As a comic-book fan, I get giddy at the news that another character from the pages I love will be brought to life onscreen, but with it comes anxiety. For comic books, origin stories are always tough. They require a lot of exposition and are necessarily closely tied to the era in which they were created. (Captain America got his start, before WWII, by punching Hitler; Bruce Banner became the Hulk after exposure to a radioactive power source in 1962, just as fears of nuclear weapons and the Cold War were heightened.) And in most cases, adapting a comic-book hero for the modern age requires some character reinvention. With Luke Cage, the post–civil rights character of 1972, however, little change was needed to animate him for the new Netflix series.
Coming out of the 1960s and the assassinations of civil-rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the imagery of a bulletproof black man was an empowering symbol. In 2016, the immense impact of such representation in the wake of Terence Crutcher, Alfred Olango, and Terrence Sterling (names of a few victims from just the last month) is not lost on audiences.
Luke Cage first appeared in Hero for Hire #1 in June 1972. As Marvel Comics’ commercial response to blaxploitation, Cage was written as brash, loud, quick to fight, and depicted wearing chains and metal cuffs. He was part John Shaft and part Muhammad Ali, and even today the early Cage comics read as though Isaac Hayes is playing in the background. Cheo Hodari Coker, the creator of the Netflix series, didn’t shy away from those influences; in fact, he stayed close to the original’s cultural tone. The new series opens in a Harlem barbershop belonging to Cage’s father-in-law, where a multigenerational group of black men is discussing sports and cultural figures, referencing Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Pat Riley, and Al Pacino (who’s earned a spot on the no-pay list because “The Godfather and Scarface guarantee that man an eternal ghetto pass”).
While Coker used the feel of the comics to inform the tenor of the series, Luke Cage himself differs from his 1972 counterpart. As the “Hero for Hire” in 1972, Cage functioned as a street-level mercenary, offering his superhero services at price. As only the second African-American superhero—Marvel created Sam Wilson’s Falcon character as Captain America’s sidekick in 1969—Cage was very much a product of the blaxploitation era, in both its good and bad aspects. As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos points out, “Luke Cage is a man whose powers and story are meant to reflect and transcend the reality of black struggle and atrocities at the time, but he’s also a character who, despite the best of intentions…starts off as a stereotype of a jive-talking, angry black man.”
In 2016, Cage is quiet and reserved, highly intelligent—we’re shown he has a taste for Walter Mosely and Ralph Ellison. The other primary change to Cage’s character is that he’s more concerned with protecting his friends and his neighborhood than earning a buck. On multiple occasions during the series’s 13 episodes, people attempt to pay Cage for helping them, and on each instance, Cage refuses. After rescuing his landlords from being robbed, they tell him they would like to hire him as protection. Cage responds, “I’m not for hire. But you have my word, ma’am, I got you.”