I'm glad to say that today is Luke Cage day! I'm a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe when I'm not reading and writing about the daily problems that Black people face in America. It provides a much-needed distraction at times as all forms of cinema do. After all, that is why we watch movies and television to begin with.
So onto the review!
Episode 1 - Moment of Truth
One of the first things I must say is the Marvel television shows on Netflix have some of the best thematic introductions I've ever seen. It started with Daredevil and continued with Jessica Jones, both shows had good intros. Luke Cage is no different as each intro suits the character the show is about. So right off the bat, it gets a thumbs up just on that.
The first scene starts off in Pop's barbershop where men do what they always do in barbershops and that's talk about either basketball or football. In this case it's basketball, and we are introduced to Luke Cage, Pop (who serves as a mentor figure for Cage), Shameek and Chico. Luke Cage is depicted as respectful and mild-mannered. This is the opposite of Shameek who does something else a lot of people do in barbershops and that's get into arguments and heated debates. Both Shameek and Chico play an important role in this first episode and aren't just randoms in the barbershop as you're might think when the episode first starts.
We also find out early on that Pop's knows about Luke Cage's abilities and thinks he should use them to help people. Cage would rather keep his head down and maintain a low profile. There's a quick reference to the event in Jessica Jones when Jones shot Cage in the head with a shotgun knocking him out because he was under the control of Killgrave (go watch Jessica Jones to learn more about that). I enjoy the cross-references weaving together other Marvel Netflix properties.
As the episode continues, the plot begins to thicken as Luke Cage happens upon Chico in the back alley of Pop's barbershop with a gun. Cage tries to persuade him to not do anything stupid, but when do people ever listen in dramatic stories like this? Chico leaves with Shameek to go do something that impacts this entire episode.
Before we get to that though, we have to talk about Mr. Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes. A name pulled straight from a 70's Blaxploitation flick! I'm only halfway joking because so far I'm really enjoying Mahershala Ali's portrayal of the shows primary villain. Cottonmouth reminds me a lot of Wilson Fisk aka The Kingpin as seen in Daredevil season 1. He's calm and collected, but hidden not so deep down inside is a dark soul capable of some really deadly things. He serves as the muscle for Alfre Woodard's character Mariah Dillard who is running for office in Harlem. Cottonmouth is not just her muscle however, but also her cousin. So there is a family bond there that I can't wait to see develop over the course of the series.
Things begin moving pretty fast after Cottonmouth is introduced in a Harlem club where Luke Cage also works a second job. We see Cottonmouth discussing a deal with a Puerto Rican gangster about "top-of-the-line" guns that he will deliver to him that night. Little does Cottonmouth know, Chico and Shameek plan on busting up the exchange, essentially robbing both the Puerto Ricans and Cottonmouth of their money. This is what Chico was planning to use that gun for when Cage saw him earlier. It all goes to hell though like these things usually do and Shameek ends up killing the 3rd guy they were with named Dante who just so happens to work as a bartender in the same club Cottonmouth is always at...and that Luke Cage works at. Shameek, being the greedy idiot he is, doesn't fully kill Dante and before he dies, Dante is able to call Cottonmouth's right-hand man to tell him what had happened...basically ratting out the entire inside job he had going with Chico and Shameek. So now Cottonmouth and his goons know Chico and Shameek were involved.
Before we continue with the finale of this episode, I have to stop and mentioned the introduction of Misty Knight, a Harlem detective who plays a love interest for Luke Cage. Knight meets Cage while he's stepping in as the bartender because Dante, the actual bartender, is busy running around getting shot trying to rob crime bosses with Shameek and Chico. Misty Knight is played by Simone Missick and so far I like her. The two of them end up hooking up and having a moment of sexual release making this the third woman we've now seen Luke Cage with across two different series. It's actually kind of funny and makes perfect sense.
We don't really see Misty Knight in her work flow until she arrives at the scene of the crime that happened the night before with Shameek, Chico and Dante attacking a black market gun sale between Puerto Ricans and Cottonmouth's crew as mentioned above. Dante lies dead...the phone by his side.
Cottonmouth eventually finds out where Shameek is because like a typical ignorant criminal he decides not to lay low and is making it rain in a strip club where one of the dancers spots him and alerts Cottonmouth's men because they have an unofficial warrant out for him. What happens next is the part of the episode Marvel has advertised throughout its promotional campaign for the series. It's when Cottonmouth is speaking to someone in front of a photo of Biggie Smalls wearing a crown. Cottonmouth states that everyone wants to be the King. We now know he was talking to Shameek, who sits tied to a chair with blood over his face. Cottonmouth asks Shameek, as politely as a mob boss can ask any man, where the location of Chico is (Chico is in a room somewhere looking shook). Shameek spits the blood from his busted mouth in Cottonmouth's face and Cottonmouth proceeds to beat Shameek to death with his bare hands which will end up leaving noticeable scars on his knuckles. The violence and bloodiness that has become customary in the Marvel Netflix properties is on full blast here. You can hear the bones in Shameek's face being broken and destroyed with each forceful blow.
