Luke Cage has come a long way. The hero, also known as Power Man, has gone from an attempt to capitalize on the Blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s to a longstanding Avenger and the star of his own original series on Netflix. While he’s been appearing in his own comic books since 1972 and has made countless guest appearances and cameos in others, but one of the first African-American superheroes isn’t yet a household name. On September 30, when Marvel and Netflix debut his live-action series, that’s all going to change. That makes now the perfect time to catch up on all things Luke Cage.
Of course, every superhero is only as good as his villains. Batman is known for his rivalry with the Joker, and Superman’s long battle against Lex Luthor is legendary. Like all superheroes, Cage has his own Rogues Gallery of villains that he’s tangled with since his first issue. Unfortunately, Cage still isn’t that widely known, and most of his enemies disappeared, along with his original series in the ’70s. Ahead of his TV series, which will bring a handful of his classic enemies brought to life (with more undoubtedly on the way) CBR examines Luke Cage’s 10 greatest villains to get a taste of what to expect from the latest Marvel/Netflix collaboration.
Shades is another player from Cage’s past who first appeared in “Luke Cage: Hero For Hire” #1. Named after the designer sunglasses he’s always wearing, Shades was born and raised in Cage’s hometown, Harlem. He joined the deadly street gang, the Rivals, where his gang fights got him arrested and thrown into Seagate with Cage. He quickly broke out of prison, however, and partnered with another ex-con named Comanche to become “Hoodlums for Hire,” the criminal counterpart to Cage’s heroic operation.
Though Shades started out as a gang member with no special powers, he continued to be one of Cage’s most persistent enemies. In “Power Man and Iron Fist” #98 (1983), Shades got an upgrade when ruthless businessman Ward Meachum gave him a visor that fires powerful optic blasts. With his new “outlook” on life, Shades returned again and and again, always willing to serve as a hired gun against Cage and other heroes. And he always looked cool doing it!
With set photos showing Diamondback wearing a Robocop-like visor on the set of “Luke Cage,” it’s possible his character is being combined with Shades.
There have been two Bushmaster villains in the Marvel Universe, but we’ll focus on the first one, since he’s primarily Cage’s enemy. In “Iron Fist” #15 (1977), Cage clashed with the first Bushmaster, whose alter-ego, John McIver, was a powerful crime boss in the Caribbean. He quickly rose from the rank of enforcer to running his own European branch of the Maggia crime family. When he moved his operation to New York, he came under investigation by the district attorney, Misty Knight (played by Simone Messick on the upcoming show). In order to stop her, Bushmaster kidnapped Cage’s friends and threatened to kill them if Knight wasn’t brought before him.
Unfortunately for him, Bushmaster didn’t count on Knight’s boyfriend being the martial arts superhero, Iron Fist. When Iron Fist came to the aid of his girlfriend, he ended up forming a lifelong partnership with Cage. In the process, they foiled Bushmaster’s plans and sent him away to Seagate prison.
But Bushmaster wasn’t done yet. In “Power Man and Iron Fist” #67 (1981), Bushmaster used the same process that transformed Cage to make himself stronger than Power Man. As if that wasn’t enough, a freak accident in “Cage” #12 (1993) gave him the power to absorb energy to become Power Master. He’s been one of Cage’s most powerful enemies ever since.
8. Gideon Mace
He’s brutal, ruthless and ex-military. He also has a big metal ball for a hand. He’s Gideon Mace, and he’s one of Cage’s deadliest enemies.
Mace first appeared in “Luke Cage, Hero For Hire” #3 in 1972. During an assault on a village during the Vietnam War, Colonel Gideon Mace lost his right hand. However, since he wasn’t supposed to be attacking the village in the first place, he was dishonorably discharged. Turning lemons into lemonade, Mace replaced his lost hand with a spiked metal mace, and formed his own private army with disgruntled ex-soldiers. With his mercenary group in place, Mace carried out plots such as assassinating superheroes, and using his own men as cannon fodder to try to rob Wall Street.
As an expert marksman (with his left hand, obviously) and a skilled martial artist, Mace has proven to be a powerful and intelligent villain for Cage. Lest we forget, he also has that gigantic spiked metal ball at the end of his arm, which comes in… handy. He also added new abilities to his mace, so he can fire it like a cannonball or spray chemical his enemies with a chemical mist.
