Luke Cage: Moment of Truth

"I've got you."

Luke Cage. What a guy. Tall, handsome. Indestructible.

Much like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage starts out slowly. The story begins with Luke living off the grid, working two under-the-table jobs in Harlem and living above the wonderfully named Genghis Connie's Chinese Restaurant, where he has trouble making his rent. What I liked most about Luke's current quiet life as an incipient superhero was Pop's Barber Shop, where the young neighborhood kids hang instead of bang, and where Luke sweeps up loose hair and washes the towels and talks with his friends about current events and what it takes to be a real man in this world, especially when you're black and poor.

Pop himself is clearly inhabiting the Pa Kent/Uncle Ben/Obi-Wan Kenobi role as Luke's kindly older friend and mentor. (Does that mean he's going to die and inspire Luke to become all he can be? I've only seen the first episode and I've never read the comics.) Pop knows about Luke's past and his superpowers and wants him to help others, while Luke, still traumatized by the loss of his wife Reva and what happened to him at Seagate Prison, isn't ready to come out of the shadows.

But it's Luke's second job as a dishwasher and substitute bartender that took us where the bad guy action is: the club Harlem's Paradise run by bad guy Cornell Stokes, a.k.a. Cottonmouth. Although I definitely got Fisk vibes, especially when he beat Shameek to death with his fists, Mahershala Ali as Stokes projected a stillness and slimy creepiness that seriously impressed me. I almost expected a slithery forked tongue to emerge from between his lips.

Alfre Woodard was equally creepy as Cottonmouth's cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard. She's responsible for the "New Harlem Renaissance," except that she's evil and corrupt and using the Renaissance bit as a cover for a "family thing" protection racket. I particularly liked the moment when she was smiling and shaking hands with the public, and then she turned, dropped all expression from her face, and used a hand sanitizer.

We haven't met Diamondback yet (another snake name for a bad guy -- are we going to get a Python and a Cobra?) but we did meet his representative Shades, who made another effective contribution to the overall creep content. Luke had a nightmare that included Shades and someone named Comanche beating him up in Seagate Prison.

I'm sort of confused about what happened to Luke in prison, although I'm sure we'll find out later. How cool that we got a flashback to the prison librarian, who obviously made a difference in Luke's life. Luke was reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and had a number of other classic books in his apartment. Plus the newstand guy was holding a copy of the New Yorker for Luke. Love a guy who reads. Okay, I'm a librarian, and I always love it when we get coolness instead of scenes of us wearing glasses and with our hair in a bun, shushing people. [Note from later: Oops! That was Reva!]


I also liked Misty Knight (great character name), undercover cop and Luke's new love interest. I thought he'd lost her when he noted that she wasn't young like Cottonmouth's girls usually are, but no. I particularly liked the sexy bit he did with the lime wedge around the edge of her glass, and I liked her obvious competence as a cop. Their sex scene was pretty sexy, although certainly not as wild and destructive as Luke's sex scenes with Jessica Jones. (Did anyone else feel like Luke was cheating on Jessica, even though they're clearly not together anymore? No? Just me?)

This episode was all about laying story and character groundwork, and I'm okay with that. We didn't really see superpowers until the end of the episode (okay, washing machine, but still) when Luke easily tromped on Mariah's protection guys in Genghis Connie's. That scene was so much fun, even though the bone coming through the guy's wrist made me shudder.

I'm already getting the impression that this series is more about Luke himself than exciting superhero scenes. That's fine with me, because I'm loving Mike Colter's performance. Luke is physically imposing and mesmerizing, and everything he says sounds measured, thoughtful and honest. Loved the hoodie, too, even if it's just as a political statement. Or especially because it's a political statement. Luke Cage has its own vibe. It's not like Jessica Jones. It's not like Daredevil, either.

I also liked the blatantly obvious visuals. My favorite was the Biggie poster with the crown floating over Cottonmouth's head while he was talking about how everyone wants to be king. But I also noticed an obvious "One Way" sign over Luke and Misty when they were picking each other up, and the white neon cross hovering over Misty and Scarfe crouching over the dead body in the street. I love stuff like this.

Bits:

-- The opening credits and the look of the series, particularly the neon yellows, reminded me a little of Daredevil. I'm not sure how I feel about the score. It's certainly different. It reminds me a little of seventies blacksploitation movies, which would make sense since they were the original inspiration for the Luke Cage comics.

-- This first episode felt disconnected to the Luke Cage we knew on Jessica Jones, and I even thought for a bit that it took place before Jessica Jones instead of after.

-- There were references to what happened in The Avengers. And Mariah mentioned what happened to Fisk in Daredevil.

-- FWIW, I noticed that Mariah said she was "facing an audit," and Misty told Luke she was an auditor.

-- In Pop's Barber Shop, we were briefly introduced to a law student named Patsy who was interested in Luke. We'll probably meet her again when someone has a need for legal representation.

