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Luke Cage – Moment of Truth (Review)

There is a lot to be said for how the Netflix television series choose to introduce their central characters.

The first season of Daredevil opens with the eponymous vigilante laying a brutal smackdown on Turk and breaking up a people-smuggling ring, clearly establishing the world of the show and the character’s rougher edges. The second season opened with a similar action set-piece in which the masked hero tracks a bunch of armed robbers to a downtown church leading to a suitably atmospheric image. Jessica Jones lifted its opening scene from Brian Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Alias, with the hero smashing a deadbeat client through the glass pane on her door.

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These are all sequences intended to set up the year ahead. The first season of Daredevil is preoccupied with the question of whether Matt is trying to do good or whether he is simple enabling his own baser impulses. The second season of Daredevil is much more of a traditional superhero tale with prophecies and ninja cults, along with super assassin ex-girlfriends. The broken glass in the door to Jessica’s office becomes a recurring motif across the first season of Jessica Jones, a reminder of how the character is constantly clearing up the shattered remains of her life.

In contrast, Luke Cage opts to introduce its character in a very different manner. Although Moment of Truth inevitably builds to an action set piece, that action set piece is tucked away neatly in the final minutes of the episode, feeling almost like an afterthought. Instead, Moment of Truth sets the tone for the season ahead. It opens with an extended conversation in a barbershop that covers topics from the merits of former Los Angeles Lakers (and Miami Heat) coach Pat Riley to whether Al Pacino has an “eternal ghetto pass.”

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It is a very relaxed conversation. And in many ways, Luke Cage is a very relaxed kind of show. That is in many ways the best thing that can be said about the series and the worst thing that can be said about it. Luke Cage unfolds at a pace that might be affectionately described as stately and cynically dismissed as glacial, taking its time hitting expected beats. However, the greatest strength of Luke Cage is the confidence and verve with which it hits those marks. Luke Cage is a pleasure to watch, a show charming enough that it earns enough goodwill to take its time.

Luke Cage starts as it means to go on. Charming and comfortable in itself, relaxed and confident. Despite the plotting a structural similarities that run through the season, this is a decision that immediately distinguishes itself from Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Like its lead character, Luke Cage walks tall and acts like it is bulletproof.

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To be fair, Luke Cage does come with a built-in advantage. Moment of Truth does not have to introduce Luke Cage in the same way that AKA Ladies’ Night had to introduce Jessica Jones or that Into the Ring had to introduce Matthew Murdock. The character of Luke Cage was introduced as a recurring player in the first season of Jessica Jones, appearing in almost half the episodes. This is a prime example of Marvel’s corporate synergy at work, akin to Hawkeye first appearing in Thor or the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War.

It could easily have been a very cynical decision. After all, these sorts of appearances can easily turn a story into a commercial. It is hard to take Thanos seriously in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, because the character’s presence is primarily intended to sell tickets for films almost half a decade away from release. Luke Cage’s presence in Jessica Jone could easily have been a knowing and winking nod, but instead Melissa Rosenberg and her writing staff opted to treat Luke as a character and map out his own arc as a supporting player.

Indeed, this whole situation put showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker in a somewhat awkward position, in that many of the crucial decisions about his lead character (such as the casting) were being directly overseen by a production team working on a different show:

Nah, you know, it’s entirely [Jessica Jones showrunner] Melissa [Rosenberg]’s fault. I wish I could claim any kind of veto or any kind of credit for casting him. You know, that was kind of the blind risk that you take in coming into a Marvel property. Ultimately, it’s theirs. It’s their decision in terms of who gets cast. I had to trust Jeph Loeb with his judgment and Jeph is somebody that I trust implicitly.

Ultimately, they said, before they pulled the trigger, “What do you think of this guy?” And I said, “Yeah, he looks great.” But it wasn’t like I was like sitting down in the audition room or anything like that.

Indeed, Coker and Luke Cage got extremely lucky in the casting done for Jessica Jones. Mike Colter is a very effective leading man, one who proves just as adept at anchoring his own show as he did supporting Krysten Ritter on her series.

Luke Cage was already firmly established in Jessica Jones, in terms of personality and in terms of abilities. The character had been a one-night stand for Jessica in AKA Ladies’ Night, and had revealed elements of a tragic back story in AKA You’re a Winner! The character had walked out of a burning building at the end of AKA I’ve Got the Blues and had received a shotgun blast to the head in AKA Take a Bloody Number. Although Luke Cage is very much its own thing, audiences would be arriving to the series with some idea of who its protagonist is and what he could do.

To be fair, it is important that Luke Cage establish its own identity as distinct from Jessica Jones, that it not define itself as “season-one-and-a-half” of that particular television show. Indeed, Moment of Truth features a couple of moments of clumsy exposition in a quieter scene with Luke and Pops immediately following that extended dialogue-driven sequence. When Pops states that Luke’s gifts have improved his life, Luke objects. “More like ruined it. Reba’s dead. I’m a fugitive.” Bullet point summaries, bringing new viewers up to speed.

In fact, there are points at which Moment of Truth makes it clear that this is a whole different ballgame, with some rather winking dialogue from Pops. “Take my advice, brother,” the season’s surrogate father figure urges. “The past is the past. The only direction in life is forwards.” It seems as though Pops is talking as much to the audience as to Luke Cage. This is something new, don’t expect more of the same. (That said, Moment of Truth does over-egg the pudding somewhat. Pops’ dismissal of Jessica as Luke’s “rebound chick” feels rather mean-spirited.)

The fact that Jessica Jones has already established the character of Luke Cage allows his own series a bit more leeway. The show can take its time, never feeling rushed to establish its character or his abilities, instead allowing him to develop organically. Luke Cage never rushes. It struts. The series hits all the beats expected of a superhero series, celebrating the conventional genre trappings at it goes, but it does so in its own time. Luke Cage is a show that very much takes advantage of the sprawl offered by a thirteen-episode Netflix series that can be watched at the viewer’s own pace.

On a network television series, broadcast on a weekly basis and punctuated by commercials, the pace would certainly be brisker. It seems highly likely that a more conventional format would dictate severe changes to how Luke Cage carried itself; perhaps the fight sequence from the very end of Moment of Truth would be pushed back to the first act out, maybe the attack upon the barbership and the death of the mentor figure would be brought back from Code of the Streets, and its possible to imagine the raid sequence from Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? closing the premiere.

It is quite easy to conceive of a version of Luke Cage that would hit its marks a lot quicker and a lot more efficiently. But that tightened pace would come at the expense of the atmosphere and tone of the show. What is most striking about Luke Cage is how much lighter it feels than Jessica Jones or Daredevil. It is not that the story is any less dramatic; Luke Cage has its share of dead mentors and traumatic sexual abuse. However, it is how Luke Cage chooses to approach these elements that defines it.

Luke Cage does not shy away from the darker moments in its narrative. Code of the Streets climaxes with a brutal shoutout that ends with Pops bleeding out through a hole in his neck. Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? features a white police officer murdering a black suspect in cold blood. Manifest pulls something of a double whammy, beginning with a story of horrific child abuse and then twisting traumatic sexual abuse under it. It is safe to say that Luke Cage does deal with the same kind of violence and depravity as Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

The difference is very much in the tone of the piece. Opening with that extended conversation, Luke Cage declines to treat itself as an exploration of trauma in the same way as Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In terms of lighting and colour, Luke Cage is a much brighter show than its siblings. While Daredevil tones down the red used in its title character’s costume, Luke pointedly gets to wear a bright shade of his iconic yellow in Step in the Arena. The sun is constantly shining, and a significant portion of the show unfolds during daylight hours.

In some ways, a lot of this is down to the leading character. Luke Cage’s defining attribute is that his skin cannot be broken. The character is pretty much impervious to harm. He is all but unstoppable. He does not even bruise. Luke Cage is a character who would seem quite at home playing with The Avengers. He certainly outclasses his fellow Netflix heroes; Matt Murdock seems to be as good at taking beatings as he is at dishing them out, while Jessica Jones seems intent on beating herself up.

In contrast, Luke Cage seems like he would be very handy to have around the next time that an alien army invades Manhattan or a genocidal robot tries to destroy a small European country. Luke Cage practically revels in the character’s durability. When Cornell literally brings a house down on top of him at the end of Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?, the show and the audience are canny enough to understand that this is a minor inconvenience at best. Naturally, Luke spends most of the following episode killing time with an extended flashback sequence.

Indeed, the character’s implaccability was one of the most engaging aspects of the premise for producer Cheo Hodari Coker:

“The show is really about what happens when, in this world where people are afraid to speak out because if you look at what’s happening in real life in any community of color that are facing these issues, when you have people that break the law and the whole thing of not snitching which is true of any community that deals with this, how does that change when you introduce a bulletproof element?” Coker says. “How do both police enforcement and criminal enforcement change when you introduce a character who can’t be swayed by normal means? How does that affect everything and what is the ripple effect of that?”

Although the show does not hesitate to endanger the people around Luke, Luke Cage generally avoids any real sense of urgency or peril for its lead hero.

It seems to take Cornell and his employees a long time to grasp that they cannot kill Luke through conventional means. Luke even points out the absurdity of this when Cornell has his men attack the hero on the floor of the night club in Just to Get a Rep. Mariah only begins speculating on how to kill him in Suckas Need Bodyguards, getting her comic book nerd hat on. “Does he have gills? Drown him. Can he burn? Can you poison him?” It takes Cornell and Shades a full five episodes to figure out that they might need a more advanced weapon to deal with Luke.

“There is nothing that can hurt you,” Claire states simply in Manifest. She asks, “So what the hell are you afraid of?” Diamondback doesn’t arrive with the “Judas” until the very end of Manifest. As a result, Luke spends the entire first half of the season free from any mortal threat. The result is a superhero drama that feels tangibly different. Luke Cage can feel more relaxed in itself, more comfortable with itself, because its protagonist does not even bruise. It is one of the show’s more endearing attributes, one the excuses the more relaxed pace.

The soundtrack helps as well. Daredevil tends to come with a fairly stock superhero score, one heavily influenced by the work of Hans Zimmer on the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films. Sean Callery provides Jessica Jones with a suitable heavy noir soundscape with just a hint of sad jazz saxophone. In contrast, the soundscape of Luke Cage is practically buzzing. This applies to Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s original compositions, such as in the fight scene in To Get a Rep, but also to the live performances in “Harlem’s Paradise.”

While Luke Cage never embraces its soundscape to the extent of something like Miami Vice or Show Me a Hero, it still feels more vibrant and dynamic than a lot of Marvel’s cinematic and televisual output. Beginning with the performance from Raphael Saadiq in Moment of Truth, the series sets a number of montages to specifically tailored performances from established and veteran artists. Even when those songs play over downbeat or grim sequences, they still convey a rich emotional energy that powers through the series.

As Coker explains, that unique soundscape is very much about establishing a sense of place for Luke Cage:

Music is an ever-evolving thing because you have musical rights that you’re trying to get and with Netflix they really are very clear about what they want to do with the music. They’ve got some people who are names in the industry to write original scores for us and that’s something that’s going to be unique.

Luke has some songs that people know but I think also the whole feel of it will have, I guess this is an overused word, but urban. It will be urban, it will be soulful, and it will be a stark contrast to the music you heard for the first two prior series. We are in Harlem, so you want to feel like you are around that kind of culture. Harlem has a long, rich culture of music and we want to pay homage to that. We want to make sure that the artists that we use and the artists that we are emulating, the sound that we are using bring you into the feel that you’re uptown and not necessarily in midtown. That’s kind of one of the things that’s going to make it unique.

Luke Cage is very firmly anchored in an idea of Harlem, seeking to capture the spirit of the location.

Marvel comics have always had a strong spiritual and symbolic attachment to New York City, dating back to the earliest days of the publisher. While DC comics tended to create fictional cities like Metropolis or Gotham to house its superheroes, Marvel quickly abandoned the concept. The Fantastic Four moved from the vague “Central City” to downtown Manhattan and never looked back. The city is as much a character for the comic book company as any individual superhero, informing (and informed by) its character.

Marvel Studios have often struggled to capture that spiritual connection on film, owing to the logistics of film production. The big battle at the end of The Avengers might have been set in New York, but it was filmed in Cleveland. There was only so much that could be done to disguise that fact. Even within the film universe, the characters are less geographically focused. Tony Stark is based out Malibu, while the Avengers operate out of a bunker in the middle of the countryside. The Fantastic Four are with Fox, Spider-Man is jointly held with Sony.

In contrast, the Netflix television shows have a much stronger sense of location and are more firmly tied to New York as a mythical entity. It helps that all the Netflix shows shoot in and around New York. While there are any number of large cities in North America that can approximate New York, very few can truly capture the spirit of the place. It is to the credit of the production teams that the series are shot on location. It adds a lot of texture to these series, particular with the drama unfolding over a long enough stretch that the environment becomes a character of itself.

