With Marvel’s The Defenders, almost upon us, Matt Waters is here to catch everyone up on the four individual shows of the Netflix-verse that got us here, acting as a primer for newcomers and a refresher for those with fuzzy memories. Next up is Luke Cage. Heavy spoilers, obviously.
The rights to Luke Cage originally belonged to Sony who had actually made plans to produce a feature film from as early as 2003, but thankfully Marvel regained them in 2013, adding him to their roster of upcoming Netflix adult-oriented drama shows.
Former music journalist Cheo Hodari Coker was recruited as the showrunner, and with him came an intense desire to create a Harlem-centric project that celebrated black culture while tackling issues of race, police corruption and disenfranchisement.
The series was intended to debut last out of the four, but after Cage appeared as a supporting character in Jessica Jones – and a popular one with audiences at that – development on the series was fast-tracked, allowing it to debut in September 2016.
Reaction to the series was more mixed compared to Daredevil and Jessica Jones, with some morons labelling it ‘too black’, and while it’s definitely a few episodes too long, it presents some of the most compelling characters in the entire Netflix-verse and a phenomenal score by Adrian Younge.
But what the heck is it actually about? What do you need to know before watching Defenders? To answer these questions we first need to meet the cast, a couple of whom will be popping up in Defenders.
Dishwasher with unbreakable skin.
A former police officer who was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Carl Lucas was forced to participate in an experiment that granted him bulletproof skin and superhuman strength. Using his powers to escape and taking on the new alias Luke Cage, he participated in the events of Jessica Jones before returning to Harlem where he holds down several low-paying jobs. Wants to be left alone. Continues to say “Sweet Christmas” out loud. Sleeps with lots of ladies.
Mercedes ‘Misty’ Knight
Great detective and playground legend.
Growing up in Harlem as a skilled basketball player, Misty Knight became a detective to help the innocent. She has a particular knack for visualising crimes using photographs. Sleeps with Luke upon meeting him, which becomes awkward when she then has to investigate him. Determined to bring down Cottonmouth and Mariah.
Slightly better rested former nurse.
Following her resignation from the hospital after season two of Daredevil, Claire returns to Harlem, expressing a desire to specialise in treating people with superpowers. Lucky for her she bumps into Luke and the two begin a slow-burn romance. She saves Luke and Misty’s lives and generally has more to do than she has so far.
Henry ‘Pop’ Hunter
Barber and lovely neighbourhood mentor.
Nicknamed Pop due to the sound his fists made when punching people during his days as a thug, Pop changed his ways in his old age, opening a barbershop and becoming a role model for local kids. Tries to push Luke to help others with his powers and is just generally a really nice man.
Chess master and numbers man.
Constantly playing chess in Pop’s barbershop, Bobby Fish is extremely wise and offers sage advice to Luke frequently. In addition to his chess skill, he has expertise with finances, doing Pop’s taxes and helping keep the shop open. Funny and charming.
Luke’s deceased wife.
Meeting Luke in Seagate Prison, Reva took a liking to him, and ran away with him after he developed superhuman abilities and escaped, later marrying him. Jessica Jones killed her under Kilgrave’s influence in order to obtain a flash drive containing information about how Luke and Kilgrave got their powers. It is revealed she had lied to Luke throughout their time in prison, working with the people who performed the experiment on him. Appears only in flashback. Obviously.
Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes
Crime lord supreme of Harlem.
A gifted musician as a child, Cornell was forced into a life of illegal activity by his grandmother, the notorious Mama Mabel, setting him on a path to becoming an incredibly wealthy crime boss. Owns the lavish nightclub Harlem’s Paradise and is obsessed with power. Funds his cousin Mariah’s political career with his dirty money and moves product for Diamondback. Tremendously well played and possibly the best character in the whole show.
Crooked politician/Cottonmouth’s cousin.
Abused by her uncle as a teenager, Mariah was sent away to a fancy school for her protection, allowing her a more respectable life than her cousin, becoming a councilwoman. Her political aspirations to bring prosperity to Harlem appear genuine, though she isn’t very nice in private. Uses Cottonmouth’s money for her campaigning but dislikes being publicly linked to him.
Hernan ‘Shades’ Alvarez
“Luke Cage’s Littlefinger”
Shades served time in Seagate with Luke and helped assault him more than once. Since getting out he has joined up with Diamondback and is sent to monitor Cottonmouth on his employer’s behalf. Constantly scheming, Shades plays his various allies against each other and rarely loses his cocky grin.
Willis Stryker aka Diamondback
Arms dealer and Luke’s half-brother.
