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Luke Cage – Step in the Arena (Review)

My name is Luke Cage.

Step in the Arena is the obligatory origin episode. It is also the strongest episode of the season.

One of the most striking aspects of Luke Cage is the thrill that the show takes in being a superhero story. It isn’t simply that showrunner takes an established set of plot and character beats and stretches them over thirteen episodes, much like the first season of Daredevil seemed to do with the structure of Batman Begins. After all, Luke Cage messes with the superhero story structure in a few interesting ways, particularly with regards to the character of Cornell Stokes.

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Luke Cage adores the trappings of superhero storytelling. It thrives on comic book iconography. It revels in the familiar tropes. It embraces the goofy concepts. It latches on to the absurd coincidences. Step in the Arena is a very familiar superhero origin story, populated with familiar beats like the suspect human experimentation or the dead best friend or the fugitive status. However, the film executes those story beats with an incredible and infectious energy. There is no hesitation here, no deconstruction, no undermining.

However, the beauty of Step in the Arena lies in how it subtly shifts the emphasis of these familiar storytelling beats in a way that emphasises its status as a black superhero origin story. A lot of the charm of Luke Cage lies in realising that the writers do not have to choose between telling a story that speaks to the black experience in contemporary America or offering an archetypal superhero television series. Luke Cage never has to compromise, using broth threads to illuminate and inform one another.

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Luke Cage is an interesting character, particularly of the four character chosen to headline The Defenders. Luke Cage will join that superhero team up with Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones and Danny Rand. However, Luke Cage is notable for being the only one of the four without a singular and defining character run. Tellingly, Marvel’s digital comic book store only came up with a paltry selection of sale items to mark the release of the series, as compared to those for Matt Murdock or Jessica Jones or Frank Castle.

Fans looking for iconic runs on the other iconic Defenders characters can be pointed to any number of great runs. Daredevil thrived under the pen of writers like Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker and Mark Waid. Jessica Jones had a great debut in the initial run of Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. The Punisher has been defined in runs by figures like Garth Ennis, Rick Remender, Greg Rucka and Jason Aaron. Even Danny Rand has one big iconic run from writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, with artist David Aja.

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Luke Cage, on the other hand, does not really have a single great run. The character has any number of memorable stories, including that time he tracked down Doctor Doom to Latvaria to settle an unpaid debt of two hundred dollars. Luke Cage has been pushed to the centre of the Marvel Universe in the twenty-first century by writer Brian Michael Bendis, who is very much the godfather of the Netflix shows. However, Bendis never wrote a solo run featuring the character, instead using him as a supporting player in Alias or New Avengers.

Of course, all of that changes with the release of Luke Cage. This thirteen episode season becomes that singular defining narrative for the character, in much the same way that Superman is a defining story for the Man of Tomorrow or that Batman: The Animated Series, Batman!, Batman and The Dark Knight are defining stories for Batman. After all, television shows and movies have much larger audiences than comic books. As such, it makes sense that they would generally come to define the characters in the public consciousness.

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In theory, this lack of a singular defining run could have given showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker the freedom to reinvent the wheel and to throw out a lot of what had been done with the character before this point. After all, a Netflix television series produced today could be forgiven for moving beyond the character’s problematic earlier appearances. Even in terms of the character’s modern iteration, his status of a team figure tied to books like Mighty Avengers and Thunderbolts could easily have been used as an excuse to give the television series a lot more leeway.

As such, it is surprising how faithful Luke Cage is to the character’s comic book roots. This goes beyond the repetition of mere catchphrases, although both “Sweet Christmas!” and “Sweet Sister!” get employed over the course of the thirteen episodes. It extends further than the loving and detailed recreation of the character’s original (and very seventies) costume right down to the ridiculous tiara and the frankly unnecessary bike chain, although its appearance in Step in the Arena stands as a loving tribute to the character’s rich history.

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Cheo Hodari Coker has acknowledged that he was not a huge fan of the character of Luke Cage during the seventies, preferring the recent reconceptualisation of the character:

I was a huge fan of comics, not necessarily Luke Cage. I was more of an X-Men head. I was always more Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, John Byrne. Although, interestingly enough, Byrne and Claremont did a run on Luke Cage. I always respected Luke Cage and thought that he was interesting and I really liked what Brian Michael Bendis did in his update of the character in Alias, the comic. So that had an influence in terms of what a live action adaptation of Luke Cage could be.

However, it is very easy to see why Coker would not necessarily have responded to Luke Cage as the character existed in the seventies, premiering in the first issue of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire in June 1972.

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Still, Luke Cage is packed with lots of sly (and not-so-sly) references to the character’s rich history. After Luke saves Connie from the gangsters at the end of Moment of Truth, she hits upon an idea. “We want to hire you,” she states. Which would naturally transform Luke into a hero… for hire. However, Luke rejects that. “I’m not for hire.” Similarly, Pop refers to him as “Power Man” in that same episode, a knowing nod to the character’s classic superhero persona. Luke even seems to flirt with taking it on as a code name in Blowin’ Up the Spot.

However, Luke Cage is understandably anxious about committing to that classic version of the character. After all, the classic version of Luke Cage is deeply problematic on a number of levels. In his early appearances, Luke Cage was very much a stereotype of African American masculinity, a brash and angry young black man with a strong mercenary streak. While heroes like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four engaged in superheroism for the greater good, Luke Cage sought financial compensation for his good deeds.

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As David Brothers summarised this early iteration of the character:

Cage was an ex-con, wrongly convicted, who escaped prison and came back to Harlem to clear his name and make some money. He spoke with a funky type of jive, worked in the ghetto, and was a little edgier than a lot of other heroes.

While the blaxploitation angle may have been Cage’s genesis, the execution gave him a style all his own. Cage is a hustler, in the best possible sense of the word.

While that version of Luke Cage might have seemed credible in the context of the seventies, it is outdated today.

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In a very real sense, the original version of Luke Cage was a cynical move on the part of Marvel as a comic book publisher. The key figures involved in the creation of Luke Cage were all white, hoping to cash on what they saw as a gap in the market. As Robert Greenberger explained of the character’s creation, it was seen as a savvy business move:

Living and working in Manhattan, it was hard for writer Archie Goodwin not to notice the Times Square marquees filling with many low budget films featuring predominantly black casts. The new genre was dubbed “Blaxploitation” and was influencing culture, music and fashion, especially with the crossover hit Shaft. Sensing a commercial win, Goodwin created Marvel’s first blaxplotiation title, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire and it became America’s first monthly newsstand comic to feature an African-American in the title.

This original version of Luke Cage was very much a white interpretation of a black movement, blaxploitation filtered through the lens of a niche medium that was still predominantly white. There would inevitably be difficulties for those creators to capture a lived-in quality of Luke Cage’s experiences.

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Indeed, the character is still largely defined by his blaxploitation roots. Director Quentin Tarantino has long harboured an affection for the genre and for the character, expressing his disappointment that Mike Colter’s version of the character does not resemble the character’s original appearances:

“Well, frankly, to tell you the truth, I might be one of the pains in their asses because I love the way the character was presented so much in the ’70s,” Tarantino explained when asked his thoughts on the show [before it wrapped production]. “I’m not really that open to a rethinking on who he was. I just think that first issue, that origin issue…was so good, and it was really Marvel’s attempt to try to do a blaxploitation movie vibe as one of their superhero comics. And I thought they nailed it. Absolutely nailed it. So, just take that Issue 1 and put it in script form and do that.”

Given Tarantino’s clear affection for pulpy classic cinema, from the exploitation thrill of Death Proof to the spaghetti western thrills of Django Unchained, it makes sense that Tarantino would treat the character’s blaxploitation roots as an aesthetic towards which the show might aspire.

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In contrast, Cheo Hodari Coker sees blaxploitation as more than just a set of conventions and clichés, instead seeing blaxploitation as a movement of black ownership and culture:

Even when people talk about blaxploitation, all blaxploitation is honestly Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks Jr and Sr giving a black lead the opportunity to do the exact same thing that Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin had been doing for years. Even with the theme music… James Bond of course has got theme music. Hot car, cool clothes, get the girl—that’s all Bond. Shaft is kind of the same thing, down to the poster of Shaft saying, “Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt.” Blaxploitation… it was this very clever way of lumping all these movies together, but what it really is is just an assertion that strong, black men matter. That’s really all it was.

This makes a great deal of sense. After all, Luke Cage has placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of black ownership and authorship.

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As such, Luke Cage is inevitably tied to the blaxploitation film movement. Richard Roundtree is very clearly listed on Pop’s wall of fame in Moment of Truth, among the iconic figures assured free haircuts. Just in case there is any ambiguity, Luke himself makes it clear that Roundtree is on that wall for his performance as Detective John Shaft in Code of the Streets. Indeed, an early sequence in Code of the Streets is dedicated to Pop and Luke discussing the relative merits of Kenyatta and Shaft as African American heroes.

Luke Cage is very much informed by an aesthetic that many would associate with blaxploitation, a texture and tone that recalls many classics of the genre. This is particularly obvious in terms of the soundtrack, with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge curating the television series’ original soundtrack and the musical accompaniment from outside artists. The influence is always there, but there are points where it clear swells; most notably, in the fight sequences in Step in the Arena or Just to Get a Rep.

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Discussing the television series’ soundtrack, Coker cites a number of key influences from the blaxploitation era:

“I would almost call it bespoke music,” Coker said. “It is directly tailored to our story, it’s directly tailored to Luke Cage the same way that Shaft has the Isaac Hayes sound, the same way that Curtis Mayfield is all over Superfly.” And oh yes, there will be a vinyl record released, just one more way Luke Cage will connect the dots between comics and hip hop.

Curtis Mayfield was, among many other things, the composer on Super Fly. Isaac Hayes provided the soundscape for Shaft.

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The soundtrack is very much a thing of beauty. It is no wonder that there are plans to take the show’s score on tour with a forty-piece orchestra. Adrian Young reflects of the series’ soundtrack, “From a musical perspective it’s like we’re creating 13 albums. There’s 13 episodes and it’s like 13 albums.” It really is fantastic, a much more vibrant and electric soundscape than the background music in Daredevil or Jessica Jones. The character that the music adds to the series is impossible to quantify.

The music is a vital part of the standout sequence in Step in the Arena. It provides a clear throughline during a montage of Luke fighting in prison, a swirling cavalcade of violence and brutality that stands out as one of the most effective sequences across the entire thirteen-episode run. One of the big issues with Luke Cage, and with the other Marvel shows, has been a lack of clear visual identity. After all, the producers are hiring some of the best directors in television, and the result is quite bland.

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The fight montage at the heart of Step in the Arena is very much the exception. Step in the Arena is directed by Vincent Natali, a veteran of the late and lamented Hannibal. As overseen by Bryan Fuller, Hannibal was one of the most visually adventurous shows on television. In contrast, a lot of Luke Cage appears quite visually bland; much like Daredevil or Jessica Jones. However, that brawling montage has a raw and visceral quality to it that feels very much like a lost exploitation movie rendered for the modern era.

The prison fights are a very interesting aspect of Step in the Arena, because they represent a very clear example of Coker tailoring the character’s origin to emphasise his blaxploitation roots. The idea of prisoners fighting for cash in prison is a very pulpy idea, something that feels like it could have been lifted from a trashy grindhouse film. Indeed, the quick appearance of a GoPro camera (“welcome to the internet!”) suggests that the fights are being streamed out across the dark web; the stuff of unverified twenty-first century urban legend.

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In some respects, this is a stock prison movie cliché. Even just within the Marvel properties, Ed Brubaker incorporated such a concept into Bucky Barnes’ trip to a Russian gulag late in his celebrated Captain America run. However, there fights have a very different meaning in the context of a television show explicitly about African American cultural history. This is not just about prison fights for the amusement of guards and online thrillseekers; this is something else entirely.

The idea of two black men fighting for the amusement of their masters is an old one. Most modern viewers will recognise it from Django Unchained, a film that Tone explicitly cites in Code of the Streets. However, Tarantino was influenced by earlier pulpier material. In particular, Tarantino was drawing upon the 1975 blaxploitation classic Mandingo, a vehicle for boxer-turned-actor Ken Horton that depicted the spectacle of black slaves fighting for the entertainment of white masters.

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Of course, this spectacle was largely fictional; slaves were considered economic assets and so such fights would be uneconomical. However, there are precedents beyond slavery. Writer Ralph Ellison talked about his inclusion in such a sequence in Invisible Man, citing that it was just part of the cultural landscape of the South:

Take the “Battle Royal” passage in my novel, where the boys are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the amusement of white observers. This is a vital part of behaviour patterns in the South, which both Negroes and whites thoughtlessly accept. It is a ritual in preservation of caste lines, a keeping of taboo ritual to which all greenhorns are subjected. This passage states what Negroes will see I did not have to invent; the patterns were already there in society so that all I had to do was present them in a broader context of meaning.