What makes the villainous Diamondback one of Luke Cage’s deadliest enemies isn’t just his fighting prowess or killer fashion sense. No, what makes this baddie so dangerous is the fact that, before he turned to a life of crime, he was one of Luke’s childhood best friends, Willis Stryker.
Stryker appeared in the first issue of “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire” #1 (1972). As kids growing up in Harlem, Stryker and Cage were friends and leaders of street gang, the Bloods. Unfortunately, they both fell in love with the same woman. To get rid of his friend-turned-rival, Stryker planted drugs on Cage to frame him. Luke was soon caught, wrongfully convicted and shipped off to Seagate Prison, where he would eventually get his powers. So technically, Stryker is responsible for both the murder of his friendship and the creation of Power Man.
Over time, Stryker earned the nickname Diamondback because of his skill with sharp knives, and his penchant for wearing a green scaly jacket and pants. Diamondback has taken his obsession with pointy objects to new levels, using knives that explode, release poisonous gasses, and even ones that unleash sonic waves. Clearly, his skill with a blade is… a cut above the rest.
A version of Diamondback will be showing up on Netflix’s “Luke Cage,” played by Erik LaRay Harvey.
6. Big Ben Donovan
Huge, strong and a lawyer, the triple-threat known as “Big” Ben Donovan is, without question, one of Cage’s most troublesome enemies.
Benjamin Donovan first appeared in 1973’s “Hero for Hire” #14, where he was chasing down a young woman. Meant to be handling the estate of the widow, Ben got drunk and started putting moves on her instead. Fearing for her life and her estate, she sought out Cage for help. Not one to be undermined or strong-armed, Big Ben fought Cage for her. After the hero sorted out the crazed litigator, Cage and Donovan actually ended up becoming friends, with Ben performing legal services for Cage for a short time. But their friendship didn’t last long.
Donovan got involved in a drug-smuggling ring with the Maggia, and soon betrayed Cage to them. With Donovan’s help, the Maggia buried Cage alive, and Cage had to literally rise from his grave to stop them. From then on, Donovan worked for the wrong side of the law, offering his services to other gangs and criminals. Besides his legal knowledge, Donovan also has the strength and size to take on Cage in a fight, making him extremely deadly.
5. Moses Magnum
Most of Cage’s enemies are street-level criminals; ones who focus on a particular city or even a specific neighborhood. Of all of Cage’s enemies, Moses Magnum is among the most powerful, simply because his ambitions were more global.
Magnum grew up fascinated by weapons, and eventually founded a company called Deterrence Research Corporation, which became one of the world’s biggest weapons manufacturers. His first appearance came in “Giant-Size Spider-Man” #4 (1975), when Bushmaster kidnapped a group of innocent people to test a toxic gas. Spider-Man and the Punisher took Magnum on the first time, but it wasn’t long before he crossed paths with Cage.
In “Power Man Annual” #1 (1976), Cage traveled to Japan to investigate the disappearance of a missing scientist. What he found there was Moses Magnum, who had since started calling himself Magnum Force. Magnum planned to mine the Earth’s core, but caused massive earthquakes in the process. Cage managed to defeat Magnum and left him for dead, but the villain became even more powerful. Later on, the mutant super villain Apocalypse gave Magnum the power to create powerful earthquakes, and he used his new abilities to take on everyone from the Avengers to the X-Men. But after his humiliating loss to the Hero for Hire, Magnum always comes back to Cage.
4. Mr. Fish
Of all Luke Cage’s enemies, only one has actually beaten him. He’s also the most unlikely. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the ridiculous Mr. Fish.
Mr. Fish began as Mortimer Norris, a low-level member of the Maggia. In “Power Man” #29 (1976), Norris tried to steal some radioactive material for the mob, but when he foolishly tried to open the package, he was exposed to its radioactive contents and fell into the East River. The combination of the radiation and the water of the East River mutated him into a half-man, half-fish powerhouse. With his hideous appearance, he gained the un-ironic nickname Mr. Fish, and took control of his own Maggia cell.
