A Brief History of ‘The Defenders’: Luke Cage

Mike Delaney
TV Marvel
TV Marvel

Four unlikely heroes are coming together to fight something bigger than them. It’s a threat that they must face but cannot handle alone. They are the Defenders, the street-level heroes of Marvel’s interconnected Netflix series. Daredevil. Jessica Jones. Luke Cage. Iron Fist. For years, their individual series has been laying the groundwork for a grand team-up: Marvel’s The Defenders!

As the release date of Marvel’s The Defenders draws closer, FANDOM looks back at the comic book and television history of each member continuing with …

Luke Cage, the Power Man

Luke Cage was created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin and John Romita, Sr. He was inspired by the popular blaxploitation films of the era. Luke Cage: Hero for Hire was the first comic from either Marvel or DC to star a black superhero. Luke inhabited a more crime-dominated New York City than had previously been seen in Marvel comics, and his adventures would often see him battle street criminals rather than supervillains.

As the popularity of blaxpolitation faded, so did the popularity of Luke Cage. Instead of canceling the comic, Marvel tried to save the character by teaming him up with the character Iron Fist. Like Luke Cage, Iron Fist had also been created as a response to a popular film genre of the 70s. In this case, it was martial arts films. The popularity of Iron Fist was also waning due to the film genre declining in popularity, so in an effort to save both, they were paired together. The plan worked, with the series reaching 125 issues before being canceled in 1986.

Luke Cage has been a steady presence in Marvel comics ever since. Over the years, writers have moved him away from his blaxploitation roots. The character was also the inspiration for a young actor named Nicholas Coppola. To avoid relying on the name of his famous uncle, the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, he became Nicholas CAGE.

Convicted for a crime he did not commit

Luke Cage was originally named Carl Lucas. Along with his friend Willis Stryker, they were street hoodlums growing up in Harlem. Despite dreaming of becoming a big-time racketeer, Luke eventually realizes that his criminal activities are hurting his family. He decides to change himself for the better and find legitimate work. He remains friends with Stryker who continues to rise in the criminal ranks. Their friendship is not to last, however. Stryker’s girlfriend, Reva Connors, breaks up with him over his violent lifestyle and goes to Luke for comfort. Stryker is convinced that Reva left him for Luke, so plants heroin in his apartment. The police are tipped off, leading to Luke’s arrest and imprisonment.

Luke’s time in prison is not easy. His brother cuts off all communication with the family and leads Luke to believe their father died (while at the same time convincing their father that Luke is dead). Furious at Stryker’s betrayal and grieving over his father, Luke repeatedly tries to escape prison. Eventually, he is sent to Seagate Prison off the coast of Georgia where he encounters the racist prison guard Albert Rackham. Rackham’s actions against Luke leads him to be demoted, which he subsequently blames on Cage.

In prison, Luke volunteers for an experimental cellular regeneration trial run by Doctor Noah Burstein. During the experiment, Burstein briefly leaves Luke unattended. Rackham tampers with the machine in an effort to kill or at least severely injure Luke. Unsurprisingly, the experiment instead gives Luke superpowers, and he uses them to escape Seagate and return to New York City.

A Hero for Hire

Luke realizes that his newfound superpowers are useful for something — making money! Setting himself up as a “hero for hire,” Luke helps anyone who can afford his rates. Mainly, his opponents are the conventional criminals who inhabit New York City. But that does not last for long as Luke learns that New York City is like catnip for supervillains. Proving that he just can’t catch a break, many of his enemies – like Discus, Stiletto, Shades, and Comanche – are all criminals with ties to Luke’s time in prison.

Luke eventually enters the wider world of superheroes, adopting the codename Power Man. He ends up as a member of various superhero teams over the years, including the Defenders and multiple incarnations of the Avengers. However, he is best known for his association with Heroes for Hire alongside Danny Rand, known as Iron Fist. These two best friends could not be more different – a black former criminal turned street-level hero and a white billionaire martial artist who spent the majority of his life in the mystical city of K’un-Lun.

Time and again, Luke reaches the upper levels of the superhero community, only to voluntarily step down to help the less fortunate on the street. He reasons there are plenty of heroes to take the world-altering problems, but not enough to help those who need it. Luke eventually finds love with fellow hero Jessica Jones, and they have a daughter, Danielle who is named in honor of his friend, Danny Rand.


The cellular regeneration experiment that Luke underwent was derived from a variant of the super-soldier serum that gifted many superheroes their powers. Luke’s exposure was sabotaged by Albert Rackham in an attempt to kill him. It had quite the opposite effect, granting Luke superhuman strength and durability. His skin is virtually unbreakable – only high-power medical lasers or adamantium can pierce it. Luke can quite easily stop bullets at point-blank range.

Luke’s strength allows him to go toe-to-toe with some of the most powerful supervillains around. Unfortunately, his clothes are not indestructible and he often finds himself with shredded t-shirts and trousers after his adventures. Luke has one jacket that is also indestructible as it was exposed to the same process. For some reason, he rarely wears it.

Luke once faced off against Doctor Doom after being stiffed on a job. Doom had offered Luke $200 to destroy several Doombots disguised as African-Americans. Luke held up his end of the deal, but Doom returned to Latveria without paying. Luke borrowed the Fantastic Four‘s jet, heading to Latveria and proceeded to beat the crap out of Doom until he was paid for his work.

Marvel’s Luke Cage

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Luke Cage actually turned up as a supporting character in Jessica Jones before headlining his own series! In Jessica Jones, Luke owns a bar in Hell’s Kitchen and becomes intimately involved with Jessica. Then he later finds out that the reason that Jessica is in his life. She can’t get over the guilt of killing his wife, Reva Connors, while under the influence of Kilgrave! To top it all off, Luke gets mind-controlled by Kilgrave and forced to fight Jessica. No wonder he headed for Harlem once it was over!

Over in Harlem, Luke keeps his head down working for reformed criminal Pop in a local barber shop, and as a dishwasher at local crime boss Cottonmouth’s nightclub. The series largely adapts Luke’s origin story faithfully, but critical changes are made. Luke is originally from Georgia, and while he was a former petty criminal, he was also a Marine and later a sheriff. He still gets convicted for a crime he did not commit and gained his superpowers in prison. Although this is not as a willing volunteer because he needed the treatment to save his life after a savage beating. The other big change is that Willis Stryker is now his half-brother.

Despite wanting nothing to do with the local criminal elements, Luke is drawn into that world after Pops is killed. Luke begins to clean up the neighborhood from the influence of Cottonmouth and his cousin, Black Mariah. He also faces off against Stryker, who is now known as Diamondback. By the end of the series, Luke is the hero of Harlem. However, his new celebrity status brings his previous criminal history to light as well as the fact that he is an escaped felon. He is rearrested, but there is evidence to support the fact that Luke was wrongfully imprisoned in the first place.

Mike Delaney
Star Wars fan and general pop culture addict. Only two beverages worth drinking are tea and whisky.
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