Much as I love Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, there’s something of an underlying buzzing in my ears I get the entire time I watch them. Nothing huge, but it’s there. A small, persistent nagging in the back of my head throughout the adventures of the first two Defenders. As much as I hate to use such a word when referring to any sort of genre entertainment, there’s a part of those shows that just doesn’t feel realistic. I know, I’m rolling my eyes too, but stay with me. I don’t mean Jessica Jones’ superpowers or Matt Murdock’s hyper senses. I mean the neighborhood.
Hell’s Kitchen sucks.
Not the real New York neighborhood, mind you, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recreation of it as Frank Miller’s wet dream. It can require a big enough suspension of disbelief that the events of two seasons of Daredevil and a season of Jessica Jones take place in a neighborhood that is less than one square mile in size, but I don’t have a problem with that. Superheroics are built on suspending your disbelief. What I do have trouble grappling with is just how unbelievably crappy and unlovable Hell’s Kitchen is. It doesn’t feel like a city worth saving, because it doesn’t feel like a city. It feels like an antagonist with one defining characteristic: utter shittiness. Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t a place people live, it’s a place ninjas and human traffickers go to get strung out and collect STDs.
And it’s not just Hell’s Kitchen. This is a trend throughout gritty, realistic vigilantism. Gotham City is cool because that’s where Batman lives. Other than that, it’s pretty terrible place filled with pretty terrible people. Similarly, I really couldn’t have cared less if the fictionalized Hell’s Kitchen burned to the ground. Not because it’s portrayed as a bad neighborhood with a high crime rate, but because it’s portrayed as a high crime rate possessing the concrete and steel of a city block.
Netflix’s latest Marvel outing, Luke Cage, has gotten no shortage of much-deserved praise for its representation and portrayal of anyone that isn’t a white dude, but it also does something else few, if any, other superhero stories have managed to do: create a setting that feels alive and breathing.
The Harlem of Luke Cage doesn’t just feel like a real neighborhood, it feels like a community. The MCU’s Harlem has history. It has heroes and villains that can’t fly or deflect bullets. It has hangouts and landmarks. I feel like I can imagine the places kids would be playing Pokemon Go.
Harlem feels like a community where people live, where people sleep at night and go to work in the morning. That believability goes a long way when a stranger with bulletproof skin comes to town. Not only does it serve to ground the series, it serves as character motivation for Luke Cage himself. I believe that Luke Cage wants to defend Harlem because I want him to defend Harlem because I can believe the Harlem the show presents is an actual human being’s actual home.
Those characters who call Harlem their home play just as big a role in instilling the show with a sense of life.
Luke Cage may be the most intellectual superhero story committed to film. Sure there are plenty of superhero adventuress that boast smart writing and cerebral themes, but Luke Cage boasts smart characters. Not quippy or clever, mind you. The characters that inhabit Luke Cage’s Harlem are intelligent. You gain insight into who they are based on the books they’re reading and their opinions of them. Conflicts in Luke Cage are just as likely to take the form of discourse as fisticuffs.
It’s an exciting development for superhero storytelling. We’ve seen smart heroes before. Peter Parker is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Reed Richards is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Luke Cage and his opponents and associates are smart. We know they’re smart because they engage in intelligent conversation and express and discuss thoughtful opinions about the world around them.
The prospect of discussing a piece in The Atlantic with Luke Cage is just as daunting as the prospect of arm wrestling him.
Like the show’s depiction of Harlem, the intelligence of its characters breathes life into the fictionalized world of Luke Cage. Its characters are aware of the world around them. They read about the world around them and they talk about the world around them because they have a stake in the world around them, which ultimately makes the audience believe in the world around them.
I love Daredevil and I love Jessica Jones, but after watching Luke Cage get shit done in Harlem, it’ll be hard to go back to the relentlessly bleak matte painting of a gutter that is Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen.