While our titular character biggest ambition is to be left alone, the fragile kingdom built by another is poised to crumble and bring out the hero in Luke Cage during the slow burn of the premiere.
Beware The Spoilers
While previous Marvel and Netflix properties start with a bang, Luke Cage chooses to start with a basketball debate. We find our hero (Mike Colter) living the quiet and humble life sweeping floors at Pop’s (Frankie Faison) barbershop and washing dishes at a nightclub wanting nothing more than to pay his rent and keep his head down. A loudmouth with big dreams attempts to give him a difficult time about it, but Cage is not ashamed of just getting by. He works hard, that is all that matters to him. Cage has come to Harlem from his time in Hell’s Kitchen and escaping the trouble his “rebound chick” put him square in the middle of.
Quickly, showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has elected to put the events from Jessica Jones behind Cage, only a brief mention of the shotgun blast to the head (Cage still gets the occasional headache) is all we get. Coker chooses instead to have his hero focus on mourning his late wife, Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and the neighborhood politics. I find this to be a wonderful decision because tonally, this series is so different from the other Marvel shows. It needs to stand alone and develop its own voice before Cage can join the others in 2017.
The character Luke Cage doesn’t need a whole lot of introduction, so “Moment of Truth” spends most of its run time getting to know some of the newer characters, the world of Harlem, and setting up the fallout from a gun deal gone wrong.
Mahershala Ali’s Cornell Stokes is easily the most intriguing character in the pilot. He is the self-proclaimed king of Harlem, but it is easy to see his kingdom is new, primed to crumble upon itself at any moment. A seemingly inside job is the first column that holds the castle up to fall. A mysterious presence known as “Diamondback” is behind the scenes and what he giveth, he can certainly taketh away. “He wants [Stokes] to win” as his envoy, Shades (Theo Rossi), expresses, but you can hear the implied “for now” lingering beneath the statement.
Stokes’ cousin, Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) is a much more slippery fish. (I feel the need to explain Woodard is a different character than the one she portrayed in Civil War.) On the surface she is a champion of her neighborhood. Looking to “keep Harlem black” and making her home a place where people thrive. She does backdoor deals with Stokes to assure her Crispus Attucks center gets built and keep the campaign funds coming in. Dillard wants Stokes to do the dirty work, but refuses to take responsibility for what that entails.
When we meet Misty Knight (Simone Missick) she is trading sexy banter with Cage while looking to keep an eye on Stokes at his club, Harlem’s Paradise. She is quick-witted and very in tune with her sexuality. She unapologetically takes Cage home hours after meeting him and tells him “I know where you work” when he asks for her number afterward. Knight has bigger things on her mind. Like investigating a shootout where many bodies and cases illegal guns are left behind while the money is missing. Knowing someone is going to come looking for the cash and the guns, Knight needs to find the perpetrators before Stokes does. He won’t care who he hurts in the process of getting his version of justice.
While the shootout is the inciting point of the series, the details itself are not seriously important. The fallout gets the ball rolling. It brings Shades into town and he has a history with Cage from their time in prison. He is someone both Cage and Stokes fear. The money lost makes Stokes anxious to get it back. A desperate man is a dangerous one, especially when he has a tenuous hold on his power. Needing the funds from the gun running scheme has pushed Dillard to lean on Stokes. She illegally used city funds to build her cousin his club and now she needs to put it back before she is audited. Wanting to prove to his cousin he can come thru, his thugs now have to shakedown the neighborhood.
All of this leads to Cage having to step in and protect his landlord from a group of heavies looking for donations for Dillard’s center. Cage reveals himself as invulnerable to fists and bullets. The thugs may run for now, but the target has already been painted on Cage’s back. “You live and die by your choices” he tells Pops. Now Cage has to live with his decision to become the protector.
Coker has stated music will be an important character throughout the series. While we were promised a “Wu Tangification of the Marvel universe,” the show starts with a softer edge with a performance from Raphael Saadiq, Ernie and the Top Notes Inc., Coleman Hawkins, with just a touch of Ghostface Killah. The slow burn of introductions needs the music to be old school R&B. It fits perfectly.
As the series progresses and the stakes get higher, I expect the music to become harder, less R&B and more Hip Hop.
What did you think of the series premiere of Luke Cage? Are you intrigued by the set up? Did you catch the quick references to the Battle of New York and the other arms dealer in the MCU? Come back each day for a recap and breakdown of all thirteen episodes. In the meantime, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below, but please do not spoil future episodes. Not everyone gets to binge on the series immediately.