[Review] Luke Cage Episode 1×01: “Moment Of Truth”

written by Sabra Schirm

SPOILER WARNINGS ARE IN EFFECT

Before I begin, I want to preface this by saying that I didn’t grow up reading MARVEL comics. Or DC comics…or any comics, really.

[ducks jar of bees]

This wasn’t out of lack of interest so much as lack of exposure to people who read them and places that carried them. The few times I did get a hold of some comics, they were of the Ren and Stimpy/Betty and Veronica variety, and…well, they were all right at the time, but didn’t really encourage me to seek out anything else.

That said, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that I don’t actually have decades of Marvel comic canon to draw on in terms of dissecting this series as it relates both to comic and Netflix/MCU canon. What I do have, however, are a handful of friends who do have the decades of canon to draw on, as well as a deep, abiding love of the Jessica Jones Netflix series. Not the same, I know, but hopefully enough to make these recaps interesting.

So. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

In the appropriately-titled pilot “Moment Of Truth”, we are reintroduced to Luke Cage (Mike Colter), but one who might not be immediately familiar. He’s no longer Jessica’s Mysterious Wizard. Instead, he’s the man behind the curtain, a man who is as burdened by his past as he is by his abilities.

On the one hand, he is a man who truly believes that people “live and die by [their] choices”. Actions have consequences, and people should be prepared to reap what they sow. On the other hand, some part of him – a part encouraged by his employer, Pop (Frankie Faison) – is guided by his memories of Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her desire to see him use his abilities for the good of the masses.

Pop: “Reva again?”
Luke: “Reva always.”

Even so, there is a lot about Luke that is familiar. Like in Jessica Jones, this is a man who will not necessarily initiate a fight, but he will stop it dead with one look, or with a casual toss out a window. This is a man who appreciates women, and isn’t afraid to say so.

Luke: “Dumb men go after little girls. I ponder me a woman.”

It is the combination of the New Luke and the Familiar Luke which makes him so intriguing. He both is and he isn’t the man we’ve met before. What we know isn’t necessarily a lie, but isn’t the full truth, either. So, with this in mind, it’s not surprising that it takes Pop’s heartbreak over the death of one of the young men he considers “his” to drive Luke to finally act at the end of the episode. This is a man who doesn’t seek out conflict, but he takes care of what’s his. Pop’s boys are his. His landlady is his. Harlem, his current home, is his.

On the opposite side of this ethical spectrum, you have Luke’s second employer, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a shady businessman caught up in gunrunning. Stokes, however, isn’t your typical, moustache-twirling villain. No, this is a villain in a Marvel Netflix series. So, like Wilson Fisk before him, Stokes has more going on than just his desire for money and power, as hinted at by his close ties to the councilwoman in charge of many of Harlem’s reconstruction projects, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard).

This man is as brutal as he is powerful and cunning, but, like Luke, is determined to do what he feels is right. Unlike Luke, this is a man who is not above using violence to achieve his ends, “’cause everybody wants to wear the crown.” The looming threat presented by Shades (Theo Rossi) and the yet-to-be-introduced Diamondback only seems to push Stokes further into desperation.

I suspect both Stokes and Luke are on the verge of their Big Choices. What consequences these choices will bring for them and for Harlem is yet to be seen…

The cast aside…which is fucking spectacular, by the way…there are a few things I really, really loved about this pilot.

  • The music: You know how there are those shows or movies where you can sit back and question “…why, though”? This was not one of those shows. The music was just as essential to the telling of this story as the dialogue itself. It set the mood, it informed the tone, it enhanced the use of color. It made things that much better.
  • The colors: So much color-as-tone in this. So much. The brighter, more washed-out colors of Pop’s Barber Shop underlined the lived-in, relaxed, more natural atmosphere. In contrast, the dark, rich, saturated colors of Stokes’ club, Harlem’s Paradise, give it a feel of opulence, of show. This isn’t a place that shows its true face. This is a place that lies to you, as hinted at by the sickly, almost exhausted yellowish lighting in the club’s kitchen.
    • Can I also just squee a bit in how they even used in-scene red stage lighting to complement the violence of Shameek, Dante, and Chico brutally shooting down the gun runners? That was just…my little film-geek heart is all a-flutter.
  • The locations: There is so much to see and to take in. Whether you’re taking in the details of Pop’s Barber Shop, or Ghenghis Connie’s, or Harlem’s Paradise, etc., it is always a visual feast. There was obviously a lot of love and attention that went into putting this show together.

In all, I am not at all disappointed with the pilot, and I hope that the story and the character arcs continue to be as strong, from start to finish.

Luke Cage is available now on Netflix. Sabra can be reached on Twitter @cue_face_palm.

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