Season One, Episodes One & Two — “Moment of Truth”, “Code of the Streets”
By Jarrod Jones. Inter-connectivity has long been Marvel Studios’ strongest suit, but in Luke Cage, the latest in Netflix’s Defenders stable of adult-oriented superhero shows, tipping the hat towards the past only trips everything up.
There’s a moment in the show’s premiere episode where a brow-beaten Luke Cage, still played to wonderfully understated effect by Mike Colter, walks past a bootleg pop-up where a particularly over-eager kid chirps about his wares. “Got it right here. Blu-ray too, ’cause I’m nice like that. Tony Stark, the big blonde dude with the hammer, the old dude with the shield, the green monster…” he goes on and on. If the nods towards the events during The Avengers in shows like Daredevil and Jessica Jones have either been marginally tolerable or completely insufferable, Cage‘s hints at the wider world outside Harlem — the show’s central location — have landed decidedly on the latter. Fortunately, what goes on in films like Civil War and Age of Ultron are the furthest thing from this show’s mind.
That’s probably for the best, considering Luke Cage features Alfre Woodard in a prominent role as a compromised-and-marginally-loving-it politician, just six months after the actor made Tony Stark uncomfortable in an entirely different role in Captain America: Civil War.
As a tonally imbalanced blend of the quieter moments in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Marvel Comics fisticuffs, pertinent social issues, and Netflix’s corporate agenda, Luke Cage takes a little while to settle into itself. While Daredevil got along just fine without the lumbering presence of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk for its first few episodes, without a sinister threat looming on the horizon Luke Cage ends up twiddling its thumbs. There’s plenty of warmth found here — Frankie Faison is an especially welcoming presence — but prolonged exchanges over the importance of The Godfather (still?), Luke Cage’s luck with the ladies, and the minutiae of basketball trivia merely provide the show text when it should be focusing on its own subtext. (One sequence that dwells on the nature of black martyrdom, framed around an ostentatious portrait of slain rapper Biggie Smalls, is but one example of the show’s refusal to apply subtlety to the proceedings.)
All this chit-chat creates a disorienting din. What’s more, it’s affecting the show’s momentum in ways that are only becoming more glaring as the series progresses — here we have Luke trying to find some peace in his life, laying low inside his father-in-law’s barber shop, but then there’s the matter of his night job, washing dishes and bartending at a notorious gangster’s posh nightclub. More disorienting are the shifting attitudes of Alfre Woodard’s Mariah, a crooked politician who sanitizes her hands as soon as she embraces her constituency, who swerves between indulging in her family’s gangster lifestyle and admonishing it when it comes time to inject some drama into the show. (Her excuse for ceaselessly attending her dangerous cousin’s club: “I like the music.” Sure.)
Thankfully Mahershala Ali is around to keep everyone honest. As the most consistent character in Luke Cage thus far, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes is a bonafide baddie, all flash and pizzazz one moment, and a whirlwind of emotion and fury the next. Cottonmouth’s devotion to history, both of his own and Harlem’s in general, keeps his eye fixed on the prize. As a result he ends up, interestingly enough, on more solid ground than this show’s namesake character. If Luke Cage has any momentum at all, it’s simply this: Cottonmouth is likely to rise to the annals of the most sinister villains in the MCU — right up there with The Kingpin, The Purple Man, and yes, Loki. Since we have a sea’s worth of story to pay homage to, it’s important to keep track.
“I don’t drink coffee much. I don’t think she does, either.” – Luke.
Luke: “Always forward.” ___: “Forward. Always.”
“UPS ain’t the only brown that delivers.” — Cottonmouth.
“Everyone has a gun. Nobody has a father.” – Luke.
“You can collect your money from Tone downstairs, Mr. Barrett.” – Cottonmouth.
BEST MOMENT: Cottonmouth cleans house. It was a long wait for something eventful to occur in the first two episodes of Luke Cage, but it was in the moment when Mahershala Ali got to flex his ferocity all over a henchman who got too familiar, that Marvel’s latest finally found some life. After dispatching the presumptuous Tone off the roof of Harlem’s Paradise, Cornell Stokes turns wild-eyed to a bewildered Turk Barrett, who just showed up to get paid. “You can collect your money from Tone downstairs, Mr. Barrett!” Stokes bellows, fully revealed as a Fisk-level heavyweight.
EPISODES’ MVP: Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. The monster inside Luke Cage is Mahershala Ali’s tantalizing performance as the show’s major-league heavy. One part Wilson Fisk surrogate, one part Hamlet, and one part grinning crocodile, Stokes’ tooth-filled grin and hearty chuckles attempt to obscure the nigh-Shakespearean pathos simmering underneath. It’s when we’re left alone with Stokes that Luke Cage finds some lyricism. Here’s but one more example where the villain has become vastly more interesting than the hero. Considering that this doesn’t happen much in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that’s a novel thing indeed.
TIARAS AND BRACELETS:
– It’s a strange thing that the Hulk tearing up Harlem in The Incredible Hulk is never once brought up during the first few episodes of Luke Cage, considering that the entire series takes place in Harlem.
– Mariah makes the first-ever allusion to Wilson Fisk, bringing Daredevil closer to Cage than Jessica Jones, interestingly enough.
– That Fisk shout-out isn’t the only Daredevil nod here — Turk Barrett, criminal extraordinaire and frequent punching bag for the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, pops by for a squirrely cameo.
– In his first mention since the Iron Man 3 short film, “All Hail The King”, Justin Hammer pops up in Luke Cage in name only — those are his weapons Cottonmouth wants to sell on the streets.
– Aw, Pops calls Luke “Power Man.” I betcha he reads comic books.
– The musical performances are getting ridiculously meta, especially with Faith Evans is hanging around.
6.5 out of 10