It is worth noting that Ellison’s Invisible Man appears on Luke’s bookshelf. This is not likely to be a coincidence. Luke is a black man in Georgia, forced to fight for the amusement of the white authorities. It is undoubtedly a pulpy and trashy image, but it also exists in a larger context.

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That larger context is part of makes Step in the Arena so effective. In many ways, Step in the Arena is a very conventional superhero origin story. It hits all the requisite beats and contains all of the expected elements. Luke is framed for a crime that he didn’t commit. Luke develops a friend who is brutally murdered so as to sever any connection to Luke’s past life. Luke is subjected to an experiment that seems highly impractical and incredibly scientifically suspect, but which nevertheless results in superpowers.

Luke Cage is very consciously a superhero story. It is a television series that seems incredibly proud of getting to play with these story beats and images. Pop is cast in the role of Uncle Ben, the beloved mentor who inspires our hero to action before conveniently passing away. Diamondback gets to play the role of comic book supervillain with glee, even chuckling as he tosses a helpless victim off a high ledge in the spirit of the Joker or the Green Goblin. This is a television series that is very in love with the idea of superheroes.

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To some extent, there is a strong overlap between the hip-hop community and these classic superhero narratives. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has a theory as to why these narratives tend to resonate across that cultural divide:

What has put hip-hop and comic-book culture in this never-ending feedback loop, beyond the thousands of comics in Method Man’s garage? Coker has a theory that stretches back to his final interview with Biggie Smalls. “He told me the story of how his mother was a Jehovah’s witness,” Coker recalls. “And she always looked at him as being Chris, or Chrisiepoo. She didn’t know anything about what he was doing on the streets as ‘Big Chris.’” 

Smalls, Coker said, lived in fear that his mother would find out about his other identity, and so he stashed his street clothes—“his gold rope, or his more expensive sneakers and the stuff that she didn’t buy him”—on the roof. He’d put them on only to go out. “When he told me that, I immediately thought of the relationship between Aunt May and Peter Parker. As Chris Wallace at home, he’s Peter Parker. In the streets, he’s Spider-Man.” That attitude, Coker says, of having a guarded home life and a larger-than-life public persona, extends to all the rappers he’s interviewed. “Calvin Broadus is different than Snoop Doggy Dog. Jayceon Taylor versus the Game.”

To some extent, Marvel has recognised this overlap. The company found great success publishing “hip-hop” variant covers for its comics beginning in October 2015.

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Whereas Jessica Jones tended to shrug off the superhero trappings of its story, Luke Cage embraces them. There are any number of sequences that feel like they have been lifted from a wide variety of films and television. Luke’s transformation in Step in the Arena is very clearly shot so as to evoke Wolverine’s transformation in X-Men II. More than that, the sequence in which a trip to the bathroom confirms his superpowers plays like an affectionate homage to the maligned X-Men: Origins – Wolverine. Take It Personal even puts the character in a barn.

Indeed, part of what works so well about Step in the Arena is the sheer craft with which it is produced. Using a familiar template, the script can pay attention to the little details. There is an endearing symmetry to the various beats of the story. Carl Lucas beats his fist uselessly against the wall of his cell, where Luke Cage repeats the gesture towards the climax of the story and discovers that prison can no longer hold him. Carl Lucas asserts his own identity in prison where nobody can hear him, while Luke Cage states his name to a gaggle of reporters.

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There is a lot of self-aware irony in the script to Step in the Arena. At one point, Rackham instructs Shades, “See if he bends. Or breaks.” Of course, the audience already knows that Luke will emerge from prison as a man who is literally unbreakable. It is the kind of dialogue that would seem distracting in the context of a more grounded television show, but which fits quite comfortably within a superhero narrative. Everything is heightened. Luke Cage knows better than to try to downplay it, embracing these pulpy attributes.

However, all of this iconic superhero imagery is filtered through the lens of black experience. This is beat-for-beat a standard superhero origin story. However, it is a superhero origin story with the emphasis shifted slightly to speak to Luke’s perspective. Certain aspects of the African American experience inform how Luke Cage approaches familiar superhero story themes. For example, fatherhood is a recurring theme of superhero narratives from Thor to Guardians of the Galaxy, but Luke Cage filters that through its themes of responsibility.

