Loki is no longer the most fascinating villain in the MCU. Luke Cage has changed Marvel’s landscape in quite a few ways, and amongst its important moves was presenting four unique villains and allowing them to fight battle royale style.
Spoilers follow, naturally.
Now that the dust has settled on Luke Cage Season 1, it’s clear that, against all odds, Shades Alvarez and Black Mariah have inherited Harlem’s crime syndicate. They’ve outlived Diamondback and Cottonmouth, and their palpable sexual chemistry will follow them into their next conflict with Luke Cage. Introducing both Shades and Mariah as lackeys in the beginning of the season only to give them control over Harlem’s Paradise by Episode 13 was a masterful move; it’s also one that is new to Marvel’s on-screen products.
Fans have long complained that Marvel films and television shows have introduced, used up, and killed off too many awesome villains all too quickly, thereby not giving them ample backstory or the chance to develop their objectives. Consider how Shades is introduced in Luke Cage — as Diamondback’s henchman, sent to oversee Cottonmouth — and compare how much he grows to the path taken by any of Marvel’s other villains. Shades wants power, but he also wants Mariah, real bad.
Every great cinematic villain begs the viewer to identify with them; if their dastardly plans are too easily dismissed as selfish or crazy, they end up being too one-dimensional. That’s why characters like Loki, who captivated Marvel fans by crying over his mother’s death, will always outlive and out-fascinate villains like Guardians’s Ronan the Accuser, or Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket, or Iron Man’s Ultron. We may not want to see Shades and Mariah win out over Luke Cage, but damn it if we don’t want to see them explore their relationship and turn Harlem’s Paradise into a powerful force.
Out of the larger Marvel fandom, and even the smaller Luke Cage-specific fandom, a group of shippers calling themselves fans of #ShadeyMariah has emerged. It’s hard to blame them for fixating on the show’s villains; Shades and Mariah are the only characters in Luke Cage who appear in numerous scenes without Luke, and they often discuss plans that don’t necessarily involve him. What’s more, their connection has been touted by many fans as a sort-of-healthy example of a sub/dom relationship: That is, Shades seems visibly excited by Mariah taking charge, and he encourages her in several scenes to climb to the top of Luke Cage’s food chain.
Shades evidently gets satisfaction from being a subordinate, first worshipping Diamondback and then attaching himself to Mariah. Mariah, on the other hand, is coaxed into a dominant role through Shades’s Lady-Macbeth-style whisperings; he helps her crawl out from under her childhood trauma and destroy one of the last remaining pillars of power in her life: her cousin Cottonmouth. It’s not an admirable relationship, ethically, but it is narratively fascinating and ripe with possibility for future developments.
That potential is what Marvel villains have been missing for so long; even after several films and TV series, Loki remains the only villain whose identity is coherent and luminous enough to inspire curiosity in the viewer. We want to know how Loki will respond to the MCU post-Civil War because Loki is a well-established character. In the same vein, Mariah and Shades are robust enough personalities that it’s safe to assume they’ll engage in off-screen shenanigans during the break between Luke Cage and Netflix’s other Defenders series. That’s more than we can say for characters on Jessica Jones — although Kilgrave was played interestingly by David Tennant, the dude is dead.
Whether you think Shades and Mariah are an OTP (one true pairing) or not, it’s clear that Marvel has a great deal up its sleeve for future Luke Cage stories, and many fans will be anxiously awaiting the characters’ appearance in Defenders. For what its worth, even Theo Rossi, who plays Shades, has publicly announced that he “ships” the two characters. Rossi and Marvel are playing their fanbase like a fiddle, and it’s thrilling to watch.