Luke Cage Binge Review, Part One

I almost hope they put the Defenders in their comic book outfits all together. It would be ridiculous. But I sorta want it anyway.

Okay, so I’ve been Team Marvel for awhile now. I particularly enjoy the serious tone and production values of the Netflix/Marvel collaborations. So I’ve been looking forward to Luke Cage since Daredevil’s first season was as fantastic as it was.

As with all binge viewing, we have a lot to talk about.

At first I told myself that I wouldn’t be doing an episode by episode commentary the way I did for Daredevil Season Two (gods that was a lot of work). But I’m nothing if not a glutton for punishment.

So here’s my breakdown of Luke Cage. Enjoy!

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Moment of Truth

Here we go! Episode one recap: 

Most of the plot is introduction. We catch up to Luke Cage (Mike Colter) working at the barber shop for Henry “Pop” Hunter (Frankie Faison). We’re introduced to Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a crime lord who works out of the night club — Harlem’s Paradise — and his politician cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard). Along with working at the Barber Shop, Luke Cage is also a dishwasher at Harlem’s Paradise where he runs into an undercover Misty Knight (Simone Missick). They have coffee.

A few of the kids that hang out at the Barber Shop decide to step into a gun deal between Cottonmouth and Domingo (Jacob Vargas) — and they steal about a million in cash. That goes badly. Cottonmouth hunts down one of the kids, gets his half of the money and kills him. The other kid, Chico (Brian “Sene” Marc), is still in hiding.

I’m in! It’s a solid start. The detail work on the MCU connection is more front and center than it was in Jessica Jones and Daredevil. Hammer weapons, videos of the “incident”, etc… remind us what world we’re in. It’s also worth noting that because Luke Cage takes place in Harlem instead of Hell’s Kitchen, there’s a much lower reasonable bar for the creators to jump in order for it to feel like it’s all in the same world as Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Speaking of world details, when I saw that the restaurant below Luke’s apartment was called Genghis Connie’s I chuckled a lot. I was even more pleased when Connie turned out to be an actual character.

I don’t think having Luke and Misty sleep together was the most interesting or creative choice for their introduction. But! I do like that — as is pointed out — we have two acknowledged early middle aged protagonists in the show instead of younger leads.

Actually, that in itself isn’t all that odd (Neither Matt Murdock nor Jessica Jones are “young”), what’s interesting is that we have a clear and present younger generation in Luke Cage. It’s not a particularly well represented perspective, but it’s there and is set up as contrary to the protagonists.

I’ve got more thoughts on this episode, but I need to keep it shorter — I loved that Luke ducks out when Shades shows up. It’s not a heroic moment, which makes it nice character work. The fight work is good — and the final fight in Genghis Connie’s establishes Luke’s abilities nicely.

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Code of the Streets

Cottonmouth, the police and Luke (who does it for Pop) all look for Chico and the money he stole. Luke finds him and talks him into coming to Pop’s. Pop sets up a parlay to try to keep Chico alive after returning the money. One of Cottonmouth’s people — Tone (Warner Miller) —  misinterprets his boss’s orders; he violates the neutrality of the Barber Shop and shoots it up. Pop is killed and Chico is badly injured.

Pop was stuck with the mentor mark the moment he showed up on screen — so he was pretty much doomed. In a storytelling sense, I’m glad his death wasn’t saved for the penultimate push of the hero. But the choice will be justified or not in further episodes.

I also think it would have been more interesting to let the Barber Shop maintain its neutrality longer. Having somewhere sacred for both the heroes and the villains is a nice device.

Which is partially why I started to like Shades here. The villains with a warped code tend to be more interesting than those with straight-up nihilism and Shades’, albeit weak, attempts to slow down Tone add more to his character than Tone’s disregard for neutrality.

However, this seems to be setting up Pop’s death as the inciting moment for Luke to become more heroic. Which doesn’t quite work. Tone is already gone — killed by Cottonmouth because he killed Pop. It’s not enough of a foundation to start a war convincingly between these two characters.

Other thoughts — Luke and Misty’s first encounter is less annoying now that we’ve established that it’s going to be a bit of a problem between the two of them. I like Scarfe as a character. His irreverence is a nice counter to Misty’s earnestness, and at the same time they seem genuinely to have a good rapport.

