Review: Luke Cage – Episode 1 – Moment of Truth


Marvel’s Netflix partnership is now in its fourth season. So far, the quality has been a mixed bag. Daredevil went from a great first season that presented a dark, lived-in crime story with thought-provoking drama, strong characters, and strongly choreographed fight scenes to a second season that devolved into fantastical nonsense/magic storyline punctuated by unrealized potential in Punisher and the groan-inducing Elektra. Jessica Jones arrived with an outstanding first act to the season using a compelling villain, a strong (and still feminine) female hero, and an edgy metaphor for rape and abuse victims. This was bogged down by a weak middle act, bizarre character choices, and mostly salvaged by a solid ending. These shows have proven much more daring in content than the cookie-cutter Marvel films, even if the episode order should be more like 8-10 instead of the padded 13.

These shows will be culminating in The Defenders, a street level Avengers, that will see Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and possibly Punisher join forces. While we will still have to wait to see the latter two, we are now treated to Luke Cage. After making a memorable supporting turn in the JJ series, and proving he could yell, “sweet Christmas” and still seem cool, Mike Colter debuts his bulletproof hero for hire. The results are, predictably, mixed. The first episode is much too stodgy in its table-setting for the rest of the season, with clunky exposition and bad writing weighing down charming performances.

The team behind Cage have promised to deal with race straight-on in this series, and its hard to imagine doing a show about a large, bulletproof black man in today’s climate and not addressing issues. So far, that seems to boil down to presenting a black neighborhood from the inside-out, and allowing that POV to shape the narrative. We are in Harlem, and we see the struggles of a once shining beacon of a community trying to shake the hardship, crime, and poverty that have descended upon it.

We pick up with Cage at a barbershop, sweeping floors. The writing is immediately clunky and forced as we get to hear the prototypical barbershop  talk about the Knicks. It almost seems to be  a parody of capturing the easy banter and back and forth. Series Exec. Producer Cheo Coker wrote this episode, and we can celebrate the fact he’s only written one another. The amount of clunky backstory, not as clever as they think one liners, and awkward dialogue will cause grimacing. Cage shortly establishes he’s a badass and also provides an info dump with barbershop owner Pops (Faison, making the dialogue sound like music). We learn Cage is a fugitive from the law, was once imprisoned, has lost a wife (if you didn’t see JJ), was once kidnapped and experimented on leading to superpowers (he picks up a washer with one hand for demonstration), and is also not ready for love.

Cage’s other job is a dishwasher in the swanky club of crime boss Cottonmouth Stokes. The plot mechanics get to moving as we see a few of the barbershop patrons get together to rob a gun deal of Stokes’ (from Iron Man 2’s Justin Hammer (RIP Sam Rockwell’s over-the-top performance)) as they have a man inside. Stokes pontificates about his power with city official Dillard, who is in his pocket, as he listens to the smooth singing of Raphael Saadiq. He generally appears menacing in a cool way. Cage has to bartend that night to cover, and runs into a barely undercover agent who is too obviously eyeing Stokes. Cage, not ready for love, is totally ready for too-long foreplay sex scenes, and lets the agent have a sip of his hot coffee.

Needless to say the gun deal goes wrong, lots of people die and the two kids get away. Our undercover agent is on the case (of course) and will have to investigate Cage who was covering for the bartender who ended up dead. Stokes also hunts down one of the men, and proceeds to beat him to death with his fists after interrogating him. Another subplot of a hostile takeover of Stokes’ operation begins with the arrival of a hammy gangster named Shades.

Plus, Cage also beats up some of Stokes’ thugs who are trying to extort money from the restaurant owners he lives above (said thugs were collecting the money to support the corrupt politician. Keeping up?). A lot of plot is packed into this not-so-swift first hour of TV. What keeps things afloat is the mostly easy charisma of Colter as Cage, though he seems to be trying harder here than in JJ. The direction is mostly uninspired with the lone fight scene being pretty disappointing (though the crown scene with Stokes was cool, if on the nose).

Marvel’s track record with Netflix buys them some leeway, as well as the encouraging debut of another show that wears its blackness on its sleeve (Cage ending the show walking towards the camera with his hoodie up seems to be daring the audience). Hopefully, with so much established this week Cage will start to find its voice in the next few episodes.

Grade: C+


Posted on October 6, 2016, in reviews, Super Heroes, TV and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. As I said yesterday, I am letting Netflix build up a backlog of shows before I reup my subscription. So I can’t comment on the latest show beyond saying I want to see it. I agreed with you that Jessica Jones had some flaws, but I stop short of calling it a mixed bag. I thought flaws and all, it was terrific.

    Daredevil, I was never all that excited about in the first place. The highly praised first season kind of bored me. There were a few good fight scenes, but often they were so underlit it was hard to see. Matt Murdock is supposed to be blind, but not the viewers. I will admit that street level vigilante stories never appealed to me as much as the big super hero stuff. So I am more inclined to enjoy the costumed escapes of the second season than the blind lawyer/ninja of the first season.

    What season two lacked was Wilson Fisk. He was the glue that held the first season together. I didn’t mind the show’s take on the Punisher. I assume he will get a slightly more faithful interpretation when he has the central role instead of spending most of his time in a hospital room or prison cell. Elektra, yeah they dropped the ball there. But then, I never much cared for Elektra or Frank Miller, so I wasn’t overly concerned about that. I can see why fans of Miller’s Daredevil cried foul though.


    • New reports suggest that Netflilx’s library is half the size it was 4 years ago. Which makes sense, as I browse around. It’s definitely getting less play at my house than my Hulu, FX, HBONOW, and others.