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Redemption is a key part of the superhero narrative. Tony Stark seeks redemption for manufacturing weapons that have taken innocent lives. Peter Parker seeks redemption for allowing his uncle’s killer to go free. However, Luke Cage layers its redemptive arc through a story of incarceration. Owing to the hugely disproportionate numbers of black men in prison, this seems like a logical storytelling choice. Luke Cage is quite conscious about crafting a mythology around African American experience, so prison is a part of that.

To be fair, as a product of the blaxploitation era, there were certain elements of Luke Cage that always spoke to the African American experience. They might have been buried beneath cringe-inducing “jive” talk and awkward racial stereotypes, but the writers and artists crafting Luke Cage were working by reference to films produced by black creative voices. Inevitably, there was some mistranslation along the way, but some of those core ideas about what it meant to be a black man in the seventies crept through.

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As David Taft Terry explains of the character’s origins in Imagining a Strange New World:

Pulled from contemporaneous dialogues about criminality in black ghettos, police oppression, and criminal justice malfeasance (brought to public light dramatically in 1971 by events at California’s San Quentin Prison and New York’s Attica Prison), writers developed the lead character as an antihero from the start. Though he comes to his super powers rather conventionally – through an accident of science – his specific circumstances set him apart from his super-peers. A petty criminal named Carl Lucas, he was sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. In an act of desperation, he agreed to medical experimentation, revisiting a recurrent theme in Marvel fiction of science as both promising and dangerous, while engaging a historical black reality of being guinea-pigged. All goes wrong, of course, bestowing his powers – super strength, endurance, and near-indestructibility thanks to steel-hard, thick skin. (What black man of the integration era could not use thick skin?) He used his powers to escape prison, though authorities presumed his death while attempting escape. Thus, he became a sort of fugitive. But death allowed Carl Lucas to reinvent himself as Luke Cage. Inevitably, he found himself driven to the superhero role less by volunteerism, or even vigilantism, and more by economic necessity. His prospects were otherwise limited given his very circumstance. Thus, the enterprising Cage became a glorified private investigator, a minority business owner, and a hero-for-hire.

So Coker largely works from that origin, but in a way that edits and revises it to reflect the modern world.

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Prison had always a part of Luke Cage’s origin story. However, Step in the Arena goes a great deal further. Whereas the comic book version of Luke Cage was very clearly innocent of the crime for which he was incarcerated. The television version of Luke Cage is decidedly more ambivalent. “You innocent?” Reva asks. “Doesn’t matter,” Luke responds. There is a pause. “You are,” Reva decides. Luke shrugs it off, “I’m guilty of a lot of things that people will never know about. I guess it’s karma’s way of reminding me that she can be a bitch.”

This is a recurring theme. “I ain’t guilty,” Luke told Pop in Code of the Streets. “But I ain’t innocent either.” While it is clear that Luke is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, he very clearly carries around guilt for other actions and decisions. In Take It Personal, Misty discovers that Luke and Willis were both arrested as children, but Luke’s family connections allowed him to get off the hook. In some ways, it seems like Luke sees his incarceration as a delayed karmic boomerang.

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This is thematically important. Whereas the comic book version of Luke Cage insisted that the character’s incarceration was immoral because it was based on a false conviction, the television series hints at an even bolder idea. The television series suggests that it doesn’t really matter, that Luke’s incarceration could be unjust even if he were guilty. After all, it is entirely possible to accept that people commit crimes and that the criminal justice system is unfairly weighted by things like class and race.

After all, one of the defining attributes of modern debates around the concept of justice is the idea that the victims of injustice do not need to represent the very embodiment of virtue. It is entirely possible to accept that a convicted felon is guilty of the crime with which they have been charged and still believe that they deserve a second chance. Similarly, the conduct or behaviour of a victim of sexual violence does not in any way diminish the crimes committed against them. Luke Cage can be the victim of injustice even if he is not innocent.

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Similarly, Step in the Arena makes a point to recontextualise the experiment that gives Luke his superpowers. The whole “experiment gone wrong” plot point is a tried and tested superhero trope, but Luke Cage reframes it. Ignoring for a moment the logic of an experimental programme aiming to make a criminal literally unbreakable, there is a significant difference between the experiment that gave Luke Cage is superpowers and the experiments that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America or Peter Parker into Spider-Man. Neither character got their powers in prison.