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Who’s Gonna Take the Weight

The Barber Shop is a wreck and will require money for rebuilding and for bills — that combined with the manner of Pop’s death sends Luke to target Cottonmouth’s operation. He leads Cottonmouth to putting all his assets in one place: the Crispus Attucks Building where Mariah has her office. Cottonmouth blames Domingo for the hits and they have a falling out. Luke hits the Crispus Attucks Building, takes some of the money and leaves most of it for the cops to find. Misty’s partner Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley) goes to talk to Chico and then kills him (he’s on Cottonmouth’s payroll). Cottonmouth finds out it was Luke hitting his operation. Cottonmouth tries to blow up Luke Cage with a rocket launcher.

Yes. I said “rocket launcher”.

Now, it’s not often that I’m really surprised by something in a TV show. The rocket launcher surprised me. In retrospect it’s a good move — bullets can’t kill this guy, let’s try something bigger! It’s my favorite moment of the show thus far.

Scarfe is a traitor. Well, that’s a bit like the inevitability of Pop’s death. We’ll see where it goes, but it’s not terribly interesting to move all “grey moral area” characters into the villain’s column.

The extended fight scene through Crispus Attucks is well done. The sense of Luke’s indestructibility gives limitations to how complicated that battle can be, so giving him a prop like the car door kept it interesting.

It does mean we’re running quickly into the Superman Problem for Luke. Nothing can hurt him, so the villains and the world become impotent as challenges. Nice for him, not great for the storytelling.

Aside from the rocket launcher — which we know isn’t actually going to end up doing much damage to Luke — Cottonmouth hasn’t had anything resembling a win since a couple kids from his own side decided to go after his money in the first episode. I enjoyed Mahershala Ali’s performance and his smiling villain archetype, but it’s never good to have an ineffective villain against a super man. On the plus side, this episode gave us Mariah’s first real pushback against Cottonmouth and I liked letting her temper show.

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Step in the Arena

The Flashback episode! I appreciate this as a trope of the Marvel/Netflix series, partially because it spares us starting with too much origin story in the first episode.

While Luke and Connie dig their way out from under the building that was DROPPED ON THEM BY A ROCKET LAUNCHER, we flash back to Seagate prison and Luke’s time as Carl Lucas. He’s apparently been framed, and is forced to fight in an illegal boxing scheme. At the same time, he meets Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley) the prison psychologist and falls in love with her (we know from Jessica Jones that they get married). Carl/Luke is beaten and left for dead and Reva talks her boss into trying to save him with the super secret experiment they were actually working on in the prison. It saves Luke, gives him superpowers and he escapes with Reva.

A black female romantic lead with glasses and natural hair! Yay Reva! And she gets a dimension! She’s clearly involved with some of the shadier side of experiments on humans, metahumans and aliens. Letting her be more than the idealized dead wife is much appreciated.

Aside from that, I don’t have a whole lot to say on this one. I liked Squabbles, but he was doomed. The relationship between Shades and Carl and their antagonism is explained and well established. The nod to Luke Cage’s old comic book costume was fun. Giving him fight work without superpowers was also a nice change of pace. Now, back to our original plot!

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Just to Get a Rep

Cottonmouth continues to have problems — partially because Luke Cage won’t die. He sends people to shake down the neighborhood, with instructions to blame it on Luke. Luke runs around returning stolen property in the lead up to Pop’s funeral. Then he goes to Harlem’s Paradise, and shows off that he’s bulletproof. The episode ends with Cottonmouth and Luke both giving speeches at Pop’s funeral.

Oh yes, and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is back in town.

A couple episodes later we still have the same problem with Cottonmouth: He can’t win. We’ve been told the Judas bullets will be able to hurt Luke, but he can’t get his hands on them. He tried dropping a building on Luke to no avail, and people are still trying to go hand to hand with him. Cottonmouth’s not a compelling villain, because he doesn’t seem like a threat to the hero, even when it’s the two of them speaking at Pop’s funeral.

Claire is back in town! And we get to meet her mother. Aside from enjoying the character, I’m glad the creators are keeping a solid connection between the heroes who will eventually come together in the Defenders.