-- Pop referred to Jessica Jones as "rebound chick."

-- The guns that Cottonmouth was buying were manufactured by Justin Hammer, who was Tony Stark's competitor in Iron Man 2. (Thanks for catching that, J.D. I completely missed it.)

-- Luke still has a photo of Reva in his medicine cabinet. Wasn't his home destroyed in that fire, though? Did he have another copy of that photo?

-- I've been in New York City, but had no idea how Harlem related geographically to Hell's Kitchen. So I looked it up. They're both in Manhattan. Hell's Kitchen is in west Manhattan, and Harlem is north.

Quotes:

Sign in Pop's Barber Shop: "Mohammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Richard Roundtree, Michael Jordan, Al Pacino and Pat Riley don't pay. Everybody else does! No credit."

Luke: "I was framed, beaten and put in some tank like an exotic fish. Came out with abilities."
I assume we're going to get flashbacks.

Luke: "Always forward."
Pop: "Forward always."

Stokes: "It's easy to underestimate a nigga. They never see you coming."

Stokes: "UPS ain't the only brown that delivers."

Luke: "Dumb men like little girls. Me? I ponder a woman."

Luke: "Everyone has a gun. No one has a father."

A good start. Three out of four eternal ghetto passes,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.

11 comments:

Mark Greig said...

I think this episode did a good job of introducing all the major players and the world they inhabit, but it very slow at times with no "HOLY SHIT!!" moments that made you crave the next episode.

Billie Doux said...

Good point, Mark. They're probably saving the "holy shit" moments for later episodes.

Marianna said...

I loved the ending when he stood outside just waiting for them to come back. =)

I totally agree about librarian depictions! I was sort of a librarian for a while.

migmit said...

Can't say I'm disappointed. Can't say I'm excited either. That all seems to be one big intro, and I love Mike Colter, so, I'm reserving my judgement.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

I am seeing a pattern with all the Marvel Netflix series. They are well-crafted, well-acted, well-paced and ostensibly "adult" shows, but they also don't provide much food for discussion. Part of it may be how all the episodes are available at once so you don't really have a running discourse over them all, but part I think is how they're narrated. They are quite on-the-nose.

migmit said...

2Thomas: as I just watched the 4th episode, I have to say, I find your choice of words somewhat funny.

And that's all I'm going to say.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

The words or the sentiment? I'm not a native English speaker.

sunbunny said...

Having now seen all of Luke Cage, I have thoughts (no spoilers, I promise).

I didn't enjoy the thing as a whole as much as Daredevil or Jessica Jones, but I recognize that some of that might be because I'm white and can't relate to Luke the way I could to Jessica or even Karen.

The cinematography was amazing and the production design was BEAUTIFUL. Harlem's Paradise was such a gorgeous, detailed set and I want to LIVE in Mariah's brownstone. Also I would definitely say it has the best music of anything Marvel's done in the past decade.

Two bits of continuity really bothered me. Of the Netflix shows so far, I would say this is the one that most tied into the wider MCU BUT 1. they never mentioned the Hulk's visit a few years ago in which he destroyed a large portion of Harlem (Bruce mentioned it in The Avengers, so I know it's considered canon) and 2. Alfre Woodard JUST had a pivotal role in Captain America: Civil War. Couldn't they have given Mariah an estranged twin sister so it could at least sort of make sense that there's two Alfre Woodards running around the MCU? Like I'm not complaining about extra Alfre Woodard, but Marvel is usually so precise about these things.

Mahershala Ali was wonderful. I never wanted his speeches to end, although I think the best one was probably the one in this episode. And I'm still not over that shot of him in front of the Biggie painting. So perfect.

The dialogue wasn't always great; a lot of it, especially early on, is very "Let me explain my motivations for this in a monologue, even though you didn't ask." Once the story gets going it gets much better, however.

migmit said...

2Thomas: Me neither. The specific choice of words, not the statement.

2sunbunny: Funny, I'm white as well, but I enjoy "Luke Cage" much more than "Jessica Jones" (which I watched to the end, but in retrospect wish that I didn't) or "Daredevil" (which I've dropped after a couple episodes).

Josie Kafka said...

The guns that Cottonmouth was buying were manufactured by Justin Hammer, who was Tony Stark's competitor in Iron Man 2. (Thanks for catching that, J.D. I completely missed it.)

Thank you from me, too! I got the sense that was supposed to ring some sort of bell, but it didn't. I was bellless.

I've been in New York City, but had no idea how Harlem related geographically to Hell's Kitchen. So I looked it up. They're both in Manhattan. Hell's Kitchen is in west Manhattan, and Harlem is north.

I love the way these Netflix Marvel shows treat Manhattan as though all the neighborhoods are really, really far away from each other.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

I also vastly preferred Luke Cage to Jessica Jones, a show I find myself unable to even get through as few of the characters (except Luke!) hold my interest.

I'm white as white can be too and only have a connection to the writers cited.