — and, in Candace’s case, make her eventual murder all the more poignant. On a visceral level, seeing so many women of color in various positions of power is moving. Their depictions are a welcome respite from the gauntlet of recent comic book films that relegate women to pieces of ass or choose only one woman to bequeath the gift of complex reasoning to. Indeed, the only female character on Luke Cage who falls too readily into an annoying trope — Angelic Dead Wife — is Reva, Luke’s dead wife. Even when it’s revealed that she was partially responsible for Luke’s abilities, she never moves beyond an abstraction. Luke admits as much in a later episode.
Creating nuanced, complicated female characters in a genre that historically has shut them out doesn’t just make for better entertainment. It’s a reflection of a general TV trend. With so many complex women to choose from — from Shonda Rhimes’s leading ladies to the stars of Orange is the New Black — a show that doesn’t have interesting women is a show that’s woefully retrograde. Complex characters make for better storytelling. And any fictional world that isn’t populated by sharp, contradictory women — even in a superhero universe — isn’t a world worth getting lost in.