And finally, I wasn’t sure if the decision to kill off Pop was going to pay off narratively, but I think that enough time was spent on the weight of his death to make it an interesting choice. The funeral, the loss of a safe space, and the establishment of Luke as operating from the Barber Shop all branched off of that choice. I think it worked.

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Suckas Need Bodyguards

Scarfe is shot, but not killed, by Cottonmouth. A lot of the episode is the police and Cottonmouth both looking for Scarfe, for different reasons. Luke and Claire meet again and then find Scarfe waiting for them in the Barber Shop. Scarfe tells them about a notebook with details of his work for Cottonmouth and Luke heads out to get it while Claire stabilizes his wounds. Mariah deals with an interviewer that doesn’t like her. Luke and Claire borrow Claire’s mother’s (Sonia Braga) van and try to get Scarfe to the police after recovering the notebook. That goes badly, Scarfe dies in front of Misty and Cottonmouth is arrested.

Ah, Scarfe… I wanted to like Scarfe more than I did. This episode gives us a tease at his background: his son died young, in an accident when he found Scarfe’s gun. But Scarfe is almost dead by the time we find this out and we don’t get any hint as to why he’s working for Cottonmouth. Which isn’t necessary, but it still feels a little strange — and especially given how good a detective Misty is, it’s not a question she seems to be interested in.

Speaking of Misty, her conning Perez into revealing that he’s also in Cottonmouth’s employ and the subsequent brief and bitter fight in the car is a great sequence. Like Cottonmouth, Misty isn’t getting a lot of wins this show, so that was a refreshing. Her goodbye with Scarfe also hit home.

Another favorite scene from this episode is Mariah discussing alternatives for killing Luke Cage: Can you drown him? Poison him? I’m sure those options get explored in detail somewhere in the comics, but man was I onboard for the inventive creepiness of that scene. It was pretty disappointing to know that Cottonmouth was just going to try shooting Luke with a special bullet. The other possibilities are horrifying, but so much more interesting.

And now briefly on my soapbox: How are the police not on Mariah for the money that was sitting in her office? They found millions of dollars IN BAGS in Crispus Attucks and that doesn’t seem like it has been a problem AT ALL.

So what I’m finding as I write these reviews is that a few good scenes stick out. There are bits that are really good, but it’s held together with a lot of sequences that I kind of glaze over for. So when something like the money comes back up, I’m like… wait! Why hasn’t this been a thing?! The plot is starting to fray a bit.

Finally, while I do think that Luke Cage is suffering a bit from that Superman Problem, I have to admit that I enjoyed seeing his powers put to uses other than fighting: breaking into the apartment and then jumping out of it were fun.

manifest

Manifest

Cottonmouth is released from prison! Misty gets a new inspector (Karen Pittman). Mariah is forced to resign her seat as a councilwoman. We get flashbacks to Mariah and Cornell (Cottonmouth’s) childhood. Mariah kills Cottonmouth, and prepares to frame Luke for it with the help of Shades. And we end with Luke shot with a Judas bullet.

The antagonist flashback is also a trope of the Netflix/Marvel TV series and unfortunately the bar was set by Wilson Fisk, and I don’t think anyone has cleared it since. That said. The specter of Mama Mabel has been hovering over both Mariah and Cottonmouth for the whole season, and man was she wonderfully scary. The scenes where she cut off a young man’s finger with pruning shears were nicely balanced by Shade’s memories of her as the one you went to for turkeys at Thanksgiving. And we find out that young Cornell Stokes had the disposition of a musician rather than a crimelord.

This is the second time in so many episodes that we’ve found out something interesting about a character just before they’re exited. Which is starting to get old.

My other issue with this is that Claire isn’t acting like Claire. Her speech to Luke about not running doesn’t exactly ring true with her speeches to Matt Murdock about quitting.

We also finally have something that sets Luke Cage back — a bullet that can hurt him. The shot and the damage it’s about to do are telegraphed clearly, and it serves as an introduction to a character we have no connection to. It was a fine moment, but there’s not a lot of tension or buildup surrounding it. We’ll see how he deals with the Judas bullet. Or rather, how Claire does.

End of Part One

All in all, I enjoyed the first half of the season, but I’m worried about moving forward without Cottonmouth. Tune in next week for Part Two!