Tellingly, part of Jessica Jones’ goodbye tour in AKA Sin Bin included a goodbye to the city itself from atop the Brooklyn Bridge. The first season of Daredevil was anchored in the threat of gentrification to Hell’s Kitchen; although nominally set in the present day, it played like an homage to seventies or eighties gritty action movies. The second season dated the psychogeography of Daredevil even further; Bang suggests that Matt Murdock protects a version of New York trapped in a perpetual Summer of 1977.

As such, Luke Cage is very much anchored in Harlem. That part of the city is essential to the tone and spirit of the series. This is part of what drew a lot of the talent to the project, such as Alfre Woodard:

Alfre Woodard plays Harlem politician Mariah Dillard, and the actress said that the show’s innate Harlem-ness drew her to the project. “One of the exciting things about [Luke Cage], besides the fact that he’s bulletproof and all that and that it’s so well written, is that it was Harlem, baby,” said Woodard. “Harlem has been so many things for African Americans for so long, and I love the fact that Cheo knows Harlem, knows the history, knows the culture. And so this piece, [with] all the Marvel superheroes, the neighborhood is a character, [like] Hell’s Kitchen. But he had Harlem — it’s just that [Luke Cage] is a love song to Harlem.”

That love and affection shines through ever single episode of the series, right down the extended sequences of Luke going for his morning jog in Suckas Need Bodyguards.

Luke Cage is very proud of its setting and its surroundings, cultivating a mythic quality to the city neighbourhood. On the surface, the plotting of Luke Cage appears quite similar to that of the first season of Daredevil, with the looming threat of gentrification and Mariah’s promise of a “Harlem Renaissance” touching on the same (somewhat belated) anxieties that informed the conflict between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. To be fair, Luke Cage is candid enough to acknowledge the overlap; Mariah cautions Cornell not to make the same mistakes that Fisk did.

However, there is a specificity to Harlem as it appears in Luke Cage that was somewhat lacking in the Hell’s Kitchen of Daredevil. It seems like every character in the show is an expert in the history of the area. Cornell likens himself to Percy Sutton in Just to Get a Rep. Luke recounts the history behind Crispus Attucks, whose name adorns the centre where Cornell stores his dirty cash in Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? The series values its cameos from real life Harlemites like Dapper Dan and Method Man as much as it does a guest spot from Turk or Claire Temple.

To be fair, the series is quite candid about the fact that this is a version of Harlem that does not necessarily reflect the area as it exists at the moment. Much like Hell’s Kitchen, much of the gentrification at the heart of Luke Cage has already taken root in modern-day Harlem. As Mike Colter concedes:

“Ultimately Harlem, the character that we’re trying to create, does resemble Harlem of maybe ten years ago,” said Colter. “Ten years ago was different. There wasn’t a Whole Foods there on the corner of 125. I lived there about that time and it just feels about there. It’s still Harlem but it’s not getting ready to be the Harlem that we know today.”

It is a fair point, but it does nothing to diminish the charm and the power of Luke Cage as a tribute to the very idea of Harlem. It is an affectionate love letter to that part of the city, in a way that gives the show a clear sense of place and texture that enriches the stories being told and the characters inhabiting them.

Luke Cage is absolutely fascinated with the idea of intersecting and overlapping lives within the framework of Harlem. The Netflix Marvel television shows have often yearned for the cultural cache afforded to prestige cable dramas. The influence of The Wire is keenly felt on the shows. Just look at the way that the meeting between Ben Ulrich and his informant is shot on the waterfront in Rabbit in a Snowstorm. Consider the casting of Wire cast members like Clarke Peters in Jessica Jones or Sonja Sohn in Luke Cage.

Luke Cage practically invites comparison to The Wire. The supporting character Bobby Fish is an enthusiastic chess player, who occasionally offers life lessons by reference to the game in a manner that evokes one of The Wire‘s most iconic sequences. Of course, this being a superhero show, the metaphor is a lot less elaborate. In Who’s Gonna Take the Weight? Luke boasts to Bobby of Cornell, “I’m knockin’ all his pieces off the board.” Cheo Hodari Coker allegedly won the job by pitching the series as an examination of Harlem “like what The Wire did for Baltimore.”

