Destroy All Monsters: LUKE CAGE, Democracy, and the Voices Outside the Majority

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: LUKE CAGE, Democracy, and the Voices Outside the Majority

I'm not a political writer, though like many professionals and non-professionals on the pop culture beat this year, it's been difficult to hold back some political views.

Part of this is the inevitable nature of the thing: we have a man crusading for the Oval Office who is, far more than he could ever be termed a "politician," an out-and-out pop cultural phenomenon. Pop culture obeys certain rules, and I spend a lot of my time analyzing and discussing those rules, in this forum and many others. It's hard to ignore the biggest show in town, whether it's Star Wars, the MCU, or Donald Trump.

I say "we" in the first sentence above deliberately. I'm Canadian, and I can say with absolute transparency that what I wish more than anything else is that all the people whose lives will be affected by the outcome of the American presidential election were empowered to vote in it. As Ava DuVernay's outstanding recent documentary 13th made clear, this enfranchisement to vote doesn't even include a vast swath of citizens of the United States; it certainly doesn't involve Canadians, Brits, Germans, Chinese, or anyone else who has to share a planet with the nation most capable of healing or obliterating it.

I also use the word "crusading" deliberately. Look up the Crusades sometime. In Western, Christian societies we've sanitized that word of its moral implications, but make no mistake: Crusade is to Christianity what Jihad is to Islam. Even with the "revelations" of the past days (anyone who found them "revealing," though, was not paying attention to the past five years), Donald Trump's Jihad is dangerously close to public implementation.

Naturally, this has all had me thinking about the nature of the democratic experiment in the United States (and elsewhere, including my own country). And to drag things back to my usual beat here, I gotta tell you: it's a lot like Hollywood.

This shouldn't be surprising. Hollywood is a capitalist industry, and democracy and capitalism are tightly intertwined, enabling one another in a symbiotic circle that goes back half a millennium. And they're both about the numbers.

I've largely been thinking about this, not because of Donald Trump, but because of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. They are the lead characters of the current and forthcoming Marvel Netflix series, the eponymous Luke Cage and next spring's Iron Fist.

Luke Cage, released two weeks ago, has received (for the most part) fulsome praise from the critical community. It is a progressive show. As many writers (and creatives involved with the show itself) have noted, in 2016, with Black men dying daily by the bullets of America's police (and "stand your ground" lunatics), a Black male superhero with unbreakable skin - foregoing the spandex super-suit or Iron Man armour for a Trayvon Martin hoodie, no less - is a massive, iconic cultural milestone. Luke has existed in the comics for almost half a century, yet like the best mythic creations, is only growing in relevance.

Yes, Luke Cage is a progressive show (as an idea anyway - many writers and commentators have begun the work of identifying how the genuine article, the series itself, both supports and betrays its own mission statement). It's had me wondering, though, about scheduling: why will Luke Cage be followed into the world by what may well turn out to be Marvel's two most regressive products, a film and a television series that look like they will exploit Orientalism in its fullest flower, Doctor Strange and Iron Fist?

I haven't seen either property, obviously, so I won't think-piece them to death prematurely. The answer is the same in all three cases, regardless, and it's the democratic one: ultimately, the audience that would praise (or condemn) Luke Cage, or condemn (or praise?) Iron Fist, is a nice, small slice of the overall market's pie - and the studio doesn't need to care.

In some ways, this generates innovation and growth. Luke Cage can lean on identity politics in a way that Iron Man can't, because as generous as the Netflix audience is, the worst thing that can happen is they give up after episode 2, or come away from the whole series feeling like maybe it wasn't for them. Their money is already in the bank, and they'll find something else to watch next week. Few customers can be expected to cancel their Netflix subscription outright if they don't like Luke Cage.

So, we get genuine TV watermarks like Luke's "nigga" speech, or the slow build of time spent in Pop's barbershop instead of watching him fight, or the brilliant internecine struggle between Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) as they try to consolidate power in Harlem. We get the series' phenomenal soundtrack (both the score, by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and the highlighted songs, some performed live and at length at Harlem's Paradise - paradise indeed!). We get a detailed sense of the community that Luke lives in, given a voice that doesn't need to surrender itself to mainstream interests; it can afford specificity, even while superheroing it up in the most mainstream genre in the world right now.

And who knows, maybe Iron Fist will be brilliant, and tackle Danny Rand's "white saviour" stance head-on, as the racist, outdated story structure it is. Maybe Tilda Swinton really is the Ancient One, and her Doctor Strange casting is destiny. (Would you be surprised?)

