While the nerdverse eagerly anticipates the premiere of Luke Cage on Netflix come September, the streaming giant has already introduced the next crew of superheroes, without anyone even realizing it. On the surface, it may seem unlikely for a musical drama/ historical fiction about the birth of hip-hop to be a priority binge for any diehard comic book fan, but make no mistake -- Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down is a multi-genre mashup that has all the key elements of any solid comic book fable, sans the Marvel or DC moniker.
The Get Down fully embraces the comic book/sci-fi connection. The show opens with protangonist Ezekiel ( Justice Smith) and crew excited to see Star Wars that night. In Episode 2, Shaolin Fantastic (Dope's Shameik Moore) is struggling to “find his beat” as Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) instructed when his friend Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks) reminds him what Obi-Wan says about "feeling the Force moving through you and your eyes deceiving you" before tying a bandana over Shaolin’s eyes to emulate Luke’s blaster shield in A New Hope. In Episode 5, when Fantastic tells Ra-Ra how he dreamt their rivals had legendary Bertha speakers for their upcoming battle, he compares the “Herculoid” speakers to Gigantor and Hulk. Ra-Ra replies by explaining to his friend that through extensive reading (of comics, natch) the only rational response to fear and danger is superpowers. And in their big battle against the Notorius Three in Episode 6, the crew kick off their performance with the most iconic horns in movie history courtesy of John Williams' Star Wars theme. On the surface, these may seem like mere pop culture references relevant to 1977. In reality, they’re subtle reminders that this tale of hip-hop is much more than the musical or a historical fiction it appears to be on the surface.
A different kind of shared universe
It’s worth noting the close relationship hip-hop has always had with comic books and other areas of genre since its inception, and how closely tied their origins are. For the uniformed, hip-hop involves four elements: DJing, MCing (rapping), B-boying (breakdancing), and graffiti writing. During the '70s, B-Boys and MCs not only drew inspiration from the kung fu movies playing in Times Square when creating dance moves and rhymes, but the core message and brotherhood resonated, birthing the very code that hip-hop crews lived by: loyalty, honor, respect. Kung fu movies popular in the West during the '70s depicted themes of anti-imperialism, and inner city youths could relate. It was common for hip-hop culture to champion the need to rise against oppression and corruption in their neighborhoods by rich politicians looking to exploit them. One doesn’t have to look very far within genre to recognize the same themes: Star Wars borrows both story and choreography from early martial arts films, specifically the jidaigeki film The Hidden Fortress (in fact, it’s believed the word Jedi comes from jidaigeki), as did a number of comic books.
Kung fu movies may have provided hip-hop with its code, but comic books shared its spirit. Every DJ, MC, B-boy and artist created an alter ego with some imaginative name and, on occasion, fanciful background or urban legend to go with it. Graffiti artists, especially, were masked vigilantes of hip-hop, slipping through the shadows of the night incognito, leaving their tags and messages on subway cars to be found in the A.M., or as Jaden Smith’s character Dizzee laments in the first episode, “ When we see our names on these trains, even for a fleeting moment, ‘I was here’ in spotlights. Bat-signals.” Graffiti art from the '70s frequently displayed political and social messages, and just as the bat-signal was a sign of a distressed city, so were many of the legendary tags from this era.
The Get Down is the classic hero's journey about a hip-hop superhero
Like Star Wars, countless kung fu movies, and comic book films before it, The Get Down follows the classic format of the hero's journey. We first meet Ezekiel, an average city kid in the Bronx who's been in love with the same girl since he was eight. Zeeke seems like a relatively harmless teen: he plays piano for the neighborhood church choir, does his chores, and is a talented poet. But it isn't long until we discover that Zeeke is not just an average, scrawny, inner-city kid. He turns out to be...
Ezekiel aka The Chosen One
Orphan? Check. Natural superhuman ability/talent (aka superpower) unnoticed in himself but quickly recognized by others? Check. Inherently altruistic? Check. And as a bonus: he’s frequently referred to as The Chosen One starting in Episode 1 of the series.
At first, it seems Ezekiel’s only goal is to win the affection of his one true love, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola). But much as Luke Skywalker evolves from a scrawny, borderline whiny kid who just wants to go to pilot school into the one who resurrects the Jedi, Zeeke transforms from lovestruck kid on the brink of dropping out of school to the only one who can save his crew and possibly his neighborhood. It’s not farfetched to imagine that, come the second half of The Get Down, Ezekiel will be tasked with bringing some kind of balance to, and otherwise saving, hip-hop, but we have to wait until 2017 to find out. At times, Zeeke eschews the rules and lets his loyalty to his friends dictate his next move (Empire Strikes Back), but ultimately Zeeke’s actions are in the interest of doing good.
