Luke Cage, the third of Marvel’s New York-set Netflix series, premiered today. I’ll be reviewing the series in three episode chunks, with a final post reviewing the last episode and the season as a whole. These reviews will contain full spoilers for all episodes being discussed and any episodes discussed previously, including all seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones if specifics of those shows come up.
First off, some overall thoughts. There is a lot to like in these first three episodes, and practically nothing not to. All of the major characters pop pretty much instantly, thanks to sharp writing and perfectly cast actors. I like the pace so far as well. Things are happening, but the characters are being given a lot of room to breathe. We’ll see how that holds through the rest of the season though; Daredevil and Jessica Jones both sagged a little bit in the middle of their three total seasons.
Now, individual thoughts on Luke Cage’s first three episodes.
“Moment of Truth”
Luke Cage benefits from having the character established already in Jessica Jones. When Shameek gets in Luke’s face in the opening scene, we know exactly how bad an idea that is, and Luke’s glower has enough subtlety embedded in it to tip off Shameek as well. Colter continues to impress as Luke. His performance can be very stoic at times, but at the flick of a switch he can turn on an irresistible charm.
Take his first meeting with Misty Knight, for example. Sparks fly instantly between Colter and Simone Missick. I like that Cage and Misty end up in bed together; it makes their relationship much more complicated than it would have been otherwise once Misty starts running into Luke in the course of her and Scarfe’s investigation. Misty has good reason to view Luke as a potential suspect, but she also likes him. Luke likes her as well, but is conflicted about the fact that she lied to him about her work.
Cottonmouth and Mariah are also well established in this episode. The conflict being set up between these two is very interesting. As a city councilwoman, Mariah is genuinely invested in protecting the people and the African American legacy of Harlem. But allowing her housing project to get tied up with Cottonmouth’s illegal activity and dirty money is a huge risk. The idea that Mariah would be a basically legitimate politician if not for her loyalty to her cousin is a thread that Luke Cage plays with a little bit over these first three episodes and should be an excellent source of conflict.
Mariah also makes a great point about Cottonmouth: with a club as successful as Harlem’s Paradise, there’s no reason for him to be involved in any illegal activity. But as Cottonmouth tells Mariah in the next episode, the two characters have very different ideas about the source and nature of power. Cottonmouth believes in the power of money above all else, and running drugs and guns is a way for him to amass huge quantities of money and the power (re: leverage) it affords.
We also get our first mention of Diamondback in this episode. We hear the name—the supplier of Cottonmouth’s guns—a few times over the course of the first three episodes. I’m not familiar with the character from the comics, but the show gives me a vibe that he’s being used as the Harlem equivalent to Kingpin. Whatever he is, he’s been set up as an imposing figure, and the idea that Cottonmouth might not be the ultimate bad guy of Luke Cage is intriguing.
“Code of the Streets”
A number of the notes I took during the first half of this episode were in some way related to how much I liked Pop. Frankie Faison’s performance was instantly appealing, and only grew more so as the first two episodes progressed. I was fully expecting—and looking forward to—Pop continuing to play the wizened mentor to Luke over the course of the whole season; his death came as a complete surprise to me. Even after he got shot, I expected that an ambulance would arrive in time to save him.
That was not to be, and I’ll miss Faison’s continued presence on the show a great deal. But that death makes total sense from a structural standpoint. Pop was all the family Luke had left, and his death was the perfect motivator to bring Luke into direct conflict with Cottonmouth.
Speaking of Luke, how about that last scene? Luke unleashes a tirade on one of Cottonmouth’s goons for calling him “nigga” across the street from a building named after African American hero Crispus Attucks. It was a moment of raw emotion played beautifully by Colter, and also I think a very informative moment for the character. Obviously Luke has a strong perspective about the word in question, but looking more broadly I think we get an indication in this scene about one of the reasons Luke is so reserved most of the time. Similar to Bruce Banner, if Luke lets his emotions run wild there’s a chance that he could unleash his super strength on someone at the same time.
Cottonmouth continues to intrigue. He’s demonstrably a bad dude; he’s deals in advanced military hardware and we’ve seen him kill multiple people with his own hands. But he also ascribes to an “honor among thieves” mentality. He kills Tone for shooting Pop and violating the sanctified neutrality of the barbershop, telling Shades that, “Believe it or not, there’s supposed to be rules.” Cottonmouth doesn’t really become sympathetic in any way here, but it does add another layer to his character.
We do come across something of an issue with Cottonmouth though. We learn in this episode that Cottonmouth and Pop ran the streets together as kids. That’s an interesting piece of backstory, but I’m not sure it really makes sense, given how much younger Mahershala Ali is than Frankie Faison. The same holds true for Mahershala and Alfre Woodard. Granted, cousins don’t have to be close in age, but the show seems to indicate that these characters all came up together, and that doesn’t really add up given the obvious age difference between Mahershala and the other two actors.
“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?”
This episode has a strange structural problem. Like “Code of the Streets,” “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” is structured with the same scene as bookends, Luke’s assault on Crispus Attucks. The problem is that the opening scene can easily be interpreted as a continuation of the end of the last episode, not a glimpse of future events. Yes, the show flashes up an “earlier today” title card after the credits, but that didn’t really clear up my confusion right away.
Otherwise, this was another solid episode. With Pop gone, Luke—being indestructible—has literally nothing to fear, so he doesn’t hesitate to go on the warpath against Cottonmouth. Luke isn’t just muscle though, he’s also a very smart character. He realizes the best strategy to hurt Cottonmouth is to get him to consolidate all his money inside Crispus Attucks, thinking it’s impenetrable. It would be too, if not for Luke, and Luke takes full advantage of Cottonmouth’s ignorance of his abilities.
Thus we get our first big fight sequence of the series, and it was great. Luke is not a finesse fighter like Daredevil, or even Jessica Jones, who might be super strong but still has to worry about coming to bodily harm. Luke is a pure tank as a fighter, rolling almost casually through any and all opposition. Watching him pick up a couch and swing it around like a toy was a very funny moment.
Misty and Scarfe’s relationship was fleshed out more in this episode. Missick and Frank Whaley have a great rapport, and the scene where they argued over the acceptability of enhanced vigilantes was a lot of fun.
There’s a new complication thrown into their relationship, though, when we find out that Scarfe is on Cottonmouth’s payroll. Misty’s pretty focused on Luke right now, suspecting that he has abilities, so it’ll be interesting to see how long that keeps her from realizing that her partner isn’t on the level.
The episode ends with a literal bang, and also with my first really big problem with the show. Cottonmouth fires a bazooka (a fucking bazooka!) at Luke, taking out Ghengis Connie’s and possibly Connie herself. This is major overkill, and eliminates any possible sympathy the show tried to build for Cottonmouth as a character with some kind of code of honor. He’s basically committed an act of terrorism. My ultimate feelings about this turn of events will hinge on how the fallout is handled in subsequent episodes, but for now, I’m not a fan.
Verdict So Far
My very few issues aside, I am totally loving Luke Cage so far. The performances, the music, the writing, the action, everything in these first three episodes is basically pitch perfect. I could write more, but I’d much rather just jump back into the show. Check back Sunday for my thoughts on the next three episodes.