Is Luke Cage too cool for the Marvel Universe?

The latest Netflix Marvel series is a slow-burning success – but might it have done better unshackled from its superhero origins?

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Luke Cage arrives on Netflix today, and viewers will be happy to know that Marvel comics’ third superhero series on the platform (after Daredevil and Jessica Jones) is another moderate success. While it takes a while to get going and has one or two ropey performances, Luke Cage creates a vibrant vision of New York neighbourhood Harlem while still telling a satisfying crime thriller story with some terrific characters. It’s not perfect, sure, but it’s decent.

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However, while watching the series I was struck by one thing over and over again – one of the series’ biggest weaknesses is its connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which includes all the various superhero films and TV series under the company’s banner (such as The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and next month’s Doctor Strange) as well as the other Netflix series.

Normally, this connection is a fun way to throw in a few references to other Marvel films and build a convincingly overlapping world of superheroes. But in Luke Cage it all feels a bit forced, because for the most part it’s not a traditional superhero story – it’s a cool and complex crime thriller, which might have been better off without involving superheroics at all.

“At a glance we didn’t want it to be readily apparent that this is a superhero series,” Mike Colter, who plays the title character, agreed while speaking to me at an international press junket.

“We wanted to make people who were not superhero fans comfortable to tune in and get lost in the plot and the drama of it all and sometimes some superhero act comes up and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is a superhero. I forgot he was really strong.’”

And it is reasonably easy to forget. In the series Luke is a reluctant hero with superhuman strength and bulletproof skin (as he appears in the original comic books the series is based on), which he uses to take on the forces of crime lord “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). But it never really feels like he’s a superhero taking on a supervillain – Luke’s just a man using his strength to stop injustice, and the fact that he has superpowers is almost incidental (if he had the non-super skills of say, Liam Neeson’s character in Taken the story would work just as well).

And then the superhero references start crowding in, and it feels a bit laboured. For the most part Luke Cage is incredibly grounded and gritty, full of x-rated language, violence and serious themes, and with a vigorous discussion of race that’s bound to be the focus of most media coverage.

But then someone will throw in a comment about needing a hammer like Thor’s, or to “The Incident” in the first Avengers film, or to Sam Rockwell’s character in Iron Man 2, and the clash of tones is deafening. Some critics have called Luke Cage Marvel’s version of The Wire – but it’s like a version of The Wire that also exists in the world of Doctor Who, where drug pushers idly wonder what the Tardis is up to from time to time.

Now, I’m not saying that Marvel’s stories can’t have variations in tone, or can’t exist within a dense and realistically varied world. Superhero stories with real-world concerns and serious topics can and do exist, but a lot of the time Luke Cage feels like it’s a non-superhero story with some Marvel set dressing thrown on as an afterthought.

But then again, as Colter says that may have been the point.

“We didn’t want to take [viewers] out of the story too much,” he told me. “It’s more about the character and plot than CGI and what we can do to make people go ‘Oh, that was cool.’”

Correspondingly, when more traditional superhero stuff does turn up – like the scenes where Luke accidentally assembles his classic comic-book costume, for example – it feels a bit silly, and alien to the deep and realistic world we’ve grown accustomed to.

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Luke Cage in his original comic-book incarnation

All of this isn’t to criticize Luke Cage as a series, or have a go at Marvel properties in general – I’m a fan of both, and will be eagerly watching the last episodes of Luke Cage (only seven of 13 were available for preview) now that they’re released.

It’s just that the world created by showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker is so special and distinctive that I almost wish it had been given the chance to operate on its own terms, rather being hobbled with a lot of superhero exposition that doesn’t add much to this particular story (and its own star admits wasn’t the main focus).

Maybe it could have worked with fewer or more organic superhero callbacks, or maybe the same plot might have served a non-superhero better – but either way, at the moment the story just feels a little too caged.

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Marvel’s Luke Cage is available to stream on Netflix now