The Villains of Luke Cage

“Everybody wants to be the king.”


Whether they are good or not, it’s hard to not talk about Marvel’s villains. When done well, these characters can steal the show, like with Loki or Wilson Fisk. And if they aren’t done well, the conversation is usually about how they needed more development or screentime to be truly relevant. For me, Luke Cage managed to do this weird thing in between, where the villains stole the show, but often for the wrong reasons, and it came at the cost of pacing and depth.

First off, there are a lot of antagonists in this show. Everywhere you look in this series there is someone out to get Luke. I’m going to focus on Cottonmouth, Mariah, Diamondback, and Shades, but just off the top of my head there is Turk, Zip, Comanche, Rackham, Scarfe, Domingo, and countless police and gang members alike. But I guess being an indestructible vigilante means you’re bound to make a few enemies. For the most part, the secondary villains are done well, it’s the main ones that have the problems.

“You know what people remember over black martyrdom? Black Money.”

In Jessica Jones and both seasons of Daredevil, the primary villains have a slow burn. The beginning of the show is either introducing the main hero or, like in Daredevil’s second season, introducing new main characters (Frank Castle and Elektra) who aren’t typical villains. With this precedent having been set, it was a surprise to see Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes featured so prominently right from the start. At first, this seemed like a by-product of Luke having already been introduced in Jessica Jones, so we could devote more time to setting up his villain. But this turned out to not quite be the case.

Halfway through the season Cottonmouth is suddenly killed by his cousin Mariah Dillard, in what has been regarded among fans as a pretty controversial move. While the idea of a villain fake-out like this is not inherently bad, it just wasn’t followed up strong enough to make it feel worth it. Cottonmouth (played wonderfully by Mahershala Ali) was a wonderful villain to watch in action. His character and motivations were clear, and learning about his background made him even more compelling. He was seeking power through any means, and had no trouble getting his hands dirty. He knew exactly who he was and what he was willing to do to get what he wanted.

Suddenly, with his death, there was an antagonist vacuum of sorts. Both Diamondback and Mariah (with the help of Shades) were trying to fill Cottonmouth’s shoes, but neither really succeeded. That, coupled with Luke’s injury that took him out of commission, brought the show’s strong pacing to a grinding halt. If either Diamondback or Mariah had been ready to step up at that point, that could’ve been a strong moment instead of being a giant reset button, but neither of them were able to fill that void effectively.

“Does he have gills? Drown him. Can he burn? Can you poison him? What about a woman? You know he got one with his fine ass. You find his weakness and you squeeze.”

On this viewing, knowing that Cottonmouth would be eliminated, I was able to better see all the setup that was being done to have the true main villain be Mariah Dillard (played by Alfre Woodard, who, on an unrelated note, was actually in Captain America: Civil War as a different character). In many of Cottonmouth’s early scenes, Mariah is present, acting as the voice of reason. While Cottonmouth would often react emotionally to situations, Mariah was there trying to make sure things were done correctly. We keep seeing these sorts of scenes from Cottonmouth’s perspective, which makes Mariah come off as a thorn in his side, but really, she’s the level headed one who maintains a reasonable stance as Cottonmouth gets obsessed with taking Cage out and getting on top again.

Even though she tried to play up her desire to walk the lawful path, she would occasionally slip into a more criminal mindset reflecting her upbringing under Mama Mabel. And this gradual slide towards giving in to her history is part of what makes her very compelling. She was almost up there with Wilson Fisk, but became a victim of poor pacing and structure. Killing her cousin should’ve been a massively defining moment for her. It should’ve been what finally made her change gears into being more like Mama Mabel, but despite this big event and Shades’ coercing, she still continued to slowly fight her nature like she had been before Cottonmouth’s murder.

Mariah had all the great motivation, but lacked enough presence in the second half of the story to make her feel like the true villain. All that presence was instead given to Diamondback, who suffered from equal but opposite problems as Mariah.

“I’ll murderize everything in sight, because I don’t care, and I won’t quit. You can’t bargain with me, you buy or you die.”

While Mariah had no action but plenty of motivation, Diamondback had plenty of action but no motivation. Well, not exactly no motivation, but his motivations were not only weak, but told to the audience poorly. Now, I’m going to harp on Diamondback a lot here, but I want to say that none of his flaws come from the performance. Erik LaRay Harvey is absolutely menacing and does a great job trying to elevate the character as much as he can with what he’s given.

