Friday, September 30, 2016

REVIEW: 'Luke Cage' - Luke Struggles to Maintain a Low Profile in Harlem in 'Moment of Truth'

Netflix's Luke Cage - Episode 1.01 "Moment of Truth"

With tension building in the streets of Harlem thanks to ruthless club owner Cottonmouth, Luke finds it increasingly difficult to live a quiet life.

"Moment of Truth" has a slow build quality to it. Luke Cage picks up Luke's story following Jessica Jones. And now, he's simply a guy sweeping up hair at a barbershop and washing dishes at a nightclub. He's struggling to pay his rent. It's a quality that so many people can relate to. The difficulty to earn just enough money to get by. But Luke has a much bigger problem. He's a fugitive. He purposefully has to have a low profile. He has to be paid in cash. He's trying not to bring any unwanted attention to himself. He embraced his superhero side on Jessica Jones. He was a crucial element of that series' first season. He got answers and retribution for his wife's murder. And now, he's struggling with what comes next. He has these amazing powers because of a scientific experiment. He has unbreakable skin and super strength. But he's only using them to pick up laundry machines. He's a level-headed guy who recognizes when there's more going on than what it initially seems. He's very intuitive. That forces him into action once more. It just takes a whole lot to happen to actually get to that point.

This first episode is very much about the plot mechanics to get Luke to fight against criminals again. It paints a picture of the current ecosystem of Harlem. It's a different part of New York City than Hell's Kitchen. The city the defenders protect hasn't been all that important in the first two Marvel shows on Netflix. It's largely just a way to incorporate crossovers amongst the characters or for Daredevil to have a purpose. Here, the show is hoping the location has its own identity. The soundtrack reflects that very well in this first episode. It infuses this show with a different type of energy. It's unique to itself. It's not like Daredevil or Jessica Jones. The show doesn't keep the season-long villain as a mystery for the first few episodes. Instead, Cottonmouth makes his presence known early and often throughout this premiere. He will be the force that brings Luke back into the heroics. Luke just happens to be in the right place for all of this to happen too. He works at Cottonmouth's club and is on the frontline of all the action there. So, he already has a connection to what this criminal story will be about.

So, Cottonmouth is facilitating a deal with another criminal organization to exchange high-tech weapons left over from Hammer Industries. Cottonmouth needs the money so that he can help fund his cousin Mariah Dillard's massive rehabilitation project for Harlem. She's a councilwoman making promises to the press about respecting the lives and history of black people in Harlem. She's hoping this new center can lead the city into a new era. She wants to maintain her distance from her cousin's criminal enterprise. She respects him as a legitimate businessman. He runs the club with real money that has nothing to do with illegal activities. But now, he's getting into some shady business with a corporation called Diamondback. A company that wants to know exactly what happened after this arms trade is hijacked. A couple of youngsters, Dante, Shameek and Chico, are hoping to steal the money. That's it. They don't care about the guns. They just want the money. Dante works at the club as well and alerts his friends to the trade. So, the rest of the hour is about the search for these individuals. Dante is killed early so that Shameek and Chico don't have to share the money three ways. And then, Shameek is caught at a strip club and beaten to death by Stokes. That's a powerful moment that shows just how nasty and hands-on this villain is willing to go.

Luke happens to know Dante, Shameek and Chico as well. It's a little too much of a plot contrivance. Luke fills in for Dante at the bar while the trade is going down while Shameek and Chico are just hanging out at the barbershop. Luke notices something is wrong with these guys but does nothing to investigate further. Instead, he just tends bar, flirts with Misty Knight and turns down a job offer from Cottonmouth. It's odd and problematic that Misty's introduction on the show is defined by her sleeping with Luke. It's clear there is more to her than at first's glance. She's just a pretty girl at a bar who catches Luke's eye. She's more interested in what Cottonmouth and Mariah are doing up in the VIP balcony. She's a police detective. A revelation that happens later on in the premiere as she's cleaning up the messes left behind by all of these criminal organizations. But as a character, she is still largely defined by an awkward sexual dynamic with Luke. They have sex once not knowing if it will lead to anything more. But then, Misty is forced by her partner to return to the club to question Luke about Dante and Shameek. Plus, Luke is the hero who can connect all of the pieces together not knowing that Misty is the one on the case. It's plot complications like that that define this premiere. The show is making it clear how everything connects together in a very simple way. A few moments are quite strong and character-defining. The majority just advance the plot forward in a way that complicates things for later on.