The product of an affair between his mother and Luke’s father, Willis was sent to a juvenile facility where he killed another teen in self-defence, while Luke was offered the chance to join the marines instead of serving time. Blaming Luke for his misfortune, he was responsible for him being sent to Seagate while also becoming a powerful arms dealer. Religious fanatic with a tendency to suddenly murder his allies. A definite letdown compared to Cottonmouth.
Detective Rafael Scarfe
Misty’s crooked partner.
Scarfe is kiiiiind of a good guy, but is on Cottonmouth’s payroll and murders a suspect at one point so has to be considered a villain. After being shot by Cottonmouth he goes to Luke and offers to provide evidence of the crime boss’ illegal activity, but dies and the info ends up swept under the rug.
Inept snitch and general scumbag.
Tired of constantly being busted by Daredevil, Turk tries his luck in Harlem, bringing information to Cottonmouth and his crew. Claims he’s going to return to Hell’s Kitchen but totally does not. Basically gets Pop killed, upgrading him from minor comic relief to a character you actively dislike.
Burstein worked at Seagate Prison and performed mad science on the inmates. Reva assisted in his research and he was the one who carried out the experiment that gave Luke his powers. Has a definite untrustworthy edge, wishing to use the data from the experiment for… something.
All Hail the King
Luke Cage attempts to live a quiet life, avoiding unwanted attention and hiding his abilities. His employer, Pop, has other ideas though, imploring him to save one of his employees, Chico, from the wrath of Cottonmouth after a robbery goes awry.
One of Cottonmouth’s men murders Pop in an attempt to kill Chico, devastating Luke. In retaliation he breaks into the Crispus Attucks complex, where a great deal of Cottonmouth’s money is kept, taking some of it to buy Pop’s barber shop so the bank can’t repossess it.
Standing Up To Cottonmouth
Following Pop’s murder and multiple pleas from the neighbourhood, Luke finally takes a more active role in protecting Harlem from Cottonmouth, publicly embarrassing him at Pop’s funeral, shaking down his goons and generally getting the better of him.
Claire Temple arrives in Harlem to visit her mother and in the process meets Luke, striking up a flirtatious friendship with him and helping with his endeavours.
In a heated confrontation with Mariah wherein he implies she wanted sexual attention from their abusive uncle, Cottonmouth is brutally murdered by Mariah. Shades encourages her to pin it on Cage, paying club worker Candace to corroborate the story.
In the wake of Cottonmouth’s death, Diamondback finally shows himself, seizing control of Harlem’s criminal operation, murdering the leaders of most of the rival gangs and demanding the loyalty of those that remain. He also sets about ruining Luke’s reputation.
He brings with him Judas bullets (developed by Tony Stark’s rival, H.A.M.M.E.R.), highly advanced rounds composed of alien metal that are capable of piercing Luke’s skin. Diamondback manages to shoot him with one such bullet, gravely wounding him.
Claire drives Luke down to Georgia, having tracked down the doctor who performed the experiment on Luke originally, Noah Burstein. Using Reva’s flashdrive, Burstein and Claire are able to partially recreate the conditions of the accident, remove the shrapnel, and heal Luke. Burstein then reveals Reva was in on the operation the whole time, causing Luke to wreck his lab in a rage. Burstein recovers some of the data however.
Standoff in Harlem’s Paradise
During a sit-in protest against Luke Cage organised by Mariah, Diamondback takes the club hostage, again framing Luke, issuing demands in his brother’s name.
Luke returns to New York and infiltrates the club with Misty and Claire, eventually saving most of the hostages, including Candace who tells Misty the truth about Cottonmouth’s death. Misty takes a bullet to the arm that develops into a nasty wound.
Diamondback grows even more unhinged, slaughtering his remaining rivals and all but abandoning Shades, causing him to double down on his secret alliance with Mariah.
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
Clad head to toe in H.A.M.M.E.R. gear, Diamondback engages Luke in an all-out brawl in the streets as locals and the police look on. Luke eventually emerges victorious and Diamondback is taken to hospital where he is visited by Noah Burstein for unknown reasons.
Mariah is arrested but evades all charges after Shades murders Candace, while Luke is taken in by federal marshals now his identity has been made public on television, escorting him back to Seagate.
Claire takes a flier for self-defence classes from Colleen Wing, while Mariah stands proudly in Cottonmouth’s office, kissing Shades as the series ends.
So there you have it. Luke finally embraces the role of the hero… only to end up back in prison. Claire sets herself up nicely to appear in Iron Fist. Mariah positions herself as the main villain of the second season. Misty maaaaybe is getting the bionic arm her comic book counterpart has after that gunshot wound? And Burstein may be offering Diamondback some kind of superpowers based on his recovered research.
Stay tuned for my final recap tomorrow, the oh so controversial Iron Fist.