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TV Review: Marvel's Luke Cage - Season 1 Episode 1 "Moment of Truth"

09.07.2016

EPISODE 1: "Moment of Truth"

SYNOPSIS: After a sabotaged experiment leaves him with super strength and unbreakable skin, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) becomes a fugitive trying to rebuild his life in modern day Harlem, New York City. But he is soon pulled out of the shadows and must fight a battle for the heart of his city – forcing him to confront a past he had tried to bury. 

REVIEW: (The following is a spoiler-free review of the first episode of Marvel's Luke Cage. Beginning September 30th, we will post one review each day for every episode of the first season of the series).

Netflix has taken a very specific approach to their street level superheroes in the wake of Daredevil's critical success. Jessica Jones took a much different look at a superhero by giving us a character dealing with PTSD in the wake of a sexual assault. Having that Krysten Ritter series created and run by a woman definitely helped the show's unique voice. With Luke Cage, Netflix and Marvel have turned to Cheo Hodari Coker to bring the first superhero property starring an African-American lead. The results are a very promising mix of action and drama that avoids the pitfalls of being classified solely as an urban series. Luke Cage fits right in with it's predecessors but also maintains a very unique and distinct sound thanks to a great selection of music.

Because he has already appeared as a supporting character on Jessica Jones, Luke Cage opens less formally and feels more like a continuation of a story rather than a proper series premiere. Luke's involvement with Jessica and her fight with Kilgrave are briefly mentioned but this series picks up an indeterminate amount of time later. Working at Pop's barbershop and at Cornell Stokes' nightclub, Luke is struggling to keep himself out of trouble and away from the eyes of the law. We already know from his prior appearances that the death of Luke's wife, Reva, has put the hero in a dark place but we get more background on their marriage and glimpses of how Luke got his powers. But, these glimpses are fleeting as the first episode of Luke Cage is more focused on laying out the various players in Harlem's criminal underworld.

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Almost the entire cast of characters introduced in this episode are villains of one sort or another. Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali) is another great addition to the Marvel villain line-up but also one of a very different variety. Stokes fancies himself a businessman but also one who isn't afraid to show those around him that he is not afraid to get blood on his hands. Alfre Woodard is great as Stokes' cousin, Mariah Dillard, a burgeoning Harlem politician with ties to Stokes' world of illegal drugs and weapons. Theo Rossi as Shades delivers a character whose cool demeanor belies a darker connection to the unseen criminal, Diamondback, as well as connections to Luke Cage's origins. Together, these characters are a mix of motivations and aspirations, all of which are tied to controlling the innocent lives that populate Harlem. That is where the motivation for Luke Cage to go from fugitive to defender comes into play.

But the characters aren't all villains. We also meet Misty Knight, the fan favorite character and love interest for Luke Cage. Played by Simone Missick, Misty is a strong female character and continues Marvel's track record for introducing women who do not need to be defined by their male counterparts. She is also very different that Jessica Jones which may be why she and Luke find themseles attracted to one another. Her partner, Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), is an equally intriguing character and one of the lone white actors in the predominantly African-American cast. Still, watching these characters spout references to black icons ranging from Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, and Michael Jordan all the way to Lebron James and Biggie Smalls doesn't imbue Luke Cage with an overly political tone. Yes, race does come into play with elements of the plot, but it feels more organic and doesn't mine current events surrounding police violence.

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Luke Cage plays very much like a throwback to 1970s blaxsploitation films but with a more nuanced and modern approach. Music is key here with the first episode featuring a cameo from a well known R&B singer that fits seamlessly in with the story of the episode. The score comes in and out of the first hour with cues that sound reminiscent of the best B-movie soundtracks for films like SHAFT and SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG. This show is funky, dark, and takes you on a ride into a different world we have ever seen in a Marvel franchise. By all merits, Luke Cage will usher in a wave of neo-blaxploitation films that can balance modern hip-hop culture with homage to the original genre. But Luke Cage also manages to never alienate the audience by making this a series aimed at a particular demographic. Some viewers will definitely relate to the setting and subject matter more than others, but everyone is going to be rooting for Luke when he kicks the bad guys asses.

And boy does he kick some ass. While many of the key action sequences in the series premiere are showcased in the trailer for the show, there is more to come in later episodes. Having watched the first seven hours of the 13 episode freshman season, there is a balance between action and drama that follows the similar formula of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In future reviews I will go into more detail about the fight scenes, but believe me that they do not disappoint. Neither do the sex scenes which Marvel and Netflix seem to be embracing more and more with each new series. If you were a fan of Luke and Jessica's intense romp in the sack in Jessica Jones, Luke Cage doesn't shy away from what is just shy of full frontal nudity.

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But, Luke Cage does have some minor kinks to work out. While the series does have more of a slow burn approach compared to the big screen Marvel franchises, it does feel very unevenly paced. There were multiple points through the first episodes where I had to go back and see if I missed a transition between scenes only to find that I had not and the narrative had just progressed without explaining a brief lapse in time. It doesn't detract from the overall understanding of the episode but it happens often enough that I continued to notice it. There are also a few moments where characters make decisions that don't quite make sense outside of progressing the narrative which are explained in later episodes. Again, Netflix is designing these series for binge-watching purposes so that may not be as much of an issue if you view these in multiple hour sittings.

Overall, Luke Cage looks to be another win for Marvel and Netflix thanks to the fact that it is telling a different story from Daredevil and Jessica Jones while operating using a similar visual palette. What the premiere episode lacks is quickly made up for in the next hour followed by stellar third and fourth episodes. The musical selection that Coker makes for the season (each episode is named after a song by Gang Starr) gives the show a much hipper and funkier feel that makes it slightly different than the other series. I do not think that the first hour of Luke Cage quite stuck the landing that Daredevil or Jessica Jones did but it does present a rich and interesting setting and a hero who has a lot of potential. Luke Cage is going to be a lot of people's new favorite superhero because he is more of an everyman character despite his amazing powers. Without a mask, Luke Cage defends the innocent and delivers some thrills along the way. This will be another series that proves Netflix was the right place for The Defenders.

MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE REFERENCES: Luke Cage's nickname, Power Man, is referenced. The Battle of New York, Tony Stark, and Thor are name checked by a street vendor. Keep an eye out for a key Justin Hammer reference, our first callback to the character seen in IRON MAN 2.

Final Verdict:

NEXT ON MARVEL'S LUKE CAGE: Episode 2 "Code of the Streets" - Review to debut September 30th.

Source: JoBlo.com

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