But he quickly swam into trouble when he tried to steal some trucks that Cage had been hired to protect. What should have been a quick fight turned into a rout as Mr. Fish beat Cage unconscious. Fortunately, he made the classic villain mistake of leaving Cage alive so he could gloat about his master plan, instead of immediately killing him. That gave Cage the chance to recover and fight back. Mr. Fish fell off a building to his apparent death, but returned in the form of his brother. Or maybe he came back to life? The comics are a little vague, but one thing that isn’t is that no matter who he is, Mr. Fish is one of Luke Cage’s fiercest — and oddest — enemies.
There have been three men who called themselves Chemistro, all with the same deadly power. But no matter who was behind the name at any given time, Chemistro is arguably the closest to Luke Cage’s arch-nemesis.
The first Chemistro made his debut in “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire” #12 (1973) as Curtis Carr, a scientist who created an “alchemy gun” that could transmute materials such as wood into metal. When the company he worked for stole the rights from him, Carr became the super villain Chemistro in revenge. While his weapon made him a force to be reckoned with, Cage defeated and captured him.
While in prison, Carr’s cellmate Archibald Morton forced him to make a new alchemy gun. But when Morton tried to use the gun, it exploded in his hand, giving him the power to transmute objects just by touching them. He became the second Chemistro, first appearing in “Power Man” #37 (1976). Like his predecessor, while he gave the Hero for Hire no end of trouble, Cage eventually took him down.
In “Power Man and Iron Fist” #93 (1983), Chemistro returned as Curtis Carr’s younger brother Calvin. Calvin had his alchemy gun converted into wrist-mounted weapons by the super villain Wizard, using them to fight other heroes like Captain America and Iron Man. He may have disappeared for now, but if his various incarnations are any indication, Chemistro will undoubtedly return to plague Cage and the entire Marvel universe again soon!
2. Black Mariah
Not all of Cage’s enemies are men. In fact, one of his most imposing nemeses is a particularly deadly woman. In “Hero for Hire” #5 (1973), Cage first met Mariah Dillard, known on the streets as Black Mariah. Black Mariah got her nickname through the twisted crimes of her Rat Pack gang, which would use a stolen ambulance to pretend to take dead bodies to the morgue. Instead, her gang would rob the bodies of valuables. Cage was hired to find Black Mariah by the widow of one of her victims, and she put a beatdown on Cage. Fortunately, he ended up returning the favor, by putting her in jail.
She didn’t stay locked up for long, of course. Once she escaped, she was quick to start carrying out her crimes again and again, including selling a drug called Acid Z that drove its addicts crazy. Though she has no superpowers or advanced technology, her considerable mass gives her attacks added power. That and her cruelty have made her one of Cage’s most intimidating villains.
Alfre Woodard will be playing Mariah Dillard on the “Luke Cage” show as a local politician. It’s unknown at the time of this list’s posting whether she’ll turn out to oppose Cage much physically, however, since Woodard’s frame is markedly more slight than her character in the comics.
1. Cornell Cottonmouth
Cottonmouth made his first appearance in “Power Man” #19 in 1974. No one really knows much about Cornell Cottonmouth until he moved to New York, but we do know what he did when he got there. Cottonmouth became the most fierce drug lord in the city, aggressively seizing control over most of the heroin trade. Even before Cage became a Hero for Hire, Cottonmouth played a big role in his life, as it was Cottonmouth’s heroin that Diamondback used to frame Cage. After Cage gained his superpowers and returned to Harlem, Cottonmouth tried to recruit him to join his organization. Cage played along just to get information and turn it over to the police.
But Cottonmouth wasn’t done, and continued to be both a deadly player in New York’s criminal underworld and a thorn in Luke’s side. Despite looking like an old man, he’s proven to be extremely strong and able to hold his own against Cage in hand-to-hand combat. If that’s not bad enough, Cottonmouth has sharpened gold-capped teeth that he uses to take a bite out of his enemies. Literally.
Cottonmouth will be an important part of the first season of the new “Luke Cage” series on Netflix, where he has been reimagined as nightclub owner Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, played by Mahershala Ali.
Who are your favorite Luke Cage villains? Do you think they’ll show up in his new Netflix show? Let us know in the comments!
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