“Everybody wants to be the king.”
[[SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE OF LUKE CAGE]
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!