Saturday, October 1, 2016

REVIEW: 'Luke Cage' - The Origins of Luke's Powers and His Life with Reva are Revealed in 'Step in the Arena'

Netflix's Luke Cage - Episode 1.04 "Step in the Arena"

As he rescues a victim of Cottonmouth's vengeance, Luke remembers his earlier life and the conspiracy that led to his superhuman strength.

In these first few episodes of Luke Cage, the show has featured a lot of plot. It's a necessary component of long-form storytelling. There has to be enough moving pieces in order to create a captivating story across thirteen episodes. It can be argued that some of these Marvel shows on Netflix don't need thirteen episodes for their main stories. Jessica Jones probably would have been better at ten. The second season of Daredevil probably would have benefitted in that regard as well. Netflix has seemingly learned its lesson and doesn't require its show to run thirteen episodes per season. Now, it just lets the creative teams decide how many episodes they need to tell a story. Of course, the Marvel deal preceded that shift in programming. So these shows will still run for thirteen episodes a year. In that form of storytelling, there are going to be plot devices that happen solely to extend the life of a story. "Step in the Arena" doesn't advance the main plot a whole lot. And yet, it's the most successful episode of the show so far because of its simplicity and willingness to focus on one (very important) story.

When the narrative is overwhelmed by plot developments, it can be very beneficial to use an hour to step back and just focus on one character in an episode. It prolongs the season-long plot while also providing even more insight into that character. Here, Luke Cage is the primary focus of the hour. "Step in the Arena" highlights his origin story including the experiment that gave him unbreakable skin and super strength in the first place. It's not completely centered on fleshing out his past though. Subplots include Luke struggling to get Connie out alive from underneath the rubble where the restaurant used to be as well as Misty and Scarfe looking into the destructive act that caused the building to collapse. But this hour is primary focused on Luke's time in prison in Georgia. It provides an even deeper understanding of his past. The story doesn't explicitly reveal the crime that got him sent to prison in the first place. He maintains that he's not guilty but not innocent either. But the audience does get to see that he and Reva met while he was incarcerated. She was there for him throughout this whole process that changed who he was completely.

Before he was Luke Cage, he was Carl Lucas. Carl was the son of a preacher and a police officer who got caught in a bad situation because he trusted the wrong people. He pissed off enough people to ensure a lengthy sentence for him in Seagate prison. He enters this world from the other side of the law. He has no immediate enemies in prison though. He didn't arrest anyone who was then sentenced to this place. So, that threat isn't the immediate cause of tension for the story. Instead, it's much more a plot about isolation and connection. Luke believes he can get through all of this without making a friend. He doesn't trust the system. Nothing about this place is real. A friendship isn't going to help him survive in this place. He doesn't believe he'll be broken by this experience. Of course, that's not true at all. His stubborn refusal against help goes away quite quickly. He makes a friend in Squabbles. Over time, the two of them develop a nice rapport. But it's not long at all until that connection is manipulated so that Luke is forced into doing something he doesn't want to do. It's because of that friendship that Luke was able to survive. But it's also the reason why he's forced into a really dark position.

The guards are secretly having the inmates fight each other. They are placing bets on who will win in this fight club. It's sick and twisted. Luke is forced into competing because Squabbles would be framed for assault with a weapon otherwise. Fighting is something Luke is capable of doing. He comes from a career of military and police service. He can handle himself in the ring and Squabbles proves to be a very effective coach. It's just so sickening to watch. These fights effectively break his spirit. This place is so dark and manipulative. It's changing him into a person who doesn't believe in hope. His disheveled appearance highlights just how broken he is becoming. Sure, it does get a little ridiculous after awhile. It's not the best visual. But it shows that he doesn't especially care about anything in prison. He doesn't care that he gets a prize if he wins in the ring. He's not doing this for the victory. He's doing it because he's forced to. He has no free will. He knows that all of this is wrong and he's powerless to stop it. He wants to believe he can change the system and expose these guards. But that only gets Squabbles killed and Luke sent to the infirmary.

