Heroes are only as good as their villains, and Marvel’s most recent Netflix product, Luke Cage, manages to both succeed and fail on this front. To talk about why, I must spoil the show for you – sorry. Such is the nature of Luke Cage. You have been warned.
Two figures act as the show’s Big Bads – Cornell Stokes, a.k.a. Cottonmouth, and Willis Stryker, a.k.a. Diamondback. On a surface level of ‘action,’ they’re actually quite similar. Career criminals – both black – whose instability and pride puts them at odds with Cage. They punch him, shoot him, etc. – all the things that villains are supposed to do.
But there’s a key difference – one others have observed: Cottonmouth is compelling, and Diamondback is, well, not.
Sadly, Cottonmouth doesn’t make it past the halfway mark, where he is killed and exchanged with Diamondback. Many have identified this as the turning point in the series, swapping out one villain for another. On the surface, this seems like a simple problem of “Too Many Villains,” but the issue is one of ideology – rather than numbers. Luke Cage is, fundamentally, about the black experience, and so too is Cottonmouth. He is a product of the culture of oppression that is defined by a legacy of systematic injustice. It has shaped him and his ideological approach to his organization, making his motivations thematically cogent with the ideas at play in the show.
Cornell craves power. It’s all he has left to define himself. He’s missed the opportunity to shine through his musical talents, so he must rise above through his criminal empire. These elements are, in turn, defined by the black experience of his childhood guardians – a setting where his mother pushed him away from performance and towards a life of crime, the role of patriarch. His empire is his ideology, and Cage serves as an ideological foil. Cage’s power is literal, coming from body rather than reputation. Cage’s straight-edge approach also counters Cornell’s dogmatic belief in criminality. There’s a real conflict between these two that fits with the themes of the show and its struggle with black success in modern America.
This is why, as Cottonmouth falls from power, he becomes unstable, unhinged. He grasps desperately at any hope that he’s placed his eggs in the right basket, only for Cage to thwart him again and again. He is simply unable to cope with proof that his life has been spent barking up the wrong tree. He is undone because the dynamic between the two characters is just as much about proving a point as it is beat-downs and shoot-ups.
Diamondback’s storyline lacks this quality entirely. While, undoubtedly, Diamondback is a product of the same system, his blackness never informs his motivations or our understanding of his character. He uses it to frame Cage, but Diamondback is just performing the Trope-A-Dope. He’s playing on the fear America has of black men, as well as its readiness to jump to racist/biased conclusions. He doesn’t actually believe that all black men look the same – he thinks we do (and, survey says, he’s not wrong). This is a biting, subtle bit of finger-pointing on the point of the show, but it does little to set up any sort of ideological racial conflict between Cage and DB.
In the end, Diamondback is jealous of Cage because Diamondback is the unacknowledged bastard son of Cage’s father. Their drama is less racial meditation and more soap-opera. Diamondback’s daddy issues are decidedly not focused on the cultural narratives and stereotypes concerning black fathers. He’s just upset that he’s Harlem’s Jon Snow.
Diamondback goes through the same arc, more or less, as Cottonmouth, but as Diamondback becomes more erratic, it’s hard to understand why. Watching Cottonmouth descend into prideful madness made sense – his worldview was shattering around him. When Diamondback starts to lose his cool, it’s because he… hates Luke Cage more now, I guess. Cottonmouth and Cage were engaged in a game of call and response, and Cage was able to respond perfectly, every time. Diamondback just tries to kill him a bunch, and it never works (because of course it doesn’t, it can’t), until he’s reduced to a L I T E R A L comic book character, showing up to Punch Luke Cage Really Good.
He spouts bible verse – and even says “Bye Felicia” at one point – but his motivations and character feel flat in a show like this. You could not – could NOT – put Cottonmouth into another Marvel property to the same effect. He’d soliloquize about black strength to Tony Stark and Tony would not get it. Cornell Stokes is the perfect villain for Luke Cage because they come from the same place, but have interpreted and purposed their upbringings in very different ways.
There’s nothing special or unique about Diamondback. You could put him in any Marvel property, and he’d make as much sense. Hell, you could put him in any action/thriller movie – that’s how bland he is. His villainy has no genre or thematic thrust, and that’s ultimately why Luke Cage has a villain problem; this show with a point and a thesis dedicates almost half of its runtime to a villain with no point and no thesis. He’s just a villain-of-the-week, running amok because that’s what villains do.
Luke Cage is exciting to me. I don’t think I’ve seen any television show quite like it (ableit in my very young, very white life). I don’t agree with all of its politics, and I clearly don’t agree with its treatment of its villains, but I still very much enjoyed it. Method Man gets the sickest cameo of all time (of all TIME), and there’s plenty of glory shots of Luke Cage beating the absolute LIFE out of people. It’s also got some really good ideas cooking underneath the messy parts – ideas that justify a watch. For all my whinging, you should check it out if you’ve got the time.