      • I can see that. There was a time when Netflix was an absolute steal. This was before a lot of studios realized they were giving away their streaming rights for nothing and that they had monetary value. Starz shows used to be included as soon as they aired. It was crazy. Now there’s more competition and studios are demanding more money, so Netflix has to pay more for what they do show. Not surprisingly, they have chosen to concentrate on their own content – a move which Hulu and Amazon are following.

        I have an Amazon Prime membership which I have had for free for years now. We got one year free with each Kindle purchase and Mindy and the girls each have one. So, three years total. I have only recently started using the streaming service since my Netflix account shut off. (Someone stole my CC number and I forgot to give the new one to Netflix, so I decided to just let it remain shut off for a while.) Once the free prime membership runs out, I’ll probably pick Netflix back up. I still consider it a pretty good deal, but that’s even more true when you let your subscription lapse long enough for some shows to build up. Already I have seasons of Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Luke Cage to catch up on.





    In his June 1972 debut issue, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, we get Luke’s origin story. We learn about how Cottonmouth framed him for drug dealing, got the love of his life Reva killed, and sent him to prison. The series would eventually become Luke Cage, Power Man, but in Hero for Hire’s 16-episode run, he manages to do battle with Diamondback, Mace, Black Mariah, Dr. Doom, Mr. Death, Big Ben, and a host of other villains. Of course, this was back when individual issues were still viable in comics, much like a television procedural. Soapier series like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, and X-Men would weave in romance and threads that lasted for multiple issues, but it wasn’t until recently that comics became so heavily serialized.

    [Note: The following contains spoilers]

    The light serialization that existed in comics before now has been replaced with long-running arcs in major titles to promote crossover events like Marvel’s Civil War or just to keep fans coming back for more. Like in television, it’s much easier to get someone to come back next time if you slap a “to be continued …” at the end. Which can be great for a cable drama like Game of Thrones that’s 10 episodes long, but it’s becoming increasingly worrisome for Netflix dramas that seem to mandate 13-episode seasons.

    You read comic books not only because you love the heroes who populate them, but also because you enjoy their rogues galleries, the villains they fight. Luke managed to fight all those aforementioned baddies within 16 episodes of his original series, but on his Netflix series, he’s only allowed to tackle Cottonmouth, Black Mariah, and Diamondback. And he’s not alone. Daredevil has a wealth of characters that populate the universe in the pages of his comics, but you’d never know it based on how many episodes Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk has been in.

    Light serialization in comics used to encourage a plethora of storylines; it allowed your favorite villains to return multiple times. An approach similar to The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer — which featured monsters of the week mixed in with mythology episodes — could work wonders for the Marvel Netflix series, but instead, we’re often saddled with one villain who wears out his welcome. Killgrave was an excellent bad guy on Jessica Jones, but by the time the final episode of the season rolls around, you’re ready for him to kick rocks.

    The death of Cottonmouth midway through Luke Cage is a welcome surprise. It allows Black Mariah and Diamondback to rise to prominence, but even still, there is far too much of Diamondback threatening people for no reason and Black Mariah holding endless press conferences. The series ultimately doesn’t feel populated with enough threats for Luke Cage, and both Jessica Jones and Daredevil have also suffered from the 13-episode Marvel slump. If there are so many superheroes popping up in New York City these days, why are there so few supervillains for them to fight?

    The ironic thing about the heavily serialized Netflix series is that each hero comes with his or her own procedural engine. Daredevil’s alter-ego is Matt Murdock, a defense attorney, but he tackles almost no cases throughout the two seasons of his series. Jessica is a private investigator, and we open the series with her solving a case, whereas an entire episode devoted to a case could have illuminated her character further and kept us from rehashing Killgrave scenes. Luke is the hero of Harlem, and Cottonmouth tries to get to him by targeting Harlem’s citizens. What could have been accomplished in two or three episodes — in which Luke helps out different people in the city — is doled out as a montage that lasts no more than 15 minutes.

    Marvel’s Netflix series are often complex character studies, but it would be refreshing to see those studies occur in smaller stories that show the diversity of the Marvel universe. When you watch a Marvel film, the villains are dispatched in under two hours, but on Netflix, it takes 13 full episodes to handle men who have none of the superpowers that our villains have. With the superhero team-up series The Defenders set to debut next year, one has to wonder, if you gather all of the greatest superheroes in Marvel’s Netflix universe and pit them against one villain, will it take them 13 episodes to best him or her?


    • I agree with you, Terrence. Shorter seasons with shorter arcs allow for more and better storytelling, I think. Actually, Luke Cage is my favorite of the Marvel Netflix shows so far, but it’s not because of the stories. I’ve always loved the character and Mike Colter is great as Luke. All of the Marvel Netflix series have lulls where the shows seem to stall a bit. This is also a problem for DC’s line-up of shows on the CW (I don’t watch the non-CW DC shows). The CW shows have 22 episode seasons and drag the stories out for the entire season. This is something that I hope they correct this season. This is also one of the problems with current comic books. The comic book writers of today write for trades, meaning they write long stories that are meant to be included in a single volume, novel-style. It’s annoying. What would help all of the comic book series on TV and Netflix would be a variety of stories and story lengths. Single issue and single episode stories, 3 issues and 3 episode-long stories, 6 and 6, and so on. You get the picture.

      I am a huge Spider-Man fan and collector. My favorite Spider-Man story ever is “The Boy Who Collected Spider-Man”. Spidey visits his biggest fan – a boy who is dying of cancer. It was a single issue, and may have been referenced in another story maybe once in the 30 plus years since. In that same issue was another story with Spidey fighting Thunderball. It’s a great issue because it had great writing and variety to it.


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