I’d be lying if I said seeing Woodard rip Tony Stark a new one in IMAX didn’t make me feel good. Marvel movies are basically a golden ticket for actors, so to see performer of her caliber getting a piece of that action was too sweet. Unfortunately, joy quickly turned to frustration as I realized how small of a role she played in the film. “Wait, that’s it?” I whispered again. “You can’t do that to Alfre Woodard. It’s Alfre Woodard!”
Before “Civil War,” there hadn’t been a black woman with a major speaking role in a Marvel film, and how did the Russo brothers break that streak? By hiring one of the most respected and talented black actresses ever to appear on screen, bang out a few lines and then never be seen or heard from again. I was pissed, but not terribly surprised, given the studio’s track record with diversity. Once again, I had gotten my hopes up for just a tiny bit of representation, only to have it ripped away in an all-too-familiar fashion. But, hey, we got that one badass Dora Milaje, right? Oh, wait, she disappeared too. Never mind.
2016 has been a tire fire of epic proportions: Cherished celebrities are dropping like flies, bees are an endangered species and the U.S. presidential election is nasty (in more ways than one). On a more personal level, it’s been yet another difficult year for members of the black community. The almost-daily reminder that our existence is constantly threatened by police brutality and widespread hatred makes it harder and harder to look forward to much of anything, especially superhero media, where people of color continue to remain underrepresented on the page, on the screen and behind the scenes. Yes, 2015 and 2016 saw the birth of Marvel’s Lunella “Moon Girl” Lafayette and RiRi “Ironheart” Williams, and DC Comics’ new Power Girl, Tanya Spears, but on the TV and movie side, things were still pretty much the same. As a longtime comics fan, it became more and more difficult for me to justify spending money on superhero entertainment. I still enjoyed the genre, and the movies and television series that came out, but it felt like a game of wait and see, and I’ve grown exhausted.
Then, like proverbial manna from Heaven, Netflix’s “Luke Cage” came along.
Ever since his key role in the first season of “Jessica Jones,” the Internet was abuzz about what the Man Who Would Be Powerful’s solo series might be like. Showrunner Cheo Coker ramped up that excitement in July at Comic-Con International when he uttered the now-classic sentence, “The world is ready for a bulletproof black man.” My heart sang with the knowledge that not only would one of the oldest black superheroes be getting his own show in my lifetime, but that it would co-star one of the best-known black superheroines in modern comics, Misty Knight. Finally, a black female superhero was getting the chance to shine! She wasn’t an afterthought, a glorified extra or a love interest, but a key player in a superhero drama. And Alfre Woodard was back from no man’s land! I hadn’t watched a second of the show yet, but I already knew it was going to be something special.
Like many viewers, I blasted through the first season of “Luke Cage” in roughly two days. I chatted with friends before, during and after watching it, and we all agreed that it was “black black blackity BLACK Vantablack” in every way possible. From the cast to the music, the show is nothing like I’d ever seen before. For once, it felt like I could live out my animated redheaded mermaid dreams and finally “be a part of your (superhero) world.” Nearly a month since that initial viewing, the series has stuck with me for many reasons, but the most important is how Coker and the world of Luke Cage made such huge strides in terms of not only including black and brown women in the superhero narrative, but allowing them to be complex, nuanced characters. All of the women, from the A-listers to the supporting cast and extras, are able to show so many different facets of what it means to be a woman of color in 2016; it’s a much-needed dose of reality for a company that makes its money selling fantasy.
The women of Luke Cage are smart, funny, vulnerable, brave, innocent, cunning, clever and, most importantly, relatable. They have jobs, they have kids, they go out for drinks, they're "over-educated.” They're poor, they have problems, they've dealt with sexual assault. They own businesses, they put up with workplace drama, they deal with substance abuse, they’re in sororities, they’re the first- and second-generation kids of immigrants. They deal with real life despite experiencing the miraculous every other day, and the fact that we got to see any of that at all is incredible to me. I see myself, my mom, my granny, my friends and my acquaintances in these women, and it feels good. It feels like, at least in this one area, Marvel is listening to the fans that never get heard; the nerdy black and brown girls, women and femmes that flock to the theater time and again despite knowing that we're probably not going to see anyone that looks like us onscreen.
The women featured on “Luke Cage” has a unique story to tell, and Coker made sure to give each of them a signature voice. In instances where it would’ve been fairly easy to fall back on dated stereotypes of black women, such as the scene in Episode Five where Luke questions a friend of a young woman who’s been harassed by Cottonmouth’s cronies, there’s no neck rolling, gum-popping or finger pointing. The young woman may merely be an extra in this scene, but she feels real to the viewer. The same goes for actress Jade Wu’s character, Connie Lin, in Episode Three, when she and Luke are sitting in her restaurant talking. Her English isn’t broken, and she’s not some horrendous Long Duk Dong stereotype of Asian-Americans. Connie’s simply a woman who’s grateful to Luke for defending her and her husband’s livelihood. Nothing more, nothing less.
Beyond that, the positive aspects of the women featured in the show read almost like a beautiful checklist: women of different ages, black women with diverse hairstyles (a major sticking point for certain comics fans when it comes to black characters in the media), women with various skin tones beyond “light tan,” black and brown women getting to play morally ambiguous characters instead of being “model minorities” … the list goes on. While it definitely would’ve been great to see women of different sizes and with disabilities onscreen, the amount of ground Coker was able to cover in 13 episodes is astounding. In a single season of television, the Marvel Cinematic Universe went from being one of the most painfully monochromatic landscapes to better reflecting the faces of its ever-growing audience.
Whether we get another season of “Luke Cage” remains unknown, but things are already looking up with the casting of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in “Thor: Ragnarok,” and Zendaya as the iconic Mary Jane Watson opposite Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Little by little, things are changing for the better. Here’s hoping that my next filmgoing experience will live up to the standards “Luke Cage” has set.