In both cases, wins or losses will be discussed at length, but the only real danger is long-term damage to the brand - and at this point, the Marvel brand is bolstered so spectacularly within mainstream audience "voting" interests (read: ticket buying) that it would take an unimaginable meltdown to even bring it under question. Most of the people who watch any of the Defenders series on Netflix, or The Defenders itself, will be the same folks who forked over $400 million at the box office this summer to see Captain America: Civil War, and sold out Black Panther and Spider-Man kiddie costumes at the Disney store the next day.

They're not going home arguing the merits of Luke Cage's speech outside Crispus Attucks, or even if they are, they're still gonna dial up Iron Fist in March. They're bought in, and nothing about race relations in any of these projects is going to dull the interest of any but a minor percentage of them.

What would an "unimaginable meltdown" look like for the MCU? No idea (hence: unimaginable), but it would have to affect an audience base (or voting base, if you will) large enough to matter. It's hard to conjure what they could possibly do that would piss off or alienate that many of their otherwise perfectly content ticket-buyers. Numbers like that only come from, say, alienating an entire gender.

That's why Donald Trump's latest offensive behaviour has proved the tipping point for some of his support. As depressing as it is to contemplate, very few Republican politicians or voters gave a shit when Trump was messing around with minorities. They're called that for a reason: they represent a minority share in the populace, and therefore, the voting block.

(And if you want to learn more about how American politics have further diminished that voting block, again, I highly recommend watching 13th - also on Netflix.)

Weirdly, and perhaps depressingly, the things we call a lot of our pop culture out on the carpet for - and the MCU is just an example of this - are the sorts of things that play just fine to the selfsame "base" of American political interests which are sometimes, and certainly this year, frustratingly regressive in their social views. It's simple and it's safe, because it's just a numbers game: and on the movies or TV, and at the voting stations next month, the majority remains safe.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.

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Ard VijnOctober 12, 2016 10:15 AM

The Tilda Swinton remark made me spill coffee. Nice one!
(And no, deep in my heart I would not be surprised.)

FreedomFathomOctober 12, 2016 3:34 PM

Excellent post! I have been watching West World and I feel that Iron Fist could be a narrative in a place called East World, where all the Asian Americans are like robots who either need to be defeated, need to be saved by the white savior who is better at their own culture ala Dances with Wolves, a template so ingrained even Cameron used it in Avatar. I used to think that producers are bringing back these outdated and insulting stories to gratify the audience who will bring in the money but then the Fast and the Furious franchise proved that loads of money can be made if POC characters have an integral part of the narrative. Sadly, I am beginning to think it is less a money move but more of a political one. Totally agree with the point about the strength of the fan base. Marvel missed a big opportunity to be the superhero that could have changed things.

JEFFREY SINGEROctober 12, 2016 8:15 PM

Just when I thought I was out, Matt pulls me back in.

Where to begin. O.K., we aren't going to agree on much, as it is clear from your review that you are a true-believer in Leftism and I'm a conservative. So the best I can do is at least correct some of your sloppy thinking and hope that you and your readers will be inspired to do some more research on some of these topics:

1) "Ava DuVernay's outstanding recent documentary 13th made clear, this enfranchisement to vote doesn't even include a vast swath of citizens of the United States; it certainly doesn't involve Canadians, Brits, Germans, Chinese, or anyone else who has to share a planet with the nation most capable of healing or obliterating it."

Let's work backwards -- so should the world get a vote on how the Chinese use their power around the world given the size of their military and their nuclear arsenal? What about Russia's army/nuclear arsenal? How come you single out America? Of course, it is kind of a silly idea anyway -- sovereign nations are going to project power when they feel it is necessary to do so to protect their interests; all we can hope is that when they do they have good reasons for doing so (e.g. any reasons that would fit under Just War Criteria.)

You'd have to pay me money to see DuVernay's movie after I read this review:

but even without seeing the movie, your statement about "enfranchisement to vote" I presume is referring to felons? Why is it morally wrong for a democratic government to include removing the power to vote as a punishment for committing crimes? It seems like a reasonable punishment to me for a murderer, thief, rapist, mugger, etc.

2) "I also use the word "crusading" deliberately. Look up the Crusades sometime. In Western, Christian societies we've sanitized that word of its moral implications, but make no mistake: Crusade is to Christianity what Jihad is to Islam."