Luke's time in prison is also an epic love story. Reva works at the prison as a counselor. She runs a group where she tries to get the inmates to open up about their lives leading up to this point. Sure, it's probably unethical for Reva to fall in love with Luke given the circumstances. But it's what happens nevertheless. They have a connection. It's one that doesn't start off well. He attends group but he doesn't talk. He only speaks up to question the advice and answers she gives. The inmates have worries that experiments are happening in the prison. Luke questions whether or not Reva is being honest about that. It's largely a way to keep him from talking about himself. He doesn't want to open up. He doesn't want to let his guard down and go along with this system. He wants to resist it for as long as possible. That's simply not something he can do though. He is broken down and all he has for hope is Reva. She brightens his day. He needs to save her from this corrupt world. She doesn't leave because he tells her too. She genuinely doesn't know what the guards are doing. But she does have knowledge about the experiments being done. She's the reason why Luke survives a lethal beat down by Shades.

So, Luke was subjected to the experimentation that gave him his powers in order to save his life. Reva begged the doctor to do so even though it seemed certain he would die. This isn't a madman scientist running crazy experiments though. He just wanted to find a way for humans to heal faster. He wasn't trying to create the next Captain America or the Hulk. He had no such lofty ambitions. Luke turned out the way he did because the guard interrupted mid-immersion and created a massive explosion in the tank. It was a case of everything miraculously going right and gifting Luke with these incredible powers. No one can explain it. He survives when the doctor and the guard do not. He is able to punch his way out of the prison because of his new strength. That's such a revelation for him. And yet, he has nowhere to go. Reva is the only person he can rely on. In the outside world, there's no guarantee their connection will be special. It could have just been another case of transference in order to cope with prison. It wasn't though. Reva decided to stand by Luke even though it meant leaving her entire life behind to go on the run with him. This is ultimately a story of how Carl Lucas took on the name of Luke Cage. The actual explanation isn't that great. But the payoff is incredible in the present day story.

It's not surprising that Luke survived the blast from Cottonmouth's rocket launcher. It is miraculous though that he was able to save Connie and that no one else was in the building when it went down. There are no casualties from this epic display of destruction. That's incredible. It's just as incredible to Connie to see Luke able to pull away the rubble with ease. She was so grateful to him when he saved her and her husband from Cottonmouth's goons in the premiere. But now, she actually wants answers to who he is after he saves her. He doesn't tell her the truth. Their story is much more about getting out of the rubble without doing more harm. Luke has a willingness to tell the truth but not at this precise moment. He saves Connie. That's all that matters. He knows he needs to talk to Misty to explain how he was able to survive being shot by a rocket. But now isn't the right time for it. He doesn't say he won't talk to her. He's a man of his word and understands the new world he has emerged from. It's a world that will now know his name. He's lived a life in the shadows for a long time. But after everything that has happened because of Cottonmouth, Luke is now proud to stand up tall and say his name to the entire world. That's a powerful moment to end on that fills the future with so much hope.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Step in the Arena" was written by Charles Murray and directed by Vincenzo Natali.
  • Misty and Scarfe's investigation into what happened isn't the most engaging story. It doesn't take much for them to learn it wasn't an explosion inside the restaurant. They actually have video proof that it was a rocket. They also have a getaway vehicle but aren't able to make out the plates.
  • Of course, all of this evidence could go away so easily once Scarfe is left in the room alone with the tech. Misty has to go once it's clear Luke survived. Meanwhile, Scarfe is back at the precinct needing to talk to Cottonmouth.
  • Now after seeing his time in prison, it's easy to understand why Luke has so much rage towards Shades. He was the man who put him in the infirmary. Plus, it's easier to see why Shades doesn't recognize him right away. Hair really is crucial to a disguise.
  • Shades isn't really an important part of the prison story either. He's there when it comes time to beat Luke up to send him to the infirmary. But before that, he's just around in the background as a way to make the audience more tense.
  • That guard was too one-note of a character. He served his plot function of being an intimidating figure who forces Luke into fighting and offering threats to Squabbles and Reva. He didn't do any more than that.
  • So do you prefer Jet Li like Squabbles or Bruce Lee like Luke?

As noted in previous reviews from this show, 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.