There is more to it than that. In the original comic book, Luke volunteers for the experiment in exchange for a commute on his sentence. There is still a power imbalance there that makes his consent highly suspect, but Luke does consent to the experiment. In Step in the Arena, Luke is subjected to the experiment without consent. In fact, he does not even know that these experiments exist before he is thrown into the tank and turned into a superhero. Step in the Arena renders the origin’s long-established parallels to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment explicit.

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Indeed, Luke Cage is a lot more candid about the iconography and imagery that informs the character’s origin story. The show explicitly comments upon how Luke’s experiences parallel the experiences of African Americans throughout the history of the United States. When Rackham first shows up to invite Luke to take part in his underground “gladiator” matches, Luke immediately recognises the power imbalance for what it is. When Rackham insists it is a good offer, Luke responds, “Slavery was always a good offer… to a master.”

Although Step in the Arena lovingly recreates Luke’s iconic superhero costume, it is quite conscious of the symbolism attached to it. The tiara looks almost like a head brace, and in fact originated as one. The bracelets look almost like manacles. The chain tied around his waist cannot help but evoke the chains used to bind slaves. Discussing his jailbreak with Claire at the end of Manifest, Luke reflects, “Couldn’t go runnin’ around Georgia lookin’ like I was a runaway slave.” Luke is joking, but there is very much a grain of truth to that joke.

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After all, superhero stories are largely about mythologising aspects of a particular experience. The emphasis on scientific heroes like the Fantastic Four or Ant Man or Tony Stark reflects America’s image of itself as a scientific pioneer in the wake of the atomic bomb. Superman speaks to the American Dream, the idea that an immigrant can come to the United States and make something of himself. Batman is rooted very much in New England gothic horror, tied as he is to old British notions of aristocracy and the creeping fear of madness.

Luke Cage understands and relishes this, realising that it can use the superhero template to mythologise certain aspects of the historical black experience, a perspective that is often overlooked and ignored in popular culture. The cues are very similar, although filtered through a very different cultural outlook. “I can’t do anything that would let anybody know who I am or what I do,” Luke tells Reva towards the end of the episode. It is very much a sentiment with which Peter Parker might empathise, but filtered through a particularly black experience.

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After all, African American community leaders have long had to fear putting their names and faces out there into the world for fear of the response that it generates. When Cheo Hodari Coker discusses the importance of a bulletproof black man, he jumps right to figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X:

What it means to me is kind of wish fulfillment because superheroes to a certain extent are always wish fulfillment. One could say that Captain America and Superman were reactions to WWII and fascism and what was happening in terms of having something that could symbolize American heroism to a certain extent.

I don’t necessarily want to put that same mantle on Luke Cage but at the same time, it’s like, so many black people that were heroes to me certainly weren’t bulletproof. Not Martin Luther King. Not Malcolm X. Not Medgar Evers. Not —even on a hip-hop level — Biggie and Tupac.

This is not simply a historical phenomenon. That fear is not simply a relic of a bygone era of racial turbulence and social strife. Black Lives Matter activist Darren Seals, who played a key role in Ferguson, was found shot dead in a burnt out car in September 2016. These anxieties are still relevant.

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There is a lot of power in crafting a black superhero origin story that mythologises certain aspects of black culture identity in these bold terms, while taking ownership of narrative conventions traditionally reserved for white protagonists. Step in the Arena is the best example of the fusion that runs through Luke Cage, the sheer unadulterated joy that the show has reworking these familiar elements in service of a narrative rarely seen on television and even more rarely embraced in broader pop culture.

Step in the Arena closes with one of the most iconic of superhero moments. In 2008, Robert Downey Junior closed Iron Man by proudly announcing to audiences around the world, “I am Iron Man.” It was a bold statement of ownership that symbolised the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the end of Step in the Arena, Luke Cage offers his own twist on that ironic moment. Closing out the origin story, Luke Cage offers his own impromptu press conference in which he asserts his own identity.

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Luke opts not to hide behind a superhero persona or a suit of armour. Instead, he simply states his own name loudly and proudly. It is a phenomenal moment, but one that feels well earned.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Luke Cage:

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