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.