From his introduction, Diamondback is a relentless and single-minded foe who poses a very real threat to Luke. Unfortunately, outside of that, he’s a very one-dimensional character. His entire backstory feels forced, and most of it is told simply through him giving grand speeches about himself. Even prior to his first appearance, we hear about this powerful, shadowy figure known as Diamondback, but we never hear anything about Willis Stryker or his connection with Luke. It just comes out of nowhere when this guy shows up and says he’s Luke’s best friend growing up and is also secretly his half brother. Despite being a character so closely tied to Luke and his history, he does next to nothing to actually further grow the character of our hero. He just feels so hollow, despite being ever present for the back half of the season.

So, after Cottonmouth’s early departure, we are suddenly left with two main villains neither of which live up to Cottonmouth. With some tweaking, either of them could’ve been a memorable foe, but as is, the best main villain dies 7 episodes in, and that void is palpable. Ultimately, their impact as villains are mirrored in the choices they made to deal with Luke: Mariah had many thoughtful and sinister ways of taking down Luke, but didn’t put any of them into action, while Diamondback used magic bullets and a convenient (and ugly) powersuit that worked against Luke just because, well, they can for some unexplained reason.

“Do what I say and when you get away with this you can go back to being the sexy domineering bitch that we all hate to love.”

It’s not a total loss on the villain side going forward though. In addition to Mariah finally getting to where she needs to be by the very end, we also still have Shades. Shades might be one of my favorite characters in the MCU, and I considered writing a post entirely about him because there is just so much I could rave about.

I’m not the first to have this thought, but Shades is very much like Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger. He is smart, he knows which way the wind is blowing, and he’s always whispering into the ear of people with power. His introduction alone is memorable. I don’t know if it’s because of Theo Rossi’s acting, his eyewear, or just the way it was shot, but Shades is mysterious and engaging right off the bat. After only a few words we get the sense that this is a guy who knows much more than he’s letting on.

My first time watching Luke Cage, I was sure that Shades had some sort of superpower or something. He was just too mysterious not to. So to find out that, no, he’s just a crafty guy who has a fondness for sunglasses makes his ability to have you question his motives even better. I even received a text from my Mom asking if Shades was an alien, which is pretty telling. He was also the only character who had me legitimately worried about their safety. I was on the edge of my seat when Diamondback had Zip try to kill him. Knowing he was neither the hero or the main villain made him much more of a target for being killed off, and I really didn’t want that to happen, and certainly not this soon.

He even had a great scene early on where we see him responding to Pop’s death. Having grown up in that neighborhood, he respected Pop just like everyone else, and was visibly shaken when he had to deliver the news to Cottonmouth. And for a character who is otherwise hard to read, that was a telling moment. Not only did it inform us more about Shades, but told us even more about Pop, that even a hardened criminal was so affected by his passing.

On the villain side, I’m most looking forward to seeing how Shades progresses in future seasons, but I think that Mariah also ended up in a good place, even though it was a little late for this season.

Thank you for reading! If you missed it, I have a post about Luke’s father figure Pop here. I will have one more post on Luke Cage soon, but it might come after writing about Iron Fist a little bit. Be sure to follow the blog to make sure you don’t miss a post! And let me know what you think of these villains down in the comments!

Luke Cage Season 1 Re-Watch Part 1: Pop

“They call you Pop because you were the OG?”

“Nah, it was the sound my fist made when I knocked a fool out. Snap, crackle, pop.”


For my first post about Luke Cage, I wanted to talk about a character who is not only influential in motivating our hero to live up to his potential, but embodies the season’s central themes of history and community. Henry “Pop” Hunter is only seen in 2 episodes, and despite his short screen time, his impact is significant. Pop is a shining example of getting the most out of a character efficiently and powerfully.

The trope of the wise father figure who teaches the hero responsibility before dying in the first act is not a new concept at all, especially in comic book adaptations. This is seen in at least Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and in two of the three Spider-Man film franchises (I wish I could say that sentence to a twelve year old me). But I think that Pop is a richer character than any of the wise old men in those stories. He is deeply tied to the hero, the villain, and the setting in a way that few characters like him are.

“You should be out there helping people, that’s all, like them other fellas downtown.”

Pop is introduced right off the bat when the opening scene shows a typical day in his barbershop. In this scene we learn a lot about who he is in the way he interacts with different characters. We see how he treats kids, women, young adults, peers, and his employees. And what’s notable, is that he treats everyone the same. He gives everyone in his shop the same amount of respect. We also see that not only does he have a “no profanity” rule, but also a swear jar. And he holds himself to the same standards as everyone else. Despite not being perfect, has no hesitation in paying when he slips up.

In just a few minutes we see this character as one of respect, responsibility, and also very human. It’s easy to like Pop right away. After establishing all this, in the very next scene we learn that Pop, like Luke, is an ex-con. This gives his words real weight when he then talks to Luke about moving on from the past and focusing on what you can do to make the future better. These aren’t hollow platitudes, they are characteristic of Pop’s whole life.