The episode ends with another scene that was featured heavily during the promotional campaign. This is the scene where Luke Cage defends an Asian-owned store against some of Cottonmouth's goons who are trying to shake them down. One guy breaks his hand on Cage's face and gets thrown through the front window. Another guy breaks a bat across Luke's arm before getting destroyed himself...the other guy chickens out and runs. I guess after realizing fighting a man who grabbed a gun with his bare hand without the bullet penetrating his skin was a waste of time. The store owners ask Luke Cage if they can hire him (a wink and a nod to Heroes for Hire maybe?) believing the gangsters will come back to finish the job. He declines, but simply lets them know that he has their back and is looking out for them.
Episode 2 - Code of the Streets
The most important thing to talk about with regards to the beginning of this episode is the confrontation between Cottonmouth Stokes, a new character named Shades (who was introduced in the first episode who actually did time with Luke Cage while Cage was in prison) and Luke Cage and Pop's. Cottonmouth shows up at the barbershop in a not-so-subtle attempt to make it known that he's looking for Chico who he knows worked there. Pop's is clearly nervous throughout this entire sequence, especially after he sees Cottonmouth's bruised knuckles. He immediately knows Cottonmouth killed Shameek as word has already gotten around that Shameek and Chico were involved with the shooting the happened the night before. Since Pop's barbershop is akin to "Switzerland" in that his place of business serves as neutral ground, Cottonmouth leaves without making a mess of things. However by this time, the tension is already building up.
Pop's convinces Luke Cage to use his talents to track down Chico. Pop's has this idea that he will broker a truce between Chico and Cottonmouth in an attempt to save his life. When Cage finds him holed up in a shoddy one bedroom apartment, he tries to convince him to come back with him to the barbershop. Chico declines, but later after Cage returns to Pop and we learn some of Pop's backstory, Chico finally appears in tears. Looking like a dog who knows he's done something wrong. At the same time however, Misty Knight (who looks an awful lot like Nicole Beharie of Sleepy Hollow fame) and her partner are showing up at Pop's barbershop simply to ask questions. Not thinking that they will luck up and actually bump into Chico...whom they are looking for.
Misty Knight and her partner don't find Chico and Misty and Luke pretend they don't know each other as Luke realizes she's in fact a detective and not an auditor as she claimed to be before.
Later on in the episode however, the series hits it's first peak. The inciting incident that is going to serve as the launch point for the rest of the series. While Luke Cage confronts Cottonmouth at the same club from episode 1 about Pop's proposal of a truce, one of Cottonmouth's men gets a text from Turk Berry (you'll know him if you've seen Daredevil seasons 1 and 2...he's no good) stating he knows where Chico is located.
Cottonmouth wants to hear Pop's out, so he tells his right-hand man to chill for a second and let Chico live until he's spoke with Pop's. Cottonmouth goes on speaking with his cousin Mariah (the polician) about black dollars and black self-determination. I'm not familiar with the Cottonmouth character from the comics, but I'm not too impressed with such a powerful and positive message being espoused by a mob boss and crooked politician so far in this series. I'm giving it a pass for now though given how much I like the overall series so far.
The goons who work for Cottonmouth don't really listen to his demands however. I'm beginning to wonder if one of his main men doesn't have his own thing going on. Basically they go to Pop's barbershop because Turk Berry told them he'd seen Chico there earlier. Chico is stupidly not even trying to hide and had gone to the front to "watch tv." Yea. Crazy right?
Cottonmouth's men shoot up the entire barbershop, well it was one of his men in particular. Shades was just watching as if even he didn't expect the other guy to go off like that. Pop's is shot in the neck which ends up being fatal as he dies in Luke Cage's arm. Chico is shot several times too, but doesn't appear to be dead yet.
When Cottonmouth's two men show back up to the club with the money, Shades intelligently distances himself from what happened. This is because Cottonmouth ends up throwing his right-hand man off the top of the building...causing him to plummet to his death. Not as brutal as Wilson Fisk bashing a guy's head off with a car door like in Daredevil season 1, but equally powerful. Like with Fisk is Daredevil, the person Cottonmouth kills is an ally of his who screwed up.
The episode essentially ends with Luke Cage standing in front of the office HQ where Mariah Dillard's campaign is based. The colors of red, black and green are clearly used with other pro-Black motifs throughout the first two episodes. This episode ends with Luke Cage dropping knowledge about Crispus Atticks and the N-word. I'm actually very surprised that Marvel allowed this discussion to be had. After the word "nigga" had been used several times already throughout the first two episodes, I'm glad they ended this episode with Luke Cage challenging the usage of the word. It's a debate that needs to be had despite the fact that at the end of the day...you can't control a person's speech.
Overall, I've enjoyed Season 1 of Luke Cage so far. I think the story is just getting interesting and I can't wait until they start going into the backstory of Luke Cage and how he got his powers which should be within the next couple of episodes.