However, these comparisons are not necessarily favourable for the Marvel Netflix shows. Daredevil and Jessica Jones are both great pieces of television, but The Wire is very much a masterpiece of the medium that derives a lot of its power from its low-key naturalism. It is not something that can easily by emulated by television shows about blind ninjas with radar senses or purple who can control people through phermones a virus. The Wire is a television series that embodies the best of the “golden age” of television, so that is loft comparison.

Instead, the Netflex shows belong to something a little trashier than that. They belong to a class of television that emerged in the wake of the so-called “golden age.” Once shows like The Wire demonstrated that television could be literate and worthy, it became possible to embracier pulpier material in a more rigourous manner. Breaking Bad is as much a supervillain origin story as any comic ever published by Marvel, but it is also fantastic drama. Game of Thrones is pure pulp, but that does not mean that it is not fantastically produced and narratively bold.

Daredevil occasionally suffered a little bit from taking itself far too seriously for a television show populated by undead ninjas, particularly when it insisted upon constructing story arcs around broad concepts like law and order or justice. Luke Cage is more comfortable with the ridiculousness of its premise. As much as the series nods towards The Wire, it also seems to find a much more appropriate inspiration in terms of prestige era television. The social landscape as established in Moment of Truth feels very much patterned on Boardwalk Empire.

Boardwalk Empire is one of the television shows that faded into obscurity among a crowded field on anti-hero dramas. It was originally positioned as a spiritual successor to The Sopranos with a fine pedigree. Steve Buscemi headlined a strong cast featuring Kelly Macdonald, Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Shannon, among others. Martin Scorsese directed the first episode. However, the show never quite caught public or critical attention in the same way that series like Mad Men or Deadwood did.

Part of the problem was that Boardwalk Empire was not an anti-hero drama in the style that audiences had come to expect from contemporary prestige television. If anything, the show’s central character was the most level-headed member of the cast. Instead, Boardwalk Empire was a sprawling ensemble piece that cast a wide net and used its characters to provide a sketch of a particular time and place. Boardwalk Empire was a slow-paced sprawling social epic, albeit one rooted in pulpy gangster movie trappings.

It also feels like a major influence on Luke Cage. Indeed, Boardwalk Empire is as much a weird genre piece as Luke Cage. It is very firmly set within a highly stylised framework. Nucky Thompson just happens to crossover with broadly-drawn interpretations of historical figures like Joseph Kennedy or Harry Daughery or Al Capone rather than comic book characters like Claire Knight or Turk Barrett. Whereas The Wire offered a very grounded and real version of Baltimore, Boardwalk Empire offered a broadly drawn mythology of inter-war America.

There are any number of parallels between the shows. Most obviously, there is the night club itself. Boardwalk Empire would frequent find Nucky doing business at his club – whether inside or outside office hours. Cornell does something quite similar with “Harlem’s Paradise.” Both Luke Cage and Boardwalk Empire use the nightclub as a way to establish texture; Boardwalk Empire frequently features vaudeville acts on the stage to help provide a sense of place, while Luke Cage features a number a famous musicians performing at the club.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Moment of Truth is the way that it carefully populates this world, creating a sense of community. Much like Boardwalk Empire, there is a clear feeling of overlap and intersection. Cheo Hodari Coker’s script and Paul McGuigan’s direction repeated emphasise how all of these characters fit together to form a community. The night club is very much the centre of this, with sequences jumping between Luke at the bar, Cornell and Mariah on the balcony, and Saadiq on stage.

The characters of Luke Cage seem to exist within one or two degrees of each other, with the episode cleverly demonstrating how chance and fate seem to brush characters against one another. Luke winds up working at the bar because Dante is absent, where he meets Misty, who winds up investigating Dante’s death. Luke works during the day with Pops, who goes way back with Cornell, who also happens to manage the club where Luke works his second job.

When Misty finds herself called to a murder scene, she recognises the body. “Dante Chapman.” Her partner, Ralph Scarfe, inquires, “You know him?” Misty explains, “I know his momma.” This might feel contrived, if it weren’t the point of the story. Moment of Truth excellently and cleverly sets up this idea of Harlem itself as a vibrant and living entity populated by lives that seem destined to overlap. Luke is eventually thrown into conflict with Cornell when Cornell’s goons threaten Luke’s landlady, but there are already countless threads connecting everybody.

It is very much a romantic view of life within the city, but one that speaks to a lot of the appeal of Luke Cage. While Daredevil and Jessica Jones might treat certain aspects of New York as a character within their narratives, Luke Cage is a gigantic love letter to Harlem. And that affection is contagious.

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