“What would have happened in my life if people gave up on me? I was no angel, no I was a beast. I was a beast, no two ways about it.”

Pop used to be a criminal, known for being one of Mama Mabel’s enforcers. After getting caught, and spending 10 years in prison, he was left with a choice when he got out. He could’ve gone right back to doing what he was doing, living the way he did before and letting his history dictate his future. But he chose a different path. Not only one that would better himself, but make a difference in his community.

He set up shop and used it to keep kids off the streets and learning the value of hard work and respect. But also gave them a safe place to just hang out, play video games, and be kids without being caught up in the toxic elements of their homes or neighborhoods.

Pop mentions that his favorite literary character is Kenyatta. A man who leads a more-or-less vigilante group of people who seek to better their community by ridding it of both criminals and also racist, corrupt police. It’s not coincidence that this not only parallels Pop’s own attempts at community improvement, but also the life that he urges Luke to lead. To use his exceptional abilities to truly take a stand against all dangers that the community faces.

“I was trying to do what Pop always did. Help people in need, and protect them from the forces that would do them harm.”

Another thing that sets Pop apart from most characters like him, is that he is mourned by both the hero and the villain. For all his faults, Cottonmouth is devastated to hear of Pop’s murder. It is Cottonmouth, not Luke, who takes vengeance on his killer. And even Shades, a notoriously hard to read character, is visibly shaken by what happened to Pop. This was a man loved by all who knew him, and whose shop was known as neutral territory.

This whole post reads like an obituary, and I think that says a lot about this wonderful character. In less than two episodes we learned all of this about him and more. Luke Cage does such a marvelous job building this character up and making his death exactly as weighty and powerful as it needs to be to motivate Luke, a man trying lay low, into action.

A common complaint about Luke Cage is that it starts strong and starts to dip a bit in later episodes. And while I will certainly talk about that in the future, I wanted to hold up Pop as one of those very strong aspects to the beginning of this show.

“Take my advice, brother. The past is the past. And the only direction in life that matters is forward. Never backwards.”

Thank you for reading! I will have a least a couple more posts on Luke Cage in the next few days. Be sure to follow the blog to make sure you don’t miss a post! And let me know what you think of Pop down in the comments!

The MCU’s Most Terrifying Villain: Kilgrave

I am new to love, but I do know what it looks like! I do watch television.

I mentioned on my past Jessica Jones posts that I would get around to discussing the main antagonist, Kilgrave, well here it is. At this point I will not be attempting to keep things spoiler free, you have been warned.

In a show that is in many ways one of the most feminist television shows I’ve ever seen, I almost feel bad about how much I’m going to be talking about the male villain. But Kilgrave (David Tennant) is an enthralling depiction of the greatest threat to feminism (or simply, humanity), the lust for power and control, and is therefore worth discussing.

Kilgrave, even on the surface level, is one of the most frightening villains in the MCU or any superhero show/movie for that matter. He has the ability to compel people to do whatever he says with no more effort than it takes to issue the command. And what’s worse, is that it’s not even that he takes over your body to achieve this goal, he takes over your mind. He plants in your brain the overwhelming urge to complete his task, he makes you want it, more than anything. At our core, our wants and desires are a huge part of what makes us each the person that we are. So he’s not merely making you a puppet, pulling strings as he sees fit, but he is changing who you are fundamentally, albeit temporarily.

For anyone who has ever struggled with an intrusive thought, or an urge they had to suppress, they know how hard it is to reconcile that thought with your identity. So for Kilgrave’s victims, these implanted urges weigh heavily on them long after his control has worn off. They know, logically, that it wasn’t their choice, yet it still feels identical to any other thought or desire they’ve ever had before.

What makes Kilgrave so scary as a viewer is how relatable he is. Now, I know that sounds like crazy-talk. How could somebody so cruel and evil be relatable? Well, because in many ways, it’s not immorality that Kilgrave demonstrates, but amorality. To people with morals, he looks evil, and depending on your moral philosophy, he might be. But Kilgrave isn’t a representation of our morality, but something deeper. Kilgrave represents the Freudian concept of the id.

The id is the part of the psyche that creates impulses. It’s the source of our most base desires and needs. This instinctual part of us drives our wants and seeks immediate and complete gratification. According to Freud, the id “knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality”. It just craves. Take this line that Kilgrave says when confronted by the notion that he is evil:

Evil. How reductive. I mean, it’s true that I’ve never given a second thought to anyone that I’ve let die, but I take no pleasure in it like a truly evil man would. I’m merely removing nuisances. Public service, really.”