Luke starts to spiral a little bit when he spots Shades at the club with an interest in Shameek. Shades is a cool and terrifying presence the moment he appears on the screen. It's clear that he has a past with both Cottonmouth and Luke. It's enough to unnerve both of them. And yet, Shades and Cottonmouth are partners because they both want to get to the bottom of this arms deal gone wrong. Meanwhile, Shades represents a part of Luke's past that he never wanted to see again. Luke's past incarceration is shrouded in mystery. He has never really talked about it. And now, it's becoming an issue again. Just by seeing Shades again, Luke operates under the believe that he needs to leave. He can't lie low when Shades is in his orbit. However, he doesn't run. This is the moment where he decides to stand up and face the world no matter what the future holds. He's reluctant to use his powers and expose himself to the world around him. He ultimately decides to help Mr. and Mrs. Lin - his landlords he owes money to - when some local gangsters are trying to shake them down for more money for Mariah's project. It's a fantastic final sequence for the premiere. It alone is enough to liven up this hour and make it a lot of fun to watch. Luke is at his best in the action moments. The self-doubt and isolation that defines him for the majority of this premiere isn't the best as a character beat. But he pulls out of it when he's throwing people through windows and stopping bullets with his bare hands. He changes the lives of this elderly couple. They no longer have to live in fear thanks to him. But now, they all face an uncertain future. One where Luke is more willing to step in whenever he sees trouble. As is common in these Marvel shows though, that is bound to only lead to further complications at great personal loss.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Moment of Truth" was written by Cheo Hodari Coker and directed by Paul McGuigan.
  • The Netflix shows largely connect to one another because they exist in the same Marvel universe as the films. This premiere has a bit too many references to what is happening elsewhere in this world. Those references include the attack on New York, the Avengers who save the world, Wilson Fisk's fall, Justin Hammer's arsenal of weapons and Jessica Jones shooting Luke in the head.
  • It looks like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones will feature the same type of sex where there is no nudity but it's still pretty graphic. The show fades to black before showing anything too intimate beyond kissing and removing clothes with Luke and Misty. But that strip club had very little in terms of clothing.
  • Mariah is a champion for her community when the cameras are on. She cozies up to the youth to show her passion for the future. But she immediately needs hand sanitizer afterwards. So, she has perhaps gotten too distant from her own community.
  • Cottonmouth doesn't tell Mariah the details of what went wrong and why he doesn't have the money for her. It could be so damaging to her. If she doesn't get the money, she could face an audit which would expose their illegal dealings. But she chooses not to know anything that might incriminate her or involve her too deeply with this criminal lifestyle.
  • In addition to the Lins, the guy in charge of the barbershop, Pops, knows about Luke's superpowers and his past with Reva and Jessica. It's clear he'll be a father figure throughout this season telling him to embrace his inner hero.
  • Misty doesn't tell Luke that she's a cop. That's probably to protect her investigation of Cottonmouth. She doesn't know how involved Luke may potentially be with the criminal organization. She sleeps with him largely because he says all the right things. But it will be a surprising moment once Luke learns the truth and needs to involve her in this rising war for the soul of Harlem.
  • It's clear that Misty has some deep roots in Harlem as well. She recognizes Dante immediately because she knows his mother. Those are further personal complications that will surely complicate this main plot for the season.

As noted in previous reviews from shows that release their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.