Like any Chosen One, Zeeke needs someone to call him to adventure, to whisk him off on the path that leads to him using his abilities and fulfilling whatever prophecy he's meant to serve. But it isn't until an unexpected run-in with a near-mythical graffiti artist that a new side of Zeeke is unleashed. That artist is the one and only...
Shaolin Fantastic aka The Herald aka The Unchosen One, and maybe The Big Bad?
Shaolin’s reputation precedes him as a badass graffiti artist with kung fu skills clad in red Pumas, brave enough to tag in dangerous territory overrun with gangs. Shaolin’s seen leaping through the air and jumping off rooftops with almost superhuman ability. But as his story unfolds, Shaolin's destructive side is inscreasingly revealed. It's obvious he's a talented artist and DJ, and we're meant to root for him in his earnest desire to cross over from graffiti to DJing under the tutelage of Grandmaster Flash. Talent aside, Shaolin leads a double life that often aligns him with nefarious and seedy characters who promise to lead him to more money and power. But will he succumb to the dark side -- like a fallen Jedi -- in the second half of the series, revealing him to be the true bad guy and ultimately facing off against his partner, Ezekiel? There are plenty of hints in the series to assume so.
But before that happens, both Zeeke and Shaolin set off to take their hip-hop skills to the next level. As we all know, in order for a gifted individual to hone their abilities, they need a teacher.
Grandmaster Flash, aka The Mentor
As with any comic book story, there is always someone responsible for helping the hero realize and/or learn how to harness their power. Doctor Strange has The Ancient One, Batman had Ra's al Ghul, and Zeeke and Shaolin have Grandmaster Flash.
A cross between Obi-Wan and Yoda, Flash is initially introduced through mythos, looming over everyone and everything as the powerful Zen-like leader of his territory in the Bronx. He takes on an eager Shaolin Fantastic as his apprentice and teaches him the secrets behind his legendary DJing technique while also working to instill the code of hip-hop within him and his friends. He seems to have a soft-spot for Shaolin, and even though he has justifiable reason to be wary, Flash ultimately hopes that Shaolin chooses to fully embrace his good side, pursuing his music dreams in lieu of being seduced by the dark side.
Of course, no hero works alone, not even the ones that think they do. They all have at least a friend, or two, that either know their secret identity, or help them out in seemingly small, yet supportive ways. Sometimes those friends work along side them, often just because they happened to be there when the hero started their journey. Which leads us to...
The Fantastic Four Plus One/ The Get Down Brothers aka The Ragtag Bunch of Misfits
Hip-hop crews historically involve a number of members (remember the four elements of hip-hop from earlier?), so it's convenient for their group of friends to have another graffiti artist ( Dizzee) to fill Shaolin's former role, and a couple more rappers ( Dizzee's brothers Ra-Ra and Boo-Boo) to round out their crew. But in the context of comic books and epic fantasies like Star Wars, the ragtag crew serve as the hero's helpers. Where would Luke be without R2-D2, Leia, Han, Chewie, and Threepio? Together with Zeeke and Shaolin, the crew help them face off against their rivals in their first major battle. Only time will tell what fate befalls them.
Music = super powers aka Force
Everyone knows a great soundtrack can make or break a film or series. But The Get Down takes it a step further, not simply relying on its killer soundtrack to punch up an emotional scene or invoke the appropriate reaction from audiences. Musical ability, be it in Zeeke’s rapping or Shaolin’s scratching, exists as a superpower, or magic. It's presented as energy manipulation, the effect of which impacts the actions and behavior of anyone in its thrall.
And much like supers or Jedis, those who possess this extraordinary gift are worshipped as saviours and depended on by everyone around them. In this story, it's music that will help them achieve whatever their goal or task. Music will save them from poverty, pain, and whatever other evils are sure to challenge them on their journey. But as with any power, their talent can’t be taken for granted, or faked, because ultimately, there will be consequences.
Stranger Things may be earning praise for its '80s pop culture throwbacks, but The Get Down is more than a nod to nostalgia. It’s a further evolved form of hip-hop itself. The ultimate unifier, hip-hop combined various principles of artistic expression, each one a celebration and interpretation of various genres and cultures before it. The Get Down does the same, combining musical drama, historical fiction, comic books, and fantasy. And in an industry that's being dominated by comic book adaptations, The Get Down is an innovative and unexpected take on the genre, opening multiple doors that introduce people from various fandoms to music, comic books, art, and old-school New York City.