Kilgrave’s thoughts and actions never pass through any sort of moral filter. He sees what he wants and then makes it happen. Now, in fully developed people, we have mechanisms to control those urges, the ego and the super-ego. These are what gives us our sense of morality, and our ability to plan, set long-term goals, or have patience. With little exception, all of these are lacking in Kilgrave. For example, here’s another line of his when Jessica is making him wait for her arrival:

“How do you people live like this? Day after day just hoping people are going to do what you want. It’s unbearable”

His ego has never fully developed because he has never needed it. In his early childhood before his powers, he was kept isolated and tested on against his will and lacked any control at all, so having the ability to control his urges was pointless. And after he gained his powers he still never needed to learn to control his urges since there was never any obstacle in having his impulses met.

It’s not until Jessica defies his control that he has to start taking a different approach. He has to make plans, he has to try to cater to what he thinks Jessica wants in order to gain her affection. But he has never had to do any of this before. His only knowledge of this part of the human experience is what he has learned through movies and television. Like many men in the real world, he feels entitled to have love reciprocated and thinks that by making grand gestures and professing his love that things will all work out for him. He doesn’t care about what Jessica’s feelings are, he just wants them to be a certain way and tries to change her mind.

“Look, after a while, however long it takes, I know you will feel what I feel!”

So when I say that Kilgrave is relatable, I mean that he represents that deep part of everyone that just wants their needs met. That infantile, entitled craving for satisfaction. What makes him scary is thinking about how one’s own id might take over if they had a power like his. How would you react if suddenly the barriers of other people were no longer an obstacle? One of the characters in the show even struggles with this. Jeri Hogarth (a powerful defense attorney played by Carrie-Anne Moss) is used to being persuasive and having control over situations, but finds herself trapped by her wife who is refusing to sign the version of their divorce papers that Hogarth wants. Hogarth wants this problem to go away, and her goals are being blocked by her wife Wendy who is refusing to budge. Wendy holds a long kept secret over her head to get more money out of Hogarth. Hogarth fantasizes about how great it would be to have Kilgrave’s powers, stating:

“What a waste. He could solve so many problems with his gift…if he was on our side”

Hogarth thinks that she could use these powers to get over the troublesome obstacle of people. And sure, anyone who has worked a retail job knows that people can be awful, but while it’s easy to say that you would only use those powers for good, it’s a slippery slope from righting wrongs to imposing your own version of “right” onto other people, taking away their free will. Jessica Jones, for all her faults, doesn’t dream of having powers like he has, and sees them for how controlling and horrifying they are. She even calls Hogarth out when she mentions how his gift could be used for good:

What side would that be? The side that uses people? Treats them like animals? Just to throw them away like garbage? The side that rips your life apart and destroys you from the inside out? Whose side exactly would that be?

All this to say that even though we can see why Kilgrave became the way he is, that doesn’t excuse his actions. All but the most die-hard moral nihilists would agree that what Kilgrave does throughout the series is wrong, no matter what personal morals (or lack thereof) Kilgrave has.

In the end, Jessica must kill Kilgrave in order to stop the trail of devastation he leaves in his wake. And she accomplishes this by catering to the same impulses that drive all of his actions. She makes him think that he has won, that he finally has her under his control again. Kilgrave even has doubts about what he sees and is rightfully convinced that it’s a trick. But his weak ego can’t hold up to his powerful id, and he buys into the deception. Ultimately, his downfall is caused by falling prey to his own out-of-control id, just like he’s forced upon all those around him.

There is one more thing that makes Kilgrave one of the most memorable villains in recent memory, and that’s the performance of David Tennant. Many people know him from his time as The Doctor on Doctor Who, but he quickly makes you forget about all the happy memories you had with him (outside of one use of the word “Well…” which was very reminiscent of The Tenth Doctor). From his first appearance as a silhouette whispering in Jessica’s ear, he strikes fear into the audience. His cocky, yet cold demeanor is chillingly familiar to anyone who has been around controlling narcissistic people. The casual, almost flippant way he makes people harm themselves is eerie enough, but once he has his sights set on Jessica, and we see the breadth of his obsession with the one “thing” he can’t have, he’s downright terrifying. Tennant’s ability to encapsulate every facet of Kilgrave’s chaotic whims and motivations is second to none. There is even one part towards the end of the series where he delivers a soliloquy to no one on a rooftop. In anyone else’s hands, that moment could’ve been cheesy, but Tennant sold it just like he does with every scene he’s in.

The fact that I can’t choose a favorite MCU villain between Tennant’s Kilgrave, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk speaks volumes about both performances. But Tennant was just one part of what made Jessica Jones so great. My next write-up will be about the series as a whole, and the overarching themes of power, control, identity, and accountability. 

I hope you enjoyed my first post written just for this blog. If you have anything you want me to write about, let me know, and I’d love to hear what you all think of Kilgrave and Jessica Jones, so leave a comment!