Now this is just ignorant. If you think I'm a blowhard who has nothing to say to you about anything, know well that at least you should go get a good book about the Crusades and/or read up on Christian theology versus Islamic theology. Christians have no comparable idea to Jihad -- none. The Crusades were a response to literally hundreds of years of warfare against Christian communities by Islamic attackers (who, it should be noted, were impressively successful against some of the best and most powerful eastern empires on the planet.) For years Byzantine Emperors had begged the West for help to repel the Islamic rulers who took over their cities, forced Christians to covert to Islam, put a special tax on the remaining Christian communities and/or simply enslaved Christians when they needed labor.

Now, to be totally fair and historically accurate, when the Western Crusaders finally showed up to fight back against Islam and were successful, they weren't always friendly to our brothers and sisters in Christ in Byzantium (just think of the tragedy of the Fourth Crusade!) I wish we in the West had done more to promote Christian unity. But the idea that we acted immorally with respect to our Islamic enemies is laughable.

3) "Donald Trump's Jihad is dangerously close to public implementation."

Huh? I don't even know what this is supposed to mean?? Is banning Muslim immigration somehow a "Jihad"? You are torturing (pun intended!) words now.

4) "Hollywood is a capitalist industry, and democracy and capitalism are tightly intertwined, enabling one another in a symbiotic circle that goes back half a millennium. And they're both about the numbers."

This is a strange statement -- I can't really figure out why you think capitalism (which is only about two centuries old, as it is usually dated as beginning in the Industrial Revolution) has anything to do with democracy. Yes, a market economy depends on price signals which ultimately depend on consumers buying and selling goods and services freely in the marketplace. But the marketplace can flourish under tyrants (think of Communist China which is allowing quite a bit of capitalism these days) or a looser authoritarian like the dictator who ran Singapore for all those years, Lee Kuan Yew, or under colonial rule from afar like the British used to govern places like India, Egypt, South Africa, etc.

5) The rest of your piece worries about Orientalism -- I always thought Edward Said was an intellectual fraud so we just will have to agree to disagree about your concerns for the future of Marvel properties.

I will end on a positive note of agreement -- despite my "regressive social views" I loved Luke Cage and thought it was particularly fun to see the textured life of Harlem portrayed on the show. Any 'comic book' show featuring a performance by Raphael Saadiq is going to be unique and fresh and this one didn't disappoint!

curtvileOctober 13, 2016 1:44 AM

So I take you have never ever read any Iron Fist comics what-so-ever? I have heard the" Danny Rand does not have to be caucasian" toss that has absolutely no sense what so ever. Granted the issue is same as with those who claimed that Fantastic Four's Johnny Storm can not be black.
I would have not cared had they made the series faithful to spirit of the comic's where often Danny Rand is not the white saviour, but largely also target due to his otherness , which is a way to force viewing the privilege he otherwise would enjoy.
There are two great Kingpin's on screens: Vincent D'Onofrio and Michael Duncan Clarke who both do great performances, Clarke's is far too short though.
But as my friend (non-comic reader) stated it was racist to make Clarke Kingpin. When I asked why it was so he explained: because he is black and being black equals criminal. Thus racist.
To me this is was non-issue as I wanted just good actor who fits the role as long as it does not go against the grain.

The idea you suggest has been done in comics well, by tackling the subject matter and made great stories on exactly why it matters that Spider-Man is black or woman worthy being Goddess of Thunder.

To make it clear: switching the racist caricature of Ancient One to one that does not offend peoples of asian heritage to caucasian is wrong and the one not typecasting that all asians are martial artists should be asian...because of reasons? here is where I need help as instead of championing new narrative you want to support the ones that are outdated and inherently racist?
You raise some good points but for me this was re-telling of a local film critic: he disliked Deadpool so Deaadpool equals Trump, point he raised while doing a piece on Suicide Squad he hated. The reviewers and critics do not have to please comic book audience, but the points should somehow be within realm of actual reality.
It is not the advantage of actual issues either.Were we talking about Ghost in the Shell, I would get your point, now lees so.

HeijoshinOctober 13, 2016 3:48 PM

Very good response to a ridiculous article sir. I have to thank you because I felt compelled to respond as well but I think it would have came out twice as long and probably not as well put together.

The only thing that I will add is that I think the comparison to Trump in Matt Brown's piece is very interesting given the fact that Mariah Dillard so strongly resembles the type of person that I believe Hillary Clinton to be.