Luke Cage, the third installment of Marvel’s Netflix Defenders series’, is a show that can please fans who are familiar with the characters as well as keep new audiences engaged. Unlike the rest of the Marvel world, Luke Cage strikes an unlikely balance between events within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and actual reality. While the series does have its flaws (pacing issues in the back half of the season is a major one), it excels in its characters, especially the villains.
The rest of this post contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for the first season of Luke Cage. If you haven’t finished all 13 episodes, binge first, read later.
Successful superhero entertainment hinges on the believeability of their villains. Heroes are easy to come by, but even they tend to drift into boring if their antagonist isn’t up to snuff. Most recently, we’ve seen villain shortcomings with Ra’s al Ghul in the third season of Arrow and with Vandal Savage in the first season of Legends of Tomorrow. Too often, the counter to a poorly done big bad is throw more bad guys into the fray.
Luke Cage has bucked the trend in its first season on Netflix with four standout villains, and a fifth circling the outside. Over the course of 13 episodes, we see a range of motivations from the desire to be respected, the power hungry, the manipulative, the tag-a-longs, and the just plain psychotic. Despite his short-lived run, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is the most compelling and complex of the five.
Mahershala Ali absolutely shines in his role as Cottonmouth, the King of Harlem. Our first introduction to him is at the club Harlem’s Paradise, where he’s meeting with Domingo Colon (Jacob Vargas) to setup a cash-for-guns trade to start a new relationship between the two crime rings. Cornell has got an excellent sense of style, with tailored suits in what could pass for an upscale nightclub. His demeanor is cocky but calculated, and his laugh is deep and infectious.
After the deal between him and Domingo goes horribly wrong, Mr. Stokes (as he does not like being called Cottonmouth) has to scramble to get his criminal enterprise back on track. As the season progresses, we learn that he was forced into the family business instead of exploring his musical talent. His history adds to his charisma and is part of what makes him so likeable despite his brash actions.
Stokes is the linchpin for which every other villain in the series revolves around. His ambitions are far reaching, and things are going well for him until Luke Cage comes into the picture and begins dismantling his hard fought empire. He is rattled by Cage’s presence, but is also too proud to accept his loss and move on; which is his ultimate demise. He and his cousin, Mariah Dillard, are two sides of the same coin. She represents the legitimate and legal-ish side of the family business. But when he crosses the line with her, it’s a slight she cannot tolerate.
For politician and Harlem City Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), her troubled past of abuse is something she’s spent a long time covering up. But when her cousin’s ego rubs salt in an old, painful wound, she snaps. The death of Stokes at her hand is both shocking and oddly satisfying as she begins to move in a more sinister direction.
She’s the epitome of good intentions gone wrong. Mariah has a genuine vision to see Harlem rise and move into another Renaissance. Of course, she’s willing to lie, steal, cheat, and kill to see it through, which makes her the most dangerous of all the villains on the series. With Stokes out of the picture, she is forced to step in and take over his duties even though she desperately wants to go about things in a more legitimate manner. But leave it to a politician to be able to deftly outplay every other hand at the table.
With the help of Shades, perpetual second in command no matter where he falls, Mariah continues to stay in the public’s favor while keeping her head above water in the underground circles. Through cunning political spin and perfect timing, Mariah is able to always stay just a few paces ahead of Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Luke Cage (Mike Colter). The fact that all of her plays are underhanded and cerebral are a testament to her iron will to see that her agenda is always at the top of the pile. For her, it pays to have friends in all the right places.
Shades, as noted above, is a crony if there ever was one. Which is not a slight to his character because Theo Rossi plays that evolution to perfection. Always a background presence, Rossi manages to be a scene stealer without saying a word. He’s not big enough to be intimidating, but in his case, size doesn’t matter. In flashbacks, we see him (along with comic character Comanche) playing enforcer for guard Albert Rackham at Seagate prison. He comes into the series in the first episode as the right hand of mysterious and notorious criminal, Diamondback. He was sent to make sure that Stokes got back on his feet after the deal with Domingo went sour.
He’s an instigator; the person who puts a thought into someone’s head and lets it blossom on its own. Shades is a master manipulator and loyal guard dog all wrapped into one well manicured package. His history with other characters and Harlem itself make him a powerful yet underutilized resource to those around him. While Shades might not be leader material, he does have his own notions of Harlem and how things should be run. Having grown up in the neighborhood, he remembers the weight that matriarch Mama Mabel’s name carried. Despite his new ties to Diamondback, he still believes that the Stokes family name should be elevated.
It isn’t until Cornell is out of the picture that he and Mariah solidify a wonderfully complimentary partnership. He helps her navigate the underhanded side of things that she never wanted to be part of but is, unsurprisingly, very capable at handling. These two transition into the power couple viewers never knew they wanted, and the overt sub/dom relationship is going to be one of the most interesting features to follow-up on in (hopefully) season 2.
Diamondback is nothing more than a name in the first six episodes of Luke Cage. For those unfamiliar with the comics, it’s easy to believe that Diamondback doesn’t actually exist and that perhaps Shades himself is pulling all of the strings. But the big Diamondback reveal comes with Luke being injured by one of the alien metal Judas bullets. This new big bad is preceeded by a ruthless reputation that makes him the most feared name around.
Erik LaRay Harvey‘s protrayal of Diamondback is an egotistical display of epic proportions. The character is so over the top, so blunt, so unhinged, so menacing and unwavering that it completely changes the dynamic of the second half of the season. Though the performance itself is great, the character’s motivation is definitely the weakest of the villains. As it turns out, Diamondback (real name, Willis Stryker) and Luke Cage (real name, Carl Lucas) are half brothers and the grudge that Stryker carries is long and runs deep.
He makes it his mission (has been his mission from a very young age) to drag Luke Cage’s name through the mud and completely crush everything about him. Stryker is the bastard child of Luke’s father, and the way he was (mis)treated growing up has stuck with him all this time. Surely that is something that would take some time to get over, but that rationalization for this kind of heavy handed violence is thin and tedious. That said, Diamondback has some of the best one liners in the entire series; from calling Damon Boone (Clark Johnson) “Diet Obama,” to saying “Bye Felicia!” when he threw Candace (Deborah Ayorinde) off the balcony.
Rounding out the five, I’m making the argument that Detective Raphael Scarfe (Misty Knight’s crooked partner), could be considered the fifth villain in the series. At this stage in his career, I’m starting to wonder if actor Frank Whaley is being typecast, because Scarfe is remarkably similar to his FBI Agent from Showtime’s Ray Donovan.
When we first meet Scarfe, he comes across as this unlikable cop who doesn’t seem to care much about the neighborhood he’s serving. Once it is revealed that he is in Cottonmouth’s pocket, his callousness is at once understood. But when he kills Chico, that’s when he crossed the line into full villain territory. Taking bribes and other minor infractions to help Cottonmouth could have been forgiven, but not killing poor, confused Chico. Even as Scarfe lay dying from the two gunshots Cornell put in him after their disagreement, it was hard to feel sorry for him. The emotion in that scene lies with Misty’s disbelief that her partner was dirty and she never saw it.
Luke Cage is about as street level and authentic as Marvel has been able to bring to screens. While it’s easy to forget the superhero nature of the show (not in a bad way), it remains a series about doing what’s right over what’s easy. The good guys are great together, but the villains are the ones that stick with you once the binge watch has ended. I love a good bad guy, and love it even more when the bad guys win. With Mariah and Shades coming out as the last two standing from the first season of Luke Cage, I can’t wait to see their power dynamic continue develop. The villains of Luke Cage each shine in a unique way. The story itself is richer for having so many complex characters that weave in and out of each other’s story arcs in such a way that the plot is (almost) constantly moving itself forward.
Though none were nearly as charismatic as Cornell Stokes, Mariah Dilliard does top my list as overall big bad with her fluid progression from on-the-fence to all-in over the course of the series. I believe Shades describes her best when he calls her a, “domineering b***h that everyone hates to love.” All hail the Queen.
The first season of Luke Cage is streaming now on Netflix.
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