Cheo Hodari Coker told Den of Geek that his version of Luke Cage, now playing in a new Netflix original series, would relish in the character’s Blaxploitation roots. The original Cage, an ass-kicking, stick-it-to-the-man Harlem mercenary, fought street-level crime figures and corruption on-demand after the character’s 1972 debut for Marvel Comics. Yet, a viewing of early episodes reveals the more obvious thematic and aesthetic antecedents for the series are the “hood” movies of the ‘90s.

Cage in the Hood

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) rocks a hoodie in the new Netflix series. Superheroes get cold, too.

Perhaps there’s no reason to delineate so starkly. After all, those ‘70s NFL stars who turned into drive-in theater legends were a huge influence on the iconography of the ‘90s hip-hop culture that so clearly colors Coker’s series. Whether beat samples or CD covers, rappers regularly mined the ‘70s for ideas.

Hero for Hire

Cage (Mike Colter) has more in common with the ‘70s most popular comic book hero Spider-Man than he does with any other Marvel characters, especially in this Netflix iteration. He is a reticent hero, thrust into his super powers (invulnerable skin, super strength) against his will, in circumstances that bear a telling resemblance to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. He sits tenuously on the sidelines of a crime war until his mentor, Pops (Frankie Faison), meets an untimely end in a hail of bullets.

Pops, “da Mayor” of a Harlem street, tries to act as an intermediary between one of his barbershop kids who went astray and an erudite crime lord, “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Stokes and his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard), a city council member, cook up a plan for Stokes to use his illicit money to fund a new housing project. Stokes is indifferent to Mariah’s idealistic talk about how the project could improve Harlem, he’s more interested in becoming the Black Donald Trump.

Heroes in da Hood

The series isn’t as timely as the reference to the current political campaign. Coker, the show runner and first-episode writer, has named each episode after a title of a song by the rap crew Gang Starr. A portrait of the Notorious B.I.G. plays a prominent role in the second episode (Coker wrote Notorious, the hip-hop biopic). Faison’s Pops references countless numbers of African-American mentors on-screen, holding his customers to a no-profanity standard and admonishing the wanna-be gangsters who get lined up in his chair. Stokes is a villain from the Stringer Bell school of upward mobility.

So then, the first episode seems less like Shaft and more like Belly. The script relies on stilted exposition that does not flow easily from the actors’ mouths. Stokes and his cousin argue philosophy and their world outlook in lengthy monologues. Cage manages to seduce an undercover cop, Misty Knight (Simone Missick), with historically bad pick-up lines.

Once the characters pick sides and draw battle lines, the series picks up steam. Ali emerges as the most watchable actor on-screen. He understands his character well and doesn’t try to make him anything that he’s not. Ali evinces all the inner conflicts common to this kind of villain. He’s torn between a mobster’s code, his feelings for his community and the strength of his ambition. The ever-reliable Woodard kills it as well, a deep well of facial expressions transmitting her concerns when the words won’t do.

Colter has a tough job of playing Cage as written. He’s a horny stiff, a brutal pacifist who only releases his pent-up anger when bashing in heads. He’s playing an ex-cop, ex-con from the deep South, but his line readings seem to come from an old Sidney Poitier movie (one where old Sid is always right). Colter certainly looks the part, though.

No One Understands Him but His Woman

Neither the Blaxploitation films of the ‘70s nor the ‘hood movies of the ‘90s could be arguably feminist (save few exceptions). Luke Cage changes the paradigm somewhat with Mariah Stokes and Misty Knight. Knight, an undercover cop, fares less well in the first episode, falling for Cage’s clumsy advances and getting naked. However, later episodes redeem her, showing her to be a caring detective with an accomplished past. She even manages to break through the boy’s club that is the Black barbershop experience and use what she learned to earn herself a college basketball scholarship.

While midtown separates Harlem from Hell’s Kitchen, Luke Cage retains the same neo-noir grit as the other Hell’s Kitchen set Marvel series. In the early episodes, look more like the work of the music video directors who made their names making clips for rap stars in the ‘90s. Later, the noir-isms take firmer hold, though there’s no visual knockout blows in the series. Even the Cage fight scenes are on the dull side (unlike Daredevil’s often intricate clashes).

Luke Cage has Mass Appeal

Coker has talked often to the press about how the show will be “unapologetically Black.” While scrambling to think of a definition of the phrase, I can only surmise that even though this is a superhero show, and such shows normally target the broadest possible audience, Luke Cage expresses the social themes and concerns of the real people it name-checks (Biggie, Walter Mosley, Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter). Perhaps the statement is less about the series itself and more about the business of Hollywood, to remind the studios that films or TV shows with a mostly African-American cast, focusing on themes important to African-American communities can have mass appeal.